Paradise Regained

Sikkim is an Eden of stupendous natural bounty and a serenity that is rare even by vaunted Himalayan standards  

5/8/2017 1:34:41 PM
written By : Shobha Tsering Bhalla Print

For the jaded, world-weary traveller seeking a place to rejuvenate, fewplaces hold the promise of nirvana in quite the same way that Sikkim does. 

Wedged between Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet, this tiny Indian state is possessed of an almost mythical bounty of nature, more than most larger countries have: hundreds of dazzling waterfalls, dense forests teeming with rare flora and fauna, emerald farmlands, craggy landscapes dotted with quaint villages, pristine Alpine meadows, icy desert plateaus, foaming rivers and majestic peaks. 

And everywhere one turns, there is the benign presence of the sacred Kanchendzonga, the third highest peak in the world (8586m), guardian deity of the land.                              

Indeed, although the second smallest state after Goa, Sikkim is probably the most stunning travel destination in India and the Himalayas’ best kept-secret. Not surprisingly, the native Lepcha name for it is “Mayal Lyang” or ‘Hidden Paradise’. Lepchas and Bhutias are among the foremost inhabitants of Sikkim. The former are the original inhabitants while the Bhutias, to which community this writer belongs, are mainly descendants of the early settlers in Sikkim who came from Tibet in the 13th and 14th centuries, accompanying the first king of Sikkim, Chogyal Phuntsog Namgyal. Settlers from Tibet kept coming until the early 1900s.  

With such sublime beauty, it is not surprising that spirituality is an essential element of Sikkim’s social and cultural ethos. In a population of only about 650,000 there are more than 30 notable Tibetan Buddhist monastries in Sikkim and countless Hindu and native spirit shrines. Even the lakes are imbued with an other-worldliness, each with its own legend and guardian deity, such as Lake Gurudongmar in North Sikkim at a height of 5,430m, the most sacred of them all. 

Legend has it that the Indian Buddhist saint Padmasambhava (revered as Guru Rimpoche by Tibetan Buddhists) who introduced Buddhism to Tibet and China in the eighth century passed it on his way from North-west India (he was from what is now Swat, Pakistan). He was approached by the locals to help them as the lake used to freeze over in winter depriving them of drinking water. The Guru obliged. A portion of the lake touched by him does not freeze even in extreme winter. Interestingly, even the Sikhs consider it sacred; they believe it was visited by Guru Nanak himself  and have built a temple there, possibly the highest Sikh place of worship in the world. 

But make no mistake, this is no ersatz Shangri-La of cleverly branded sylvan and sanitised sameness. With 20 different ethnic groups, 4000 species of plants, 30 per cent of South Asia’s birdlife and other forms of exuberant bio-diversity and stark climatic variations how can it be? Hand on heart, no matter how often I return to this, the blessed land of my forefathers, my senses feel heightened and I am always overcome by an experience that can only be described as transcendental. 

Underscoring this magical quality of their homeland, the Lepchas call themselves “Rongkup” meaning “children of the snowy peaks” and each clan claims descent from one of the 108 snowy peaks of the Sikkim Himalayas. The state has 28 mountains, more than 38 glaciers, 227 high altitude lakes and wetlands and over 104 rivers and streams. 

Sikkim’s diverse cultures and traditions have been carefully preserved and promoted under the guidance of the state’s far-sighted Chief Minister Pawan Chamling, who, in a sign of exemplary statesmanship that could be a template for leaders across the world, has been introducing a series of cultural inclusion and diversity initiatives since he came into power in 1994.

The result is a state where social harmony is at its highest in India and the three main communities – Lepchas, Bhutias and Nepalis – interact with each other seamlessly. 

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