Sikkim Travelog – Part 7

Back in Gangtok, Sukumar had a chance to taste the local tipple called “Tongba” – a fermented millet drink. A fierce South Indian, I never let anything but kaapi pass through my lips. Tongba was served in a unique bamboo stein with a bamboo straw. It tasted like an eclectic mix of beers and wines. Once he finished drinking it, some hot water was added to the millet grounds. After a few minutes, the stein was “recharged” and Sukumar could have another drink.

On the way to Pelling, we stopped at the newly opened “Tathagata Tsal”. Locals call it the “Buddha Park”. Situated at Ravangla, it has a huge (128 feet) copper statue of the Buddha. We learnt that “Tathagata” was one of the many titles given to the Buddha, while “Tsal” means “awareness”. The park is clean (as of now) and has a musical fountain. Underneath the idol is a chamber that has murals from the life of the Buddha.

“Your daughter is a model child, madam”, said our driver. The afore-mentioned model child was shrieking like a drunken monkey and bounding 4 steps at a time, as I looked on helplessly. “I haven’t seen such as amiable child”, he added. “Mom! Mom! I hate this place. Can we go home?” – our kid whined. This was more amiability than I could handle. “Just get into the car before I exchange you for a gerbil!” I hissed.

“The Bon religion predates Buddhism in Tibet” – our guidebook had informed us. So, we were very eager to see the only Bon Monastery in Tibet. But, the priests at the monastery could share very little information with us. “Our religion is 18,000 years old”, they told us – a claim that seems very far-fetched. The earliest scriptures of Bon are from the 9th century AD. “There are only 4 Bon monasteries”, the priest said. “Nepal, Sikkim, Himachal Pradesh and Bhutan”.

Historians think that “Bon” is an amorphous religion, which might be a set of shamanism and fortune telling – and that its not distinct from Tibetan Buddhism. “This will help you understand Bon better”, said the priest as he handed out a document to us. We could make neither head nor tail of the document, other than this – whatever Bon had been earlier, in its present form, it resembles Buddhism a lot.

If you believe tour books, the “Pemayangtse Gompa” in Pelling is a must-see. It is one of the most powerful and sacred monasteries of the Nyingmapa sect. The Chogyal (King) of Sikkim was crowned by the monks from this monastery. The monks themselves were exclusively from the Bhutia tribe.

We had read so much about the Gompa that the reality was disappointing. It was dusty and wore a slightly neglected look. The many murals and statues in the chambers had scanty documentation. “Buddhists from Tibet and Sikkim may not need any documentation, but what about tourists?” I wondered. “The Kapaleeshwara Temple in Chennai isn’t tourist friendly either”, reminded Sukumar. Touché.

The inner sanctum has an idol of Padma Sambhava flanked by the Buddha and Avalokiteshwara. The 2nd level had statues of the 8 manifestations of Padma Sambhava. The 3rd level depicted the 7-tiered copper palace of Padma Sambhava. The walls had extensive murals from Tantric Buddhism. Some of the murals had been covered by pieces of cloth. We surreptitiously lifted these veils and peeked inside. All of them depicted “Yab Yum” or the “Creation Pose” – the union of man and woman. Modern prudery had hidden what Padma Sambhava taught was the wellspring of life.

At Pelling, we stayed at a charming heritage hotel called “Elgin Mount Pandim”. The main reason tourists visit Pelling is to drool over the Kanchenjunga, India’s tallest peak and the 3rd tallest peak in the Himalayas.

Kanchenjunga is a shy peak. It mostly covers itself in a thick veil of mist. We got up at 4 AM to see the peak. By 5 AM the veil had lifted. But wait, there were 3 peaks – which of them is the Kanchenjunga? The hotel busboy was kind enough to point it to us. By 6:30 AM the peak had gone back into hiding. Exhilarated we entered the breakfast area. “How many peaks did you see?” asked a couple from Mumbai. “3” we said proudly. “Oh, that’s nothing, we saw 8 yesterday!” they said. Pangs of Peak envy hit us and we gloomily sipped our coffee. What have we done to deserve this stepmotherly treatment from the Himalayas? – we wondered.

What other adventures awaited the travelers? Click here to read on.

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