Thursday, October 25, 2007


One can never tire of the pristine beauty of North Sikkim. Most of it is untouched by the vagaries of civilization. But to experience it, arduous treks over high passes and fording rivers have to be undertaken. One such trek takes you from the verdant green Lhasar valley across the barren Sebula pass and on to the hotsprings of Yumey samdong. The army had once upon a time thought of putting up a firing range in this area to test their big guns but mercifully this was shelved due to a public outcry.
Our trek commences at Thangu at a mind boggling altitude of 13500 ft. Situated on the banks of the Tista, Thangu, which is about 30 kilometers north of Lachen by road, has a sizeable military presence and also a thriving civilian population. It is an important takeoff point to the Cholamu plateau, Muguthang in the Lhonak valley and the Lhasar valley. Intense Ultra-violet rays and relatively good sunshine at Thangu coupled with good quality of soil result in the local vegetables especially radishes and turnips assuming huge proportions each sometimes weighing upto a kilogram.
It is a warm autumn morning and having had a nice night’s sleep at the PWD Bunglow, we are all well poised to move. We walk in the north easterly direction and a moderately steep climb of three hours takes us to Phalung . From here the view of the Lhasar Valley about a thousand feet below is breathtaking. Through the Lhasar valley, the green river coils in a series of switchbacks, almost stagnant like a snake, until slightly further down it strikes straight and falling and changes colour to a white cresendo and bashes into the Lachen chu (Tista) at Thangu like a drunken pugilist. There is a plan to harness the Lhasar river by establishing a micro-hydel project to meet the energy needs of Thangu.
The Lhasar Valley abounds in alpine vegetation and medicinal plants. The valley is also home to semi-nomadic yark-herders during summer and autumn. These herdsmen move up to the plateau during the winter and spring when the valley becomes snowbound.
A further downhill walk of about an hour takes us to the abandonded clubhut of the Survey of India at Chechung Lakha. In the north, the Kanchengyao at 22600 ft is resplendent in a mantel of snow. On the right, is the Sebu-la pass, that leads to the Yumey Samdong Hotsprings at the upper end of the Yumthang valley. After partaking to lunch, we walk a few kilometers north to reach the base of the mountain that separates the Lhasar valley from the Lachung valley. We pitch our tents here for the night. Early next morning we.negotiate a three kilometer steep climb takes one to Sebu-la at 17000 ft. The pass is narrow and treacherous. As we catch our breath, resting on this pass, I see a vulture just above me in the sky which remains suspended in the air without moving or flapping its wings for a full five minutes. While I am wondering what are the laws of physics that enables the bird to perform this gravity defying feat my porter reminds me that it is getting late and we are set to move on.
From the Sebu-la pass a knee-wobbling steep trek over glacial screes and we are at Sebu-Tso lake surrounded by mountains of Changma-Khang that seem to touch the skies. Medium sized, this lake is the source of the River Sebu-chu. We trek along the Sebu Chu on the banks of which are hundreds of Rhubarbs about five feet in height. These are perhaps the largest biggest concentration of Rhubarbs one can get to see in Sikkim: in contrast the ones in the Lachen and Lhasar valley that hardly grow upto 3 ft and are far and in between. Half an hour later we are at a wide flat valley about half a kilometer wide in which the river Palo Chuuthang meets the Sebu Chu. We ford across the river Palo Chuuthang and leaving the river behind begin the gradual climb to reach a mountain top strewn with huge rocks and stones. This is the most difficult part of the journey. Jumping from rock to rock we takes about an hour to traverse just about a kilometer. A wrong step and you can land up with a fractured leg. The prayer flags that mark the Hot springs of Yumey Samdong can now be seen far below. We negotiate the steep downhill walk to the wide river valley below. The Sebu Chu reappears as a thundering waterfall almost 200 ft high on the left. We ford across an un-named tributary of the Sebu Chu and are at the hotsprings of Yumey samdong. Unlike other hotsprings in Sikkim which have one source, Yumey samdong has four or five hotsprings. People spend about a fortnight in the springs to get themselves rid of skin diseases, arthiritis etc. But we do not have that much time: being urbanites we are as usual in a terrible hurry. But we spend about an hour with our tired feet dipped in the soothing hot water sipping tea. I feel that this route can definitely be developed for trekkers visiting North Sikkim who want to try something more adventurous and venture into off-beaten territory.
A walk of another one kilometer and we are at the road side where our vehicle is waiting. The driver starts the vehicle and switches on the cassette player . The strident noise of a Hindi remix tells us that we are back in civilization.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007


