Sunday, 12 January 2014

Journey to the mystical land of Sikkim - Part 2

Continued from Part 1

Day 3: Gangtok & Surrounding Sightseeing

"These mist covered mountains
Are a home now for me..."
- Brothers in Arms by Dire Straits

We got to know next morning that the temperature had reached minus levels previous night hence such an intense cold wave. The sleep quality was very good in spite of the cold. We woke up early in the morning. We chatted in the balcony having the morning tea and biscuit. It was bit cloudy that day, and weather report showed chances of rain. We were hoping that at least it would not rain while we were on sightseeing.  Post tea we quickly bathed and got ready as our cab was about to arrive at 9.30 AM. A very important tip when you are visiting a hill station during winter: never skip the morning bath if hot water is available. It instantly refreshes you and you feel a bit less cold throughout the day. So dare it and have a bath every day. By the time we got ready breakfast was served in the room – bread toast and omelet. The cab arrived soon and we started our full-day sightseeing tour.

Do-Drul Chorten: This was the first point that we visited. The cab stopped at the base of a uphill walk to the Chorten. The slope was a bit steep as we were out of breath within a few minutes of walking. The huge white Tibetian pagoda with its golden spire is a landmark of Gangtok. Built in 1945, it is surrounded by 108 prayer wheels and houses several rare religious scriptures. The Chorten also has two huge statues of Guru Rinpoche (Guru Padmasambhava) around it. The Chorten is surrounded by dormitories for novice monks and glass-walled galleries with countless flaming butter lamps burning inside. It was a silent place, everyone was praying earnestly. We went around the Chorten and took a few snaps. Saw two cats in the premises playing with each other. One of them was quite friendly and liked my petting. They are mostly pets of the monks who stayed in the same premises as I saw one of them walking inside with a monk. The air was very crisp and we could see faraway mountain ranges as we started our descent.

The inhouse cat @ Do Drul Chorten

Namgyal Institute of Tibetology : Less than a kilometer away from the Chorten is the Institute of Tibetology. A beggar was playing a local musical instrument, the music of which was so soulful that it can’t be described in words. I felt like standing all day and hearing him play but we walked inside the institute instead. This fantastic museum housed in a traditional Tibetan-style mansion was built in the year 1958 to promote research in Mahayan Buddhism and Tibetan language and traditions. The verandah inside is adorned with a magnificent painting of four celestial guardians kings located in the four directions of Mount Meru. Built in a traditional style, this institute boasts the world's largest collections of books and rare manuscripts on Mahayan Buddhism, in addition to the works of art and silk embroidered Tankhas. Moreover, it also houses relics of monks, samples of Lepcha scripts, masks and sacred objects like Kapali, Tantric ritual objects, such as a thöpa (bowl made from a human skull) and kangling (human thighbone trumpet). The library on the 1st floor has precious Buddhist tomes, some dating back several hundred years.  A handicrafts shop is present opposite to the gate of the institute, but everything was very expensive for which we didn’t see any tourist going in. A quaint restaurant is present by the side of the handicraft shop selling coffee, sandwich etc. A doggie was coming after us; we bought some cake and gave him which he happily devoured. We gave some money to the beggar before we went back.

Entrance of the museum & Frescoes on the wall
The shop & Cafe outside museum
The Beggar & Doggy

Next we started for the Rumtek Monastery.  24Km from Gangtok, it took us about 90 minutes to reach. The road was very picturesque with lush green vegetation all along. Rumtek is located on a different mountain than Gangtok.  I don’t remember well but mostly somewhere in between we stopped at the Nehru Botanical garden. It was just a shadow of any Botanical Garden I have visited till date. It looked like no one ever tended to the plants over here; half of them were wilting away while some which still had flowers were cobweb covered. The plants inside the green house were all dried and dead. The whole area cut such a sorry figure that we wondered why did we even stop there.
The Monks playing soccer

