Introduction to Sikkim
Although Sikkim is the second smallest state of India with total area of barely 7,096 sq kilometers yet it spans elevation ranging from 300 meters to 8585 meters above sea level. The geography of Sikkim is dominated by the most majestic mountain chain in the world which includes the Kanchanjunga, the world’s third highest mountain also worshipped as the guardian deity of Sikkim.
Sikkim is endowed with more than 600 species of orchids and 36 species of Rhododendrons. Similarly Sikkim is home to some very rare wild animals like the Shapi discovered in 1938 (found only in Sikkim), Tibetan wild ass, Red Panda, Blue sheep, Himalayan Black Bear, Flying Squirrel, Snow Leopard, Musk Deer, Yaks etc. Sikkim has more than 500 species of birds and a few varieties of pheasants. Sikkim also has more than 600 species of butterflies, 45 species of fish and around 40 species of reptiles.
Sikkim was an independent kingdom till the seventies. In 1975, Sikkim merged with India as the 22nd state of the Indian Union. Sikkim with its mighty mountains, beautiful valleys like Yumthang (popularly known as the Switzerland of the East), greenery yet unspoiled by human presence, lakes, waterfalls, ancient monasteries, colorful masked dances performed by lamas and very friendly – hospitable people, has become a very popular tourist destination. Sikkim is divided into four districts, east, west, north and south. Some of the places of interest to tourists are given below district wise.
East Sikkim – Gangtok and the adjoining areas
East Dharma Chakra Centre at Rhumtek: The Centre is located some 24 kilometers from the town of Gangtok and was built in 1960 by His Holiness the late 16th Gyalwa Karmapa. It is a replica of the original Kagyurpa Monastery in Tsurphu, Tibet which is the seat of His Holiness the Gyalwa Karmapa, the head of the Karma Kargyudpa order of Tibetan Buddhism. It now functions as the headquarters of the Dharma Chakra Religious Centre. The old Rumtek monastery is located at a short distance from the Dharma Chakra Centre. The old monastery was originally built in 1730 by the 9th Karmapa. However it was destroyed by fire and had to be rebuilt.
Sikkim Research Institute of Tibetology: The Institute is renowned for its collection of Tibetan literature, rare manuscripts, paintings, thangkas, statues and religious objects and other works of art and history. This institute was originally established with the view to promote research on the language and traditions of Tibet as well as the Mahayana sect of Buddhism. There are about 30 thousand volumes, translations of the original teachings of the Lord Buddha, and treatises by distinguished Buddhist scholars from different parts of the world. The museum at the Institute consists of rare collection of antiques like statues, coins and thangkas which are scrolls with paintings on them.
Do-Drul Chorten (or Phurba Chorten): The Chorten is located at a short distance from the Sikkim Research Institute of Tibetology. This Chorten was built in 1945 by the venerable Trulshi Rimpoche, head of the Nyingma order of Tibetan Buddhism in 1945. Encased inside this stupa are mandala sets of Dorjee Phurba (Bajra Kilaya), a set of Kan-gyur relics (Holy Books), complete ‘Zung’ (mantras) and other religious objects.
The Government Institute of Cottage Industries: This institute was established in 1957 to train artisans in weaving Tibetan carpets, other handloom woven products, wood carving like Choktse (wooden traditional table),wooden masks, Astamangala (eight lucky sign) etc. making handmade paper and traditional paintings. An emporium at the institute sells these products.
Tsomgo (Tsango) Lake: This beautiful lake is situated at an altitude of 12,310 ft. and is at a distance of 35 km from Gangtok on the Nathula- Gangtok road. This road was traditionally an important trade route between Sikkim and Tibet. Primula flowers and’ other alpine vegetation which grow around the lake lend a pristine beauty to this place. The distance from the Tsango Lake to the Nathula pass is only 20 kilometers and about 400kilometers from Lhasa, the capital of Tibet.
Other places of interest are Chogyels Palace, the Enchey Monastery, Ganesh Tok & Pinetum, Hanuman Tok, Himalayan Zoological Park and Lal Bazaar.
Places of interest in the North
Chungthang: Chungthang is a small town at a distance of 100 kilometers from Gangtok and at an altitude of 5200 ft. It is surrounded by high mountains that seem to touch the sky. It is at the confluence of the Lachen Chu and the Lachung Chu, which merge to form the Teesta River. There is a revered rock in Chungthang which according to legend is believed to be the very rock on which Guru Padmasambhava rested and the imprint of his foot has been embedded on the rock. There is a small opening in the rock which always remains filled with fresh spring water. Adjacent to the rock there is a small stretch of land where paddy grows, defying conditions which are not conducive to the growth of paddy. It is believed that Guru Padmasambhava had sprinkled a handful of grains here and that is how despite adverse conditions, paddy has grown here ever since.
Lachung: Lachung is the last town before reaching Yumthang and is at a distance of 21 kilometers from Chungthang. Lachung is 8610 ft above sea level on an alpine meadow, surrounded by pine clad mountains and snowy peaks, and numerous beautiful waterfalls. A night halt in Lachung is necessary for visiting Yumthang.
Yumthang: Yumthang is at a distance of 24 kilometers from Lachung and is at an altitude of 12,000 ft. above sea-level. Yumthang is located on a flat valley and the surrounding mountains appear to reach right into the heavens. It is rightly called the Valley of Flowers as the valley dazzles the eyes with the vivid colors of varieties of Rhododendrons, chimals and blue poppies in the flowering season which falls between April-May. Yumthang valley is a mesmerizing scene with yaks grazing on flower – carpeted meadows against a backdrop of towering peaks. It has breathtaking views where one can become a part of a timeless scene without any kind of modern day intrusion.
