In the Land of Padmasambhava

#1 Feb 22nd, 2016, 18:29
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#1
Chapter 1: The Nightmare
(3-4 January 2016)
The sleep has broken with a sense of unease. Is it the rhythmic trembling of the upper bank of the two tier compartment I am sleeping? No, something more. A phone is ringing somewhere.

Subhalakshmi's phone is ringing. Through the half asleep state I hear through the mumblings. Something is wrong.

What can happen at this early hour of morning? In a dry voice she responds - my mother has called. An earthquake just trembled our ancestral home. Everything is fine there. But she is worried about us. Subhalakshmi has assured her of our safety. But the sense of uncanny coincidence starts to seep through our nerves. Just back in April, in our trip to East Sikkim we experienced an earthquake at Lungthung, at 11000 feet altitude. We shall never forget that feeling, the feeling of loosing gravity, in our life. Now that we are going to Sikkim again and earthquake visits yet again. Not fair!

Quick search on Google and looking up the Facebook and WhatsApp messages reveal that the epicentre is near Imphal, close to Myanmar border. But we are not sure the situation in Siliguri or Sikkim. It is 5 am, - too early to call our contacts. Thus I try to go back to sleep. Padatik Express, which we have boarded last night from Sealdah station, is running late by an hour. So enough time before we reach our destination, as the GPS driven Google Map yields. But sleep does not come that easily in such situations.

Unlike all our last trips,we do not have a solid itinerary this time. We just have booked the first home stay at Selep, few KM out of Ravangla crowd. We have few contacts and bird names to follow afterwards.

The train delay elongates. About 8 AM we call Sanjip Newang, the homestay owner. He assures us that no damage on Sikkim side. The tremor is felt rather mildly there. Some good news, at least.

By the time we reach NJP station the clock has touched the mark of 11:30 AM, a solid 2.5 hour delay, very costly loss in hill vacation. A Bolero is sent to pick us up by Sanjip. The owner of the vehicle, Jigme Bhutia, an elegant and calm looking lad, is driving it himself. We take Siliguri bypass, hit the Sevoke Road, and continue on NH 10 for our 5 hour stretch to Ravangla.

In our wishlist, we had Kewzing, a small Bhutia village, just 8 km off Ravangla. We visited it on our way to Borong from Kaluk few years back. The homestay owners promised us a great bird watching experience around. Unfortunately we lost the the numbers and contacts over time. I have researched on internet without much result. Thus we wanted to visit the place on our way to Ravangla to make the booking. Unfortunately the Melli to Jorthang road is under serious repair. We shall be taking a different road which does not pass through Kewzing.

We take lunch stop at Melli. A plate of Momo with tasteless soup comes. We order another plate of chicken curry and rice. The mildly spiced chicken pieces with fatty skins are fine.

The bridge over Teesta is crossed. At the Sikkim border checkpost the identity is shown. Instead of taking left to Jorthang, the SUV takes the road on the right. Jigme explains – the road will take us to Namchi directly. And then usual Namchi-Ravangla Road will be followed.



The road we have taken is narrow and steep at times. After few hair pin bends, a couple of ladies wave their hands from the road side. The car stops and Jigme engages into a conversation with them in Nepali. "They are asking for a lift", Jigme translates, "Will you please allow?" We agree. The ladies board the front seat. The young one shyly thanks us.

As he starts the car, Jigme explains, "Transportation is still a big problem in Sikkim especially in villages. Usually one or two service jeeps leave the village in the morning and come back towards afternoon. Anything in between, you need to depend on a lift".

The old woman is toothless and has a very interesting ornament at her nose. When they reach their destination near a nameless bend, we ask the old lady if we can take a photo. She agrees. She is stiff at first couple of exposure. When I ask her to smile, she jokingly retorts in Nepali that she won't as she does not have teeth. But she breaks into smiles with a lovely innocent expression.

The usual chat continues. We learn more about Jigme. He lives few KM off Ravangla in a village called Sangmo. The name rings a bell in my mind. Is not it where we have one of the four holy caves used by Guru Padmasambhava for his meditation? Jigme confirms affirmative. We make a mental note of visiting the cave.

This area of Sikkim enjoys great religious significance. Guru Padmasambhava or Rinpoche, as he is known in Sikkim, was an 8th century Buddhist master, who is believed to have founded and spread the tantric Buddhism. He is also treated as the founder of Nyingma sect, the oldest of the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism.

