As the car climbed up through the winding mountain side, the charming scenery all around suddenly gave way to monochrome. The sudden transition caught us off-guard leaving us tad surprised even though it had been raining off and on for a while now. The day had started bright and sunny but now the sky was overcast. The tall mountains on either side of the tarred road were cloaked in patches of white and grey.
We had arrived at Gangtok the day before with plans of visiting North Sikkim. However, leaving Gangtok without visiting the touristy Tsomgo Lake and Nathula Pass would be sinful – so what if these places are located in East Sikkim! Hence, off we headed towards Tsomgo Lake. Nathula Pass hadn’t opened for the season even though it was the month of April. Last winter was harsher than usual resulting in the Pass being still closed due to snow.
Situated at an altitude of 12,313 ft, the oval shaped Tsomgo is a glacial high-altitude alpine lake. Spread over 1 Km. with a depth of around 48 ft., it is also known as Changu Lake. The lake is considered sacred and located about 35 Km. away from Gangtok. The colour of the lake changes in different seasons and it is said that the spirituals gurus of Sikkim would predict the future of the state by studying the colour of the water. Due to its proximity to China, Protected Area Permit (PAP) is required to visit this place.
The lake looked stunning even though it was teeming with tourists. It was partially frozen making it even more enigmatic and magical. A large part of the surroundings was also wrapped in snow. The spectacular beauty of the lake enticed us but the swarm of people all around was quite a turn off. Tsomgo Lake being a popular tourist destination in Sikkim, the crowd wasn’t surprising and we had expected this. A small bridge connects one side of the lake to the other. We walked over to the other side. One can also avail yak rides to go to the other side.
After a short walk by the side of the lake, the touristy selfie-clicking chattering people got the better of us and we decided to leave. Instead we found a quiet place higher up in the mountain by the side of the road that provided a perfect view of the lake. And there we feasted in the magical scenic landscape of the ethereal lake nestled in between tall gigantic mountains. Everything remained black and white though.
Unfathomable Faith of Baba Mandir
Before spending time at Tsomgo Lake, we had gone to Baba Mandir – a unique temple that houses the shrine of Baba Harbhajan Singh. A very fascinating story is associated with this temple.
Harbhajan Singh was a soldier with the Indian Army. He belonged to the Punjab Regiment. In 1968, he was involved with flood and landslide relief work in Sikkim and North Bengal. During that time, the 27-year old soldier had slipped and fallen into a rivulet while escorting a mule column from Tuku La, his battalion headquarters, to Donguchui La. He went missing and all search efforts went in vain. After 5 days, Harbhajan Singh appeared in the dream of a fellow soldier informing about his death by drowning and that his body was carried 2 Km. away from the site of accident by strong current. Apparently, he also expressed his desire of having a samadhi (tomb) built in his name. His body was discovered exactly at the mentioned place.
Thereafter he came to be known as Baba Harbhajan Singh and his regiment built a samadhi at the place where he was posted during his service. The samadhi is the original temple, located about 10 Km. away from the new temple. This we learnt much later while at Dzongu Valley. The place we visited happens to be the new temple built for the convenience of tourists. I wish I knew about the original samadhi well in time to be able to visit it.
Army folklore has it that Baba Harbhajan Singh still guards the international boundary between India and China. Apparently both Indian and Chinese armymen have seen a human figure riding a horse along the border at night. It is also believed that Baba appears in dreams of fellow armymen warning about any untoward activities happening at the border. Chinese soldiers also set aside a chair for the Baba whenever a flag meeting is held between the two countries.
The Army payroll still has his name and he receives his salary, due promotions, and is also granted leave as per policy. All this intrigued me and I googled later to learn that the Baba goes home on September 13th every year when a berth is booked for him in Dibrugarh Express. Army officials take his portrait, uniform, and other belongings to his village Kuka, in Kapurthala district of Punjab. The same soldiers carry the belongings back to the Sikkim, once the leaves get over.
The new Baba Mandir has three rooms in a straight row. The room at the center has an idol of the soldier along with Guru Nanak Dev Ji, the founder of Sikhism. The room on the right has a chair and a table that represents the Baba’s office. It also has a heater to keep him warm. The room on the left, is filled with water bottles. It is believed that water kept in the shrine is blessed by the Baba and if consumed after 21 days cures all possible ailments. Hoards of tourists and devotees visit the temple and offer things like toothbrushes, slippers, etc. One can also send letters to the Baba, which are opened by other soldiers.
Pic 9: The office
Pic 10: The room with bottles of water.
