Sikkim Travelog – Part 3

We had high hopes of seeing many Himalayan birds in Sikkim. But the most common were pigeons, crows, mynahs and drongos. There were several small birds in brown hues but they flew off before your lazy authors could observe, leave alone photograph them.

The 2 birds that were gracious enough to preen themselves before us were a rust colored bird with black wings and a white streak in the back, which we’re yet to identify. And a medium-sized black bird with an amber beak that our driver said was the “Kalchuda”. “What’s its English name?” I asked him. He stared at the road assiduously and said “Its Kalchuda in English too”. Liar, liar, pants on fire. Thanks to Google, we identified the black bird as – the anti-climactically named “Blackbird”. Eurasian Blackbird.

Sadly for us, no one in Sikkim seems to know how to make good coffee. So we experienced severe caffeine withdrawal symptoms. A true South Indian can forgo oxygen, food and water – but not Kaapi. Even Coffee Day in Gangtok served us a mediocre cappuccino. What we need is a caffeine patch like the nicotine patch, we told ourselves, as we sadly sipped the hot brown toilet water that passed for coffee.

The Enchey Gompa is one of the most beautiful monasteries in Sikkim. It belongs to the “Nyingmapa” Sect of Tibetan Buddhism – aka the “Red Hat” Sect. Guru Padma Sambhava – hailing from the Swat Valley in present day Afghanistan – is credited with introducing Tantric Buddhism to Tibet.

In the previous post, we had mentioned the “Kagyupa” or the “Black Hat” sect of Buddhism. The Dalai Lama belongs to the “Gelugpa” or the “Yellow Hat” sect. We wondered where the “Chalupa” figured in this scheme of things. There’s also an “Orange Hat” sect – Sakhya.

In the Gompa, an idol of Guru Padma Sambhava is depicted, holding a Dorje (thunderbolt) in one hand and a Trishul (Trident) in the other. With wild staring eyes, 2 shrunken heads and a skull pierced in his Trishul, Padma Sambhava is one scary looking god. The Gompa has many murals – among them, the 8 manifestations of Padma Sambhava. “Manifestations aren’t Avatars”, our guide said. Among the manifestations is “Yab Yum” – what our guide called the “Embarrassing pose”.

“Yab Yum” is literally, “Father – Mother”. Its also known as the “Creation pose”, where the male deity is in a lotus position, with the female deity straddling him – signifying union or copulation. It is an important symbol of Tantric Buddhism and we found it repeated in many monasteries. We think it’s essentially the same as the Hindu Shiva Lingam and the Chinese Yin-Yang.

The Namgyal institute of Tibetology is a much touted tourist attraction. In reality it is a museum with a puny collection of Buddhist sacred objects. But we have to say this – it is a clean museum, well documented and well curated. Some of the macabre items on display include a human skull cup (Kapali), a damaru made of human skull and a human thighbone (femur) flute. All these were used in Tantric rituals. The Kapali held bread and a red drink (ugh) – we found the resemblance with the Christian Eucharist (Holy Communion) striking.

The institute also has a good collection of Thangka painting that Sikkim is famous for. A Thangka is a silk scroll, with Buddhist deities, Mandalas, Bodhisattvas or religious myths. These were used as icons for worship, learning and meditation.

“You have to take the Cable Car”, said the guide. “You get wonderful city views and it is not a long ride”. “Table car, I want to go on the Table car”, chanted our daughter. It was settled then. It was raining when we reached the cable car station. Perhaps you don’t know how yellow-bellied I am, but I can’t handle standing in a car held precariously by a hook that slides on a rope. So I waited while Sukumar and our daughter took the ride.

“Bada Boom!” a lightning struck and the whole city went dark. Few minutes later, I got a frantic call. “When the power went off, the cable car stopped at Deorali. Can you bring the driver and pick us up?” asked Sukumar. I picked them up and said smugly: “See, this is why I never take table cars”.

Next up – our trip to Lachen. Click here to read about it.


  1. Quote
    Mukund said May 14, 2013, 4:02 pm:

    Flute made from human bones? You made a trip to look at these tantric artifacts? Now that is weird. Buddhism is all about detachment. I wonder why you have a fascination with the tantric version of it.

  2. Quote

    Mukund – Thanks for your comment.

    We’re very interested in piecing together the substratum of Indian religions. Every country seems to have its own version of Buddhism. Tantric Buddhism & Tantra are fascinating, since they seem to link back to earlier fertility cults. Equally fascinating is the Kapalika/Kalamukha sect and their focus on death & cremation. But neither are old enough, they’re just intermediate layers, which point to even older traditions.

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