Legends of Guru Rinpoche are widely spread across this land. It is believed he meditated at four caves around the Tashiding monastery. As part of his Sadhna he fought demons in these caves. Sharchog Bayphug, the cave in Sangmo village is the Eastern one.

There are few hot springs around this place. One of them is near Reshi town, at the bank of Rangit river and situated almost at the mouth of Khadro Sangphug, the southern cave. Three years back we passed through it. Our friend Manoj Sarki explained, Buddhist devotees come there and stay for days to pray and bath at the springs for physical, mental, and spiritual cleansing. Borong, close to Ravangla has another cluster of such springs. Jigme's parents are there now. He is unmarried and lives with his sister and brother, both of them work for government.



Lively chat makes the road shorter. At around 3 PM we reach a village called Sadam. Jigme stops the car near a bend and points to a cut that goes above the road. "A new viewpoint is being built here. You can see hills of Darjeeling and Gangtok. Do you want to check it out?" The place is called "Tarey Bhir". "Bhir" means cliff. A cliff to see "Tarey", i.e. " stars"? Worth checking.

So we walk up. A man and a woman were sitting at the entrance and ask for an entry fee. The money was not much but we are not sure how much walk it would be. We reluctantly buy our tickets and walk further up. Keeping a beer drinking couple in the right we soon reach a ridge. A walk way is built along the ridge that provides a good view on both sides. We do not proceed further. We have very little time as more than 2 hours drive is left.

Car moves along. Another lift to a girl riding the pillion of her boyfriend's motorbike with a punctured tyre. She takes a drop at Namchi. No 'thank you' is exchanged this time. The effect of urbanization?

Another 14 Km and we reach Damthang. We take a short break to find out something important. We have read about Tendong Hill, which believed to be a dead volcano, the only one in Sikkim. It overlooks the Maenam Hill near Ravangla, and hosts a Buddhist monastery at the top. The 3 km trek to this hilltop starts from Damthang bajar. The birding prospect should be good. But we are bit disappointed to find that a staircase has been built loosing it's wild look. Thus we decide to push back in our list of priorities.



The road from Damthang to Ravangla is picturesque and passes through a forest. A part of the road is built by cutting the rocky wall of the hill. It has an interesting name, "Putali Bhir". Another "Bhir"? A cliff to watch "Putali", butterfly? We do not spot any. But looking below the cliff suddenly proves the propriety of the name. We start to feel the butterflies in the stomach.

A sunrise view point is built near Ravangla. The Kanchenjunga range on the right is all aglow in red at the looming sunset.

Cold and dark evening set in when we reach Ravangla. We take left turn at Ravangla bajar and drive towards Kewzing, which is another 8 Km down the road. Near Sikkim NIT campus we take a right cut downhills. A three km drive and we reach Selep village. Another short rocky cut down, and we reach the terrace of Selep Village Homestay.

Apart from few feeble CFL lamps in the courtyard the place is dark. We call, nobody responds. Jigme disappears into other corner of the terrace leaving us alone. Are we at the right place! An earthquake at dawn, an empty homestay at dusk. Not the best day in our lives :-(
#2 Feb 22nd, 2016, 18:36
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#2
Chapter 2: The 'Mistrake'
(4-5 January 2016)

Faint sign of conversation starts to seep in from the corner where Jigme has disappeared. So, all is not lost. We take this opportunity to look around.



A two storied house, very traditional in look, is sitting at the middle of the courtyard. A cottage with green stone wall is close to the slope the leads to the road above. Another modern double storied building, possibly the place of the owners, is sitting on the other side of the courtyard. The ground is covered with green grass. Few polyhouses are visible around the courtyard at various levels of the terraced slope. It certainly looks like a household of a well-to-do rural family.

(The photo was taken on next day when the light was better)



The feeble voices become stronger. Soon a smiling man arrives greeting us profusely. The voice is already familiar to me - I have spoken to him multiple times over phone. Sanjip Newang, the owner of the homestay. He apologises for not receiving us earlier. He has to go to Gangtok to take care of a personal affair. His parents have been with him and his wife and kids are at his in-laws’ place in Nepal. Thus there has been nobody to receive us when we have arrived. He quickly shows us to a room in the cottage. Very clean sheets and toilet. We are impressed. Sanjip goes back to the kitchen to arrange tea for us.

