India

Discovering Sikkim: Namchi to Yuksom

Back in Gangtok after the thrilling landscapes of North Sikkim, we made plans to explore the rest of the state.

Namchi (1675m)

Namchi is the capital of the southern district, much quieter than Gangtok with none of the traffic or commotion that plagues the state capital. Sherpas and other people of Nepalese ancestry make up a large proportion of the town’s population. There are two main sights in Namchi, the Char Dham cultural complex (otherwise known as Siddheswar Dham) and Samdruptse Monument.

Siddheswar Dham

This cultural complex is a huge pilgrimage destination for Indian tourists, consisting of a 33m-tall Shiva statue, models of sacred Char Dham Hindu temples (Jagannath, Badrinath, Dwaraka and Rameswaram) and a 17-foot-tall statue of Kirateshwar, a hunter incarnation of Shiva.

There is a huge Nandi bull facing the main Shiva temple, which is surrounded by replicas of the twelve jyotirlingas – the twelve most prominent Shiva temples located across India. Hindu pilgrims believe that visiting this place will wash away their sins.

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The Huge Shiva Statue at the Char Dham Complex

Samdruptse

At an altitude of 2134m, Samdruptse is a hill surmounted by a giant 45m-high statue of Guru Padmasambhava, the patron saint of Sikkim; the statue here is the tallest of its kind in the world. Underneath the statue lies a monastery, which has a beautiful and tranquil interior, as well as a photo exhibition of archival images showing Sikkim’s cultural, natural and artistic history.

Both the above places are situated a couple of kilometers outside Namchi; whilst we managed to get to the Char Dham on foot, we ended up hitching a ride to the top of Samdruptse. It’s a pretty steep hill that isn’t much fun to walk up!

Also in the area and worth visiting are Boomtar Gompa and Ngadak Gompa; Ngadak means ‘promise’ and it is believed that anyone coming here will make a promise to return.

Ravangla (2010m)

From Namchi we journeyed on to the small hill town of Ravangla, only 26km away and famed for its mesmerising views of the Kanchenjunga range. Stretched out along a ridge, Ravangla itself is easily walkable; many nearby places of interest, however, require some kind of transport to reach.

Tathagata Tsal (Buddha Park)

The biggest attraction and only a short walk from town is Tathagata Tsal, otherwise known as Buddha Park. This well-maintained park features a 41m-tall Buddha statue as its centerpiece, which holds Buddhist relics from 13 countries; it has since become a stop on the Himalayan Buddhist circuit.

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At Buddha Park

A couple of hundred meters away from the park entrance lies the Mane Choekhorling Gompa, which was constructed from stone and wood and hosts an annual festival in honour of Kanchenjunga.

Yungdrung Kundrakling Bon Monastery

Another worthwhile stop just outside of town is the Yungdrung Kundrakling Bon Monastery, one of only two monasteries in India that belong to the Bon sect; the other can be found in Solan in Himachal Pradesh. The Bon faith prevailed in Tibet prior to the advent of Buddhism, though nowadays it has been accepted as a part of Buddhism.

The interior of the monastery is decorated with paintings of Bon deities, including the Demonical Buddha. As well as the deities looking slightly different to those of Buddhism, in Bon monasteries the prayer wheels are turned anti-clockwise. The road on which the monastery lies offers amazing views of the hills around Ravangla.

The Ralang Gompas

Whilst we were in Ravangla we also visited New Ralang Gompa, Old Ralang Gompa and Dorling Monastery. 10km from town, Ralang Monastery belongs to the Kagyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism and is one of the biggest and most sacred monasteries in Sikkim.

It has an extensive collection of paintings and thankas and is famous for its Mahakala dance that takes place every year in November. The Old Ralang Monastery, which is still active, lies 2km away and was built in 1768.

