Splendorous Kanchenjunga

Summer was upon us. It was burning hot in the city of Bombay. Seeking respite from the dust, dirt and heat of the city we headed up north into the mountains of the northeast of India – Sikkim. Our first logical destination in Sikkim was Gangtok its capital city.
A part of the Eastern Middle Himalayas, Sikkim has immense biodiversity. Being a part of the middle Himalays, it’s vegetation and climates include both the alpine and the subtropical. It also hosts the Kangchenjunga, the highest peak in India and third highest peak on earth. Almost 35% of the state is covered by the Khangchendzonga National Park.
Sikkim’s capital and largest city is Gangtok. Like every other hill city, it has grown by leaps and bounds in an ad hoc manner, so that the once pine covered slopes now have seven to eight story structures mushrooming over them from base to peak. To add insult to injury, they are all painted in the brightest shades of deep blue or green! A bit unpalatable. We decided to move further up the mountains to little known destinations and choose to go off to Pelling. Leaving Gangtok at 10 a.m. we motored over narrow mountain roads and reached our destination at 3 pm.

A buffeting Himalayan wind engulfed us as we alighted from the warm comfort of our jeep, pricking my half clad arms with icy spikes. Hugging myself for warmth I had dashed through the door of the hotel. Within; in the dimly lit lobby, it had felt better, but, stunned by the chill, I had remained shivering by the doorway. Suddenly, a little chinky fellow had materialised. Bending forward correctly and formerly, one hand behind his back, a tray balanced in the other, he had offered, “Maam, welcome drink, Cherry Brandy”. My face must have betrayed me and the boy’s mouth had cracked into a smile, dimpling his cheeks. Then, we were ushered to our room and immediately, its wide window had attracted us like a magnet. Framed perfectly within its square had been a panorama that kept us glued, exactly where we stood. Finally, I had been able to understand the grouse of a foreign guest, who had been at the reception when had we arrived, and had been bull-dozing the manager. “I want my room changed” she had said imperiously and received a stiff reply “We have no vacant rooms. We get our bookings two years in advance” “I don’t believe this” she retorted haughtily. Losing patience with her, the manager had replied over-sweetly, “Would you like to see the booking register?” and finally put a lid on the scene. The lady had turned scarlet as she turned and walked off.
Wrenching ourselves away from the window view had been difficult. We had then decided to drive to Yuksom, 40 kilometers from Pelling. Wending down the narrow mountainous road with its treacherous curves and hair-pin bends our driver had kept our pace slow, obeying the sign on the road that said ‘Be gentle on my curves’. (Local drivers fortunately leave their egos at home, being responsible for the lives of the passengers and their own.) The sky was already overcast and a thin drizzle had begun to leak through the clouds, adding sheen and sparkle to the dense vegetation that covered every inch of the steep slopes that rose above us on the inner side. I had realized with a jolt that on the outer side we were motoring along the line of tree tops; nothing could be glimpsed of the drop below! My heart had sent out a distress signal. It felt like a very short cut to a green heaven, if the car went off the road! Concentrating on the happier aspect of the journey, I noticed that cardamom plants formed dense clumps. Here and there would appear some plantains, great clumps of bamboo, gigantic ferns and numerous other plants in multitudinous shades of green. Interspersed among these were the delicate whites of orchids, dangling shyly from the forks of mossy trees, wild daisies and other dainty little flowers that had found some space in the crevices of the road wall and stood out sharply. We stopped ecstatically to photograph, trying the patience of our driver who, simply could not understand our obsession to click pictures of one flower after another in multiples. Midway, it was a waterfall, winking mischievously in the sun that halted us, its source; a pin point a few hundred feet above us. The stream rappelled down, jumping on to large boulders in steps and finally smashing itself into a small holding pool at the base of the slope with a shower of sparkles. Shedding all inhibitions, I had taken of my shoes and waded into the cold water of the pool. Childish delight! Splashing and yelping in the icy water, ignoring my partner’s remonstrations. I had cupped the crystal liquid and taken few gulps, like was the manna from heaven, before we moved on.