The original samadhi has a room that has everything that may be required by the Baba, such as, neatly ironed uniforms, slippers, shoes, camp bed, etc. Indian Army soldiers polish the Baba’s boots, keep his uniform clean, and make his bed. The soldiers have apparently reported crumpled bed linen and muddy boots.
All of these would appear delusionary to a pragmatic mind. The Indian Army, however, believes in the spirit of Baba Harbhajan Singh. Everything in the universe cannot be fathomed by our limited understanding, hence let faith triumph over logic for this bizarre place of worship.
“I couldn’t have had a better start to this day,” I said aloud as I looked out of the window of our room. Kanchenjunga Peak was covered by clouds but Pandim massif and Kabru peak were right there, seemingly looking at me acknowledging the statement that I just made. Mr. Karma, our homestay owner, had said the day before – “You have to be blessed by Kongchen Chu to set your foot here.” And, at that moment, blessed is what I felt! (Kongchen Chu is the local name for Mt. Kanchenjunga.)
It was the month of April and the day was special as it was my birthday. My sister and I were in Dzongu Valley to experience the Lepcha way of life at Karma Lepcha’s home. Located in North Sikkim, Dzongu Valley is about 70 Km. away from Gangtok. The entrypoint to the valley is Mangan, the district headquarter of North Sikkim.
Located within the Kanchenjunga biosphere, Dzongu is sparsely populated, inhabited by the Lepcha Tribe – the happy and peace-loving aboriginal people of Sikkim. The Lepchas believe that they are descendants of the mountains and the word ‘Lepcha’ literally means ‘Children of the Gods’. The Lepchas are a vanishing tribe with a dwindling population of about 50k across parts of Sikkim, Nepal, Bhutan, and West Bengal. The Lepchas have lived in Dzongu Valley for centuries and it was declared as a protected area for the Lepchas in the 1960s.
Lepchas are nature worshipers and believe that Mt. Kanchenjunga or Kongchen Chu is their protector. They are duty-bound towards Mother Nature and believe that by performing good deeds they will be rewarded with an afterlife and eternal bliss at Mayal Lyang – heaven hidden in the foothills of Kongchen Chu. Lepcha folklore has that Dzongu is the bridge to Mayal Lyang, which is the place of origin of the Lepchas.
When we Arrived
The day before we had made a dramatic entry to Dzongu Valley at dusk, when the sky was overcast with dark clouds and it was raining quite heavily. The low visibility through the narrow, broken, winding road right up to the village with a deep plunge to Teesta on one side wasn’t the most comfortable thing though! We were going towards Tingvong, a village in upper Dzongu where we were to put up at Rumlyang Homestay for the next two days.
Dzongu is divided into the northern ‘Upper Dzongu’ and southern ‘Lower Dzongu’ by Rongyang River, a tributary of Teesta. Dzongu Valley is vast and remains largely uninhabited though both these regions have several villages. The mighty Teesta that separates Dzongu from the rest of North Sikkim had changed its course after a devastating landslide in 2016. This resulted in the breakdown of the only motorable bridge that connected the villages of Upper Dzongu. A hanging bridge now connects Upper Dzongu with mainland but it is a walkway and vehicles cannot pass through. Hence, the Innova we had been traveling in for the past few days could not go up to the village. It went upto the landslide area over the broken bridge and another vehicle arrived from the village to take us.
Earlier, as the Innova had taken a turn from Mangan towards Dzongu the stunning greenery had made us feel like we were entering Amazon Forest.
The Welcome Drink
Karma and his brothers welcomed us to their home with Chee, the locally brewed liquor, served in bamboo mugs with bamboo straws. Chee is made by fermenting millets and is like an organic beer. As a custom, Chee can be consumed only after offering it to Mt. Kanchenjunga and there’s a particular way of doing this.
Aarack is the other local liquor that is brewed from cinnamon plant and has a strong and pungent taste.
The Lepchas lead a self-sustained life and vegetables and crops are grown with organic manure. They only buy rice, pulses, and salt from outside. Cooking in their kitchen still happens on earthen ovens with log fires – surreal to us, the city dwellers. Karma did have a LPG gas stove but they seldom use it. The village had just one provision store that didn’t have much to offer.
The Picnic that Didn’t Happen
Day-1 in the village and my sister and I were up early in the morning. The sun was yet to reach the valley but the chirping and chattering birds made sure we stepped out of our room. Karma and his brothers – Dawa, Nordin, and Tashi – were still asleep.
The greenery in the morning light was freshly captivating. We took a stroll in the neighborhood amidst rice and cardamom fields, across icy rivulets, through random fluttering of Buddhist prayer flags, and admiring little boys and girls peeping though half-opened doors of their traditional huts.