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New Ralang Gompa

Dorling Monastery

The small Dorling Monastery is located on a gently sloping hill 6km from Ravangla; it dates to 1718 and follows the Nyingmapa (Red Hat) sect. Located off the main road amidst forest, there is a peaceful secluded air to the place, made all the more noticeable by the presence of a small lake nearby (Seven Mirror Lake) and the colourful prayer flags donning the whole area.

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In the Grounds of Dorling Monastery

It is also possible to visit Temi Tea Garden from Ravangla, the only such place in Sikkim. The tea grown here is known not only for the quantity produced but also for its quality and is a common souvenir bought by people visiting Sikkim.

Pelling (2085m)

Our journey took us to the hill station of Pelling in West Sikkim, which is famous for its jaw-dropping views of Mt Kanchenjunga. It is perennially popular with domestic visitors, as evidenced by the sheer number of hotels lining the two or three narrow roads that make up the town. Accommodation is pretty much wall-to-wall though restaurants are far fewer; it is assumed that most visitors will eat in their hotel.

We found Pelling itself rather underwhelming but enjoyed visiting Pemayangtse Gompa, Sanghak Choeling Gompa and the Rabdentse ruins, all of which are within walking distance of town.

Pemayangtse Gompa

Pemayangtse Gompa is one of the oldest monasteries in Sikkim and follows the Nyingma order of Tibetan Buddhism; it also controls all other monasteries of that order in the state.

Situated on a hilltop overlooking the Rabdentse ruins, this monastery houses a famous collection of Buddhist idols, scriptures and sculptures. There are also fierce-looking statues depicting all eight reincarnations of Padmasambhava, as well as a seven-tiered model representing the heavenly abode of Padmasambhava, Zangtok Palri.

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Pemayangtse Gompa

Rabdentse Ruins

After exploring the monastery, we wandered down to the nearby Rabdentse ruins. Rabdentse was the second capital of the former kingdom of Sikkim from 1670 to 1814; it was almost completely destroyed by the Nepalese army in the 18th Century and today only the palace ruins and chortens can still be seen.

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The Rabdentse Ruins

Sanghak Choeling Gompa

Sanghak Choeling Gompa is far smaller and more intimate than Pemayangtse; it’s a pleasant walk from town in the opposite direction. Located atop a high ridge, its location offers amazing views of the surrounding Sikkimese hills and countryside.

The monastery belongs to the Nyingma sect and entry into the inner sanctum is strictly reserved for the Bhutia and Lepcha communities. Even though you are thus unable to see inside, Sanghak Choeling is still worth admiring from outside, its architectural style Tibetan.

Sanghak Choeling Gompa

Yuksom (1780m)

Our final destination in Sikkim was loveable little Yuksom, the trailhead for many treks. It was definitely our favourite place in Sikkim and one that we will certainly return to in order to tackle the challenging multi-day trek to the Goecha La, a route that allows you to get up close and personal with the mighty Mt Kanchenjunga.

Located at the southern edge of Kanchenjunga National Park, Yuksom is known for its stunning landscape and snow-capped mountain vistas; it was the first capital of Sikkim. The word ‘Yuksom’ means meeting place of the three lamas; indeed, this is the place where three Tibetan monks met and enthroned the first king (chogyal) of Sikkim in 1641.

Whilst we were in town we visited Norbugang Park, which houses the coronation stone where the first king was consecrated. The park, a peaceful meditative place, also contains a small temple, a huge prayer wheel and a chorten.

We also visited Kathok Lake, Kathok Wodsallin Gompa and Dubdi Gompa, which is perched on a ridge a steep climb up from the village. Dubdi is the oldest monastery in Sikkim, established in 1701; it was the hermit cell of the highest of the three lamas who enthroned the first king.

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Kathok Lake
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Dubdi Gompa

Khecheopalri Lake

For us, the biggest highlight of Yuksom was hiking to peaceful Khecheopalri Lake, sacred to both Buddhists and Hindus. Local people believe that the shape of the lake resembles the footprint of the goddess Tara and consider the lake to be wish fulfilling. Another interesting fact is that despite being surrounded by so much greenery, not a single leaf can be spotted on the lake’s surface; it is believed that birds in the region keep its waters perpetually clean.

