Sacred Stories: A Guide To Sikkim's Monasteries And Mythologies

Nestled in the lap of the Himalayas, the state of Sikkim is not just a haven for nature lovers but also a treasure trove of spiritual richness
Sangchen Pemayangtse monastery in Sikkim
Sangchen Pemayangtse monastery in Sikkim Shutterstock

Unseasonal rain fell on the Norbugang, an ancient coronation throne made of four weather-worn rectangular slabs of stone, one slightly higher than the rest. A massive pine tree towered over them, blocking out the rain from the pouring sky. The legend goes that three wise men once came here and one of them carried a staff which they attached to the ground. From that staff grew a pine tree. It is said that this wise man left his footprint on a piece of rock.

I stood before this piece of rock trying to make out how large his foot must have been. At its edge, I could see the distinct impression of a large toe and next to it, the gentle undulations of the smaller ones. Or was I imagining it all? Was it just another bit of stone surrounded by layers of legend, lore and the iron railings of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI)?

The Norbugang
The NorbugangWikimedia Commons: Kailas98

I moved around the coronation area like a questing beetle, huddled under an umbrella and occasionally stamping my feet to discourage leeches. Two children watched me from a distance, disappointed that I was not providing more entertainment. I wondered whether similar spectators had spied on the coronation of the first king of Sikkim in 1641. I tried to imagine the scene: three lamas standing gravely around the throne and surrounding a man in his late 30s who, till the other day, had been a milkman in a remote mountain village.

The story goes that Lhatsun Chenpo, the first among the three lamas, said: 'In the prophecy of the Guru Rimpoche, it is written that four noble brothers shall meet in Sikkim and arrange for its government. We are the three of these, coming from the north, west and south. Towards the east, it is written that there is a man named Phuntsok, a descendant of the brave ancestors of Kham. According to the prophecy of the Guru, we should invite him'.

And with these words, the milkman Phuntsok passed forever into history.

The pine tree of Norbugang
The pine tree of NorbugangWikimedia Commons: Jayashree Sengupta

Things To See And Do

All this happened at a place called Yuksom – where the history of the kingdom began – but this is not where your journey will begin or end. You could begin at Pelling, as I did, a five hour drive from New Jalpaiguri Railway Station. Or you could drive to Gangtok, the state capital, which has the most convenient transport and travel arrangements.

Part of the way to Pelling I rode on the NH 10, which was a picturesque and comfortable ride. The road climbed gradually and, not far below, the sea-green foam-flecked Teesta grumbles from its rocky banks. At almost every curve, the Border Roads Organisation reiterates its commitment to keeping the highway safe and serviceable. Not to be outdone, the ASI offers the following homily: if man is to survive, he has to understand himself and the centuries behind him.


PellingWikimedia Commons: Chaitali Biswas

Taking ASI's injunction to heart, I reach Pelling (107km from Gangtok). It was completely unknown to tourists till two government officials discovered the eye-popping potential of the mountains a few years back. Now, not surprisingly, every second building in the town proclaims itself as a hotel. I was billeted in the imposing Hotel Phamrong Retreat, one among a chain owned by local boy made good Danny Denzongpa, the famous Bollywood star. The hotel is run by the affable Utpal Yungdak, a champion archer in his spare time. But it is his father, I am told, who could tell me everything that I always wanted to know about Sikkim and was afraid to ask.

Captain S Yungdak began his career as an apprentice monk at the Pemayangtse Monastery and became a yapo, or senior monk, at the incredible age of 11. The popularity of monastic education has dwindled since the 1920s but one can still see novices of all shapes and sizes scurrying about the monastery. Pemayangtse is the third oldest monastery in Sikkim and was established a little over 300 years ago in 1705. The name is derived from padmayang tse, which literally means the sublime perfect lotus.