We ended our morning odyssey by walking over to Karma’s elder brother’s home, situated closeby. Randomly walking into somebody’s home and introducing yourself – quite unimaginable, right?
Later that morning, my sister offered to prepare parathas for breakfast. Karma announced the weather was perfect and it was my birthday, and that called for a picnic. And off we went. Loaded pats and pans, some potatoes, and some rice and lentils onto the Bolero-like vehicle. Karma, his three brothers, a relative of theirs, and the two of us.
We first went to Lingzya waterfall, a steep vertical drop of about 300 ft in the middle of greens. We spent a substantial amount of time there while Karma and gang indulged in noodling but with no success.
We then visited the Lingdem hot water spring, located in Lower Dzongu. The hot water spring has two log cabins for men and women. However, the outlet of both were clogged at that time and a common area was provided outside for everyone. We dipped into the hot waters for a good 45-50 min. along with Karma’s gang. Just visualize soaking in the goodness of the medicinal qualities and healing powers of a Himalayan hot Sulphur spring in the middle of a dense forest beside a stream of icy melt. Pure bliss!
Soon after the rains decided to play spoil sport ruining our picnic plans and forcing us to return to the homestay for the day.
By evening, the rains had stopped and the skies had cleared up. Nordin and Dawa came by inviting us for a walk to the village school, and off we went with them. There we found Tashi playing football with the village boys and also met a school teacher with whom we had some interesting discussions about Sikkim’s political scenario.
We ended the day with some melodious and rhythmic Lepcha music over a simple dinner of rice, dal, and potatoes. Nordin and my sister danced away while we cheered them, sipped Chee, and chatted our way into the night.
Kanchenjunga remained covered by clouds had eluded us so far. The other peaks, namely, Sinolchu, Kabru, Pandim, Langam Chu, and Pungyong Chu were clearly visible most of the time. While Pungyong Chu is considered to be the guardian of Kanchenjunga, Langam Chu is the guardian of Tingvong village.
On Day-2, we woke up to clear skies and looked out of the window of our room and voila – there stood the majestic Kanchenjunga draped in shining white. We jumped out of bed and rushed out. Karma recommended we walk a few meters ahead in the street for a better view and we did just that without bothering to even brush our teeth. We wanted to make the most of the view before the clouds came back. The view, however, remained clear for the next 2-3 hours. Karma thought we were really lucky and I guess we were.
The Village Hike
My sister and I gelled very well with the two brothers, Dawa and Nordin. We were already having a great time together. So much so that they decided to postpone some work they had in Mangan and stay back to take us for a hike to the village monastery and the other five villages that constitute Tingvong Gram Panchayat in Upper Dzongu. These villages are Namprick, Nung, Tingvong, Lonkoo, and Kusoong.
A flight of steep steps took us to the village monastery and the climb was not an easy one. It was a special day at the monastery and some rituals were underway. The monks offered us fruits, biscuits and butter tea.
Thereafter, we reached Kusoong village walking through cardamom fields and bamboo plantations, across rickety bamboo bridges over several streams, and a waterfall here and there. The day was bright and sunny until then. The weather Gods changed their mood soon and it started drizzling. Dawa and Nordin took us to their friend’s home where we decided to wait till the rains stopped. The slight drizzle, turned to hailstorm and heavy rains, which continued incessantly for the next 3 hours. Dawa prepared tea and noodles as we waited for the rains to stop.
Finally, the rains lessened. It was pretty late by then and we decided to go back to the homestay instead of the other villages. Karma had prepared some special bamboo shoot dish for us and we did not want to disappoint him by not having lunch. We reached back around 4.00 PM and had a late lunch together.
The rains continued lashing through the evening forcing us to remain indoors. It was cold and there was no electricity. We spend the evening in Karma’s kitchen cozily wrapped in blankets catching up on stories from our respective lives.
My sister and I left behind a part of ourselves at Dzongu. We are certain, we have some greater connection with Karma and his brothers. At Karma’s home, we never felt like guests. It was like visiting friends or family. There are many subtle feelings and emotions that I cannot describe in words. Dzongu has been super special and shall always remain so. God willing, I would love to go there once again and stay for a longer duration. Three days is hardly sufficient to explore the valley.
Lepcha Words and Phrases
Here are some Lepcha words and phrases that we picked up during our stay:
Achuley: Cheers, used mostly while drinking Chee
Chee: Wine, liquor, alcohol
Tokchee: Thank you
Tokchee atim: Thank you very much
Eng: Younger sibling – brother or sister
Anum: Elder brother
Anom: Elder sister
Adho sa ab ryang shugo: What is your name?
Ho sarey jong nee: How are you?