Most of the monsoon clouds reaching the Lachung valley precipitate before Yumthang but those venturing further north towards the Tibetan plateau have to encounter the last bastion in the valley- the Donkiala pass at 18400 ft. Overlooking the Cholamu plateau and the Roof of the World, and surrounded by snowy peaks most notably the Paunhri (Lonpo Kyangzong), the Donkia pass is like a nozzle that feebly sprays the plateau with what ever moisture that remains in the spent monsoon clouds.
Similarly mortals wanting to cross over from the Lachung valley to the Cholamu plateau have to encounter the Donkia pass and once they have done it they are depleted of energy and it takes them quite some time to get their breath back. Donkiala pass separates the upper reaches of Lachen valley from the Lachung valley and Hooker in his book "The Himalayan Journal" has rated it the most treacherous pass he ever traversed.
The motorable road ends thirty kilometres away from Yumthang via Yumey Samdong at a place called Zadong-at an altitude of about 16030 ft. We disembark from the vehicle and ask the driver to reach Cholamu via Lachen by the next day to receive us. From here to Cholamu Lake via the Donkiala pass is about a 8 kilometers trek and takes 5 to 6 hours for the average walker. We start walking along the narrow Donkiachu river. The climb is moderate but the progress is relatively slow because of rarefied air. The hillside is carpeted with alpine vegetation in a riot of colours – acononites, the rare blue poppies and a lot of other colourful flowers – I wish I could identity them. And dominating them like sentinels, are the yellow giant rhubarbs growing to about three feet in height.
After walking 2 hours, the Donkiala pass becomes visible. It looks quite near but takes a full hour to reach. We come across two small muddy lakes from which the river Donkiachu originates and flows into the Lachung valley. Glacial lakes look deceptively calm but are in a state of continuous flux and excessive melting of the glacier can cause them to burst their banks wreaking immense damage downstream- a phenomenon known as Glacial Lake Outburst Flooding (GLOF). A few years ago the glacial Tenbawa lake close by burst causing flash floods in the Yumthang and Lachung valley. A wall of water that gushed down, washed away bridges and caused a lot of damage to property. There is a need to monitor these lakes on a continuous basis through Satellite imagery and Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR): any change in their size would be a signal for imminent disaster.
The last stretch of 100 metres to Donkiala pass is very steep and involves almost a vertical climb. Our bodies suddenly seem to weigh more than a ton and the legs almost crumble as the stress caused by rarefied air begins to take effect. Gasping and panting for air and feeling like a fish out of water, we finally reach the pass. But all our tiredness vanishes at the sight of the spectacular scenery around. Above the Donkiala pass spires of peaks rise their gloomy granite brightened by snow. The peak of Pauhunri (Lonpo Kyangzong) is silhouetted against the eastern sky. The relatively low altitude Chola range that delineates the eastern border of Sikkim suddenly soars up in the North to Pauhunri - the highest peak on the Eastern border of Sikkim – its ramparts scarred with many glaciers. From the Donkiala pass the view of the Tibetan plateau and its portion that juts into Sikkim as the Cholamu Plateau below us is marvellous. The plateau is flat as far as the eye can see but is broken here and there by small hillocks peppered with snow. Through powerful binoculars we can see the habitations at Tarksing and Geru in the Tibetan side. About 300 metres below is the lake of Cholamu and a smaller un-named lake above it. -both looking like emeralds . Slightly towards the west Tista meanders and breaks into many channels enclosing small oases of green vegetation.
As we stand marvelling at the scenery below it begins raining heavily in the Lachung valley, whereas above and over the Tibetan plateau in sharp contrast it remains bright and sunny. I had read in books about how the high mountains of North Sikkim prevented moisture laden clouds from reaching the dry and arid plateau, but here I was seeing it actually happening before me.
A knee wobbling downhill walk of another one hour and a half takes us to the Cholamu lake. The reflection of the surrounding mountains doubles its beauty. Now, about the source of the Tista. Many consider Cholamu as the Source of the Tista. This is not true. The source of a river is defined as the furthest point from where a river starts flowing. Cholamu is one of the lakes in the river system that flows out as a stream to meet the Tista just a few hundred metres away. After walking the full length of the Cholamu lake we turn right and cross Tista and reach the Army Camp at Kerang. A cup of hot tea with the jawans and a rest of about an hour and we move onwards to explore the source of Tista. We walk for about slightly over an hour on the gently undulating land and are at the edge of a glacial lake. On the other side of the lake on the western base of the Paunhri is the Glacier – Tista Khanste which melts to form Khangchung Tso lake. It is from this lake the mighty Tista river takes birth as a trickle hardly a metre wide - the feeble beginning notes of which transform to a thunder few kilometres downstream.
The plateau preserves an astonishing diversity of wildlife. A flock of birds that look like cranes swim on the placid ice-cold water. These birds are migratory probably coming from the northern latitudes. It strikes me that no natural or manmade borders are impregnable to these birds. Russia, China, India are to them one and the same - they believe in the true spirit of globalisation. It is a pity that man with a penchant for divisions cannot move freely from one place to another. A herd of Tibetan wildasses or kiangs as they are locally called, stand grazing on the other end of the lake. As there is a dearth of water on the Tibetan side, many animals cross over the border towards the lake. The plateau is teeming with marmots (big mice) , woolly hares and foxes. Once in a while a flock of snow flinches(birds) fly overhead.
Although deprived of any vegetation except sparsely growing scrubs, the plateau offers a stark beauty unparalleled perhaps anywhere in the world. The landscape here is similar to the fiery desert while the climate is that of the Tundras. The percitipation received by the plateau is less than 50 cms in a year as compared to Gangtok’s 325 cms. Violent winds rage their force broken by neither trees nor scrubs. Howling with such a ferocity, these winds also sweep snow from the grass uncovering it for the yaks. The air is so rarefied and clear that the stars shine bright enough in the moonless sky to cast faint shadows and cause the snowclad mountains around to glisten eerily.
The intense sunlight and the high speed winds that the plateau experiences can be a good source of solar and wind energy. Use of solar panels and wind generators can easily meet the energy needs of the few hundred people who reside here.
Herds of yaks graze on the sparse vegetation and the few herders here make their livelihood by selling yak products. These herders follow lifestyles unchanged through the centuries. For hardwork and acceptance of nature’s sway, this moody and elemental place offers the herders in return the splendour of scenery. For a man from the city, staying in such a hostile environment would be unthinkable. But wouldn’t a yakherder also find the city hostile, with its high decibel earsplitting noises and pollution that makes the air almost unbreathable? Such contemporary troubles like nuclear explosions and the depletion of the ozone layer seem deceptively far away. But these herdsmen are affected apparently in terms of increased Ultra-violet radiation and acid rain because of the avarice of their urban brothers. A polythene wrapper carelessly thrown out of the occasional vehicle can suffocate the soil making it permanently sterile – this is the extent of the sensitivity of the alpine area. It is heartening that the Government as a part of its scheme for Green Taxis has now taken steps to prevent littering in the alpine areas. Vehicles plying here are now required to carry garbage bags or dustbins and the passengers have to use these to put the litter. When the vehicle returns back to its base the litter from these bags is to be emptied into the garbage bins. Diesel and petrol fumes are another bane to the alpine areas. Because of the rarefied air the noxious gases spread over wide areas within no time peppering the landscape with poisonous sulphur and nitrogen chemicals. The government could perhaps consider allowing only CNG vehicles to operate in these pristine alpine areas.
We spend the night a stone hut of a yakherder near Cholamu. Over a glass of hot Tibetan tea, I am told by one that the furthermost most of them had ventured was Thangu barely 30 kilometres away. Suddenly I start envying them for their lifestyles, which seem an anachronism in this modern age and has remained unchanged for centuries and untouched by the ravages of civilization.
Later I am told that the yak herder headman had been chosen for the post because he had the distinction of having visited Siliguri - for about a few months for medical treatment - and therefore considered as a person well exposed and wise with the ways of the world. Our vehicle has meanwhile arrived from the Lachen side and we are ready to leave.
In this anachronistic ambience, as I cast a longing lingering look behind of the Tibetan plateau, I am reminded of a stanza from Thomas Gray’s Elegy written in a Country Churchyard that seemed so apt here
Far from the madding crowds’ ignoble strife,
Their wishes never learned to stray,
Along the cool sequestered way of life,
They led their noiseless tenor of their way.

