Visible from Gangtok, and a 24-km trip southwest of the capital, the large gompa of  RUMTEK is the main seat of the Karma Kagyu lineage – also known as the Black Hat sect – founded during the twelfth century by the first Gyalwa Karmapa, Dusun Khyenpa (1110–93). Dusun Khyenpa established the Tsurphu monastery in central Tibet near Lhasa, which became the headquarters of the Karma Kagyu for eight centuries until the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1959. The sixteenth Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, fled Tibet for Sikkim, where he was invited to stay at the old Rumtek gompa. Within a couple of years, the Karmapa had begun the work of building a new monastery at Rumtek to become his new seat, on land donated by the Sikkimese king Chogyal Tashi Namgyal. One of the great Tibetan figures of the twentieth century, the sixteenth Karmapa was very influential in the spread of Tibetan Buddhism to the West, setting up over two hundred Karma Kagyu centres and raising funds for the rebuilding of Tsurphu. When he died in 1981, he left behind a wealthy monastery and a huge and lucrative international network, but one bitterly divided by an ugly squabble over his rightful successor. Two reincarnate Karmapas have now emerged as the main contenders to the throne – one blessed by the Dalai Lama and ensconced in Dharamsala, the other in nearby Kalimpong.

The new Rumtek, now heavily guarded against possible clashes between the feuding parties, is a large and lavish complex consisting of the main temple, golden stupa, and the Karma Shri Nalanda Institute, with a few smaller shrines and a guesthouse outside the monastery courtyard. Foreigners need to register passport details at the checkpoint off the bazaar. The main temple, with its ornate facade covered with intricate brightly painted wooden latticework, overlooks the expansive courtyard. Large red columns support the high roof of the prayer hall, where the walls are decorated with murals and thangkas. Visitors can attend daily rituals here, when lines of monks sit chanting. A chamber off the hall, used for Tantric rituals, is painted with gold against a black background and depicts wrathful protective deities. During Losar, the Tibetan New Year (in Feb), the main courtyard stages a spectacular chaam, in which ceremonial Black Hat dancers spin to the sounds of horns, drums and clashing cymbals.

The Karma Shri Nalanda Institute of Buddhist Studies, behind the main temple, built in 1984 in traditional Tibetan style, is the most ornate of all the buildings of Rumtek. Monks spend a minimum of nine years studying here, followed by an optional three-year period of isolated meditation. The ashes of the sixteenth Karmapa are contained in a gilded four-metre-high chorten or stupa, studded with turquoise and coral, that sits in the Golden Stupa hall opposite the Institute. Behind the stupa is a central statue of Dorje Chang (Vajradhara) flanked by Tilopa, Naropa, Marpa and Milarepa, the four great Kagyu teachers. Statues of the previous sixteen Karmapas line the side walls.

Two kilometres beyond the new monastery and Rumtek village, a flower- and prayer flag-lined path leads to the simple Old Rumtek Gompa, the original monastery, founded in 1740 and recently renovated. The quiet setting, surrounded by empty outbuildings in traditional Sikkimese alpine style, with latticed wooden windows, is a world away from the charged atmosphere of the main complex. Behind the statues in the main prayer hall on the right side is a small shrine room dedicated to the Karma Kagyu protector Mahakala, an image so fierce that it is kept veiled.

The most rewarding route to Rumtek is via the impressive Zum Gharwang gompa of Lingdum, completed in 1998 and an easy 14km taxi ride (Rs30) from the centre of Gangtok. A haven of peace surrounded by deep woodland, the Lingdum is a grand example of modern monastic architecture, with an expansive terrace and courtyard. Inside, delicate and detailed murals depict the life of the Buddha.