Go arum se: I am good
Adhom go lenchyo matsyo: I love you
Kat, Net, Sam, Flee, Fumo: One, Two, Three, Four, Five
I have a feeling of incompleteness about this write up. Perhaps, I have not been able to capture the essence of Dzongu Valley. The feelings and emotions I have experienced are beyond words. I leave you with some more pictures.
My sister couldn’t contain her joy and even did a little dance in the back seat of the car where she was seated alone. I was occupying the front seat with our driver, Lalu. Her fervent and silent prayers had been answered. Lalu had just received a phone call that the road to Gurodongmer Lake had opened up.
Gurodongmer Lake was one of the main reasons I had planned our Sikkim trip. Situated at an altitude of 17,800 ft, Gurodongmer is one of the highest freshwater lakes in the world. It is considered sacred and is located in North Sikkim, just 5 Km. south of China border. Having experienced the divinity of another such high altitude holy lake, Chandrataal in Spiti Valley, I was keen on experiencing the same at Gurudongmar.
However, just a week before leaving for Sikkim I got to know that the road to Gurudongmar was closed. Usually it opens around March end but the heavy snowfall that happened this winter was responsible for this. I was upset but kept thinking that it may just open by the time we go. While I made peace and decided to be open to possibilities, my sister (my travel companion yet again) sent out silent prayers to the mountains to make it happen for us. And serendipity happened! The day we had Gurudongmar on our itinerary, the roads miraculously opened up.
Legend About Gurudongmar
Gurudongmar Lake is named after Guru Padmasambhava or Guru Rinpoche, the founder of Tibetan Buddhism. Dongmar means ‘red face’, and the lake supposedly represents the angry side of Guru Padmasambhava. Apparently, Guru Padmasambhava visited this lake on his way from Tibet and had felt a divine reverence towards the place. The lake used to remain frozen for most part of the year and could not provide drinking water to the local people. They prayed to the Guru, who placed his hand on a part of the lake and ever since that part never freezes even in sub-zero temperatures. Gurudongmar Lake has been revered and respected since then. The Sikhs believe that Guru Nanak, the spiritual leader of Sikhism, had once passed by this lake when he had traveled to this part of India and had blessed it.
Nature conspired and things worked out according to our wish. We felt blessed. Not only did the road to the lake open up, we woke up to mountain peaks glowing in the morning sun – indications of a bright and sunny day. And, it was just that! The sky remained a clear blue throughout the day, something which never happened any other day during our stay at Sikkim.
The lake is about 67 Km. from Lachen and the entire route is exquisitely gorgeous. We started from Lachen at about 5.00 AM. As the narrow bumpy road snaked up, the snow draped mountains started making their grandiose appearance and with every turn the mountains got bigger and prettier. I was busy gorging on the surreal surroundings when, Lalu called out that the temperature was 4 degrees. “No wonder I’m feeling so cold,” I said aloud to myself! At some places either side of the road wore a purple hue with a liberal dose of Primulas scattered all around.
Soon we were at Thangu, the last civilian inhabited village before the lake. Here we ran into a traffic jam as a vehicle had gotten stuck in the muddy road. We stepped out of the car. The sun shone sharp but the cold was sharper! We couldn’t stay out for long and had to get into the vehicle. After about an hour here, we continued our journey and arrived at the Giagong check post at 15000 Ft., 11 Km. before Gurudongmar Lake. The Army checked our permits and we continued to the final stretch where the dusty bumpy road gave way to sleek tarred road. On some stretches, there were heaps of snow on either side of the road, clearly indicating that the road had just been cleared.
Just before the lake, the landscape changed dramatically to a barren desert land with patches of snow. Pretty soon we were close to our destination. The deep blue sky playfully provoked us and we decided to get off the car and walk the rest of the way. The thin air was apparent and every step seemed like a huge effort. We climbed a little hillock and there it was, silent and quiet right before our eyes.
I expected still blue waters, instead all I could see was a huge expanse of white – the lake was completely frozen. The frozen lake was nevertheless enchanting exuding a charm of its own. The part of the lake that does not freeze did have the azure blue water though. We walked around for a while. The temperature was -2 degree centigrade. The sun was blindingly bright, the skies were clear, and the wind was cold. The peace emanating within us is something that no words can explain. Numerous colourful prayer flags fluttered, as if sending messages of peace and calm to all the visitors. We sat down for a while exchanging no words taking in the glorious surroundings – the frozen lake with the rugged snow-covered mountains at it’s far end.
I found myself silently wondering if I wanted to come here again to feel the stillness of the unfrozen blue waters or if I wanted to keep this frozen view in my mind forever.