(The photo of Sanjip was shot on a later day)




Nothing can be more refreshing than a quick and hot shower . We are tired, but dinner also comes quick. We move into the kitchen, decently big. Sanjip’s father, Mr. Rai, who is a teacher at Selep school, greets us at the table.


Mrs. Rai, who was on other side of the kitchen soon starts serving dinner at table with the help of a servant. Rice, chicken curry, dal, and, most interestingly, a squash root sabji are laid at the table. Accompaniment is tree tomato pickle. All delicious and we praise quite truthfully. Our liking makes them visibly happy. Sanjip explains - "We try to give the taste of local food to our guests. But we give it little bit at a time – not to give them cultural shock. Today saving the squash root and pickle, everything is rather mainstream Bengali food. Since you like it we shall bring in more traditional Rai food tomorrow." When asked, we confirm that we are non-vegetarian and not averse to pork or beef either. Sanjip assures he will try to get free range chicken and pork over next few days. Very luring idea for foodies like us.


Next topic of discussion is tomorrow's plan. We express our wish to trek at Maenam Wildlife Sanctuary. Sanjip will gladly arrange it. He will drop us at the Maenam gate in the morning and arrange a guide. We decide to start at 6:30 am next morning.


(The photo of Mr. and Mrs. Rai was shot on a later day)




The sky is clear in the morning. And a snow capped peaks are visible behind the hills from the courtyard. We quickly climb up the stairs of our hosts house and from the roof watched it for some time.


In the meanwhile Sanjip and the guide become ready. We get introduced to the guide, Gyan Bahadur Rai. His Hindi is flawed with not very rich vocabulary. But he has a lovely smile. Over next couple of days 'Gyanubhai' will become our constant companion.


I show him the pictures of Satyr Tragopan, and Fire-tailed Myzornis to Gyanubhai. He can identify both. Interestingly, he identify the pheasant as "Munal". Himalayan Monal though a pheasant, is a different bird. He has seen 'Munal' at the top of Menam hill. And the fire-tailed Myzornis inhabits at nearby jungle.


We drive to Ravangla bajar, take left, reach near Tathagata Tsal or Buddha Park. The Maenam gate is just beside the park. Tickets are purchased. The forest staff warns us not to leave the walking trail as few Himalayan Black Bears are seen near the trails recently.



We start the trek. About a KM of the path follows a water pipeline with a gentle inclination. Gyanubhai explains that this line is coming from Barmili falls near Borong, and goes to Namchi. Gyanubhai stops and cuts a walking stick for Subhalakshmi from a shrub. He offers one for me. I decline it out of vanity, a wrong decision that I shall identify over next couple of hours.



We hear some sound from a bush above the narrow path. "May be a deer", Gyanubhai says. I try to move along the path. Gyanubhai stops me and directs towards the bush - "this is the path". "Are you sure?", I ask. "Yes. The forest department built the trekking path we were following so far. But since it takes longer to reach the peak using that path, villagers have stopped using it for long. Now the original path is closed and only the shortcut above is used."



We follow him on the short cut. My spirit dampens. The path is narrow and steep, part of it has more than 50 degree elevation. And it is passing through dense wood with three layer canopy - moss at the bottom, shrubs in the middle and large tree at the top. While birds will be there for certain, chances of spotting will be little, and clicking something decent will be almost impossible due to light and foliage.

But we do not have a choice other than proceeding along the trail, or whatever exists. The climb is gruelling. And with my additional 3 kg camera, it becomes really tricky. A stick would have been great to keep the balance and to push the vegetation out of the way. But now I am ashamed to ask for it.

After about 15 min climb we reach a ridge and take some rest. Some exchanges with Gyanubhai does not give us much relief. We have crossed just about a KM and half. And it is at least 10 KM climb to the top. So we push along.

The relief of ridge is short lived. Soon another climb begins. This time steeper and longer. At a small clearance we take some rest. And no bird activity so far. I play some local bird calls including that of "Munal" from my mobile. No response comes back.



Another climb takes us to a short meadow. The grass is all dry. A short rest area with concrete bench and shade can be seen. We take rest again. When asked about bear, Gyanubhai asserts that he has never seen any bear in this path so far. And some of his treks have been through darkness, in evening or at early hours of morning. So nothing to worry about. A greater worry, as per his version, is local drunks. Some of them apparently tried to take down the tin shade by chopping off the wooden pillars. Disgusting!