The Pemayangtse Monastery
The Pemayangtse MonasteryWikimedia Commons: Tejas498

These early monasteries of Sikkim were mostly set up in the 18th century and were all dedicated to the founder of Lamaism, Padmasambhava. Lamaism arose in the 8th century CE during the reign of the Tibetan king Thi-Srong De-Tsen. To a large extent, it was derived from the Tibetan version of Mahayana Buddhism, which was heavily inflected with tantric and mystical doctrines. For instance, when Thi-Srong De-Tsen's repeated attempts to build a monastery were frustrated by earthquakes, they were attributed to demonic activities.

Eventually, the king sent for Padmasambhava, then a renowned wizard-priest at Nalanda University. He arrived at Samy (in Tibet) in 747 CE, duly vanquished the demons, built the monastery and established the first community of lamas. Padmasambhava's stock has never declined since.

Another millennium was to pass after the arrival of Padmasambhava before the Pemayangtse Monastery was set up. By then, Lamaism had been introduced in to Sikkim by the legendary Lhatsun Chenpo in the 17th century. He is famed to have flown over Mount Kabru when he could find no overland route from Tibet to Sikkim. Reaching Yuksom, Lhatsun helped coronate the first king of Sikkim and founded the first ever monastery in Sikkim at Dubdi.

Pemayangtse Monastery is said to have been designed, if not actually built, by Lhatsun for the use of the ta-sang, or pure monks of Tibetan origin. But what really links the monastery to the lama is that extraordinary masterpiece, the Zangdok Palri: a three-dimensional wooden painted model of the vision of a celestial city seen by Lhatsun himself.

Statue of Guru Padmasambhava in Namchi, Sikkim
Statue of Guru Padmasambhava in Namchi, SikkimWikimedia Commons: Masum Ibn Musa

Sitting on a verandah in the monastery complex, Captain Yungdak unfolded the fascinating story of the masterpiece. While pursuing a course of intense meditation in the Himalayas, Lhatsun had a vision which he later wrote up as part of his autobiography. As a result of his penance, he was able to command angels and demons who also brought him tribute in the form of gems and jewels. Along with his autobiography, he hid these in caves and grottoes with blessings so that his future incarnations would retrieve them.

In due course, Lhatsun's autobiography was discovered and opened. The great artist Lingpyo Rimpoche (to whom the traditional dancing masks of Sikkim are attributed) read the description of the vision, spent three years visualising it and built the model city of Zangdok Palri. The size of a large dollhouse, containing no nails and put together only with wooden joints, the model represents a beautifully burnished and lacquered celestial city, teeming with divine and mortal beings, palaces and pleasure domes, gardens and pavilions.


The ruins of Rabdentse Palace
The ruins of Rabdentse PalaceWikimedia Commons: Anand Bhushan

A brisk five minute walk from the Pemayangtse Monastery is Rabdentse, where the brooding ruins of the second capital of Sikkim are. It was established by Phuntshok Namgyal's son, Tensung Namgyal.

Rabdentse is a bit of a puzzle. The ruins of the palace exist but not a stick remains from any other building, if you discount the nearby Pemayangtse Monastery. Surely a seat of government would have more signs of its past glory? The ruins are perched on top of a hill and are divided into two distinct sections. The larger one is almost certainly the palace complex and the other was probably a more public place with a paved courtyard meant for subjects. Standing on the courtyard, I had a wide angle view of the mountains. Not a bad lookout for invading armies.

Sanga Choeling

The Sango Choeling Monastery
The Sango Choeling MonasteryWikimedia Commons: walter callens

The way back from Rabdentse to Pelling is uphill and laborious, but it should be easy to cadge a lift from the vehicles headed in that direction. No vehicle however will take you to the Sanga Choeling (literally, the place of secret spells), probably the second oldest monastery in Sikkim. It is situated on the other side of Pelling and takes a good 45 minutes of uphill climbing. But once you reach the sturdy little monastery in its windswept eyrie, the footsore trek seems worth every ragged breath.

