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Shrouded in Shangri-La-esque mystery, Sikkim, in the north-eastern region of India, has been captivating travellers for centuries.
Through its sheer distinctiveness – arising primarily from its mountainous topography, history and culture, which has been moulded through periods of contact with neighbouring realms – Sikkim’s tiny geographical size belies the profound diversity she offers.
Back in the late 19th century, American author Mark Twain was enticed by its natural setting, while not that long ago American actor Richard Gere sourced immense peace and tranquillity from the Buddhist heritage of this mystic land.
“It doesn’t matter what you do or see, the rewards are great for every visitor stepping in here,” says Shova Lama from Sikkim Tourism, and I fully endorse her views after travelling there recently.
Tucked in the lap of the Himalayas, with snow-capped peaks featuring in the backdrop of a stunning landscape ornamented with glaciers, lakes, springs, rivers, forests, flower-bedded meadows and varieties of flora and fauna, unquestionably, scenic beauty is Sikkim’s treasure trove. But there is more: it’s the plethora of temples, monasteries, caves and other pilgrimage sites in union with an array of adventure activities, cultural diversities, fairs and festivals, along with the friendliness of people, that make an odyssey here most fulfilling.
There are opportunities for exploration according to individual interest varying from visiting pilgrimage sights of intense holiness, tracing how Buddhism came from Tibet, to taking part in colourful festivals. Others may choose to seize an adrenalin rush from adventure-filled trekking journeys through unspoiled gorges splashed with forests of silver fir, hemlock, magnolia and rhododendron.
Sikkim share borders with Nepal in the west and Bhutan in the east, with the Tibetan plateau rising from its northern side. The state was once a monarchy and part of the fabled Silk Route to China. Its merger with India in 1975 has offered the outside world a great opportunity to realise the riches of this hidden land.
Historically, culturally and spiritually, Sikkim’s strongest links are with Tibet, however the majority of the current population of around 600,000 are of Nepali origin. They are joined by smaller percentages of Tibetans, Lepcha, Bhutias and Indian people. While preserving individual identities, their quintessential traditions and customs have harmoniously blended to a melting pot that stand out as clearly ‘Sikkimese’. Strongly reflected in their way of life, this unique identity separates Sikkim from rest of India and it’s not hard for an outsider to identify the difference.
Here, cleanliness is universal. Signposts warning people of heavy penalties for dumping waste in public areas are striking. Politeness has evolved as a way of life, and even a weary policeman will say “namaste” or “thank you” with a smile to passers-by. Bedecked in costumes in a riot of colours, they support their highly capable Chief Minister Pawan Chamling, in power for over two decades, demonstrating an affinity for strength.
The presence of the mighty Kangchenjunga, the world’s third tallest mountain, makes Sikkim extra special. To locals its mere appearance transcends devotion, while outsiders are mesmerised by the spectacular vista that can be glimpsed from many locations in the state. Meaning “five treasures of snow” in local dialect, Kangchenjunga holds an important place in the mythology and religious rituals of the Sikkimese people.
Its sacredness is so intense that successful expeditions, out of respect, have always stopped just short of the peak. Like a god, the mountain is worshipped in festivals and dances and honoured in local traditions. Held in July every year, the three-day Pang Lhabsol festival celebrates its consecration as the land’s guardian deity and draws visitors from other parts of India and overseas to take part in the colourful carnival.
Rumtek, Pelling, Tashiding, Namchi and Lachung are some of the sites that always come to mind when people think of travelling in Sikkim, with the capital Gangtok surely being the first port of call for most. Tucked on a ridge at a height of 2165metres, Gangtok is well known for bestowing splendid views of Kangchenjunga.
My maiden glimpse comes immediately after checking in at the Nor-Khill Hotel, one of the city’s most famous addresses. As the bellboy draws back the curtains of the window in my first floor room, a distant view of three snow-capped peaks assaults my vision. “It’s the Kangchenjunga,” he comments. Its snow-white appearance playing hide and seek with the clouds and sunlight keeps me hypnotised for a while.
Staying at the Nor-Khill also introduces me to Sikkim during the time of monarchy. This elegant heritage property was built in 1932 as the royal guest house for accommodating heads of states and other dignitaries. The hotel’s lobby, like a little museum, is ornamented with countless photographs portraying glories of a bygone era.
However, a better venue to learn more about Sikkim and its history is the Namgyal Research Institute of Tibetology, where an exclusive collection of manuscripts, tapestries, statues and artefacts provides an insight into rich religious and cultural background.
Other notable sights of Gangtok that draw attention are the Enchey Monastery, Hanuman Temple, Ganesh Temple and several lookout points for capturing surrounding gems of nature, Tashi View Point being most popular. In the centre of the city there is a pedestrian only zone, called the Mall, where locals and visitors congregate to shop, eat and relax.
Recently voted as one of India’s “Top 10 Clean Cities”, Gangtok provides a perfect base to ramble to other appealing parts of the state. Day trips to Rumtek where the must-see is a large and famous Buddhist monastery, and to Tsomgo Lake where the glistening images of surrounding snowy mountains on the blue water fascinate naked eye, are extremely popular.
On leaving Sikkim, actor Richard Gere said, “I want to come back here again and again.” Most visitors bid farewell to this mystic land with similar feelings, their memory overloaded with images of nature and humanity shaking hands in a most surreal way.
Fly Singapore Airlines (www.singaporeair.com) and Silk Air (www.silkair.com) to Kolkata and IndiGo (book.goindigo.in) to Bagdogra. Gangtok is a 4-hour drive from Bagdogra on winding mountainous roads, with torrential rivers Teesta and Rangeet running alongside.
Stay at the heritage hotels of Elgin Group (www.elginhotels.com ), Nor-Khill in Gangtok and Mount Pandim in Pelling. The ambiance and décor at both these hotels transfer guests to the elegant time of monarchy in Sikkim.
Local Tour Operator
India Holiday (www.indiaholiday.com) for all travel arrangements in India
To enter Sikkim, foreign passport holders require a permit easily available from Indians Embassies/Consulates or from any Sikkim Tourism office in India.
A Himalayan gem
From scenic beauty to pilgrimage sites, adventure activities to colourful festivals, explore the hidden culture of modern Sikkim
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