SACRED SIKKIM
AND
ITS INDIGENOUS TRIBES


14th to 28th April 2018

The former Himalayan kingdom of Sikkim is now India’s second smallest state and arguably its most beautiful. Bordered to the west by Nepal, to the north by Tibet and to the east by Bhutan, it’s landscape is dominated by Mt Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world.

Our itinerary will take us from the rhododendron covered slopes of Lachung, close to the  border with Tibet, to two of its most important Buddhist temples,( including of course Tashiding ). But the main emphasis of our time in Sikkim will be to spend time amongst its indigenous people, the Lepchas. We will stay in their villages and have the rare opportunity to meet and witness their Boongthings ( Shamans ) in action.

We will round off the journey with visits to the two famous Indian hill stations of Darjeeling and Kalimpong. Darjeeling, often referred to as the Queen Of The Hill Stations is of course world renowned for the tea that bears is name. The district of Kalimpong has a sizeable Lepcha community but is also a melting pot of many different cultures and religions. In the past it was the main trading station between India and Tibet. The mule and yak trains are of course no longer a part of the local scene, but Kalimpong’s bustling bazaar offers a chance for some final shopping and relaxing.


ITINERARY


Day 1 ( Sat 14th April ). We will take a morning flight from Delhi to Bagdogra where we will be met by Dawa Lepcha, our guide, and our drivers. Our three hour drive  from Bagdogra to Gangtok takes first through the urban chaos of Siliguri and then dense forests where, if we are lucky, we may see a family of wild elephants crossing the roads. We then begin driving along the lush valley of the River Teesta that carries the melting snows from the Himalayas. Finally a steep drive brings us to the hill top capital of Sikkim, Gangtok. Check in to the Denzong Residency Hotel.

Day 2 ( Sun 15th April ). Sightseeing in Gangtok.

Day 3 ( Monday 16th April ). Today we leave for Lachung. The road we will travel on is marvel of engineering, carved into the side of steep hills. We will pass several spectacular waterfalls and drive through the cardamon plantations that are the principal cash crop of the Lepcha people. We will also stop to visit Phodong Gompa, one of the six premier monasteries of Sikkim, Phodong Gompa is situated 38 kilometres from Gangtok. This monastery belongs to the Karma Kagyu sect and was built by Chogyal Gyurmed Namgyal in 1740. This monastery is well known for its annual Kagyed Dance, a harvest thanksgiving festival held at the onset of winter – sometime between November and January.After six hours we will come to the village of Lachung, ringed by snow capped mountains. Check in to the New Residency Hotel

Day 4 ( Tuesday 17th April ) Lachung is an idyllic mountain village set amidst apple orchards and lofty peaks on both sides, Lachung at an altitude of 2,500 meters above sea level permeates an ethereal alpine glow. Peopled by a hardy stock of Bhutia who pride in calling themselves Lachungpa, this is a unique settlement having its very own self-governing body called the zumsa where all local disputes are settled by consensus.

Near Lachung is Yumthang Valley, often called The Valley Of Flowers,  where we will go to in the morning. Set at an elevation of 3575 meters above sea level, the Yumthang Valley is Sikkim’s undisputed natural paradise that is easily accessible via road. (There are of course many more areas in Sikkim that surpass Yumthang’s scenic grandeur, but these remain off the beaten track.) In the spring and summer the attractive scenery of this area reaches its zenith when an immense variety of alpine flora cascade through the meadows, hills and the valleys. It is hoped our visit will correspond with the flowering of the rhododendrons that carpet the hillside.

In the afternoon we will walk through the village of Lachung and enjoy the hospitality of a Tibetan family where we can taste the traditional tibetan beer called Chang,  made from fermented millet.

Day 5 (Wednesday 18th April) Today we set off for Dzongu that lies midway between  Lachung and Gangtok.

