“He loved Mountains or he loved the thought of them marching on the edge of the stories brought from far away”… J.R.R. Tolkien (LOTR)
Packed in a bag, detached from the world, never to have seen the light, here it (my camera) was, on its first expedition. Its first step out of the cozy nest. I merely was a medium to expose it to the enchanting world around. The world with numerous hidden precious sights. The story goes back to the summer of 2009, when four grad-students decided to make a tour to SIKKIM, a state in India located in the lap of the majestic giants. The journey from Bangalore Gangtok via Kolkata and New Jalpaiguri. Flight to Kolkata, regardless of 3 people being together, was uneventful. The streets of Kolkata embraced us with the excessive heat of summer and we were ready to embark upon a new journey to the ‘colder heights’. Upon reaching New-jalpaiguri by train from Kolkata, we had to solely depend on the shared vehicles to go up the mountains. The road took us away from the burning heat, chaos and the busy routine of the cities, to a land of cool breeze, trapped in the majestic mountains, gush of flowing streams, spiky pine forests. It was truly an inexplicable experience.
Those who made the roads in such drastic conditions deserved a standing ovation and one word to describe those who drive on them, bravo. As the road turned its way to the top, small green patches of terraced farming dominated the view. Glimpse of summer could be seen in the valleys deep down and the mountains. The blue-green waters of the river Teesta flowed in the deep valley. As we moved past one village to another, I wished the journey to continue longer, as there were several things to observe, to appreciate. Small streams flowing through the crevices, patches of snow distributed everywhere, little sheep taking a stroll with their masters, military camps and tiny shops with wild colors. Every moment was worth capturing. After 5 hours of twists and turns, colorful prayer flags of Gangtok greeted us and a delicious meal, momos and thugpa (combination of noodles, veggies and meat in water), awaited us. Crowd and noise of the city took over the quietness of the valleys en route. Curious I was to find all the streets clean and tidy. It is a rare sight for any tourist place. MG road, as in any other other city, was the popular road there. The chief difference was that, vehicles were not allowed on this road and we pedestrians could enjoy walking down along the road. Sunset was very early at Sikkim (around 4:30 pm) and not a soul was to be found on the roads after dark. The surroundings looked haunted in the dark.
Sikkim is famous for the umpteen monasteries which are distinctly different from each other. Rumtek and Peymeyangtse were the two notable monasteries we managed to visit. Though they were flooded with tourists, I could distance myself from the crowd, pondering over the significance of everything I saw around me. The thought of being there reminded me of one of FELUDA’s mysterious encounters I read as a kid, Trouble in Gangtok by Satyajit Ray. I was thrilled to be experiencing every description from the book, expect for mystery part. The monasteries, the paths, the courtyard, the corridors, gongs, chants of the monks. They all had a common structure: a main temple with the deities, a huge courtyard upfront with a stupa (a buddhist pillar) at the center. The corridors, with number of rooms, made the boundaries to the yard. The rolling cylinders with inscriptions caught my attention. One had to keep walking and roll the cylinders. Some go there to pray, some to look for inner peace, some for answers to the all the questions there are. A queer silence prevailed inside the walls. A thousand desires arise at the sight of such breath-taking structures. The colors, the architecture and the paintings were spectacular. Every wall was narrating a story, a story that was beyond the comprehension of a common soul. A stroll around the premises gave the glimpse of the routine activities. Monks of all ages, young and old, immersed in their daily chores, were unperturbed by the sneaking of the ‘aliens’ into their land. Being a part of the premises probably brings out the MONK-Y nature inside you.
The places we visited were far in distance from each other. Hence, sufficient time was spent travelling, admiring the view and getting local trivia from our driver. People residing there seemed satisfied and happy with their living, despite absence of any luxurious facilities. No malls, no fancy cars, no money attracting schools and yet they enjoy their lives. We could not have survived through a prolonged stay. Not many kids had the privilege of attending primary schools. They usually tagged along their parents to the tourist spots and engage themselves in however way they can. One such incident was this cute kid playing in the waters of a waterfall, probably imagining himself sitting in a boat. He was indeed singing a song in his own language while rowing. All I could think of was” Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream…”.
