Gangtok Revisited

This was my fourth time in Sikkim. And the first trip of 2018. It was first half of January. Darjeeling was mercilessly cold and shit lonely. Ever since I had come back from Calcutta I was feeling really low. God knows why though. It sucks when you are always moving from one thing to another and you never really seem to find your destination. I was dying to come back to Darjeeling when I was in Calcutta and I was feeling homesick after getting back. Apparently, vagabond like me also gets tired of the endless journey sometimes. Not to mention after coming back I got an unexpected shock from someone. Something that led me to shut my blog for a while. And a break from social media. Me, the same person that puts up ten status story per day on Whatsapp and Instagram. So bottom-line was, I was feeling low. Not just my same old depressive shit type low. Something was aching inside me. Some tiny yet powerful bug was constantly gnawing at my inner walls. I couldn't eat. I couldn't sleep. I wouldn't even cry. I would just lay awake in my bed, looking at the stick-on glow-in-the-dark stars on my ceiling. I knew I needed to go somewhere. Not just anywhere, I needed to go somewhere to cleanse my soul for a bit. Ever since I came to Darjeeling I wanted to go on a solo trip to Sikkim. And that's when I remembered. Gangtok. Where it all had started. Where I had found a lost piece of myself. And when in doubt, always go back to the root and you will find answer there. Do you know who said it? Guess.

Sometimes you take a step and the universe comes to take care of the rest. I wanted to visit Rumtek; I wanted to offer puja following the proper rituals. So I had called up Mr. B. I knew Mr. B's nephew was the head lama there but I never expected to meet him. It turned out lama la would be there at Rumtek and Mr. B would make an appointment for me. That was the first sign and a good one. It was the start of a long weekend. One of my staffs was also heading for Gangtok that same day and he had requested me to come along. It takes about three hours from Darjeeling to reach Gangtok. Route is simple. Darjeeling, Ghum, Lamahatta, Kalimpong, Rangpo, Ranipool, Gangtok. Road is as picturesque as full of hairpin bends. To be honest, I wasn't in the best mood that day and I spent most of the time during the journey sticking my face between the pages of a book mostly in order to avoid conversation with my co-passengers while they were lolling around me due to acute motion sickness.

The vehicles coming from Darjeeling do not go all the way till the centre of the town. You have to stop at the outskirt from where you can take a local taxi that would drop you near M G Marg. Ever since the start of journey I was getting astonished remarks for travelling all alone and the cab drivers of Gangtok were no exception. However, Sikkim is perhaps one of the safest states of India when it comes to women safety and not for a second I felt uncomfortable during the whole trip. I had no prior booking and nor did I intend to tag along with my co-passengers for one more minute. I hopped into a cab and asked the driver to take me to any good hotel near M G Marg.

Gangtok's elevation is much lower than that of Darjeeling and as a result winter is very pleasant there. Sky was a bit cloudy and it wasn't freezing. The driver took me to a hotel just above the promenade and they gave me a ground floor room. It is funny to think that only two weeks later I would be staying at another hotel at the other end of India. And my Gangtok accommodation was seven-star compared to that hole in Jaipur. But there I was with one of my most favourite people in the world and here I was all alone.

I had had lunch en route so I wasn't famished. And I was running out of time. The place on my list for the day was Sir Tashi Namgyal Institute of Tibetology. The place closes by four in the afternoon and it was already half past two. There was no question of taking rest or changing clothes. I just put my bag, did a quick scan of the room, and headed for my destination.

I could have taken a cab but I did not want to spend any money and mostly I wanted to stretch my legs. Usually when I feel low I choose to walk. I wasn't sad exactly; but the heaviness in my chest was not leaving. I started walking. I took the stairs to M G Marg then walked past Laal Bazar then took another flight of stairs to reach the main road. Now it's a straight walk. I know Gangtok better than Calcutta.