Rumtek Monastery: The entry is controlled by Para-military forces and at the entry point of the monastery one is required to show passport (for foreigners) or ID card (for Indians). From here to the Monastery is a long and steep walk of about 10 minutes. But that 10 minutes feel like an eon due to the steepness of the slope. The aged may ask the military permission for the cab to drop them near the monastery premises. The approach road has many souvenir shops but they were a bit pricy and you can get the same stuffs in M.G Marg.At an elevation of almost 5000 ft and surrounded by lush green landscape, the monastery is a visual treat besides offering spiritual solace. Its build on a large spread area and there are so many buildings and no Signboards one gets confused as to where is the entrance. It happened to us and we mistakenly went up the long and tiring flight of stairs only to know that we have come the wrong way! The saving grace was that there was something to see at the top of the stairs as well – the Golden Stupa. My mom asked a tourist coming down regarding what was inside and he replied “you are a women so you will like it, my wife liked it, it’s all gold” . Such a chauvinistic response but we still went inside anyway. We were welcomed by mantra chants playing from a speaker. It was a small room that enshrined a magnificent Golden Stupa and contained relics and paintings that belonged to the 16th Karmapa. Opposite this building is a college of Karma Shri Nalanda Institute for Higher Buddhist Studies.We went down the stairs to the other end of the premises where the entrance of the Monastery is situated. Some young monks were playing soccer outside the entrance. Everywhere there were military people with guns. It almost seemed like we were entering any guarded fortress than a religious place. To be more precise it felt like some scene from an assassination gameplay, quite unsettling but we somehow got used to it. The three-storied building painted in red and gold is a perfect example of Tibetan architecture. This is largest monastery in Sikkim. There are beautiful frescos on the walls of the monastery. The prayer hall is beautifully decorated with silk thangkas, scrolls and frescos depicting the numerous legends associated with Buddha. There are huge gongs and clarinets placed around the seats where the monks sit and pray. The golden statue of Buddha in "Bhumisparsa Mudra" represents the earth witnessing the moment of enlightenment of Gautam Buddha. Yog-Yogini idols of Tara are also present in the main hall which is very rare to spot in West Bengal. Photography is not allowed inside so couldn’t capture the idols. Somehow I was not very impressed with the monastery maybe I had heard so much about it that expectations were set at a higher level and also because of the presence of so many militaries around killed the religious feeling somehow.
Rumtek Monastery

We came down and it was almost lunchtime. I was eagerly looking out to taste some chicken momos or something nonveg. Our driver took us to a restaurant outside the entrance of the Monastery named “Taktuk Bhutia Phenchumpa”. The Chicken Thukpa was out of the world but veg-momo was just ok ok. The piping hot Thukpa on a chilly afternoon was just perfect! Post lunch we started our journey back to Gangtok for rest of the sightseeing. The intensity of the cold was increasing as the day progressed because the sun could never show up behind the clouds.

Young monks watching something interesting

By the time we reached Cottage Industry and Handicrafts Center we were very cold and stiff. From outside the building didn’t look much promising; we were not willing to go out in the cold but still our driver suggested we take a look. The moment we stepped out of the car we froze…icy winds were cutting through our face and body. We literally ran inside the building for some warmth at least. The museum houses hand-woven carpets with traditional motifs, blankets, shawls (in Lepcha weaves), 'thangka' paintings, dappled appliqué work, graceful 'Choktse' (hand carved foldable tables), hand-painted masks, dolls, hand made papers, rich brocade and embroidered boots and many other objects. We wanted to spend more time seeing the stuffs on display but the unbearable cold winds coming through the open vents forced us to change our plan and scurry to the car. At that moment I knew what the frozen icicle feeling was, we were shivering like anything. 