Dzongu, the special Lepcha reserve, lies in the North District of Sikkim amidst steep inclines and deep valleys in the last range of earth covered hills ahead of the rocky Himalayan snow clad peaks. An almost virgin territory with a scanty population of Sikkim’s native inhabitants, it is a beautiful land of dense jungle groves and pristine glacial streams that nurture both the human and natural habitation around. Numerous waterfalls cascade down steep cliffs and bubbling hot springs can be found hidden beneath the shelter of caves. The area is remote and surrounded by formidable jagged peaks that reach out to the sky. Elevation ranges from 500m to 6000m and the extremes have nurtured an amazing diversity of plants and wildlife.

Homeland of the Lepcha, the original inhabitants of Sikkim, the territory was designated a special reserve for the Lepcha community since the 1960’s when Sikkim was still a kingdom ruled by Chogyal Palden Thondup Namgyal. It borders the Khangchendzonga National Park and Biosphere Reserve offering panoramic views of Mount Khangchendzonga (8,585m), the third highest summit in the world and the protective deity of Sikkim. Sparsely populated, the area’s steep hills pitching into deep ravines portray a picturesque setting of solitude and calm. Although agriculture is the mainstay of its natives, large tracts of the terrain is too steep to allow terrace cultivation of grain crops, so here the major produce is cardamom which can comfortably take root and flourish in sloped inclines.

This is the last bastion in Sikkim of Lepcha culture where one could possibly meet some of the last local shamans referred locally as the ‘boongthing’ who still practice the ancient animistic rituals. Sadly, this culture is coming close to an end with Buddhism taking over as the dominant religion.

We will stay in Dzongu for two nights in a home stay in one of the local villages.With little possibility for entrepreneurs to set up a hotel in the area due its status as a special reserve and restricted area, but since visitors are allowed entry with special permission, several home owners have decided to take in ‘home stay guests’.

A Dzongu home stay is a unique experience and a great way to understand local culture and make new friends. Visitors will live with the families and eat meals prepared by the family. Local villagers serve as guides and cultural programs of folk dancing and singing will be organized to highlight local cultures and traditions.

Our guide, Dawa, himself the heir within his family to the role of boongthing, will introduce us to a local boongthing and give us the chance to be witness to a special ceremony. We will have a chance also to learn about the plants used by the Lepchas for medicinal purposes.

Day 6 ( Thursday 19th April )  Exploring Dzongu

Day 7 ( Friday 20th April ) Today we will drive to Pastinga, near Gangtok, to visit another tribal community, so far untouched by tourism.

The Rais tribe are of Nepali origin and their Phetang (traditional healer) has a reputation for being very powerful. He will perform a ceremony for us. Here we can also interact with the members of the tribe who will be happy to organise traditional village dances for us. Accommodation will also be in comfortable home stay  rooms.

Day 8 ( Saturday 21st April ) Today we drive to Pelling, in West Sikkim. Our hotel there, the Mt Tandim, is five minutes walk from the famous Pemayangtse Monastery. The views of Mt Kanchenjunga from the hotel are breathtaking to say the least. Be warned, you might find it hard to tear yourself away from this mesmerising sight.

Day 9 ( Sunday 22nd April ) This morning we will take a gentle stroll from our hotel to Pemayangtse, the “Perfect Sublime Lotus”, founded in the seventeenth century by Lhatsun Chempo, one of the three lamas of Yoksum, and extended in 1705 by his reincarnation, is one of the most important gompas in Sikkim and belongs to the Nyingmapa sect. The views and the surrounding woods create an atmosphere of meditative solitude. The 3-storied building of the monastery houses a good collection of wall paintings and sculptures. On the 3rd floor of the monastery, there is a 7-tiered painted wooden model of the abode of Guru Rimpoche, complete with rainbows, angels and the whole panoply of Buddha and bodhisattva. In January-February every year, a religious dance called ‘Cham’ is performed in Pemayangtse.

In the afternoon we will drive to Kecheopalri Lake.This is considered one of the sacred lakes of Sikkim. The lake remains hidden in the rich forest cover. It is believed that birds do not permit even a single leaf to float on the lake surface. Ensure maintaining the sanctity of the place by being silent, and by not trying to feed the fish.