Step into the narrow vestibule in the front and take in the colossal figures painted all over the walls. There are usually four Kings of the Quarters who guard the universe against outer demons. Clad in full battle armour and wearing ferocious expressions, these guardians come in four colours: white, yellow, red and green.

The first floor houses manuscripts in their individual cubby-holes, storerooms and perhaps a tiny retiring room for the priest in charge. On the day I went, he was making tea. He looked at me as if it was the most normal thing in the world to have a visitor at 7:00 on a rainy winter morning. The abiding image I carried with me from Pelling was his impish and ageless face, almost indistinguishable from the gods who kept him company.


The Yuksom valley
The Yuksom valleyWikimedia Commons: Shubhamshukla585

Yuksom is little more than a one street village, 35km north from Pemayangtse. It takes about 90 minutes to drive from Pelling to get there, and on the way one can take in the vertiginous Rimbi Waterfall, practically leaping on to the road in front of you in ecstasy.

The high street in Yuksom is about a couple of hundred yards long and bounded by the usual clutch of shops, restaurants and boarding lodges. At any given point of time, it is hard to tell whether there are more locals or tourists. Most tourists who stay here use it as a base camp for the arduous trek to Dzongri and, if they are feeling particularly adventurous, all the way to Goecha La. Not many spend the night here for local sightseeing.

At the end of the high street the road bifurcates. The fork on the right takes you to Dubdi (literally, the hermit's cell), arguably the oldest monastery in Sikkim, while the other slopes upwards towards the coronation throne, the Norbugang. Carry some salt with you to flick off leeches which are everywhere on this path.

Dubdi Monastery
Dubdi MonasteryWikimedia Commons: Kothanda Srinivasan

A 45-minute steep climb later, you will reach Dubdi. Founded by none other than Lhatsun Chenpo in 1701, this monastery had a complement of 25 monks towards the beginning of the 20th century but now there's just one. A beautiful garden surrounds the monastery which does not really look very old because of extensive renovations after an earthquake in 1933.

Returning to the fork, take the dirt track towards Norbugang. On the way you will pass tiny Katok Lake, though it's the bigger Khecheopalri, an hour's drive from Yuksom, which gets more visitors. Khecheopalri literally means wishing lake. It has a diameter of about half a kilometre and is situated in a bowl-like declivity. The water is crystal-clear and it is believed that the birds around do not allow even a leaf to fall on the wishing lake. The pier is a long low wooden structure with prayer wheels on both sides and provides a sort of viewing gallery on the edge of the water.

On the way back from Khecheopalri, one can also stop at Tashiding Monastery. Built in 1717, its name means 'elevated glorious white rock'. The name refers to the miraculous raising or elevation of the monastery site by Padmasambhava, who is said to have blessed the sacred land of Sikkim from this very spot. However, the monastery itself was built by Ngadakpa Rigds in Chenpo, one of the three wise men who had consecrated the milkman Phuntshok at Yuksom. The chief attraction of Tashiding is its holy chorten (a monolith shaped like a sarcophagus), the most common religious symbol in Sikkim. It's called Thong-Wa-Rang-Dol and the very sight of which is supposed to wash away all sins.

Rumtek Monastery

Rumtek Monastery
Rumtek MonasteryWikimedia Commons: Bernard Gagnon

The British started getting involved in the affairs of Sikkim and Darjeeling from the mid-19th century onwards. They appointed Claude White as the first political officer in Sikkim in 1889 and the erstwhile king, Chogyal Thutob Namgyal, was virtually placed under his supervision. Thutob shifted the capital from Tumlong to Gangtok in 1894. So, Gangtok is a comparatively new city. Today, it is much better regulated than other popular hill stations. I note all this as I drive to Rumtek Monastery which is 34km south-west of Gangtok.

There are actually two Rumtek monasteries separated by about 1.5km. The first one was built way back in 1740 but is hardly visited by any tourists. The new and far more imposing monastery complex was built in the 1960s, largely from the personal resources of the Gyalwa Karmapa, and is the seat of the Kagyu-pa (Black Hat) order of Tibetan Buddhism. The Sikkimese king pitched in, as did Jawaharlal Nehru. Not surprisingly, this monastery complex is by far the most ostentatious in Sikkim.

