Colours of Sikkim

The year 2009 started with a bang as far as travelling is concerned; the Sunderbans in January and Sikkim, Gangtok to be precise, shortly after in February…I was on a roll!
What took me to Gangtok was ostensibly Panu’s brother’s wedding. Apart from the usual excitement, there was also an anticipation of revisiting a familiar world; a feeling of comfort on seeing things one associates with childhood.
I breathed a sigh of relief when the Jet Airways flight finally touched down on the runway in Bagdogra. I had nearly cancelled the trip due to ethnic problems in the Dooars that’s been brewing for almost a year now.  Sikkim is a peaceful state, the most peaceful I would say in maybe the whole of India; no caste skirmishes, no communal riots, no ethnic violence and no scourge of terrorism! Quite heartening to note for a place in the North-East, where every other state is battling with its own separatist movements and insurgency. However to get to Sikkim, one has to come to Siliguri in the Dooars, which is right now a hot bed of political turmoil. Fortunately, things worked out fine in the end and I was on the road to Gangtok, taking in all sights like a greedy child given a choice of candies.
The leisurely five hour long journey by road took us through terraced fields and small villages with the river Teesta quietly accompanying us. It was winter and the landscape was a trifle brown and not the verdant green as in the monsoons. Even the Teesta was tame and in no rush.
The first landmark, I passed by was the Coronation Bridge over the Teesta river. It was built by the British in the year 1930 to commemorate the coronation of King George V, and is an engineering marvel. While newer bridges have collapsed and rebuilt several times due to the numerous landslides in the region, this one has stood the test of time. Numerous monkeys dot the landscape here, waiting for benevolent tourists to throw some food at them. This perfectly encapsulates nature’s ways gone awry; discarding the crude but natural forest produce to forage for the artificial and the easy.

The hotel I was staying in was perfectly located with the mighty Kangchendzonga offering a peek of itself on clearer days. The third highest peak in the world, it is more than a mountain to the Sikkimese: it is a guardian deity. So sacred is this mountain, that successive expeditions have left the summit unconquered in deference to local beliefs.
Though I was in Gangtok for a week, I had just two days to take in the sights of the town, and even that was fortuitous given the hectic marriage preparations. Tramping all across the town for small errands, I must have crossed the mall road a hundred times.
The Sikkim CM has vowed to make Sikkim into Switzerland, though his efforts so far are visible only on the mall road. It does make for a pretty sight though, with benches lined up in the middle of the road, and dainty flowerpots dangling from ornate streetlamps. Traffic is prohibited in this stretch making it a pleasure to walk on the stone ground. The mall road houses several snazzy restaurants and shops. One which captured my imagination was a cozy Western style Bakery called Baker’s Cafe, supposedly the only place in town which sells cappuccinos and lattes; an ideal place to catch up with someone over a cuppa!
The day after the wedding, with everyone in a snooze mood, was one day I found myself free to do as I chose. The first place Panu & I went to was the Do Drul Chorten, which was a walking distance from my hotel. The lamp room, unfortunately was closed for renovation. My carefully laid out plans to click the lit lamps had gone for a toss! After turning the 108 prayer wheels in the complex and clicking numerous pictures of the stupa, the colourful prayer flags, the monks and what have you, we left to go to the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology. The institute sponsors and promotes research on the religion, history, language, art and culture of the people of the Tibetan cultural area. You realize that cultures of Sikkim, Bhutan and Tibet are interlinked by that one thread: Buddhism. The motifs are similar, designs so intricate, the use of red all-pervasive and the buildings, a painter’s palette. The thin line between culture and religion has always been rather fuzzy in India; it is all the more apparent when I see the church, where the marriage vows were solemnized, looking more like a Buddhist place of worship than a Christian one.

After a quick lunch at Porky’s, a restaurant I’ve always wanted to go to because of it’s name, we hired a cab and decided to do a reconnaisance of the outskirts. We passed by several homes along the road; even the smallest and the shabbiest proudly displayed orchids and other local flowers on their window-sils and porch, fine enough to put cityfolks to shame.

Sikkim should be called the land of monasteries: there are so many of them! The last day of my stay was when I went to the Ranka monastery or Lingdum monastery, around an hour’s drive from Gangtok. It is designed in a Tibetan Buddhist style of architecture. One is struck by the silence that envelops you here. Peaceful is the word that strikes you. The long row of prayer wheels beckoned me again to accumulate good karma and to purify negativities. What better way to end my vacation?