Next we made our way to Flower exhibition Centre. The pavement outside the exhibition center is well manicured and small stretch of garden with sitting areas, washrooms and snack stall is present. Long trees line on both side of the road imparting a beautiful character to the entire stretch. Once you enter the park you go down a flight of stairs to reach the exhibition hall. Many trees like Dhupi are planted by the side of the stairs which are labeled for the benefit of the tourists. Entry fee is Rs.10 for the exhibit. Once you enter it’s a small green house with different species of flower 7 plants. The temperature is kept at an optimum for the growth of the orchids. It had a good collection but a very small exhibit, in 15 minutes you can complete viewing it. I had expected more flowers specially orchids. Good number of hydrangeas ranging from the usual blue to pink ones were present. Peruvian lily or Alstromeria in pink, yellow and white grew there. We only saw 4 colors of orchid, reddish brown, pink, yellow and white. Maybe in a different season one is fortunate to see more species of flowers. There is a small bridge sort of thing made in between the park where you can stand and pose for photos. If you like flowers you will like this place. But if you have been to bigger flower exhibitions where there are a lot many flowers on display you will kind of feel this doesn’t measure up to them. One odd thing though; loud Bollywood movie songs were being played inside the hall which didn’t match with the environment at all. Maybe they were trying out the concept that plants grow better hearing music? I would maybe rate the place 2 on a scale of five. But I really liked the pedestrian walk outside the park, very peaceful and romantic. 

Next on our list was Ganesh Tok. It is a quaint Ganesh temple situated at an altitude of 6,500 ft located next to the tall television tower on the hillock on Gangtok–Nathula road. By the time we reached Ganesh Tok, clouds were beginning to fill up the valley below. At the entrance of the temple, there were a few shops offering traditional Sikkimese outfits (Yenthatse with Thokro-Dum for men and Dumvum with Tago for women) for rent to pose for photographs. They offer it very cheap @ Rs 30-40 only. It was so cold that I was not at all interested in letting go my winter wear to slip into the traditional dress, though the lady at the store assured me that she would put it over my jacket only. A flight of stairs lead you to the main prayer hall. The idol here sits on a throne rather than on its vahan the Mushak or Rat. A terrace encircles the temple area from where one can get a bird’s eye view of sprawling Gantok town and Kanchenjunga on a clear day. The misty valley was also looking beautiful. A photographer’s treat for sure. There is a sitting area below and a cafeteria serving hot tea, coffee and snacks. A group sat there sipping coffee in front of a bonfire. An arrow proclaimed a souvenir shop somewhere down the slope but mostly it was non-functional at that time. The avenue in front of the sitting area is festooned with colorful prayer flags.

View from Ganesh Tok

The penultimate destination was Tashi View point. It is situated on the curve of a looping road. One needs to climb up quite a number of steep stairs to reach the viewpoint. The late king of Sikkim, Tashi Namgyal, has constructed the Tashi Viewpoint. It is located 4 km away from Gangtok, from where the visitors can get a perfect view of the opposite hills, including Mt. Kanchenjunga. But we had tough luck. The clouds were literally following us everywhere and as usual Kanchenjunga had hidden it’s face behind the whipped cream like clouds. But the view of the winding mountain road below was very beautiful. It was almost 4 pm and pretty cold and windy.We took some snaps of the twin dragon at the center of the view point. There is a shop selling Sikkimese stuffs on top of the viewpoint. This shop had much more things than what we saw in shops of other points.  There were tiny sets of brandy and wine gift bottles, woolens, boots, cute Chinese dolls. Temi Tea packs and many other things. We spent quite some time here.
Tashi View Point

From here we traveled back to Gagtok city point. Instead of getting down at our hotel we decided to go to the M.G. Marg once more to buy some woolens which will make the intense cold a bit bearable. Last night on we had understood that we were very ill prepared for the cold weather over here.

The same festivities were still going on that evening as well drawing a lot of crowd at the center of M.G.Marg. It was an overcast day hence it felt like it was already 6pm at 4.30 pm. We went to several shops looking for the right kind of winter wear. Finally at one shop we selected some beautiful Sikkimese shawls and a pair of thermals for me. By the time we we done with our shopping it was pouring outside. We only had one umbrella with us and it was already late. So we had no other option than to buy a cheap one from the store and start for our hotel. The rain had subsided by then, but it was more chilly due to the rains. We rushed through the nearly deserted roads towards the shared taxi stand. Fortunately we got a cab and soon reached our hotel. It felt so good to be back in the warmth of the closed room. The store bought winter wear relieved us a lot from the cold. We freshened up and ordered some coffee and onion fritters. The rain had again intensified outside blurring the valley in front. We watched Ritchi Rich movie having the snacks. For dinner we had chicken curry and rice which was very delicious. The following day we were going to Ravangla.

To be continued...

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