Sunday, September 16, 2007


In 2005, I undertook a 12 day tour of Kedarnath, Badrinath, Gangotri and Yamnotri alongwith the family. Motor vehicles can reach righy upto Gangotri and Badrinath. However reaching Kedarnath involves a trek of 13 kilometers from Gaurikund. Similarly, A 6km steep climb from Jan ki Chatti reaches one to Yamnotri. Some snapshots.........


Zema Glacier was recently in the spotlight amidst rumours of a Glacial Lake Outburst Flooding (GLOF). In this context, the author RAJESH VERMA recounts memories of a trek that took him….

The Zema Glacier and Green lake are located in a sequestered area of North Sikkim where winds roar, avalanches thunder and glaciers groan. Powerful forces here create and destroy natural features just in a manner a sculptor shapes a statue and destroys it if it does not catch his fancy to build it afresh. The terrain here itself is in a state of flux - mountains are moulded into different shapes, streams frequently change course and lakes appear and disappear.
Green Lake may in the minds of many conjure up an image of a beautiful, exotic water-body green in colour. The Souvenir published by the Statesman on occasion of the coronation of the Chogyal in 1965 shows a painting of the Green Lake depicting it as a huge lake –the artist perhaps had never visited this area and had let his imagination run wild. Sadly the reality is that instead of a lake there exists here just a small shallow pond.
In fact, even a century ago there was no lake according to Douglas W. Freshfield who wrote in 1899: "The hollow enclosed between the converging moraines of the Zema and Green Lake Glaciers has been very lately a lake, and was now a lake basin."
The absence of a lake is however sufficiently compensated by the splendid view around. Just a few kilometers away, the huge mass of Kanchendzonga towers above. The peaks of Simvo are a short distance away on the left. At the base of the Kanchendzonga is the Zemu Glacier full of a sea moraines - rocks and boulder and debris created by moving ice scrapping the mountainside - a veritable natural pulveriser. Once in a while the distant thunder of avalanches can be heard resounding in the emptiness.
The nearest vehicle point for Green Lake lies on the Lachen- Thangu road. From Lachen 6 kilometres by vehicle on the road to Thangu and across the river Zema takes us to point called Zema I. We get down from our vehicle at the third bend after crossing the Zema River just below the abandonded SIB bunglows. We had arrived at Lachen the afternoon before and had hired porters who would be doubling as our guides. We had purchased last minute requirements and spent the night in the SPWD Dak bunglow.
It is early morning – still dark but high up over the mountain tops there is a faint glimmer of light signifying that dawn is breaking. The thunder of the Zema river below glistening white even in the darkness reverberates eerily in the valley.
Sleeping bags, tents and provisions on our backs and we are ready to begin the arduous three day trek that will take us from 10,000 ft to almost 17,000 ft above mean sea level. During this 35 kilometer trek we will not come across a single habitation on the way –only wilderness. Mules and yaks cannot negotiate this track, because of treacherous landslips enroute so you have to completely rely on porters to carry the provisions. A faint trail marks the beginning of our trek route which would for most part of the journey run parallel to the Zema river and then the Zema Glacier. From Zema I to Talem which is a walk of about 4 hours, the route is almost trailess, rocky and strewn with boulders. Shattered tree trunks are piled in an inextricable confusion. We cross many landslips and ford across a stream. We have been forewarned to watch out for shooting boulders and never attempt to cross this stretch if it is raining as shooting stones from above are inevitable. The Zemu river thunders below us and at places we cross almost a vertical hillside with no track at all and one wrong step can take us tumbling down into the river. A huge landslide has scarred the mountain across the river. It sets me thinking; surely this landslide has not occurred because of environmental degradation due to deforestation as there is no human activity here. It has perhaps been triggered as a part of a natural upheaval process.
Here I am prompted to make a mention of glacial lakes that exist in the vicinity of glaciers. Glacial lakes look deceptively calm but are in a state of continuous flux and excessive melting of the glacier can cause them to burst their banks wreaking immense damage downstream a phenomenon known as Glacial Lake Outburst Flooding (GLOF). Global warming is leading to glacier receding or melting excessively But no one is yet sure of reasons that cause global warming. It is definitely not happening because of localized action and perhaps being triggered by action of our greedy brethren in far away places: China guzzling out tons of smoke from its coal fired power stations, the oil fields in the USA, airliners criss crossing the globe. Or was global warming happening because of a timeless and innate course of action that causes the global climate to wax and wane?
About a decade ago, the glacial Tenbawa lake near the hotspring of Yumey Samdong burst causing flash floods in the Yumthan valley. There is a need to monitor these lakes on a continuous basis through Satellite imagery: any change in their size would be a signal for imminent disaster.
