Tribal ethos, Buddhist traditions and the mountains have synthesized Sikkimese life into highly developed interactions, Joys and sorrows, like the seasons, are shared. Marriages and funerals are celebrated with equal pomp and circumstance. Marriages, more often than not, are made to find families, tribes and villages together. Births and deaths are accepted as continuing cycles of existence. Life is a rebirth and death is just another journey into that mystic cycle. Prayers are chanted, lamps are lit and the long horns sound their call, the BardoLamsol, into the mountains and valleys. It is the call that helps the dead to find their way into the next step of their rebirth, a journey that takes 49 days. The lamas depart, even as the prayer flags deck the hills, their messages to the gods carried by errant winds, or so the faithful believe.
A copy of Himalayan Journals by Joseph Dalton Hooker, the English naturalist who travelled dangerously in Sikkim in the 19th century and took the rhododendron to Kew Gardens, is an ideal travelling companion.
The esoteric charm of the older monasteries in the west; the mystic, wonderful lake deep in the forest at Khecheopalri where for a rupee, the lama floated a butter lamp for the Englishman and the trek in unsurpassed mountain scenery up to Dzongriare much the same as they were when Hooker saw them almost 200 years ago.
Pemayangtse has been described as the premier monastery in Sikkim whose lamas preside over royal functions and where Kagyet dances are held in December. It was built on a spur at the end of a path from the Chogyal’s old palace at Rabdentse, now Sikkim Tourism’s “Hotel Mount Pandim”. Capricious openings of mist reveal, even for a moment, a breathtaking panorama of snowy peaks around the monastery. The ridged splendor of Pandim behind which rises the perfect triangle of Narsing, is the outstanding act in this drama. The monastery itself is veneered with age. Within its somber interior, butter lamps glow softly lighting the frescoed walls and wooden rafters painted with Buddhist allegories. A shaft of sunlight falls on the central image veiled with fragrant incense. Lamas chant Om Mani Padme Hum, a hundred thousand, a million times in an aura of devotion. Across via sacra is a Lamasery. A kindly prior hands out oranges to red-robbed novices who run in merry laughter during an hour-long break away from the books. Seminary life can be hard for little lamas.
If Pemayangtse has the importance, then Tashiding surely is the most sacred place of worship. Guru Padma Sambhava, the progenitor of Buddhism in Tibet, en route to that country, rested at this site. A rainbow starting from Kanchenjunga ended on a spur between the rivers Rangeet and Ratong and here Tashiding, the eagle-headed temple, was built. It holds the Bumch, the pot of sacred water, fresh as the day it was blessed by the wise man from the south, Ngadak Sempa Chempo, more than 300 years ago.
North of Pemayangtse, at Yuksom, starts the 32-kilometer trek to Dzongri(4,000 meters) the base camp of Kanchenjunga. It is a stunningly beautiful walk past huge mendongs (sacred walls), through field and forest. Paddy and millet grow green during the rains, gold in autumn. In villages dotted with terracotta and mud thatches, women churn butter in enormous wooden casks. Cattle laze in the sun. In the afternoon, the shade of the giant sal, hung with flowering epiphytes and long green ferns, is cool and dark. A sudden wild cherry or rose gives a burst of color, a sunbird flits by and then all is still again, the silence broken only by the soothing call of the Himalayan cuckoo.
The road goes up to Bakkhim where there is a night halt. Night is a wondrous time in the Himalayas. Stars are so bright, they almost outshine the moon. The sky is deep, holding the mystery of the mountains within it. Fitting fireflies, the sound of the crickets and the smell of the wood fire are the only signs of life. At dawn, the sun lights up each peak in turn in shades of purple, pink and gold to greet the day. Trekkers move on through meadows strewn with primroses, gentians, geraniums, poppies and wild strawberries. Swift streams and waterfalls banked with sedge and lichen sparkle and dance over large boulders to the music of a shepherd’s reed. Giant prayer wheels lodged on their sides turn with the torrents. Silver fir, and flowering rhododendrons and magnolias shade the way. The inhabitants of Tsokhaat 3,000 meters keep their animals with them in their stone houses until snow covers the grass, when they move down to temporary huts in the apple orchards and orange groves of the lower valleys.
When is a good time to visit Sikkim? There is a Tourist Festival in May with all the trimmings. In March before the mist veils the snows, the spring flowers bloom. November is the time for the Nepali festival of lights. The sky is washed a clean azure. Hillsides are pink with cherry blossoms going into December when the valleys are laden with oranges and poinsettias paint the hills red.
From Penlong on the North Sikkim Highway where the road forks to go up to Nathu La pass on the Chinese border, Kanchenjunga is seen in all her glory. Day and night, in sunshine and moonlight, she dazzles magnificently from base to tip for her devotees to worship her completely. The immense, marvelous five treasures of the snowy mountains hold true the old Sanskrit saying: “In a hundred ages of the gods I could not tell you of all the glories of the Himalayas.”