Even the journey from Lachung to Yumthang is very picturesque and one can enjoy the pristine beauty of the mountains with beautiful Rhododendrons & 108 types of Orchids which bloom in different colors from April to May. There is a natural hot spring at Yumthang which is believed to have medicinal properties especially meant for treating skin ailments.
Lachen: Lachen is at a distance of 27 kilometers from Chungthang and is at an altitude of 8970 ft. above sea- Level. Like the road to Lachung, travelers to Lachen will enjoy the picturesque landscape with rhododendron forests in full bloom during April to June, which is also the peak tourist season. Although foreigners are not permitted to go beyond Lachen, a visit to Lachen is definitely recommended for those who enjoy nature in its splendor.
Pelling: Pelling is situated at an elevation of 6840 feet above sea-level and takes about 5 hours to reach from Gangtok. Pelling commands a fantastic view of Mount Kanchenjunga from close range. From Pelling the following places of interest can also be visited.
Pemayantse Monastery: It is the most important monastery of the Nyingmapa order of Tibetan Buddhism. Believed to have been conceptualized and designed by the pioneer of Buddhism in Sikkim, Lhatsun Chhembo in the 17th Century, Pemayangste soon became the nuclei of monasteries in Sikkim. Till date, it is referred to as the “premier monastery” of Sikkim. The monastery contains numerous antique idols and objects of worship and is filled with wall paintings and sculptures. The monastery is famous for its ‘Santopalri’ – a six realms painted wooden structure on the top floor portraying Guru Rimpoche’s Heavenly Palace ‘Santopalri’ which was completed single handedly by the late Dungzin Rimpoche in a span of five years.
Sanga Choling Monastery: A short trek from Pelling takes us to Sanga Choling monastery built in 1697. Sanga Choeling means ‘the island of esoteric teaching’. From this Monastery one can enjoy a close view of Mount Kanchenjunga.
Rabdanste: Rabdanste, the second capital of Sikkim after Yuksom, was established in the late 17th century by the second Chogyel of Sikkim. This capital was however abandoned at the end of the eighteenth century because of threat from Nepal. A visit to this site involves a two kilometer hike through thick deciduous forest. Nature has reclaimed the palace and only the walls of the palace and the chortens have withstood the passage of time. The scenic view from the top of the ruins of the deep valley ascending to the mystic heights of Khangchendzonga ranges is something to be cherished and etched in memory.
Kechopalri Lake: The Kechopalri Lake (Wishing Lake ) is situated at an altitude of 6400 feet above sea-level and is around 27 miles from Pelling. This lake is a freshwater lake which is crystal clear and is believed to have been blessed by Guru Rimpoche in the 8th Century. People visit this lake not only to admire its beauty but also to pray for a child in the case of childless couples. Kechopalri monastery is located a few minutes walk uphill. The Kanchenjunga falls is visible en route to Kechopalri.
Yoksum: Yoksum is at a distance of 33 kilometers from Pelling and is at an altitude of 5840 feet above sea-level. This was the first capital of Sikkim and the first king (Chogyel) was consecrated on a stone throne by three learned Lamas at Yoksum. The stone throne is still standing today. Yoksum is also the route to Dzongri the base camp for mountaineers.
Tashiding: Tashiding is 37 kilometers from Pelling. It is an important Buddhist site particularly for followers of the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Sikkim was blessed by Guru Rimpoche as a holy land with Tashiding as the epicenter and he is also believed to have blessed four caves in four directions. Tashiding Bhumchu is the most important religious festival attended by followers from as far as Bhutan, Nepal and Darjeeling. It is believed that if one attends this festival once in life, his/ her soul will attain Nirvana after death. This festival is held is February or March depending on the lunar calendar.
Varsey: To reach Varsey one has to trek four kilometers from Hillay (9000 ft) and Varsey (10000 ft). This trek takes approximately one hour. Varsey is nature’s paradise with rhododendrons of all shapes and sizes and different colors in full bloom especially in March/May. The presence of beautifully colored butterflies hovering over the flowers and birds flying and chirping makes Varsey a beautiful sight. From Varsey one can also view the Singelila mountain range. Versay also provides good scope for bird watchers.
Namchi: Namchi is the district Headquarters of South District and stands at an elevation of 5500 ft.and is at a distance of 78 kilometers from Gangtok. From Namchi a panoramic view of the mountains can be seen. One can also visit Samdupchi with the 145 feet copper statue of Guru Padmasambhava (Guru Rimpochi).
Tendong: To reach Tendong one has to travel by vehicle from Namchi 14 kilometers via the one and only Tea Estate in Sikkim – the Temi tea estate which produces one of the finest quality teas in India .From Damthang one has to trek for one and half hour through the thickly wooded Tendong Forest Sanctuary in order to reach Tendong (8660 ft ). Tendong is situated on a small plateau on the top of a mountain.”Perhaps no other place in Sikkim offers a better panoramic view of the mountain ranges in the state than Tendong – it is like sitting in the centre of huge amphitheatre”.
Rabongla: Rabongla is at a distance of 65 kilometers from Gangtok and is at an altitude of 6590 ft. It is a fast developing town commanding a good view of the surrounding mountains and valley. It is also the starting point for trek to Maenam (10162 ft) through the Maenam Wildlife Sanctuary involving a 3 hour trek.
Borang: Borang is a beautiful village facing snow capped mountains and is at a short motorable distance from Rabongla. The hot spring “Borang Tsachu” is very popular and people from Bhutan, Nepal and Darjeeling come to take a dip in the hot spring because of its curative power.