Beside the lake lie a small Buddhist shrine and stupa, both festooned in atmospheric prayer flags. A wooden boardwalk, lined with prayer wheels, also juts a short way out into the lake; visitors must remove shoes before walking on it.

It was an enjoyable hike to Khecheopalri, taking 4-5 hours, though we frequently had to ask locals to point us the way! Young children not more than five years old called out merrily to us, in perfect English, demonstrating their innate knowledge of the ancient footpaths of their native land. It was through beautiful green countryside that we went, through tiny hamlets hidden in the hills, past cascading waterfalls and scampering little puppies.

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Beside Khecheopalri Lake

Once we’d visited the lake shore, we also checked out the nearby monastery and climbed up to a viewpoint overlooking the lake, where we could see for ourselves its footprint shape.

That night we stayed at Lake View Nest, an eco-homestay that we would highly recommend. With large, beautifully decorated, very comfortable rooms and delicious home cooked food, this place is a real retreat, hidden away in a tiny village on top of a hill above the lake. If we’d had the time, we definitely would have stayed more than one night.

The following morning, we had a brief wander around the half dozen or so houses that make up the village and stopped by Khecheopalri Old Gompa, unused but quaintly atmospheric. Then it was time to head back to Yuksom… though this time we hitch hiked back along the road!

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Khecheopalri Lake from the Viewpoint

Tashiding

From Yuksom we took a shared jeep to the small village of Tashiding to squeeze in a visit to Tashiding Gompa; we were on a time limit as we had a flight from Siliguri to Delhi in a couple of days. Hiking from Yuksom to Tashiding is also possible, something we would have loved to have done. It would, however, have meant returning to Yuksom to collect our big backpacks, rather than moving straight on to Siliguri.

Tashiding Gompa

Tashiding monastery belongs to the Nyingma sect of Tibetan Buddhism and was founded in 1641 by one of the three Yuksom crowning lamas. The monastery’s beautiful architecture, combined with its stunning mountain backdrop, means that it is a popular destination for pilgrims and tourists alike.

Behind the monastery there are 41 chortens, known as ‘Chortens of Enlightenment’ that preserve relics of Sikkim chogyal and lamas. The most famous among these is Thongwa Rangdol, believed to cleanse mortals of all sins by a mere glance at it; its name means ‘saviours by mere sight’. Perhaps more visually exciting, however, is the golden Kench Chorgi Lorde Stupa; propped up all around are engraved stones bearing the Buddhist mantra om mani padme hum.

Tashiding monastery is also widely known for its Bhumchhu Festival, a sacred water ceremony in which holy water that has been stored for a year is opened by lamas. By studying the level and quality of the water within, important predictions are made concerning the fortune of Sikkim and its people for the coming year.

In Tashiding we stayed at Sanu Homestay, the best of only a few options.

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Tashiding Monastery

Many people who visit Sikkim only explore the state capital, Gangtok, and perhaps also North Sikkim. Whilst both these places are unmissable, especially the scenically gorgeous north, it would be a real shame to miss out on everything else that this green state has to offer.

Sikkim is totally unique, not just in its food, people, language and culture and not just because it was its own former kingdom. Sikkim is the only 100% organic state in India and the only state that feels properly clean; there is no rubbish anywhere in Sikkim. A visit here is a breath of fresh air.

We loved exploring the south and west districts of Sikkim, which are so far removed from the noise and traffic of Gangtok. Outside the state capital, we could fully appreciate the beauty and bounty of this state, its verdant green countryside, rolling hills and quaint traditional villages where life continues as it has done for generations.

Whilst you’re in the state, don’t miss out on Gangtok and North Sikkim!

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