Institute of Tibetology is actually quite far and for a moment or two my confidence dwindled and I thought I had lost my way. But I was on the right track and after a while I saw the gate. It was my fourth or fifth visit to the place. Photography is prohibited inside the museum. I took off my boots and went inside. The same old thangkas, same old ritual items, the same old idol of Manjushree in the middle, looking out with benevolent expression and barabhaya. I would have felt even better if those rodent-like tourists were not there making bloody noise.

The path leading to the institute winds upward and ends with a chorten at the top. Every nooks and crannies of the whole place was so familiar that I was getting hit by series of mixed emotional waves. Not good for my anxiety. I tore my mind off the past and tried to stay in the present moment. Upon reaching I realized some festival was going on there and the courtyard was alive with clusters of monks clad in red robes. My timing couldn't be better. I went in and lit some butter lamps with the help of a jolly-looking senior monk. Young monks were busy humming prayers in front of the giant effigies in the middle. I went ahead and took a seat in the last row. An old man was sitting by my side along with 5-6 ladies of various ages clad in colourful kira. They turned out to be a single family from Thimphu. They were there to perform post-funeral rites of their mom who had died last week. I was enjoying the ambiance while contemplating if I should go back now. I was feeling very hungry. But I wanted to stay back little longer. The monotonous tempo of chanting was having a calming effect on my mind. But my stomach had another story to tell. It had started to growl with the rhythm of gongs when a fresh batch of monks entered the hall with multiple crates in their hands. Food! I bet my jaw was still hanging open when they left after serving us steaming cup of coffee, a croissant and a huge blueberry muffin each. When I had returned to town the sun had set long back and I was no longer hungry or tired.

Gangtok is a much more happening place than Darjeeling. Be it night-life or any cultural fest, Sikkim's calendar always comes packed.  It was the winter carnival time in Sikkim. The entire stretch of M G Marg was dazzling with makeshift stalls selling sustainable home decor to homemade chocolates with live performance on the stage in middle. I bought an assorted chocolate hamper and sat on one bench. Observing the crowd is my favourite time-pass. However, the wind was getting chillier and sitting amidst a sea of cackling people made me feel even more lonelier. Suddenly I was craving the warmth of the bed back in my hotel room. I got up and began walking back.

Next morning I had my appointment with the head monk of Rumtek. I was excited as well as nervous. I had gone to bed the previous night mentally jotting down questions I would ask him. Anxiety is a bitch. I was already half crying out of all the pent-up emotions. I woke up fairly early. There was another thing on my list but I knew that place wouldn't open before eight o' clock so I took my own sweet time getting ready. I had packed only two dresses while coming. I put on the fresh one and I was good to go.

If you happen to visit Gangtok and don't have breakfast at Baker's Cafe then you are a conceited fool. The place was totally empty when I went in and took my favourite seat at the corner facing the mountains. I was their first and only customer of the hour. Thank god for that. I ordered cheese-corn sandwich, orange muffin and a cup of tea. I had to chalk out my plan for the day meanwhile. I had never been to Rumtek alone and I had no idea if there was local taxi service available. Rumtek is quite far from Gangtok and I was in no mood for booking a whole cab. I felt bitterness creeping up. Oh god what the fuck am I doing here all alone? What was I thinking? I had to shush the voices in my head. I was going to meet the monk man today; no cuss word before that at least. So I decided I had better open my mouth and make the first human interaction for the day. I swallowed my bitterness with the last dreg of tea and got up. I asked the smiling waiter man while paying the bill about the availability of cab service to Rumtek, if any. His answer was affirmative. So I headed off to the parking lot he had given me the direction to.

Rumtek is about 23 kilometers from Gangtok. From Ranka (?) the car takes a right turn and the uphill journey starts. Path is rocky and jagged here. I couldn't find a share taxi so it was the driver and I alone together. Driver was a young, lanky Sikkimese guy named Karma. With his nerdy spectacles and graphic hoodie he looked more like a computer hacker than driver. I might be in a more sombre mood than usual but I found the driver's name to be a significant coincidence. Karma was taking me to salvation. Although I don't hope for a salvation anymore. What was more interesting that he flirted with me the whole journey. What on earth the men see in me anyway??