At Talem which is on a flat stretch of land there are a few abandoned army bunkers. After a refreshing cup of tea made by our porters over firewood, we are ready to move further.
From here onwards, the track becomes slushy at places - sometimes even a foot deep. Luckily we are wearing full length gum-boots. From Talem, Jakthang takes about 3 hours to reach after crossing the Lonak La river. At Jakthang there is a 2 roomed wooden shed on stilts constructed by the Forest Department and set amongst a profusion of pine trees. Our porters who have now metamorphosed as cooks collect firewood and prepare an early dinner for us. We are dog-tired and it takes us no time laying out our sleeping bags going off to sleep on the hard wooden floor.
Early next morning again sees us on the track again. The walk from Jakthang to Yabuk takes about 5 hours. We have to literally wade through bushes at many places. At other places the branches of trees on both sides of the track entwine to form a cage giving you an eerie feeling that you are inside the skeletal remains of a huge prehistoric animal. The track gets more muddy. The last stretch of the route to Yabuk is steep. Yabuk has a two storied 4 roomed wooden shed on a stone foundation. We rest here for sometime and partake to some refreshments and tea and are ready to move again. We are at the edge of the tree line. Ahead there are no trees and the vegetation gets smaller and smaller as we go higher – bushes, shrubs and then nothing at all.
From Yabuk to Sona Camp the next halt is a gruelling walk of about 3 hours on a boulder strewn trailess area. These boulders and stones have spilled over from the Zemu glacier. One can easily lose the way but some good souls have set up cairns, which are a few stones stacked over one another, prominently placed over boulders to indicate the way. These cairns have many times helped save lives of travellers who have lost their way when the area is snowbound. The small stone hut at Sona Camp is in a dilapidated condition so we have no option to pitch but our tent here and rest for the night here the sound of the Zema river flowing just a few feet away lulling us to sleep.
On the third day, we are awake early in the morning. It is still dark but the stars shine bright in the sky and cast a ghostly light on the landscape. Soon dawn starts breaking on the eastern sky. The peak of Siniolchu, a few kilometres away across the Zemu glacier, becomes crimson as the first rays of sun strike it. It seems that God took special care when making Siniolchu. It is perfectly symmetrical and conical in shape and a sharp contrast to the shapeless masses of mountains around - a triumph of mountain architecture. Its summit a mere needle seems to pierce the fabric of the blue sky. It is rather strange that from Gangtok, Siniolchu looks ugly, amorphous and a truncated. Thin clouds start gathering on the mountain top, linger for sometime as though uncertain on where to go and then suddenly soar upwards. After walking for about 2 hours from Sona Camp along the Zemu Glacier we are a flat stretch of land called the Rest Camp or the Marco Polo Camp - I do not know how it got its name. Did Marco-Polo come here? There is a track to the right from where one can reach the Muguthang valley after crossing the They la pass and then onwards to Thangu over the 19000 ft high Lungnala pass. It is a route many take to reach the Green Lake specially those who use yaks to carry their provisions. After catching our breath here in the rarefied air and marvelling at the snowy peaks around, we start trudging again. The few small shrubs look almost luxurious given the harsh landscape around. The stillness is tangible- holy. The only sounds that we hear are those of our breathing and the pounding of our hearts. Instinctively, we tend to talk in whispers lest we disturb the silence of the wilderness. We sight a herd of Blue Sheep but before I can focus my camera they have disappeared over the ridge. Why are they fleeing? This wilderness is their domain and we in fact the intruders. About three hours of walk in this untrammeled remoteness on a slight gradient track and we are at Green Lake slightly before noon. The terrain now is completely arid, prehistoric and lunar. We almost expect to see a dinosaur amble by. It hardly rains here as the clouds are obstructed from reaching the lake by the snowy peaks that surround it. Green Lake receives an annual rainfall of only 50 cm as against 325 cms received by Gangtok.
We pitch our tents here rest a while and cook our lunch using the primus kerosene stove as there is no firewood here. We then start exploring. Where is the lake? We are amidst a huge basin and there at its centre is a small pond –the Green Lake. There is a deep crevasse adjacent to it and centuries ago the lake perhaps drained out into the Zemu glacier below.
We reach the edge of the lake basin overlooking Zemu Glacier. Across the moraines, the rampart of Kanchendzonga rises almost vertically. From the Green Lake, the Kanchendzonga ceases to be an object of restful meditation. The apparently smooth ridges resemble the blade of a knife, and here and there harsh granite shows through the snow. The slopes are broken and jagged. On the left is the Simvo peak ice spewing out from its glacier. The view is breathtaking. To be here is to feel the very pulse of creation.
The next morning we start our trek back and in two days are in Lachen. We have been to a lake that does not exist and reached almost an arm’s length away from the bastion of the Kanchendzonga. It has been like an odyssey to a different world – where man is humbled and nature reigns supreme.

