A little taste of heaven My travels in Sikkim: Part 1

Katie S.D.

Clichéd it is, but nevertheless it has got to be said. Monsoon is magical. In the bite-sized state of Sikkim that nestles in the outer hills of the Himalayas, it feels like a foretaste of heaven. Here, the monsoon is like a magic wand that sweeps over the hills and lo and behold; as surely as Cinderella’s rags were turned into a dazzling gown at the touch of a wand, so too, the alpine forests of Sikkim get clothed in brilliant shades of red, pink and white, as the rhododendron blooms from June to August.

Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, a Britisher, brought Sikkim into the limelight, at a time when travelling in the mountains was restricted. He was even imprisoned by the Raja of Sikkim for this travel, but later released through the intervention of the British in India. Hooker later produced a monumental work “The Rhododendrons of Sikkim Himalayas’ which brought Sikkim and it’s beauties to the rest of the world.

In a geographical area, slightly over 7096 square kilometers, Sikkim houses approximately 4,000 flowering plants and has 40 species of Rhododendrons.

We flew out of Mumbai to Bagdogra in West Bengal. From there on it was a joy ride by car.

Crossing the Coronation Bridge spanning the wide Teesta River, we crossed over from West Bengal into Sikkim. From here on, the beauteous, sapphire blue Teesta, became our constant companion. Originating in the icy confines of a glacial lake, Tso Lhamo at 17,487 feet, the Teesta gathers strength and volume as it rushes down the hill slopes, forming a natural divide between Darjeeling and Sikkim. Two incisions run deep in the mountainside; the ravines of the Teesta and the road above it. Between them are slopes of rain-drenched, sun-baked dense, jungle, reminding me of the words of the poet, ‘The woods are lovely dark and deep’ with every imaginable hue and shade of green. Miniscule flowers, so tiny, that even the close-up lens could not pick them up, they were nevertheless bright spots on a green mat dotting the slopes and often lacing the road.

Only, some sullen boulders remained grey-blue and bare, stubbornly resisting the companionship of vegetation. Up and up we wound, spinning around mountain curves like a thread being wound about a top, until we were motoring along the tree-tops, their trunks, hundreds of feet below and lost to view. The amazing part was getting really close up to the birds perched in the trees, looking on inquisitively. The hours slid away watching the scenery. After five hours of driving, we crested a slope and were halted by traffic. We breathed a sigh of relief. It was Gangtok at last! Queuing up by the roadside behind a line of vehicles waiting to enter the city, we got a bird’s eye view of the capital from our vantage point on the ridge. Being tucked away in the outer range of the Himalayas has not prevented Gangtok from spreading out. The green forest replaced by a vertical forest of blocks of brick and cement, coloured canary yellow, bright green and indigo blue. When traffic resumed and we entered the city, it was immediately identifiable by the characteristic bus stand on the edge of a cliff, parked vehicles, a narrow road and milling crowds – the hallmark of all hill- stations in India. Homes doubling as shops lined the street. Small time traders sat with their wares on their doorstep, people stopped to shop weaving in and out of the line of cars moving along. Drivers sanguinely manipulated their vehicles and ferried their customers to their destination. Finally, we were at our hotel that commanded a splendid valley view.

Gangtok is perched on a mountainous ridge, 5500 feet above the sea. Once, a small laidback village, it was merely a resting point for traders from the surrounding mountain countries like, Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan. With the capital of the state shifting here, Gangtok, awakened to the new world. Like the Himalayan eagle spreading its wings to the sun, it is spreading outwards and taking to the skies with semi-high rises of seven to eight stories, more hotels, one-way streets and bus-loads of tourists flooding in, surpassing the local population. Soon it is to have its own airstrip that will facilitate a further inflow of tourist traffic boosting the local economy.

Dragons are guardians and good omens. They are used as much for decoration as for the tradition they embody.

Living at sea level in the western part of the country, I never realised how early the day dawns in the eastern mountains, until a strong beam of light hit my eyes and awakened me at an hour to which my bio-rhythm was unaccustomed. Groggily, I squinted at my watch. 4 am. Oh God! But the sun was over the hills bathing them in a golden shower of light and soon enough I decided to follow the sun and woke up.

