Sikkim is a unique state. It shares its borders with Bhutan, Nepal, China and almost shares it with Bangladesh. It is surrounded by foreign land on all its sides. ‘Small but beautiful’ is the tagline of Sikkim tourism, and quite apt too. It is a small state and is doing pretty well with its tourism. As you roam around the place you can see so many initiatives that are geared to make the place attractive to the visitors.
The roads are narrow as it is Himalayan state but they are clean. Shared taxis are a popular mode of travel between neighboring cities and the administration ensures that the taxis, though private, follow all the rules, stop at designated places only. In fact different types of taxis have different places where they can halt ensuring that there is no cluttering on the roads and roads are not blocked at any time for the rest of the traffic. I have not seen this being followed to the T in many other places in India.
Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim is city which adorns one side of a mountain, overseeing a valley and always looking at the Kanchenjunga peak. You can see the snow capped Kanchenjunga from almost all the places in Gangtok. The tourist circuit in Gangtok includes Enchey Monastery, Handicrafts Museum, a Chortem, Institute of Tibetology, Flower show and the famous Rumtek Monastery. You can cover all these in less than a day. Everything except Rumtek is in the city and quite close to each other.
Institute of Tibetology has a small museum which depicts the evolution of Buddhism in the region. It showcases various Thanka paintings and things used in the Buddhist rituals, including Kapali, a bowl made out of human skull. There is a small library also where you can buy the publications of the institute at very nominal prices. On the first floor of the institute, there was a photo exhibition about Namgyal dynasty, which ruled Sikkim till about 1975.
Apart from the family and political photographs of the Namgyals what enchants you is the paintings on the walls of this hall. These were old paintings, covering all the walls of the hall, depicting the Buddha in a few of them and the royal and not so royal lifestyles in the others, done in very earthy yet bright colors which have not faded over the years. I would recommend anyone interested in art to visit this room as and when you get a chance to visit Gangtok.
Rumtek is the most important and well known landmark in Sikkim, and one of the most important places for the Buddhists as it is the seat of Karmapas. At this point in time, after the demise of 16th Karmapa, there is a controversy regarding who is the 17th Karmapa as there are 2 persons claiming stake for the same. And due to this controversy and the political issues associated with it, there is huge amount of security around this monastery.
The unique feature of Rumtek is its ‘Fluorescent / Parrot Green’ color on all windows and doors and just about everywhere. The difference in monasteries in Bhutan and Sikkim is the number of people, the monasteries in Bhutan hardly have any people, all you could see was few young and old Lamas, but in Sikkim you see security guards, Lamas, people, people and more people.
To cater to all these people there are shops all around serving the Tibetan tea and lemon tea along with Momos and other small eats. There is a Shri Karma Nalanda institute where the students study. There is also a golden stupa where the 16th Karmapa’s relics are. It’s a small serene place where a Lama was praying and there was a kind of peace which was different from the rest of the monastery.
There is must do one day trip to Tsomgo or Chhangu lake and Baba Mandir. As far as I could gather the only way to travel there is to use the shared taxis, which take a permit to enter the area every morning and then pick up the various tourists, take them around and bring them back by end of the day.
Unfortunately due to heavy snow, I could not go to Baba Mandir, which is supposed to be a temple dedicated to an army man who died in that area while rescuing some other people. There is a mythical story around how he directed people to his own dead body by appearing in their dreams. People there believe that he protects the China border and takes care of the people there. It’s quite an interesting story.
Baba mandir is located close to Nathula Pass which is the gateway for Indo China trade. About 17 kms before Nathula pass and 12,400 ft above sea level is Tsomgo Lake, which was frozen when I visited in mid March. This was the first time I had ever seen a frozen lake, so it was quite an experience for me. You can go around the lake riding on Yaks, who walk effortlessly on snow. You can climb the snow laden hill around lake and play with the snow.
It is hilarious when you see people losing their balance and slipping on snow, and it feels quite on the contrary when you slip and shout, and believe me almost everyone slips and falls. There is a small restaurant on top and after all the snow a hot cup of tea and hot momos look like heaven. There are small curio shops around the lake where you can buy small gifts, but there was nothing that I found was particularly different or local, and of course prices were indicative of the developed tourism culture in Sikkim.
There are a few waterfalls here and there where you can stop by and take a relaxed look at the breathtaking view of mountains and valleys around.
Sikkim offers many kind of tourists circuits like trekking, bird watching, photography etc, what I visited is the popular circuit and is confined to east Sikkim. Look forward to doing North Sikkim sometime.
Image Credit: Devadath
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