(Rajesh Verma is Director, Information Technology with the Government of Sikkim)

Monday, September 3, 2007

A tour to Dechenphu

A night at Dechenphu – The Cave of Great Happiness
-Rajesh Verma

L.A. Wadell in The Gazetteer of Sikkim compiled by H.H. Risley in 1894 makes a brief mention about the 4 holy caves of Sikkim- the traditional abodes of Guru Rimpoche and Lhatusun Chhembo. He writes that the caves are located in the 4 cardinal directions surrounding Tashiding monastery. Lharingingphu in the North is situated about three days journey from Tashiding. In the south is Kahdosangphu adjacent to the hotspring of Phurchachu. Pephu lies between the Tendong and the Maenam mountains. But about De-chen phu or the ‘cave of great happiness” the Gazetteer is very vague and off the track. It says that it is located in “the snow near Zongri and only reachable in the autumn”. Guru Rimpoche used these caves for meditation and for the storage of scriptures and wealth after subduing many evil spirits. It is said a visit to these caves can bring about a release from suffering.
But much water has flown down the Teesta since then. Motorable road communication is now available to far flung areas of Sikkim and accessing these caves is not as difficult as it was more than a century ago. In fact the vehicle reaches right to the Pephu cave and Kahdosangphu is hardly a 10 minutes walk from the roadside.
Dechen phu, however, continues to defy easy accessibility. It has the highest altitude amongst the four caves and involves a one day daunting and murderous trek – taking you from almost 5000 ft to 11,000 ft above mean sea level.
Fourteen kilometers downhill from Pelling is the village of Namphu at about 5000 ft above mean sea level and it is here till where the vehicle goes. We have arrived at Namphu and dawn is just breaking. It is a rather melancholic day: a faint drizzle and an overcast sky. I ask my porter who is also doubling as a guide the general direction of the cave. He points almost vertically upwards and says, “There, behind those clouds”. We will be making a night halt at the cave and therefore a quick check of whether we are carrying everything required – sleeping bags, provisions, candles, utensils and so on
A twenty minute steep downhill walk and we are at the banks of the River Rimbi. Fed by the monsoon rains and melting snow, the river is gushing and thundering. The water has been harnessed a few kilometers downstream to generate electricity. Without crossing the river, we walk along its banks for about forty minutes to reach the village of Rimbi.
In this remote village, salesmanship also thrives. The lady shopkeeper from whom I purchase candies and chocolates to munch on the way says that there are no shops further up and recommends that we purchase all our last minute requirements from her. She charges Rs 30/- for a bottle of coke that ordinarily costs Rs 20/- at Gangtok. “Carrying Costs” she justifies succinctly. I think she has a point there so without arguing proceed onwards.
The track here bifurcates with the one on the right going towards Chawri and Zongri. We take the track on the left leaving the Rimbi river and walk along its tributary the Lungaman Khola. We now get a taste of the steep climb that lies ahead. The track at a moderate gradient passes through maize fields, meadows and grazing grounds. In slightly less than an hour we are at Tsetanthang a picturesque village with a predominant Limbu population – which seems to be untouched by the ravages of civilization. We must be at 6000 ft for that uncouth white scar of Pelling on the opposite hill looks to be at the same level.
After a quick breakfast in one of the houses we are set to move again. For the next six hours we just climb, climb and climb. There is not a single habitation on the way. The foot path is kutcha and is lined with thick vegetation and trees of magnolia and rhododendrons. The foliage is so thick that even the sky is not visible. At places the track becomes bouncy and soft because of decaying vegetation that has compacted over ages.
Mid way, the vegetation begins to thin out and gradually gets replaced by pine, cane and shrubs. Through a gap in the clouds we can see the cliff on which the Dechenphu is situated. The cliff face glistening white is a sheer drop of about a thousand feet. It reminds me of Taksang Monastery in Bhutan which is also situated on a cliff.
We finally reach the cliff face. The path bifurcates with the one on the right going towards the Singelila range – a further four hours walk away and onwards to Nepal. Far in the east we can see the roof of the Tashiding Monastery and in the southerly direction, the Pemayanste Monastery. After negotiating a narrow path that has skillfully been sculpted on it we are at the hut just below the cave and on the base of the cliff. The cliff looms ominously above us. The hut has been constructed by the Rural Development Department for the convenience of the pilgrims. It has a single room measuring about 30 ft by 15 ft and has a tin roof and walls made of wood planks. The floor is just hard ground covered with hay and grass which act as cushion. We lay out our sleeping bags, rest a while and after a cup of tea prepared by our porter on firewood get ready to pay our obeisance at the cave just about 300 feet away.
The track leading to the cave is very narrow and lined with a profusion of prayer flags (Lungtas). We walk in complete silence for we are about to visit the cave which was said to be Guru Rimpoche Paradise and in which he experienced great “bliss and happiness” thus having the cave acquire its name Dechenphu. The mouth of the cave is about 8 ft high and about 6 ft wide it becomes a cavern inside about 12 ft high and then after 15 ft rapidly truncates to about a height of 2 ft. One can crawl in further and after 20 ft reach a small hole on the cliff side. The smallness of Dechenphu as compared to the other three holy caves in Sikkim is sufficiently compensated by its altitude and the fantastic view around. A small statue of Buddha adorns the mouth of the cave. The floor is littered with coins and discarded brass butter lamps. We offer khadas, light butter lamps and incense and ring the bell the sound of which echoes in the hills. It seems many students visit the cave as we find books kept at various places in the cave seeking blessings of the Buddha. The cliff is pocked with few smaller caves but these are not very significant. Lungaman Khola flows just below our hut and we use its pure mineral water for drinking, cooking and ablutions
As dusk falls, the nocturnal insects come alive. A cricket clicks and is followed by hundreds of others until the whole forest below the cave reverberates with a deafening din. Big water drops seeping out of the cliff continuously bombard the roof of the hut. All this noise does not disturb us at all. We are dog-tired and lull off to sleep. The lights of Darap, Pelling and Darjeeling on the Southern horizon twinkle in the darkness.
The loud twittering of birds wakes us in the morning. Just half a kilometer ahead perched on a hillock a lama from Bhutan has put up a shack of twigs and hay. He has been here for the last one year and we are given to understand that he would continue to be here for another two years meditating in complete silence not talking to anyone. We are moved by his faith and perseverance. We visit his hut and reverently place a small bag of rice at the entrance of the shack.
We walk down six hours down to Rimbi village and then undertake the uphill climb to Namphu thereafter. Did I hear a blare of the motor horn? We are back in the cacophony of civilization.