The climb after this meadow is slightly easier for about 200 meter. A slightly bigger clearance appears. All of a sudden the life becomes tad brighter: the trees around are full of birds. That does not mean that prospect of photography is any better though. The light is still very low. And the birds are mostly small, possibly warbler variants.

Nevertheless we decide to wait here sometime. We start to look by keeping the sun behind our back. From our back a luring rhythmic sound of hitting the tree comes - must be a woodpecker. No time to verify the type as we see some bird movements on the sunlit trees.



A bird about the size of a myna, is hopping around. I start shooting it in burst mode. Chances of getting anything decent is minimal. Still exposures thrown. After a while it moved into First look at the frames gives me an hint that it can be a Red tailed Minla. Later at the homestay, we find it to be Black Headed Shrike Babbler. Not a vulnerable bird. But in Indian subcontinent it spreads rather thinly. So certainly a good shot. Moreover this is one of the birds that is still baffling the ornithologists. In a recent year (2007), It is proposed to be moved into Vireonidae family, which has been thought to be restricted to Western Hemisphere, from the babbler family (Musicapidae Timaliinae). Salim Ali and Ripley did not consider it in their monumental works on Indian birds.




Now time to focus on the woodpecker. We follow the sound and spot it easily. It is high up an oak tree, busy pecking around a lichen infested part of the branch. Our patience soon yields result. It gradually comes down. Well within shooting range. We send another volley of exposures. Aha! A Darjeeling Woodpecker. Lifer for us. But why is it called 'Darjeeling' Woodpecker? Consulting the Satish Pande book reveals that it was first identified by Edward Blyth in 1845 at Darjeeling.


Cloud starts to shroud the sky gradually. Already scarce light becomes rarer. Few feet above, a mongoose like creature moves into a bush before I could focus anything. We start climbing again and continued for another KM or so. The oak and rhododendron forest is quite dense now. We realise, with our pace, it will take another 4-5 hours to reach the top near the monastery. We quit and start to descend.


Climbing downhill is not as easy as it seems. The muscle strength is being tested at every step down. Keeping the balance is trickier. Throwing away my vanity, I ask for a walking stick from Gyanubhai. He obliges.



We climb down to the meadow with rest shade. The cloud moves elsewhere and sun again shines. We shall be taking breakfast here. Gyanubhai opens his backpack and retrieves two plastic bags of roasted corn and pieced ginger. Local produce, healthy and delicious.



While we are munching on these, he disappears into jungle and comes back with chopped pieces of dry wood. Using bit of oil he soon makes a fine fire with the wood.




Then come a saucepan and couple of airtight tiffin boxes. One of them produces 'shel roti', a twisted fat thread of rice flour, milk and little bit of sugar, fried in oil. Something like a crossbreed of our Bengali 'jilipi' and 'teler pithe' - but far less sweet. He applies ghee on it and using a stick do a little bit of roasting at the fire. The second box delivers squash root sabji from last night. Using the saucepan it is warmed and served in plates. We have few pieces of cheese to make it more interesting. What ensues is a grand breakfast amidst wild forest.


Rest of the story is about climbing down the same trail. The bends, woods and contours look completely different while coming down, as if we are following a different path. Without a guide coming here would have been a disaster.




By 12:30 PM we come back to the gate of the sanctuary. Sanjip was waiting for us with his car. The trek was no way successful. We have not seen a single pheasant. None of our wishlist birds have made any appearance. Neither could we reach to the top. Yet, why are we not unsatisfied? The solemn Buddha at Tathagatha Tsal only looks on. Perhaps he is leaving it to us to find the answer of this beautiful mystery.
#3 Feb 22nd, 2016, 18:44
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#3
Chapter 3: The Seven Mirrors
(5 January 2016)

We have few more hours to kill before lunch. We start off towards the Tibetan Settlement Camp, on the Ravangla Damthang Road.

The camp, which is officially called Kunpheling Tibetan Settlement was established in the year 1978 with the assistance of Indian Government by State Government of Tibetan Organization. It was originally built to accommodate about a thousand people. As on today the website of Department of Home, Central Tibetan Organization documents it as 1089, so the growth is almost stagnant. It was originally established as an Agriculture based camp. But quite interestingly a carpet weaving centre has been developed, which is apparently producing high quality floor covering woolen carpet.



