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.
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.
Gangtok’s hotels are expensive in high season (broadly speaking April–June and Sept–Nov), but offer discounted rates at other times. As the town has spread, so has the choice of accommodation, with some excellent hotels and guesthouses springing up along the highway at Deorali, and a growing number of alternatives within striking distance of town.
Though Gangtok has mushroomed into a modern town with hip eateries and bars, most places still wrap up by 9pm.
The town’s best shopping areas are the Main Market, stretching for 1km along the pedestrianized MG Marg, and the local produce bazaar in the concrete Kanchenjunga Shopping Complex (Lal Bazar). Here, stalls sell dried fish, dri (female yak) cheese (churpi), and yeast for making the local beer, tomba; on Sundays, there’s a haat (bazaar) when people from surrounding areas sell traditional wares from the villages. Curio shops on MG Marg and on Paljor Stadium Rd sell turquoise and coral jewellery, plus religious objects such as silver ritual bowls and beads.
Right at the top of town and just below a colossal telecom tower, sits Enchey Monastery, a small two-storey Nyingmapa gompa. Visitors are welcome; the best time to go is between 7am and 8am, when the monastery is busy and the light is good.
The monastery was built in the mid-nineteenth century on a site blessed by the Tantric master Druptob Karpo, who was fabled for his ability to fly. Surrounded by tall pines, and housing more than a hundred monks, the building suffered some damage in the 2011 earthquake, but remains a gem of a place. Built by the chogyal on traditional Tibetan lines, the prayer hall’s beautifully painted porch is filled with murals of protective deities and the wheel of law, while the conch shells that grace the doors are auspicious Buddhist symbols. Enchey holds an annual masked chaam, during the Losung festival, usually held in early December.
A spectacular viewpoint festooned with prayer flags, Ganesh Tok provides a sweeping view of the city sprawling below. A further 5km up the road to Tsomgo Lake, Hanuman Tok (2300m) is another viewpoint with vistas of eastern Sikkim, and is the cremation ground of the Royal Family, with chortens containing relics of the deceased; the Hanuman temple after which the spot is named is more recent.
Visitors come to the 506-acre Himalayan Zoological Park in the hope of catching a glimpse of the red pandas (which are especially easy to spot), snow leopards, bears and Tibetan wolves that roam the extensive open-air enclosures.
South of Gangtok at Deorali, the lower part of town, set in wooded grounds, is the museum-cum-library of the Institute of Tibetology with an impressive and invaluable collection of books and rare manuscripts, as well as religious artefacts such as exquisite thangkas (scrolls) and a photography archive. You can also get here from the upper town via the ropeway cable car.
Within the same complex as the Institute of Tibetology, an imposing whitewashed chorten, known as the Do-Drul Chorten – one of the most important in Sikkim – dominates a large, lively monastic seminary on the brow of a hill. The chorten is capped by a gilded tower, whose rising steps signify the thirteen steps to nirvana; the sun and moon symbol at the top stands for the union of opposites and the elements of ether and air, surrounded by 108 prayer wheels. Behind the monastic complex, a prayer hall houses a large image of Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava) who brought Buddhism to Tibet at the request of King Trisong Detsen in the eighth century AD. He later travelled through Sikkim hiding precious manuscripts (termas) in caves, for discovery at a future date by tertons. Curiously, part of the head of the image projects into the ceiling; belief has it that the image is slowly growing.
The most obvious destinations for day-trips from Gangtok are the great Buddhist monasteries of Rumtek to the southwest, and Phodong to the north. Indian tourists flock to Tsomgo Lake and beyond, to the Tibetan border at Nathu La.
Tsomgo Lake (pronounced “Changu”), 35km northeast of Gangtok and just 20km from the Tibetan border at Nathu La, is a scenic spot at an altitude of 3750m. It is popular with Indian and foreign visitors alike, all of whom need permits arranged through travel agents. Indian visitors flock here to sample the high-mountain environment and, hopefully, experience the thrill of snow in the colder months. It’s possible to visit the Kyongnosla Alpine Sanctuary (3350m) en route, where a profusion of wild flowers bloom between May and August and migratory birds stop over in winter on their annual migration from Siberia to India. Only Indian nationals are allowed up to the trade post at Serathang and Nathu La (4130m), where, at a motley collection of border buildings, they try to catch a glimpse of Chinese soldiers.
The most rewarding route to Rumtek from Gangtok is via the impressive Zum Gharwang gompa of Lingdum (also called Ranka), completed in 1998. A haven of peace surrounded by deep woodland, Lingdum is a grand example of modern monastic architecture, with an expansive terrace and courtyard. Inside, delicate and detailed murals, with a predominance of pastel colours, depict the life of the Buddha. Adrenaline junkies will find several paragliding outfits here.
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.
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.
The road to Phodong, another living but far less ostentatious monastery, passes Kabi Lunchok, a pleasant wooded spot marking a historic treaty between the Lepchas and the Bhutias, and some spectacular waterfalls.
On a high spur of 3km above the small Phodong Bazar, Phodong commands superb views, with a simple, square main temple and several outhouses. Built in the early eighteenth century, this was Sikkim’s pre-eminent Kagyu monastery until the growth of Rumtek in the 1960s. It too hosts colourful lama dances, similar to the chaam of Rumtek, each December.
A rough road leads a further 4km up from Phodong to another renovated old monastery – the unusual octagonal Labrang. A cluster of chortens between these two monasteries marks the ruins of Tumlong, Sikkim’s capital city for most of the nineteenth century.
Top image: Gangtok city aerial panoramic view from Ropeway in the Indian state of Sikkim, India © saiko3p/Shutterstock