(The writer is Director, Department of Information Technology, Government of Sikkim)

Sunday, September 2, 2007


After visiting the holy cave of Amarnath on 6th August 06, I was back at Baltal near Sonmarg in the afternoon. I missed the last bus for Kargil and was not inclined to spend the night at Sonmarg. So I hopped into a truck that was going towards Kargil. It took an excruciating two hours to cover the 20 kms distance from Baltal 8000 ft to the famous Zojila Pass at 12000ft. However, the driver was interesting chap: and regaled me with many stories. I caught glimpses of Baltal camp far below on anf off. On reaching Zojila Pass the terrain suddenly flattens. The groan of the straining truck engine changed to a pleasant sounding purr. The landscape was arid and lunar. It reminded me of the cold desert of Sikkim- a part of the Tibetan Plateau that juts into Sikkim.
Shortly we were at Drass- we halted a few minutes at the Memorial constructed to honour the fallen in the Kargil war. At 10 pm the truck dropped me at Kargil. I got a decent room in a hotel. Busses for Leh leave Kargil at an unearthly hour – 3 in the morning and I was in no mood of traveling so early. I was however lucky to get a taxi at seven in the morning that was going back to Leh after dropping some passengers. The landscape was stark but beautiful. We halted at the monastery of Lama Yaru on the way. By late afternoon I was at Leh. I spent the evening visiting the Leh Stupa and then hunting for passengers who were interested to visit the Pambong Lake and with whom I got share a taxi. I managed to locate three persons and off we were to Pambong Lake at 6 in the morning. Pamong is a fresh water lake and is 80 kilometers in length and straddles the border between India and China. 70 percent of it lies in China. It looks like a sea.
I spent the evening loitering around the bazaars of Leh and then caught the bus in the morning for the one and a half day journey to Manali. I was given a seat in the last row and I felt I was riding a horse that had gone berserk. The scenery was breathtaking with undulating mountains topped with snow. We halted overnight at a place close to Sarchu on the border between Himachal and Kashmir. Next day the road took us through Keylong and the Rothang and we were at Manali in the afternoon. I caught the 4 pm bus for Chandigarh. There are lot of things I missed in Ladakh – the Zanskar Valley, the Tsomori Lake and the Bactrian Camel. I’ll be back sometime to experience these.