We reach there at a wrong time. The centre is closed between 12:30 PM and 2:00 PM for lunch. But Sanjip is not a man to be said 'no'. He finds a lady who opens the showroom and factory for us.



The look of the carpets is very luring. Price is alright. But we are travelling light. We decide not to add further.



A guest party with 10 members are coming today to Sanjip's place. He has to pick up some grocery from Ravangla bajar. Then we go back to Selep, where another round of delicious lunch is waiting for us. By now birding bug has bitten Sanjip. He stops his car near the entrance slope of his house. A small bird is emitting a mechanical 'kit kit' sound and raising his tail in angular motion. A male blue-fronted redstart, an winter visitor.

The lunch table is adorned with the home made ghee, salad, chicken cooked in Rai style, cabbage, and dal. But the most attractive dish is 'makima'. 'Makima' is flower of an local orchid. It blooms around October for a month. It is dried and preserved for rest of the year. The flower is a delicacy in Sikkim, and as a result, rather costly. In Gangtok market, it may attract the price of Rs. 400-500 a kg.




In the afternoon, Sanjip drives us around the village. The car takes the direction to Ravangla, but takes a diversion on the right to Bakhim. We cross Barfung village, pass beautiful prayer wheels run by paddles using mountain streams. Keeping a playground on left we enter into woods. Through the trees, a monastery on top of a small hillock becomes visible. Doling monastery.



Doling monastery is one of the oldest gumphas in Sikkim. In late 8th century Guru Padmasambhava came to Sikkim in search of 'hidden' land, which would act as a refuge for his followers during the 'degenerate' age in future. As predicted by him, in the year 1718 AD, Mongol Dzungar tribe invaded Tibet. The Dzungars start to prosecute Buddhist followers. Many of the terrorised Buddhist saints crossed the border and entered southern hidden land of Sikkim. As part of this exodus, Lama Dorjelingpa and his son Rigdzin Longyang, followers of Nyingma school, also left Tibet, entered Sikkim and established this Gumpha. The Gumpha is still managed by the descendants of Dorjelingpa.

The legend is, establishment of this monastery led to a showdown between Lama Dorjelingpa and Deity of the mighty peak Kangchen Dzonga (Kanchenjunga). The deity felt he was neglected. However, the clash was amicably settled and the the footstep of the deity is still inscribed in the Gumpha.



We find the Gumpha closed. Haze covers the Kanchenjunga range. The surrounding chortens and prayer flags are being brushed by the light breeze from the oak and Katus trees. The evening is settling in. A flock of grey treepies are making noise on a distant tree. A faint gurgling sound of a mountain stream nearby is playing with the hush of breeze. As if the revered Lamas and the Deities are still conferring on how to settle the clash between Dorjelingpa and Kangchen Dzonga. We kept our silence not to disturb them with our mortal presence.



Near the monastery, a small lake spreads. The Seven Mirror lake. About sixty-seventy years back, the lake was in its youth and used to have water throughout the year. But gradually it started drying up and the presence of water became seasonal. In 2008, Ravangla Block Administration Center through National Rural Employment Guarantee Act funding started working on reviving a mountain stream to the lake, making it alive once again. In this winter, the prayer flags reflects at the green water of the lake. What a great success story of living in close harmony with nature.



We drive back towards Selep. Our limited birding success in the morning has made Sanjip more saddened than us. And he keeps on stopping the car for the search of bird. To be honest the woods and bushes are perfect for many birds' habitat. It is surprising why they are conspicuously absent today. Kalij Pheasant usually are seen during this time around this place, Sanjip mentions. He takes a dirt road and enters into a deeply wooded area. "We do spot deers here sometime". We stop near a stream. Sanjip takes our photograph.



The car crosses a small culvert over the stream, and then what seems to be ruin of an old wall. What lies ahead of us is a beautiful football ground. On one side of it a slope down to woods. On the other side a terraced paddy field, as if the stepped gallery of a stadium.



A small tinned shade is visible. Few men are making a fire and drinking brandy around it. Sanjip introduces us to this place: "It was a paddy field earlier. Recently, youths of the village converted it into a football field cum fair ground. Just few weeks back a Buddhist festival is celebrated here along with a tournament. Now we are planning to arrange an archery competition here. The shade is a small canteen run by my friends. Some of them are chatting there. Let's stop here and have some tea". At that twilight, we silently enjoy the ginger flavoured sweet tea, while looking at the distant hills. Sanjip's friends refuse to take payment for the tea.