Day 10 ( Monday 23rd April ) Today we will visit Tashiding Monastery. Tashiding is the holiest and most sacred monastery in Sikkim.

The Tashiding monastery belongs to the Nyingmapa order and is highly revered among the people of Sikkim. Build on the top of the hill and looming over the Rathong and Rangit river, the monastery can be seen from far and wide. It is believed that even a slight glimpse of the monastery can cleanse mortals of all sins. The monastery was built during the 17th Century. There are a large number of oranges orchards and cardamoms plantations around Tashiding which can be visited from here.

Also Tashiding is famous for one of the most holy object that is an Ancient metal vase containing ancient holy water which is distributed once in a year to the large number of pilgrims and devotees, in a festival named Bhumchu festival accompanied with a three days long prayer ceremony. Besides there are beautiful paintings and sculptures inside the monasteries and equally mind blowing hand worked stone carved scriptures on the main walls lavishly available every where in the monastic compound. Villages inhabited by the religion loving families the place has different vibration indeed a sacred land, Tashiding.

Day 11 ( Tuesday 24th April ) Today we travel to Darjeeling, ‘The Queen of The Hill Stations’. The road will take us through some of the famous tea plantations producing some of the best teas in the world. Check in to the Mayfair hotel.

The busy bazaar area of Darjeeling is a ten minute walk from our hotel and our late afternoon arrival  will give the chance, finally, for some interesting shopping and to appreciate the rich variety of peoples including Sherpas, Tibetans and people from the Plains who have made Darjeeling their home

Day 12 ( Wednesday 25th April ) Darjeeling is set on the top of a wooded ridge commanding views both to the plains and to the high mountains including Kanchenjunga. This morning we will organise sightseeing to the Tibetan Refugee Centre and also to the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute. We also visit one of the famous tea plantations that were established in the middle of last century and learn about the process of turning the freshly plucked green leaf into the contents of your tea bag.

In the afternoon we will leave for Kalimpong and check into the historic Himalayan Hotel. Once the home of the Macdonald family, over the last seventy years it has welcomed as diverse guests as the first Everest expeditions, Bhutanese royalty and an assortment of european eccentrics who were drawn to the magic of Kalimpong.

Day 13 ( Thursday 26th April ) When my grandparents arrived in Kalimpong in 1889 it consisted only of a large stone Scottish church and a collection of wooden houses. Their presence there over the following decades transformed it into a celebrated centre of education, arts and crafts and horticulture. By the time my grandfather died in 1942 it was a household name in many countries around the world. He is still regarded as the father of Kalimpong

While here we will pay a visit to Dr Graham’s Homes, the institution he founded in 1900 to provide a home and education for the mainly illegitimate children of British tea planters. Weather permitting we will drive beyond the Homes to the top of Deolo Hill where on a clear day it is possible to see into four different countries while being in the fifth.

We will also visit Crookety House, once the home of my aunt and later owned by the great Russian mystic Helena Roerich, wife of the celebrated artist Nicholas Roerich. Nowadays it is a mecca for followers from all over the world of the Agni Yoga movement founded by Helena Roerich. In architectural style Crookety would not look out of place in an English village. It possesses a wonderful peaceful energy and is set in a delightful garden. There are also options to visit one of Kalimpong’s famous orchid nurseries and an impressive Tibetan buddhist Gompa.

Day 14 ( Friday 27th April ) Kalimpong district is also home to a large Lepcha community and today Dawa will take us to spend time amongst his people.

Our last afternoon is free for you to wander through the streets of Kalimpong, maybe to savour an authentic Tibetan meal at Gompu’s Restaurant, and certainly to shop in its bustling bazaar.

Day 15 ( Saturday 28th April ) We will drive once again down the Teesta Valley to Bagdogra to catch our early afternoon flight to Delhi.


COST

Costs:  €2195.

Includes: 14 nights full board on a shared room basis;  transport; local guide; tips; return flight Delhi to Bagdogra.

Single room supplement: €900

Not included: International Flights to Delhi; hotel accommodation in Delhi; Indian Visa.