Gyaltsen Namgyal, the Vajra Master of Rumtek is a big man of warm disposition but few words. Or maybe he was not comfortable with the medium of conversation (I speak English exactly the way I write.) and I could see he was feeling bamboozled by my flurry of questions. So he asked one of his prodigies to accompany us. I don't know how much you know about the men in robe but I can tell you they make delightful companions and I could see the mischievous sparks in the young boy's eyes while he was explaining to me the names and functions of different gods on the wall around us. One ITBP guy was looking down from upstairs. Rumtek is a controversial place. On my previous trips I had only been to the main temple. This time I got to visit the Mahakala temple and the alter dedicated to goddess Tseringma. The holy water that I tasted at the alter of Mahakal was raw whisky. (Imagine my face being lit up with a toothy grin when I typed this sentence.) And then they took me to the most important shrine of Rumtek -- the Golden Stupa. The Golden Stupa or the Lhabab Chorten is the stupa that contains the holy remains of the Sixteenth Karmapa and considered to be one of the holiest places of Sikkim. Usually visitors are not allowed inside the glass room but since I was a special guest (I am SO vain, aren't I?) I was granted an audience with His Holiness up close. The chorten is made of gold, copper and semi precious stones from Tibet and surrounded by all the great masters of Karma Kagyu lineage and other gods and goddesses. I must have done something good in my life. (It's hard to believe so when you had been surrounded by people always tearing you apart.) But standing in front of that intricate work of art when I put my palms together and bowed down everything else became one collective blurry vision in that moment. My past mistakes, regrets, failures, future fears, hopes, unseen dreams -- everything simply ceased to exist. I was just immensely grateful that life had given me those few minutes. What more can I ask for?

I was feeling so happy after the visit that I ended up shopping that evening. I know, old habits die hard. But at least I didn't drink. And anyway, lying under blanket in a king-size bed and watching TV while someone else was making your dinner could be a better stress-buster than a bottle of wine.

Next morning Karma again came to pick me up. Today I was heading back to Darjeeling. But before that we were going to Rey Monastery. To observe the Chham dance. I know right?? The gods of the Himalayas were showering their blessings upon me. And just imagine, I had no prior idea or plan for this bit of the trip. It was my driver's idea.

If you are wondering where this Rey Monastery is then let me give you the easiest direction. When in Gangtok look to the hills around you. You will see a small monastery perched right on a hill just across Gangtok. That's Rey Monastery. During my previous trips I had always wondered about the faraway solitary temple. I had always wanted to go there. And this time I was going there. The journey was not entirely smooth. It's a shame that still half the Sikkim lacks proper infrastructure.

Chham is a ritual dance in Vajrayana that usually takes place during Mahakala puja. The masked dancers dance with the rhythm of the ritual instruments and chanting. Tibetan chanting has a hypnotising quality about them. Every time I hear them something in me stirs up; like some karmic connection from long-forgotten previous incarnation. The dance usually depicts various stages of 'bardo' -- the transitional phase of soul between death and rebirth. But don't think the ambiance remains to sombre. The jesters are also present there to keep mood light. Their job is to do silly activities to make the audience laugh. The guy in yellow robe snatched my phone (in all good spirit) and started mimicking selfie pose. Even though it was quite hilarious I hate to draw attention to myself in public. I was quite relieved when I got my phone back.

I wanted to sit there with the crowd, and watch the whole programme. But time was running out and I had to start my journey back. I wasn't sad though. I had wanted a respite from the maddening ache in my bones and the gods of the Himalayas were good to me. I guess that's just enough for now.

With Lama La. We have stayed in touch by the way. He puts up with my virtual babbling with his monastic calmness.

Rey Monastery

Yep. He was the one who snatched my phone to 'take' selfie.

In case you are wondering, my tshirt reads, "Life is tough, but so are you."

I had spotted this duo on my trip circa 2016. They had been taking nap that time also, at the same spot precisely.