Our generous host drives us to another part of the village. Unlike many other religions, Buddhism gives same rights and status to monks and nuns. Nunneries, though less in number, are not rare. A nunnery is coming up here. It looks empty now. But Sanjip knocks a door and few kid nuns start to appear followed by a young nun. We greet her and exchange namaskaars. The lady informs that all other nuns have gone to Kewzing to attend a ceremony. She is looking after the kids. There are 45 nuns in this establishment including six kids. The nun herself and kids hail from Arunachal Pradesh. She is very cordial and offers us tea. We thank her but decline. She invites us to come back tomorrow, when other nuns are there. We can chat with them and have tea.


The darkness has already covered the surroundings. The dhupi (pine) branches are lit into small chortens. Sweet smell spreads around the nunnery courtyard and surroundings. As we walk down the slope to the parked car, I cannot help wondering what quest can bring this young lady and this adorable kids all the way from the warmth of home in Arunachal to this spartan nunnery in Sikkim to take this path of renunciation. But I guess, for materialistic city dwellers like us, that would remain unanswered.
#4 Feb 22nd, 2016, 19:34
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#4
Wonderful! What a great writeup, of a place so surrounded by myths. And I love the young supermonk in the last photo up there.
#5 Feb 22nd, 2016, 21:25
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#5
Chapter 4: The Return of Dead
(5-7 January 2016)

As the darkness sets in the evening, Sanjip invites us for a traditional drink. We are ushered into the ground floor of that old house at the centre of the courtyard. At the corner three small couches made of bamboo and can with deer skin cover are placed around an earthen oven. The oven is lit with fire woods. A large bowl of water is being warmed on it. A small table is kept in front of the oven. Two metallic cylindrical containers are placed on it. The containers are covered with lids having two wooden straws passing through a whole on them respectively. These aware the traditional utensils to drink millet beer or womach or washim as called in Rai language.



Once we comfortably settle, Sanjip offers us these drinks. He is a teetotaller. We pick up one and taste it. It is a warm drink with sweet smell and lovely taste. The container is filled with fermented millet soaked with warm water. Once the water is finished, it can be refilled and after five minutes it can be drunk again. The whole process can be repeated for about five times without compromising the taste. He hands over small bowls filled with accompaniment of the drink. It is made of rice and chicken keema with traces of chicken bone. Mildly spiced and cooked in oil. Nice. It is called wachipa, a traditional dish, which is exclusively cooked by Rai community only.



"This house is 117 years old, to be precise", Sanjip gives us a bit of background. "This is a typical Rai house. The floors are low ceilinged. The upper floor is accessible through the wooden ladder at the centre of the ground floor. A veranda surrounds the per floor. We are sitting at the most important corner of the house." He points to something which looks like a smaller oven made of three stones over the earthen oven that is lit, "this is called Sharnkhalung, the most sacred object of the home. We lit fire here every day in the morning and evening. Only members of our house are allowed to touch it. Once daughters are married, they are not allowed anymore as they belong to a different family then. If a birth or death happens in the family, a puja is performed here."

He continues, "Rai community follow Hindu religion. After death we bury the dead body usually somewhere in our own land. The priest or bijuwa performs the last rites of the dead. On the third day after the death, the spirit of the dead person appears at bijuwa's body. Bijuwa speaks in the same voice of the dead. Usually, the spirit takes this opportunity to inform his or her relatives of whatever he or she could not communicate before death. Sometimes some family secrets or information hidden wealthy are passed to the heirs." We skeptically ask if Sanjip experienced similar incidents. He confirms that without any hesitation. We finish our drink and food and sit at the dimly lit room with darkness around. Mrs. Rai calls us for dinner.

Dinner is simple but delicious again. Today's main course is free range chicken. Senior Rai says he will try to arrange pork tomorrow. As for morning's plan, we decide to trek at Tendong hill. Sanjip would take us there. Gyanubhai would be the guide again.

But perhaps the guardian spirits have other plans. Around midnight, my stomach gave up. During trek in the morning I tasted some of the local fruits without washing them. despite many pleas by Subhalakshmi, I did not wash my hand well before breakfast. Maybe such disobedience cannot be tolerated by the family oriented spirits. Thus this punishment ensues.

