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)

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