Sunday, August 26, 2007


Amarnath cave, at an altitude of about 13500 ft is situated in one of the most hallowed corners of Kashmir. It is associated with the Lord Shiva and the ice Lingam that forms here holds special attraction for the Hindus. Devotees from all over India throng the cave from in July and August. The cave has however been mired in controversies. Last year there were stories in the media that as the Lingam had melted, tonnes of ice were transported from Delhi to create an artificial Lingam. This year there were reports of many devotees reaching the cave months before the scheduled date. These devotees burnt incense close to the Lingam that resulted in its earl meltdown. Then there are reports once a while of attacks on the pilgrims by militants.
However whether you get to see the Lingum, trek to the cave is an out of the world experience.
The traditional route from Pahalgam to Chandarnvani takes a total minimum three days to undertake both way and is rather easy to traverse as it does not involve too many steep climbs.
But if you are short of time and are willing to brave a steep climb on a rather narrow footpath that literally clings to the mountainside you can easily visit Amarnath from Srinagar in a one day via Sonmarg and Baltal. From Delhi take the morning flight to Srinagar and the two hour road journey to Baltal. Baltal is the takeoff point for the Amarnath cave. If you are at Baltal before eleven in the morning (one is not permitted to take the uphill trek to Amarnath after 11 am because of security reasons) you can trek up five hours to the cave but you will have to halt at Amarnath where tentage accommodation is available. Alternatively you can trek up early in the morning and be back by the late afternoon, reach Srinagar and then catch the last flight to Delhi.
I visited Amarnath in August 2005; inspite of knowing that the Lingman had already melted. On 5th August 05, I caught the 10 o clock flight from Delhi to Srinagar. At the Srinagar airport, I had to wait for about an hour before I could get a shared taxi for Baltal. The road skirts the Dal Lake and goes onwards to the picturesque Sonmarg. Half an hour ahead and I was at Baltal at about 4 pm. Baltal is located in a wide valley at the foothill of the famous Zojila pass. A festive atmosphere prevailed here. I was famished so I entered the “Ludhiana” Bhandara and partook to Dosas and Somosas. (Bhandaras are huge dining halls in which food is served free of cost to the pilgrims/devotees: Amarnath Darshan Associations, mostly from North India: Ludhiana, Jullundur, Amristar, Delhi etc, set up the Bhandaras in huge tents at Baltal). Then I headed to search for accommodation. I managed to get a small tent all for myself to spend the night in. After an early dinner at the Jullundur Bhandar, I was back in the tent and snoring away.
At five in the morning, I began the uphill trek. The footpath was narrow and was protected by machine gun totting soldiers. After four hours I reached Sangam, where the Baltal path confluences with the traditional route from Pahalgam. I was amazed to see how faith drives many of my fellow pilgrims: many are thinly clad without any warm clothing and are barefooted. On their heads they deftly balance their personal belongings. From Sangam, the footpath becomes very narrow indeed and the climb is murderous. After a kilometer the vistas broadened and the footpath becomes flat. Soon I was at the holy cave. The Amarnath Cave looms almost 40 feet high and is equally wide. However the cave is rather shallow: about 20 to 25 feet deep.
I was of course disappointed that the Lingam was not there: it had completed melted a week ago. But I got to see the fabled white pigeons perched on the top escarpment of the cave.
I took the helicopter back to Baltal that set me back by a whopping Rs 6000/- for the seven minute flight. At Baltal I hopped into a truck going towards Kargil and Leh but that is a different story ….

Thursday, August 23, 2007


A pilgrimage to Lharinyingphu – Sikkim’s Holiest Cave
-Rajesh Verma

The four holy caves of Sikkim can somehow be likened to the four Dhams that we have in Hinduism They are the traditional abodes of Guru Rimpoche and Lhatusun Chhembo situated in the four cardinal directions surrounding Tashiding.Having earlier visited some places associated with Guru Padmasambva like Riwalser in Himachal Pradesh and Taksang Monastery in Bhutan and also three holy caves in Sikkim - I had a longstanding desire to trek to fourth one too – the holiest of them all - Lharinyingphu..

About Lharinyingphu – the old cave symbolizing the heart of the Divine Hill – HH Risley wrote in the Gazetteer of Sikkim in 1894, “ It is situated about three day’s journey to the north of Tashiding along a most difficult path.” In the south is Kahdosangphu adjacent to the hotspring of Phurchachu. Pephu lies between the Tendong and the Maenam mountains. De-chen phu lies in the west and can be approached from Nampu near Pelling .The 20 kilometers bumpy vehicular road from Tashiding via Chongrang, Gangyep and Kongri to Lapdang has made the Lharinyingphu cave considerably less inaccessible, as compared to Risley’s days,although it still involves a formidable and daunting seven hours arduous uphill trek.
After spending the night at the RDD Dak Bunglow at Tashiding, we have arrived at Labdang, also called Gurung Busty, early in the morning. Labdang is slowly gaining importance because of the Relli chu power project that is coming up just a few kilometers below. The Voluntary Health Association of Sikkim has also taken major initiatives in the heath and social sector in Labdang. A community centre cum dak Bunglow has been set up by them here. The village of Dhupidara can be seen across and further away Mangnam over which rises Maenam. Towards the north, the peaks of Narsingh loom over head. Labdang is the take off point also for treks to Kasturi Oral.
We will be bivouacking and making a night halt at the cave and therefore a quick check of whether we are carrying everything required – sleeping bags, provisions, candles, utensils and so on
The older route to the cave by walking down from Kongri to Relli chu and then taking a steep uphill climb up via the village of Rungdung used to take two days to traverse and one day back. The other major problem with the older route is that there are no streams on the way and therefore trekkers have to lug their own water for drinking and ablutions. The Tourism Department, Government of Sikkim has recently carved out a shorter route to the cave by constructing a cobble stone path making accessibility much easier for those seeking spiritual merit – a very noble task indeed!
We walk four kilometers in the northerly directly through cardamom fields to reach the Relli-chu. We are now within the Kanchendzonga National Park. We negotiate a log bridge precariously laid out across the river. In fact last monsoon, the original bridge had been washed away by a wall of water that came gushing down wreaking destruction and subsequently changing the course of the river. Because of this there was immense damage downstream to the upcoming Relli Chu Project and the NHPC Hydel Station at Legship.
We jump across rocks on the river bank and reach the cobble stone foot path. About a kilometer walk and the footpath suddenly disappears. Almost one hundred meters of it has been washed away by a huge landslip that had perhaps caused the Relli chu river to be dammed resulting in pondage and subsequent
flooding. Clinging to stones and digging our feet into the mud for a foothold we negotiate this extremely dangerous landslip. We come across labourers repairing the footpath. I ponder that it is only because of their efforts that this harsh terrain is being converted to a readily accessible area and thank them from the bottom of my heart. We have to negotiate three smaller landslips. From here onwards it is a steep climb for about four hours through a thick forest. We stop once in a while to drink water from the innumerable small streams that cross our path.
Birds twitter and butterflies flit; a monal pheasant crosses our path. The thunder of Relli-chu flowing far down below resounds in the valley
Something incongruous like a mirage appears in this wilderness: a Dak bunglow. The tin roofed Dak Bunglow consists of three big rooms: two dormitories with attached toilet one for ladies and the other for gents. Three or four bare beds lie scattered in each room. Between them is a dining hall and kitchen. It must have been quite a Herculean task lugging the building material from the road head thirteen kilometers below. The Dak Bunglow does not have any caretaker and pilgrims are expected to just open the doors and walk in.

