The tea gardens at Bagdogra will appear to lay a green carpet to the visitor who is to soon leave the north Bengal city to a tiny territory, Sikkim, 125 km up the hills. Sikkim is the country's second-smallest state and has all the verdant charm of the Northeast. For the record, Sikkim is only 43 years old, having been added to the Indian republic in 1975 when the people deposed its monarchy. Gangtok, the capital, added a new ring to the names of places in the multi-ethnic nation.
It was only the other day the Himalayan state got its airport, finally. The greenfield facility, 35 km south of Gangtok, graces Pakyong village at an altitude of 4,500 feet above the sea-level. As the country’s fifth-highest airport and the 100th operational one, Pakyong will now make it easy for travellers to reach Sikkim if they can afford a flight ticket.
That wasn't the case till this September 24. Air travellers would land at Bagdogra town in Darjeeling district of West Bengal. From there, one would take a sturdy vehicle that takes its sweet time to climb up the roads. It is a challenging stretch that winds the lazy mountains, paving the way to the Sikkim capital. It may be slightly strenuous for those from the plains, but that is only if you are least a nature lover. For, the sights along the Bagdogra-Gangtok route have all the qualities of a dram drive that lasts for no less than four hours.
The chief charmer up the course is no secret. It is the Teesta. It's a river that lines almost the whole of the Bagdogra-Gangtok trip. Not just sketches the route, but colours it as well. For the 310-km Teesta has a curious hue across its Sikkim profile marked with a lot of zigzags.
The water is light green, with a tinge of blue! Very unlikely hue for an Indian river. How come? Well, there are quite a few reasons for that being floated around for long. One is that it’s a magic work by what is called ‘rock flour’ at the bottom of the river. That is the presence of very fine-grained rock particles that are the size of silt generated by mechanical grinding of the bedrock. Another inference points to the Teesta’s rich inclusion of two minerals: limestone and dolomite. Both tend to give water a green-blue tinge. A third opinion, with not many takers among the scientific community but most popular among the public, is that the Teesta has certain blue-green algae. Most researchers show the waters here have the algae content on par with most rivers of the subcontinent.
Whatever, the hills alongside the Teesta are often walled by high-altitude mountains. But they are towards a distance. Closer to the river, which seems to accompany and play a good host to the visitor, are terraced farmlands on both sides. A row of quaint old villages and small towns also flank the river.
Sure, a typical traveller’s drive up to Sikkim’s capital can reveal quite a lot of things along with its people. For instance, the labourers at Sevoke, which is a small town 23 km away from Bagdogra. Not far from the Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary on the foothills of the Himalayas, the town is linked well to Siliguri by rail. Away from the Sevoke railway station, on the roadside, a nondescript restaurant sells ethnic food. Primarily, momos.
The waiter is a middle-aged man, full of humility that gathers density as he nears the table and chairs made of cheap wood. The taste of the food and the conduct of the person are a trigger to know about the person. “What’s your name?” The answer is meek: Nobin. On told that the visitors are from Kerala, a broad grin makes a flash on the waiter’s face. With a resigned expression, he says in accented Hindi, “I would have been in your state had I actually got the invitation fulfilled.”
What was it about? “I had got a waiter’s job in a restaurant there. Somewhere near Kochi,” Nobin recalls the year-old episode. “But it didn’t happen at the last moment. Some problem cropped up.”
On request, Nobin happily poses before the camera. As if for a passport-size photo that would soon take him to Perumbavoor, the hub of immigrant workers.
The climb upwards pops us faces that look more like that of the hillspeople. Children play cheerfully by the banks of the Teesta that are also roadside stretches along the woods. One road makes a noticeable cut sideways. The SUV driver proudly announces: “That is to Bhutan.”
The evening sun tries to change the colour of the river with crimson rays. Slowly, the Teesta gets out of sight. By nightfall, there appears a gateway on the road. Atop the horizontal lintel of the structure that looks unmistakably Oriental; One that has a feel of not just Sikkim, but Bhutan and Nepal, too. Inside, along one of the busy roads is the hotel for the overnight stay.
The morning view is striking. Not just for the valleys extending up till the horizon, but also for that snowy tower seen beyond the mountains. Ah, that is Kanchenjunga, the world’s third highest mountain in a district of Nepal across the international border.