While these thoughts engulfed my mind, we set out to explore other sites. Setting aside the man-made structures, Himalayas, the origin of the Great Ganges, are also the birth-place for innumerable, unaccounted streams. The water was clear, pure and sweet, that you could drink it without any hesitation. These streams then flow doan into the plains to meet the huge rivers which eventually got polluted. This reminded me of the innocent and pure thoughts we get in our childhood, that get corrupted as we grow in shape and size. Lake Tsongmo, at the elevation of 12,000 ft, close to Nathu La Pass, the Chinese border and yet was very peaceful. People there were very keen on keeping the lakes clean and hence no one was allowed to dip a finger into the the water. Its hard to make rules and harder to get them executed. The oxygen pressure was quite low and that made our heads spin. Fighting against all the extremities, we enjoyed being there, that moment- the transparent waters of Tsongmo, a Yak ride along the lake, which was nothing like a pleasure Horse ride.
Pelling, 112 km from Gangtok towards west, was the next destination from Gangtok. Only 60 km away from the magnificent Kanchendzonga range. Unlike Gangtok, which was populated and was filled with activity, Pelling was a small town overlooking the snowy caps and to our relief less touristy. We were booked into a hotel quite close to a cliff overlooking a beautiful valley. Hot tea served by smiling face of an old lady made a good start of the day, which continued in the exploration of the surrounding areas. We went off in the look out for monasteries and water streams of the west sikkim. River Rimbi flows though the eastern part and meets Teesta further down in the valley.
After having a glimpse of the beautiful valley near Pelling from a helipad up above, we had to save ourselves from the fierce winds and rain that followed. Our hosts at the hotel entertained us with some music when we heard Thousands of Thundering Typhoons (courtesy Captain Haddock). The sky was lit up as millions of tubelights and roars of thunder with woofers surrounded it. The sun was taking down all the light with him beyond the peaks, as if to hide away from the clouds that approached fast. It felt as though the sky was preparing the stage for a grand performance, like a rock show or something. This reminded me of all the movies with dramatic entrances of super heroes or gods, i.e. colorful flashy lights accompanied with suitable sounds. A view beyond words to explain. Apparently a sight such as this was very rare to watch. It was snow time on Kanchendzonga.
Word has it that the glimpse of the Kanchendzonga when the first rays of the sun touch the earth (4.30 am) is beyond words. How could one let go of the sunrise, being in the east. The impatience was building up as we waited for the sight. At last sun showed his mercy and made the effort to show himself up. As he rose up in the sky, the rays slowly engulfed the valley and reached the peaks. A hundred and one thoughts churning inside, the butterflies making you jump in ecstasy. A moment of true bliss. Mind devoid of any other perception and focused on ‘the’ one image. An image beyond the capture of any lens. This made a perfect climax for the play that began the previous evening.
With the exciting start of the day, it was time for us to visit one of the old capitals of Sikkim, Rabdantse. The path to which was covered with forest and flowering plants and definitely helped us to digest the heavy intake we had earlier. The remains of the old capital stretched over a hill that overlooked the valley with the sun setting into it. I have missed giving details of other places we had visited. The food, the drives, the inns, the tea, the company were too perfect for the place.
With all the spectacular events, the excitement came to an end with us reaching Kolkata. From the showers of purity to pure filth. However, one forgets all the noise, sweat, heat and pollution when on a boat ride on the river hoogli. I was reminded of many amazing old songs like ” Wo shaam kuch ajeeb thi…” by Kishore Kumar and all those by SD Burman, which had the flavor of this river in them. The most captivating on the river were the SHOE BOATS (as we christened them ), which are used by the fishermen around and also for a ride on hoogli by the tourists. One could spend a life time looking at the changing colors of the city from the river waters. Unfortunately, our countdown had begun. Hence, we had to end the dream and open our eyes.
“Oh SIKKIM!! You will always be my first love”, says my camera.