A young monk at Rumtek Monastery
A young monk at Rumtek MonasteryWikimedia Commons: RajashreeTalukdar

The portals of the Rumtek Monastery are entrusted to the care of mortal as well as divine guardians. There is a passport checkpoint at the main entry for foreign nationals. The huge courtyard is flanked by the monks quarters as well as the intriguing VIP gallery and the butter lamp shed on the first floor. There is also the Karmapa sitting room on the first floor, which is out of bounds for visitors.

I was shown around the monks quarters and the general complex by an extremely helpful student at the monastery. I learnt that the thousands of lamps lit inside the monastery were fuelled not by butter made in the butter lamp shed, as I had fondly imagined, but the rather more plebeian Ruchi No. 1 Dalda. Similarly, the thousands of prayer wheels were lubricated by regular infusions of diesel. Though nowadays the ubiquitous prayer flags are also made by commercial printers, at Rumtek they still use their printing blocks. You can get yours done here at the print house, which is stacked with old blocks from floor to ceiling. For the record, prayer flags come in four colours: blue, red, yellow and green, symbolising the elements water, fire, earth and wood, respectively.


M G Road in Gangtok
M G Road in GangtokWikimedia Commons: Bernard Gagnon

Back in Gangtok, I found myself unmoved by the attractions of the Do-drul Chorten. It mainly consists of a gigantic chorten with 108 prayer wheels all around. The whole complex seemed about as attractive as a petrol pump.

The Enchey Monastery (literally, 'high strong place') does live up to its name as it is situated on the upper slopes of the city. Though not as serene as it once used to be, its courtyard is still a lovely place to sit in, especially during the mornings.

The famed Namgyal Institute of Tibetology is next to Do-drul Chorten and is one of the premier institutes in India for Tibetan studies, with huge collections of Lepcha ,Tibetan and Sanskrit manuscripts, as well as rare thangkas (scroll paintings) and statues. Thangka means 'rolled up', which indicates that the painting is done on cloth that can easily be rolled up for convenient transport.

Tsomgo Lake

Tsomgo Lake
Tsomgo LakeWikimedia Commons: Indrajit Das

About 40km out of Gangtok is Tsomgo Lake (pronounced 'shongo') at a height of 3,753m. It can be either a boring or a great drive, depending on the weather. But even the rain cannot hide the lake's startling beauty. Surrounded by mountains, it is about a kilometre long and is one of Buddhism's holy lakes. The waters are unimaginably serene. On sunnier days the lake catches and keeps the blue of the sky. A little further up is Nathu La on the Indo-China border. You will need a special permit obtained from the tourist office on M G Road or government-recognised travel agents in Gangtok to go there.

M G Road and Lal Bazaar Road. A typical Sikkimese meal can be had at the The Elgin Nor-Khill. This includes dishes made from stinging nettles and Alpine fiddlehead fern. Other local specialities include the famed cherry brandy as well as ghastly concoctions like paan liqueur.

In Pelling things are a bit dire. The situation is similarly grim at Yuksom but not at Tashi Gang. Definitely try their Sikkimese chicken. You could also try the stinging nettle or sisnu soup, a potion-like deep green concoction that tastes just fine and does not sting. And if that gets monotonous, succour is at hand in the form of homebrewed chhaang, the excellent local beer which is universally popular.

Tongba with thipshing
Tongba with thipshingWikimedia Commons: Jweatherley

This home-brew is made from wheat and millet grains and is fermented for two to three months. Chhaang has to be drunk from an 8-inch wooden tumbler called tongba, filled to the brim with grain while hot water is added periodically. The resultant beer is then sipped through a long bamboo straw called thipshing. The beer can be drunk as long as one is willing and able to add hot water to the tumbler. One tongba of chhaang can keep you going for the entire evening.

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