The attached picture shows the millet beer container. The Sharnkhalung is glowing on the middle left part of the frame.



A look at the early morning sky is not very promising. The clouds have arrived. I call Sanjip to cancel the morning plan. We decide to stay put in the village. We walk towards Barfung but take a dirt road downhill to Anethang. On the left slope above some birds start to show some activity. A yellow naped woodpecker flies above us. The ubiquitous grey treepies make usual chaos above. A red billed leothrix appears at the leafless tee above. Some more walk helps me to regain some of my appetite back. We come back.

Mrs. Rai, with her motherly nature, has become concerned about my health. She arranges boiled potato, butter and boiled rice for our breakfast. She thinks it is her cooking which has made me sick. We repeatedly assure her that with this cleanliness and homely cooked meal, she is no way responsible for it.



After breakfast, Sanjip drives us to Sangmo village, where one of the four holy caves located. Gyanubhai joins us. We take the road to Singtam from Ravangla bajar, continue for about 5 km and take a downhill diversion on left. Sanjip parks the car near a narrow concrete walking path. We along with Gyanubhai start walking down the prayer flag adorned path. The path goes downhill for about 300 meter before reaching the mouth of the cave.

Last year, during our East Sikkim trip, seeing my interest in Buddhist religion, my young friend Sanjeev Tamang gifted me a small but very valuable booklet: "Pilgrimage to the Four Great Sacred Caves of Sikkim" by S. G. Dokhampa. This booklet provides a comprehensive introduction to these caves along with complete instruction on how to visit these holy caves. That was my first formal introduction to Sarchog Bayphug, or the Eastern Cave.



The cave has a decently big mouth. Entering that takes the visitor few feet down to a moderately sized chamber. After that another climb takes you to an iron ladder to a very narrow opening. We cannot move beyond that as we do not bring any torch, which will be necessary to move further. Gyanubhai tells us there is a bigger chamber inside. The booklet indicated that chamber, which is of 15' x 20' size, is called Khandoi Tshog-Khang, or assembly hall of Dakinis. Many believes that the cave has later bifurcated to Maenam Hill on one side, and Tendong Hill on other side.

Another legend, which is told to me by Mr. Rai is this cave is connected to Southern Cave near Reshi. The booklet confirms that legend. It is told, in early 19th century, Yogini Naljoma Asha Lhamo traveled between these caves through this connection using her spiritual power. When she returned, she was carrying fresh bamboo leaves and holy water in her bell. She informed the devotees that in the course of this journey she discovered a Milky Lake with bamboo trees grown around.



A monastery has been built near the cave. We visit that before taking the steps upward. Gyanubhai, did his schooling in this village, meets a friend. The friend walks us up to the place where the car is parked.



We decide to meet Jigme, who picked us up from NJP, at his house, which is in this village. He is waiting for us and takes us to their house.



Like the Newang house, it also seems to be well to do household. Cardamom plantation being sprinkled with irrigation water, piggery, a small orchard. The house is wooden and, as Jigme confirms, about 80 years old. He takes us to their large prayer room. Considering the size of the house, the prayer room is substantially big. We offer brief prayer, come out and stand at their hanging veranda. Couple of couches covered with animal skin with black fur stand there. When asked Jigme replies that this is from a Himalayan Black Bear, that his father killed with a gun years back when hunting was allowed. He offers tea. But we decline as lunch time is approaching.



Near Sanjip's house we stop to track some birds. A Bolero stops near us and the man from the driving seat starts chatting with me in perfect English. He is Sanjip's cousin brother. He is a teacher and lives in Namchi. I am pleasantly surprised when he asks me if I have spotted the Fire-Tailed Myzornis yet. Despite Sanjip's excellent hospitality, his birding knowledge is at its infancy. Gyanubhai, though knowledgeable about nature, is not a skilled birder. So such a question definitely makes me happy. When I answered negative, he informs me that these beautiful free birds come to drink raisin from Katus (chestnut) tree that grow around. Unfortunately they are not around this time. He gives some instruction to Sanjip in Nepali, bids me goodbye and drives off.

We get down near the slope of the house and start walking down as Sanjip drives the car down to courtyard. "Hello sir", a nasal voice hits us from somewhere above. We find the source of the voice in the form of a dark silhouetted figure hanging from a tree branch. For a moment we think it must be a ghost. Then in clear Hindi the figure asks, " are you interested in village tour? I can show you around." I ask, "who are you?". Now the response comes in English, "I am Lambu". When I tell him that we need to talk to Sanjip, he instructs me to take his name to Sanjip.