Yuksom, is perhaps better known for its connection with the Bollywood star of yesteryears, Danny Dengzongpa, than for its history. Along its main street the only major structure was that of a hotel belonging to Danny. The rest were simply shacks or makeshift tents beneath which locals spread out their wares, mostly clothes and shoes that came across the border from China. Nevertheless, Yuksom, meaning the ‘meeting point of three wise men’ and its monastery Dubdi, are landmarks of Sikkimese history. It is said that three lamas converged here from different directions, and chose the first Chogyal, king, whom they had coronated in 1641. Yuksom, became the first capital of Sikkim. Dubdhi monastery was built later in 1701 an hour’s trek away from Yuksom, deep in the forest. Once housing 30-40 monks, today, only a few remain, but, it still holds valuable paintings and manuscripts along with the statues of the three lamas who anointed the first Chogyal. Half a century later, the capital shifted to Rabdantse near Pelling, but Yuksom is still a revered site. Pelling, at 6,800 feet is remote. Even in the 21st century it is just one street with single storey homes and now, a few hotels coming up. Pelling draws people today because it stands face to face with the patron Goddess of Sikkim – Kanchengjunga. Perhaps, in the remote past, that would have been exactly what would have propelled the king to have his summer palace here. Today, the palace is a heritage hotel, the only one with a frontal view of the high Himalayan range.
Kangchenjunga means the “Five Treasures of Snow,” and refers to Kangchenjunga’s five snow clad peaks. It holds tremendous religious significance for the Sikkamese and hence not one has ever been allowed to put foot on it summit. Joe Brown and George Band, the first to get close to the peak in 1955, halted a few feet beneath the summit, honouring the promise given to the Ghogyal ruler of the time.
The alarm shrieked at 4 am. I jumped out of bed and groggily ran to the window drawing the curtains apart. A thick curtain of cloud greeted me. The high Himalayas were shrouded. “Get up” I urged my partner, “people have already gathered in the garden” “Oh, the keen types” he quipped. “Is it clear?” he asked. “Not yet”. I kept anxious vigil by the window open to the frigid morning air. 4.30 am. Anxiety struck my heart. If the clouds do not roll away, sunrise on the peaks, for which we had traveled 135 kilometers from Gangtok to Pelling, would be lost. My prayers were answered. A minute or two later one solitary peak raised its head above the clouds. The piercing rays of rising sun had rent apart the cloud curtain. Shredded to whisps, it dropped away. Framed right in our window, close enough to touch, stood the some of the highest mountain peaks of the world, draped in dazzling white snow. The distinctive pyramidal shape of the Kanchunjunga at 28,156 feet, towered above the others around it. 5 am. The light got a bit stronger and out of a pale grey-blue sky, a pencil thin beam of golden light shot out. It beamed straight on to the pyramidal peak, torching it into a gold-dusted beacon. By the minute, the light spread rapidly moving along the range, torching each peak in turn like a taper put to candles and they flared up radiantly, blushing mildly. The scene in front of us was an ethereal show, awesome and enchanting. Our clicking was frantic and continuous. We were watching the rapidly changing scene through the lens only, in single pointed concentration, aware that this was a never to be repeated show. We tried to capture every millisecond of this dramatic moment conscious that it would soon be over and sure enough it was in the next few minutes, as the sun climbed higher.
All good things must end.
We turned our attention to our next destination, Pemayangtse Gompa or monastery, a short distance from our hotel, which is the second oldest monastery of Sikkim founded in 1705. Pemayangtse too, stands aloof on a hilltop ringed protectively by the mountains it venerates. As we entered the courtyard we heard the sound of chanting from within the hall, the sound floating melodiously on the crisp air and saw the customary prayer flags, attached to a pole flutter in the crisp wind. We waited patiently until the monks had finished their prayers and only then did we enter. To the left of the stairs is housed a large prayer wheel in its own enclosure. Buddhists first put the prayer wheel in motion to release the efficacy of the mantras written on it and only then enter the monastery. Its monks about 106 in number belonged to distinguished Bhutia families of Sikkim. Pemayangtse is a three storied wooden structure. The main prayer hall on the ground level holds a massive statue of the Buddha flanked by his other incarnations and teachers of the sect. Butter lamps, in deep brass bowls are kept burning in a row at their lotus feet. The walls have painted mandalas, one for each of the gurus of Buddhism. The first floor has more idols of the stalwarts of Buddhism, glass-encased and massive. The hall is empty and serene. On the third floor is a unique floor to ceiling structure the ‘Sanghthokpalri’ a seven tiered painted structure the Heavenly Palace of Guru Rimpoche that encompasses all that is on earth and ascends to heaven. Fascinated, I had silently saluted the monk who had given five years of his life to this single handed creation as a measure of his devotion. Then, I descended to the main hall, the Lakhang. The vibrations here are sublime. I sat quietly on a low bench facing the Buddha, absorbing the peace in His abode. After a while, I heard my name called out. The world prevailed and I had gone out to re-join it.

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