Mystics and wild orchids

by Tashi Tobgyal. Financial Express, December 9, 2007

Darjeeling, Sikkim (India) -- The monsoon had outlasted its term this year. Travelling in the hilly Darjeeling terrain was disorienting. Hill stations aren’t always beautiful, I thought. Especially when they are soaked with the monsoon, with the strong smell of fungus. Otherwise Darjeeling is surely a sight to behold. But the thin road meandering upwards into the never-ending fog seemed rather boring.

<< Pemayangtse monastery

Starting off from Darjeeling, we had begun to descend into the Teesta Valley. It would take more than an hour from here. Zigzagging steep bends, my journey was to enter Sikkim from the valley and then head on towards Rabdentse and Pemayangtse, the cradle of the Chogyal dynasty. Then I would head towards Pelling to witness the best views of the Kanchenunga, finally concluding the journey at the mystic Kechopalri lake.

The drive down to the Teesta Valley was through endless miles of tea gardens, through a golden harvest from the killing monsoon. Passing by Takdah, these were little stopovers en-route, and the weather cleared dramatically as we descended. Nearing noon, we took a break at the bazaar next to the Teesta River.

We proceeded on a straight run for a few miles after the break, through jungles of Rhododendrons and wild orchids. Demazong, as Sikkim is called, had started to enchant us all. Not much habitation was to be seen, except for an occasional little hamlet or villagers passing by.

In an hour we had ascended upwards again, over merciless broken roads to reach Pemayangtse, one of the most revered monasteries in Sikkim. Pemayangtse has always been an important seat of the Nyingmapa school of Buddhism. Founded in the early 18th century, the monastery holds an attendance of about a 100 monks. Traditional frescoes depicting Tantrik Buddhist methods adorn the walls of this monastery.

The depiction of Sangthopalri, or heaven sculpted intricately on wood, is an interesting facet of the Pemyangtse monastery. Traditional austere dwellings of the monks can be found within the vicinity. Every new year, by the Tibetan calendar, the Padmasambhava Thanka, which is the size of the building itself, is on display for visitors who come here to pray and seek blessings. The prayer flags are in plenty, echoing sounds in the wind, while a group of young novice monks play cricket close by.

Not afar is the Sangacholing Monastery, which is presumed to be the oldest Buddhist establishment in the state. Founded by Lhatsum Chempo in 1697, this is one of the largest monasteries in the state. The monastery is situated on a ridge here. Belonging to the Nyingmapa sect, the 17th-century clay statues preserved in the monastery are among the oldest in the entire state.

Close by are the Rabdentse ruins, the capital of the Chogyal kings. In the 17th century, three learned monks from Tibet arrived here and ordained a milkman, Phuntsok Namgyal, as the King of Sikkim, starting the Chogyal dynasty. Buddhism flourished since then and the dynasty lasted up to 1975. Even though not large, the structures are geometrically serene and are pitched against the stark landscape.

From here we went down-hill, further west to Pelling. It is a small town of a few hundred people. Shops and buildings line the hill that directly faces the breathtaking Himalayas. But the day isn’t too bright. Luckily, however, Kanchenjunga is in sight, partially hidden behind scanty clouds. Pelling has the grandest view of the mountain, panoramic, breathtaking and many visitors lodge here for the day or so, enjoying the quiet and calm of the surroundings.

It was late afternoon when we headed for Kecheopalri, the mystical lake supposed to be one of the 108 sacred lakes of the Himalayas. The road from here is rugged, with landslides at many turns. Revered by both Hindus and Buddhists for its magical power to heal, the Kecheopalri Lake is a mystery in itself. Surrounded by thick oak forests, the waters of the lake are jade green, with no signs of fish in them. All that resounds is the cacophony of the thousands of frogs that peep out of the water. A small shrine stands at the bank, with a priest lighting lamps in prayer. A few dwellers pass by the lake carrying firewood.

The mystery about Keocheopalri is that whenever leaves from the trees fall into the water, the thousands of birds that dwell here, fly down picking it away from the lake. There must be a tale behind it I thought, but all I came to know of it is how learned lamas and gurus came here to meditate. Just a mile’s climb uphill was a retreat that was out of bounds for laymen. And, close to the retreat was another lake that I was told of, the Rakthpokhri, or the lake of blood. Any human presence here would darken the weather and bring a storm.

As the day turned to night, the colours of the lake started to fade. And we got into our taxis for our journey back home. Hopefully I will get to see the shades of Sikkim once again soon.


  • Location and distance: from Darjeeling to Pemayangtse /Pelling — 120 km
  • Altitude 2,300 m
  • Pemayangtse to Keocheopalri: 24 km
  • Altitude: 2,000 m
  • Best Season: Mar-May and Oct-Dec
  • Temperature: Mild during the travel season
  • Distance of Pemayangtse from Gangtok: 140 km
  • Nearest airport: Bagdogra
  • Nearest train station: New Jalpaiguri
  • Lodging: Keocheopalri has a Trekkers Hut

Pelling close to Pemayangtse, Rabdentse and Sangacholing has a few local home-stays and lodges. There is a government-run circuit house 2 km below Pemayangtse