We discuss this with Sanjip, and he starts laughing. Lambu is his employee. About ten years back he has apparated at this village and starts inhabiting at Sanjip's farm. Sanjip's effort to find his home and background failed as he refused to give the right information. Sanjip and his family has accepted his presence. He is hardworking and sincere at his work. But he has a great weakness to alcohol. Despite several admonishment and punishment, Sanjip could not cure his addiction. Few month's back, when he was sober, Sanjip asked him to show a guest party around the village. Some tips followed and that led to his liquid love. Lambu's brilliant brain sparked the idea of a new enterprise, offering his great guide service to homestay guests. Unfortunately because of non-cooperation from his employer, his service business is yet to take off.

The picture shows the cottage we have stayed in the homestay.



I am careful with lunch and eat morsels of rice, dal, rai shak ( a local leafy vegetable, not sure if the name has any relationship with the name of the community), and light free range chicken curry. Already feeling better.

Guanubhai arrives soon and we start a tour around the village. We pass through the piggery of Newang household, follow a trail down to a narrow stream, cross a bridge and arrive near the village. Gyanubhai introduces us to many trees and plants including three varieties of "chaap" tree. We see nakima orchid plant. We visit Sanjp's cousin's farm, which keeps the best orchid house in the village. A lemon tree stands bowed with its huge mass of fruits, which looks like orange. Another larger citrus tree at the courtyard is also full of fruits, which is locally called 'foksey'. The farm also keeps Turkey poultry and rabbits.

We walk up and reach near a bamboo grove. Gyanubhai asks us to wait few minutes as during evening sometimes Kalij Pheasants visit here. However, today none of them around. Another turn uphill takes us to the carpeted road of the village. We walk towards the homestay.



The dinner is quite special tonight. Because of my weak stomach, Mrs. Rai has arranged fekrey, which is made of tender part of a local cane. It tastes mildly bitter, but supposed to be good for digestion. Rice and dal has accompanied a delicious pork dish. My appetite shoots up immediately.

I call up our contact in Yuksom and book ourselves at Limboo Homestay, which TripAdvisor recommends very highly. Sanjip knows this gentleman and confirms that it will be a really nice place to stay.



Morning is bit uneventful. Mr. and Mrs. Rai show us their farm. Separate green houses are built for vegetables and orchids. Few tree tomato plants are standing here and there along with other vegetation. Some part of the terraced open field is used for cardamom cultivation. The piggeries, cowsheds and poultry are placed at distance from the house to keep away the smells. The Newang family also owns some more land near Borong for cardamom plantation.



After breakfast it is time for farewell. We are gifted with 'khada' the scarf to make our journey safe. Mrs. Rai gifts Subhalakshmi a large bag full of lemon, tree tomato, and a small bottle of ghee - all from their garden and farm. This elderly couple have already touched our heart with their affection and warmth. These gifts make the parting difficult.




Sanjip requests me to write my comments in a guest book. While I am struggling with words to express our superb experience here, a shadow of a head appeares on the book. Lambu has silently arrived and is looking at my comments. After I finish up, I ask him if it's alright. He gives me a satisfactory nod with the air of an wise man. He is reeking of strong alcohol. Gyanubhai informs us he has stolen some of drink being brewed at neighbourhood house and made himself comfortable and wise in the morning.


Time to take few group photographs. Gyanubhai obliges. Lambu requests us for a portrait shot. Once I agree, he asks me to wait and disappears. In few minutes he comes back with an orchid plant with flower buds. Perhaps being a romantic soul he cannot think of being photographed without flower. I click few frames and he becomes visibly happy.


Mr. Rai has taught me few words in Rai language. Using them we exchange a parting 'shewangne' or 'namaskaar' after bidding 'alangne' or 'thank you', before hitting the road.
#6 Oct 24th, 2017, 00:46
Try to be a Traveler....not a Tourist
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  • dcyouth is offline
#6
Very Nice......but can't see the pictures...
#7 Oct 24th, 2017, 01:51
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  • RahulDeva is offline
#7
Quote:
Originally Posted by dcyouth View Post Very Nice......but can't see the pictures...
Oh, I thought there is some problem with my Mobile connection

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