Capital of Sikkim, the overgrown and colourful hill-town of Gangtok (1870m) occupies a rising ridge in the southeast of the state, on what used to be a busy trade route into Tibet. Today, rapid development means an ugly assortment of concrete multistorey buildings is growing virtually unchecked, and the urban sprawl retains only a few traditional Sikkimese architectural elements. However, a short amble soon leads you away from the congested centre to bring you occasional glimpses of the snow-capped Himalayas, and on a good day you can see Kanchenjunga, the horned peak of Narsing (5825m) and the fluted pyramid of Siniolchu (6887m) poking above the surrounding hills.
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While modern Gangtok epitomizes the recent changes in Sikkimese culture and politics, its Buddhist past is the root of its appeal for visitors, evident in the collection at the Institute of Tibetology and the charming Enchey Monastery, as well as the impressive Rumtek Monastery, 24km west of town. However, the palace on the tree lined promenade, the Ridge above town, used by the chogyals between 1894 and 1975, is now out of bounds, part-occupied by the government and a closed chapter in Sikkim’s heritage. Sikkim’s pride and joy, orchids are nurtured at several sites in and around Gangtok, and celebrated at the Flower Show Complex also on the Ridge.
Visible from Gangtok, and a popular 24km day-trip southwest of the capital, Rumtek is one of Sikkim’s largest and most impressive gompas and 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). The main temple, with its ornate facade covered in 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 may attend daily rituals here, when lines of monks sit chanting.
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 4m-high chorten or stupa, studded with turquoise and coral, which sits in the Golden Stupa hall opposite the Institute.
The Karma Kagyu and Rumtek
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 building a monastery at Rumtek, which was 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. A heavily armed security presence at Rumtek keeps the peace, but is a sad intrusion into the otherwise impressive monastery.