Sikkim Travelog – Part 2

Getting Sikkimese food in Sikkim is very, very hard. We found it strange that the highly recommended “Tangerine” restaurant in Gangtok wanted 3 days notice to cook Sikkimese food. There are many mid range restaurants serving meat-based Tibetan food. But, finding a decent restaurant that served a vegetarian meal was as hard as the search for the Holy Grail. Our guide finally escorted us to a hole-in-the-wall type dingy place. We entered with plenty of misgivings. But at last, we got to eat authentic home-style Sikkimese food.

We were very curious about “Gundruk” – a signature dish of the Himalayan region. It is made out of fermented leafy vegetables. Gundruk Soup is mildly tangy and is definitely an acquired taste. We also tried the “Kinema curry” made of fermented soy beans. The best part of the meal was “Silam Ko Achar” a powder prepared from Silam seeds, an unusual culinary ingredient. It tasted almost like South Indian Paruppu Podi. We also liked the Rayo Sag (Mustard Greens) curry and the Aloo Baingan curry. Both were delicately spiced. All this was served with piping hot white rice.

Unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to sample “Sel roti” an unusual donut shaped bread, that Sikkim is famous for. Whenever we asked for Sel Roti or Kodo ko Roti, the waiter barked out a staccato “No!” as if we had asked for something indecent, like a lap dance.

Most tourists to Sikkim do 2 things – ogling the scenery slack-jawed; and going on the monastery loop. We visited the Rumtek Gompa (monastery) and the Enchey Gompa. Both belong to different sects of Tibetan Buddhism.

The Rumtek Gompa is one of the most sacred sites in Sikkim. It is the spiritual seat of the “Kagyupa” or the Black Hat sect led by a Karmapa. The 16th Karmapa, who is no more, was a great soul much revered by Buddhists everywhere.  And the 17th Karmapa – We’re not sure, since there are at least 3 different claimants to the title of the 17th Karmapa. 1 of them lives in Dharamshala, under the tutelage of the Dalai Lama.

The Rumtek monastery has 4 guardian angels – among them a Celestial Musician and Kubera. Once inside the monastery, we could see 108 niches on both sides of the Buddha idol, where Tantric Buddhist texts were stored. These are taken out once every year and read end to end in 3 days.

The “Mahakala” is an important deity in Tantric Buddhism. Seen as either a manifestation of Shiva or Avalokiteshwara, Mahakala is a protector of Dharma. 3 such idols are taken out on a procession during the annual Mahakala festival (which we missed). During the festival, monks don masks and do the “Chaam” dance.

“Is there anyway we can see the Chaam dance, while we’re here?” we asked. “I can’t very well ask the monks to dance to your tunes, can I?” came the reply. The only way to see the dancing monks is to visit Sikkim in November/December. But, we like our bums warm, not frozen, so we chose to travel in April. Did we tell you Sikkim’s a very cold place? Its bound to be, you know: It is on the Himalayas.

The Rumtek monastery also has a Golden Stupa, which houses the reliquary of the 16th Karmapa. The jewel encrusted gold reliquary is estimated to be $1.2Billion. Earlier, one could circum-ambulate the reliquary. But, now it is protected by glass because some tourists tried to pluck the mini muffin-sized rubies, emeralds and sapphires. Maybe they just wanted to take a closer look.

We saw a photograph of the 16th Karmapa wearing the ceremonial Black Hat. Legend has it that the Black Hat is made from the hair of angels – so it has a propensity to fly back to the heavens if not held tightly by the wearer. We’re not making this up: in the photograph, the 16th Karmapa was clutching the hat with one hand.

If you want to read the next post in this series – you know the drill. Click here.


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