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Pilgrimage to Sikkim

28 Jun 08

24 May ~ 3 June 2008

Imagine replacing your urban horizons with the natural landscape of mountains and valleys, feeling the spray of waterfalls as you stand on stones smoothed with the flow of time and water, enjoying an alpine climate filled with flora that look and feel like they have existed since the beginning of time. Just a four hour flight away, it is not too hard to imagine.

Sikkim, meaning "happy home, a place of peace" is an apt name for the country that we visited for ten days. For my entire stay there, I truly felt relaxed and distanced from the stress and expectations of Singapore. The people in Sikkim are friendly, warm and they strive in all their earnest to make sure that our needs are met. I almost felt reluctant to return to reality.

When I first heard that we were going to Sikkim, a state in India, I was filled with apprehension. From tales of people here and there, there was this vivid vision of extremely busy streets with extreme heat emanating from the asphalts, cows everywhere, smog everywhere, people everywhere. In my mind, I was already forming a strategy of how to protect myself from the sun and heat and pollution. My research online produced contradicting results. It spoke of cool climate, alpine flora, beautiful landscapes. I did not know which to believe. I just have to brace myself for the unknown then.

The flight there was shorter than expected. We stayed a night at Kolkata before taking a domestic flight to Bagdora the next day. From Bagdora, we would take a bus to reach our destination at Darjeeling. One of the most memorable experiences of this trip would have to be the bus rides. Most of the roads in Sikkim are not as developed as the roads in Singapore and are cut into the mountain side. Hence, I got the experience of bumpy bus rides that lifted my bum off the seat many times and I got the kick out of looking out the window and actually seeing nothing but trees and rocks that stretch to no end at the mountain side. It is not just trees and rocks but also beautiful mists that rest here and there, making the whole scene so fairyland like. As I was traveling up the mountain, I was filled with joy at having the chance to get acquainted with Mother Nature once again.

We visited the tea plantations at Darjeeling and saw the hardworking womenfolk plucking tea leaves. They also had small huts that allowed us to sample their tea and buy them. Their tea was really fragrant and strong. Another memorable experience would be drinking tea in a cold climate. It is like eating steamboat in winter. Really warms you to your bones. We then visited Druk Sangha Choeling to attend the prayer session by the monks of the Monastery. It was really an eye opener to be able to view the practices of the lamas. The traditional prayer instruments, their hand gestures, the structure and layout of the temple. Even though I could not understand their language, it still felt sacred as I was sitting in the prayer hall. Many temples in Sikkim have a long history to them and I was told that normally they would not allow outsiders to participate in their prayers or practices. However we were able to do so due to special requests from our side. For this, I am really thankful for this opportunity to be on this trip. At the many temples that we visited, we saw many cultural artifacts and saw many interesting practices and their way of life, such as that of debating sutras. The lamas would have two teams that face each other like the proposition and opposition of debates. They would then truly argue back and forth about the ways of dharma albeit in a friendly competitive manner. What I saw left a deep impression on me, their simple way of life, the innocence of the young lamas, their beliefs and practices so similar yet so different from ours.

At Darjeeling, we also visited the zoo and saw some of the animals exclusive to the alpine climate such as the red panda, snow leopard, spotted deer, bears, etc. Subsequently, on our way to Gangtok, we also visited the Flower Complex and the Directorate of Handicrafts and Handloom. The Flower Complex housed several kinds of flowers in different species such as the orchids, rhododendrons, peonies, etc. The Directorate produced interesting handicrafts and handlooms of the Sikkim people. It also had a museum that explained the progression of the crafts in the Sikkim.

Gangtok is the capital of Sikkim. It was also the only place in Sikkim where popular brands such as Nike, United Colors of Benetton, Puma can be seen. Most of our shopping were done here. The most popular item among our ladies in the group were the beautiful shawls. After our Gangtok stop, these beautiful shawls started appearing everywhere in our group in different prints and colours. They were truly multi purpose. They can keep you from the cold, shelter you from the rain and can even shield you from roving eyes should you need to answer a call of the nature in nature's embrace.

We then visited Tsomgo Lake, a sacred lake. It was situated at quite high a mountain area, almost 4000 feet above sea level. Along the way we saw yaks, military camps (because we were quite near the border), strawberry flowers and more fairylike scenery. We could also see old snow near the mountain peaks. I could almost imagine the scenery should we have come at winter time. It would be even more breathtaking. There was a little bell hung on a little doorway to the lake where you can make a wish and ring the bell. Imagine the gentle tinkle of your wish rippling across the still calm waters of the lake. Poetic isn't it? The water was really cold and refreshing to touch. I sprinkled some water over myself, hoping I would be blessed.

We traveled a long distance to Lachung, the place where we can see the snow mountains at the nearest distance. We also visited Yumthang, Valley of Flowers. It was at the valley that I really felt that these gigantic trees and numerous flowers, rocks, bushes had really existed since the beginning of time. For starters, they even look and feel different. They have inches thick of moss growing on them. The trees have some wispy ferns hanging on their branches like beard on old men. There were felled tree trucks that looked like they were struck down by lighting or uprooted by some unknown hand and they were huge. The trees in Singapore simply look young compared to them. Not even the biggest or oldest tree in Singapore can match.

Another destination to offer our prayers was at the statue of Guru Padmasambhava, the highest of its kind in the world. Even though the statue was undergoing some minor repairs, it was still awe inspiring. Being able to do our prayers at such an inspiring place in another country really adds a little something to the prayers we made. You feel a bit more in your heart, be it conviction or sincerity. When we were doing our prayers, the rain clouds started to loom and threaten. We could even feel little droplets of rain. Everyone felt that it was a blessing when the rain clouds decided to burst only after we were done with everything including packing up.

I do not think that words would do justice to what we have experience in these ten days and I really cannot begin to put everything I have seen and felt on paper. The people of Sikkim, so simple in their way of life, yet so content with it. They work on their plantations, open their small stores of business, develop their roads and progress their state. The children walk miles up the mountain to go to school. They are innocent in their way of life, uncorrupted. They may seem backward but I feel that they are advanced in their spiritual attainment. The natural landscape of the mountains, valleys, waterfalls reminds us that they were there long before we humans began to leave our footprints everywhere. To learn how to appreciate and to protect these beautiful places should be our gift to Mother Earth who have given us life. To learn how to give up our pride and treat others with respect and sincerity, to learn to take life's lessons with a calm and receptive mind and to have an open heart to learn what your experiences can teach you. These are some of the feelings and thoughts I had when I was on the trip. It was like an adventure into a different dimension and I have come back with a wish to return again. I do recommend anyone who has not been there to make a trip (armed with your best digital camera) and allow Sikkim to touch your heart. Maybe you would feel different from me or learn even more.