A well laid-out spread awaited us at the buffet breakfast table and we took our time over it. After tanking up on food, washed down with aromatic black coffee, we ventured out into the cool morning. The White Memorial Hall, a graceful two storied structure, was our first stop. Built in 1932, in memory of Claude White, Sikkim’s first British political officer. Set amidst green lawns it offered scenic views of the surroundings. Quite close to it, is yet another recently built White Hall that continuously hosts flower shows. It was hosting the famed seasonal flower show, attracting enormous crowds with its rhododendrons. Viewing the flowers briefly, we set off to chase our heart’s desire – orchids! We headed out to the National Research Centre for Orchids at Pakyong, 40 kilometers from Gangtok.

Pakyong is an unknown corner of east Sikkim, where, at one time there were British bunkers at a site called the British Killa. Facts are unavailable, but the presumption is that armed soldiers of the erstwhile empire were stationed here on border duty. Pakyong is now attracting attention with the new airport under construction and its orchid centre. Ginger cultivation and floriculture are the two major occupations of the area, which are perfectly suited to the clime and hilly terrain.

As we drive away from Gangtok and buildings begin to disappear as we round the bend, the hill-slopes are once again verdant. We now have time to distinguish plants and trees and sometimes spot a bloom or two of orchids hanging out of their mossy baskets way up in the tree forks, the mild drizzle of rain keeping them bright. Several slopes are covered with masses of cardamom sheltered in spaces between tall pines, oak and other trees. The vines that wrap themselves around the sky high trunks have huge leaves, drooping down with their own weight and some of the ferns create a roof over the diminutive little daisies and violets growing beneath. Off and on the rain spatters down drenching the slopes and releasing a delicious aromatic scent of wet earth and herbs. Clouds shade the sun, then, move on, and the play of light and shadow continues to charm us.

The National Research Centre for Orchids is on a hillock surrounded by numerous greenhouses and orchidiums covering a vast area. Our contact there, a research scientist, is delighted to have visitors and comes along to show us his precious blooms. We are told that there are 25,000 species in the family Orchidaceae and India has 1,700 of them. 800 are found across the Himalayan hills while 450 species are native to the Sikkim and Darjeeling hills. But ofcourse, as the forests across the country continue to be decimated for development, these fragile and furtive blooms are now threatened with extinction. The orchid centre has the task of protecting and reviving important species like Cymbidium, Dendrobium, Calanthe and a large number of others in green houses. Armed with this newly acquired botanical knowledge, we follow our guide into various sheds, covered with deep green or sometimes bright blue shades. The botanical staff works painstakingly, measuring the plants and recording every detail about them for further study. Unobtrusively, they moved off as we entered. We were immediately swept off our feet as we set eyes on the orchids. Of numerous hues, sizes and shapes they drooped shyly, peeping out from amongst a mass of long green leaf blades. Our guide was patient as we clicked pictures and helpful in pointing out the minor differences between these exotic flowers that enabled one to distinguish one from the other. We moved from shed to shed in an ecstasy, intoxicated with the beauty of these extraordinary blooms and clicked them from every angle. It was late afternoon when we guiltily realised that we had deprived our generous host of his lunch in our enthusiasm for orchid photography. He had laughed graciously when we had apologised and finally taken leave to retrace our route back to Gangtok. Once back in the cab our suppressed hunger surfaced. We had spent three-quarters of the day at the orchid centre unaware of time. Suddenly, both hungry and thirsty, we directed our taxi to the mall.

Gangtok Mall was simply delightful. A pedestrian zone, well paved, with lovely shops on either side of the road and benches down the centre for idlers and lovers, it had a soothing atmosphere. Alighting from our cab, we walked down the street window shopping and looking out for some eatery that would suit our palate. The shops were bright and gay. Some had traditional dragons guarding their entrances. What was very noticeable and sad was the lack of traditional costume amongst the locals. The Sikkimese, consisting of Lepchas, Bhutias, and Nepalis all of whom have distinguished traditional costumes, had abandoned these for the unisex pants. The youth were all in pants and only one or two middle-aged ladies had donned the Dumvum, the graceful gown worn over a loose top. Most of the traditional craft in wood that I had seen on my earlier trip a decade ago was replaced by goods from the cities of the plains. So, we turned our attention to the bakery that we spotted and went in for a coffee and snack. By the time we emerged from the café, the street lights were winking at us. The mountains were lit in sunset hues and presented a mystic panorama. We sat on a bench, each of us immersed in our own thoughts, to enjoy the evening breeze and the dip in temperature. We shot some night pictures of the mall. Then with peace in our hearts, wordlessly we began our walk back to our hotel.


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