If Teesta has on omnipresent quality while driving 123 up to Gangtok from Bagdogra, this peak will often prove to be a mystical obsession for many a visitor in the Sikkim capital. The towering looks of the mountain, with its highest point at 8,586 metres, lends one the feeling of a protector. Even if you are walking along Gangtok’s speck-less clean MG Marg Bazaar. The marketplace is too clean for one to really believe this is really India. Lined with well-kept benches and neatly dressed people, even the occasional dog lazing under a warm sun looks tidy.
It’s not that all the shopkeepers along the bazaar are Sikkimese. In fact, quite a few are from places far and near the Himalayas. For instance, Nurshid Alam. The young trader is originally from Bihar -- of Mohitari in what was once Magadha province. His family runs trinket shop at Gangtok. “Well, we go to our native place once in a while,” he says, not very enthusiastically.
Outside, the roads come up with waves of people moving in teams and then suddenly going lean for a while. Whoever comes and goes, the streets don’t sport one bit of even a paper-ball thrown around.
Woman by the waterfall
In the quietude of Gangtok, you hear a gurgle. It’s a waterfall by the road. Around a turn. The sight is not particularly striking, given that the falls are not very strong. It’s more of a trickle, and its softness is appealing. The Bakthang waterfall, which slides down a set of black rocks, has a roadside woman who looks keen to get a customer for her stock of clothes. Again, she is not of the local stock, going by her facial features.
Turns out that the lady is not a seller but someone who lets the traveller wear ethnic Sikkimese dress briefly — for a fee. The traditional bakhu clothes, very colourful, are a matter of curiosity to many passing by the way. Munna Rai lends them on 10-minute rent for photographs and, these days, selfies. One gets great images of the royal costume against the backdrop of the Bakthang waterfall. “Fifty rupees, sir,” she says at the end of the short but memorable ritual.
Further up, the Tashi viewpoint is technically 8 km from Gangtok, but experientially very much part of the city. It’s, no doubt, a quieter corner, giving sight to a mass valley of hills belong for a long distance. The peaks up there magically change colours over a day’s progression. The winds are cool, adding to the romance of young lovers, some of them apparently college-mates and honeymooners.
A steeper climb takes you to a terrain that is cloudy. It might even rain. On both sides are Buddhist prayer-flags festooning the road. But then, it’s a Hindu shrine that awaits the visitor at the end point. Ganesh Tok, which is a yellow-painted temple up a mound. The climb to the sanctum sanctorum is steep. The flight of steps has children walking down with a speed indicative of their relief and joy.
It’s again evening. The setting sun above the hills shone more like the full moon. No red colour, but one that of a steel plate.
The morning after, too, had its sunrays that looked like a benign reflection of the Kanchenjunga. This time, the trip is to a couple of Buddhist monasteries around.
Sikkim has a range of religious icons from ancient times to contemporary. While there’s the 8th-century Indian Buddhist master Guru Padmasambhava, who has had a hand in the construction of Tibet’s first monastery, the present-day state has, say, a certain striker called Bhaichung Bhutia who is considered the torch-bearer of his country’s football in the international arena.
At a Gangtok suburb, Enchey monastery stands enveloped by a light mist covering the 1840-founded hermitage that belongs to the Nyingma order of Vajrayana Buddhism known for its esoteric tantra and secret mantras. Its renovated structure, which is 110 years old, retains a calmness that is typical of the Siddhartha Gautama, the ascetic who lived five centuries before Jesus Christ. Buddhism defines much of Sikkim’s ethos even today.
A group of old men are in a huddle on a bench in the front yard of Enchey monastery. Their handshakes reveal the inner warmth of the men wearing saffron-red cloaks.
Among them is Lagaud Lama, who retired as a language teacher from the Tashi Namgyal School in the town. He asks, “You know Bhaichung?” and without waiting for an answer, says, “I have taught him. From class 6 to 10.” The 75-year-old is equally proud when he says he currently teaches moral science at an NGO-run educational institution in the locality.
A little away, some of the 80-odd inmates of the Enchey monastery, are having fun. The younger among them are playing something that looked like snake-and-ladder. For the average visitor at Gangtok, Enchey is a good introduction to Buddhist spiritualism ahead of a visit to the more famous Rumtek monastery. It is much bigger, bustling and even more beautiful, belonging to the Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. Originally erected in the mid-1700s, it is internally in the turmoil of what is called the Karmapa controversy over the identity of its ‘real’ spiritual head. That no way affects the average visitor, who will find it another island of solace.All around, from any angle, the spot is tranquil. The only flutter is that of the prayer-flags.