A signage outside the Bunglow says that the Cave is 1.5 kilometers away. Although dog tired and tempted to spend the night here we decide to instead biouvac at the cave itself as we have come to know that there are no pilgrims ahead of us meaning that accommodation is available at the cave which cannot accommodate more that six to seven people. This one- and- a half kilometer trek is almost vertical and takes a full hour to cover. The cliff marking the cave becomes visible through the gaps in the trees: in fact one of the caves is clearly visible. The last two hundred meters involves a short downhill walk and then a clamber through rocks to reach the cave.
Lharinyingphu is in fact a combination of four caves. Three caves lie adjacent to each other on a ledge on the edge of which grow thick foliage of cane and small trees. The view of these three caves are therefore obstructed. The first cave is the main one, the second is shallow and has a spring water source which is used by the pilgrims for drinking and washing utensils. The third one is small essentially used for bivouacking and spending the night and therefore does not have any spiritual significance. The fourth cave is a further five minute uphill walk from here and offers a good view of the surrounding area. All the caves have colourful Lungtas strung across their entrances and stone altars with the floor littered with coins and discarded brass butter lamps.
My friend Manorath Dahal, a teacher in Tashiding Senior Secondary School who visited the cave a few years did some research into the significance of the Lharinyingphu. He had this to tell:
"In the main cave one would find the figures of Namthosay(Bishramana) surrounded by the eight deities of wealth. There are naturally arisen figures of Dorjee Phagmo (Bajra Barahi) surrounded by five Dakinis. In the central cave there are naturally formed figures of Amiteyus (Tsepegme) surrounded by the deities of long life. If one writes down the name of the people whom you want to live long, they will live long. In the north end cave are the figures of the Vajra Kila (Dorjee Phurba) surrounded by ten Kilayas and Trathaps. If one visits this palce and writes down names of acquaintances, they will become free of diseases, obstacles and enemies.”
It is late afternoon and our feet are weighing tons. On the narrow ledge in front of the caves we light a bon fire and cook our food. Devotees have left utensils, crockery and cutlery and I realize that we could have come here without carrying our own. Sadly, there is also a lot of litter around: plastic bottles, food wrappers, tins and left over food. Perhaps a mechanism of disposing this garbage would have to be developed. Notices should be put up exhorting the pilgrims to carry back their garbage to the road head and disposing it properly.
It is soon dusk. On the southern horizon the lights of Darjeeling come on and it looks as though the galaxies have descended on the earth. Lharinyingphu must be at an altitude of about 9,000ft for Darjeeling seems to be slightly below. After partaking to an early dinner, we crawl into the cave and lay out our sleeping bags on the hay that has been so thoughtfully been laid out by the earlier pilgrims. The altar at the corner of the cave is adorned with the picture of Guru Padmasambva. The sweet scent of burning incense and the soft glow of light from the butter lamps quickly lulls us off to sleep.
The twittering of birds wakes us up early next morning. We enter the main cave the entrance of which has a small bust of Lord Buddha. Further inside on the left there is a small gap just wide enough for a person to squeeze through that leads to a cavern about 10 feet high. It is pitch dark inside and we light a candle the ghostly light of which shows that from this cavern radiate a labyrinth of tunnels with altars at the end of each. The walls are sculptured naturally with formations. The air is rather musty. We crawl our way through these tunnels using our mobiles as torches and offer our obeisance and prayers by lighting lamps and incense. We talk in whispers for we are in the abode of Guru Padmasambva. Besides coins, butter lamps and khadas, people have made an assortment of offerings here: torches, pens, books and I even spot a transistor radio!
We walk back to Labdang covering the distance in about six hours. The journey has been a spiritually uplifting experience and has taken us to one of most hallowed corners of Sikkim.
This route has a good scope for being promoted as a part of the Buddhist circuit in the state. Pilgrims visiting Tashiding monastery during Bumchu in March should consider including Lharinyingphu as a part of their itinerary.

(The writer is Director, Information Technology, Government of Sikkim)