Pemayangtse Monastery Pelling Sikkim

Pelling (in Sikkim) is home to one of the most beautiful monasteries I have ever seen – the Pemayangtse Monastery.

Pemayangtse Monastery

Founded by Lama Lhatsun Chempo in 1705, it is one of the oldest and premier monasteries of Sikkim. Also interesting is the fact that this was a monastery specially built for “pure monks” (ta-tshang) meaning “monks of pure Tibetan lineage“, celibate and without any physical abnormality. This practice is still retained.

History apart, you are sure to love the bright colors that adorn the monastery walls, the amazing views from here and the calm peaceful atmosphere inside. Dont miss the amazing 7 storied woodden structure on the first floor of the monastery.

Park dedicated to the Witch Doctors

Somewhere in Sikkim is this strange touristy spot- a park dedicated to the Banjhakri- or the witch doctors. The life like sculptures in the park are one helluva scary art piece.

Local lore has it that the BanJhakri can cure any disease that befalls man, but its like a double edged sword. The apparently moody Banjhakri can cast an evil spell on you. Its also said that the women amongst them are known to enjoy eating human flesh.Our driver-guide told us that one ventured deep into the forests, one could come face-to-face with a banjhakri even today. Although I couldnt imagine why would one want to undertake such a risk.

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As if the stories and the sculptures were not spooky enough, the park has a huge tree with a split along its length- rumor has it that this is the work of lightning that struck the place. Maybe thats why they chose the place…
But whatever it is- the Spookiness Index of the place was really high…. and I could not imagine how people come here to have a nice lil cosy picnic !

Ginger & army issue socks- battling the cold in N Sikkim

North Sikkim is a sparsely populated district, which sees really harsh winters esp in the Gurudongmar Lake area.
We were doing a road trip across Sikkim and decided that instead of going to the valley of flowers (given that it was December & no flowers would be blooming), we would explore the mountainous climes of Lachen & Gurudongmar.

The sun sets really early in Sikkim and this meant that if we had to reach Lachen before sunset we had to do an almost non-stop drive. More so because inspite of our best efforts we could leave Gangtok only around 1030 in the morning.

Lachen is a small town which seems to have just a few houses on either sides of the road that passes through it. Passing through such places I often wonder what would happened- the town grew around the highway or the Highway was finally built to connect this one time village to the rest of the world…

We found one new hotel which had really nice rooms and we were just about settling down when the cold started hitting us. We had taken a room which had 2 sides facing the valley and no room heater:-) We spent the night folded up in our beds with two blankets and quilts each and still somehow feeling the night chill.

By morning, we realised how ill-prepared we were for this trip.We had decided to go upto 17000 ft in sub-zero temperatures and most of us had just a single layer of woollens. None of us had woolen socks or even gloves.

So while my other two friends were busy packing up and checking out, I started chatting with our driver.He finally confessed that he had never driven up to the frozen lake in this kind of weather. But as a consolation he came up with a bit of local gyaan- he told me if you chew ginger when we start going up, you would not feel the lack of oxygen & hence no altitude sickness.
And so I asked him to get some ginger for me also. I was now all set for my high altitude journey….or so I thought.

Our Bolero was not a 4 wheel drive and I soon realised that it took more driving skills than what I had to steer the heavy vehicle over frozen rivulets. I tried for a while but when the thing kept skidding and slipping , it was time for the driver to take over.

We crossed many abandoned villages on our way, and were tempted to take down some of the wood and use it along with the jeep’s diesel to light a fire. As we went further into the valley we realised that our driver has no gloves and is driving with just one hand, with the other under his lap. We decided to try our luck at an army camp and look for some gloves.

We asked around and were finally given directions for an army canteen which was closed when we reached there around 0930. Found a jawan and realised he is from the Jat regiment. So i asked in my most country hindi where he was from and by when would the canteen open- lady luck shined ! He was from Meerut and it took me no time to tell him that I hailed from the same part of the country- Western UP. The canteen was opened esp for us, but they had no gloves. So instead we bought a pair of woolen socks each to be used as gloves 🙂 and loaded up on our chocolate rations.

So off we went to Gurudongmar lake, me munching ginger with a bar of chocolate as the side dish, our driver wearing socks on his hands but thankfully both hands on the job!

When we reached the top of our journey, the ginger seems to have the desired effect- I could manage to roam around, click a lot of snaps while one of the other guys was immediately down with severe headache. I was thanking myself quietly for having trusted the local medicine – but was soon to realise that prescription is as important as the medicine.

We came back to Lachen with two halts at the army checkpost, which also boasts of having the highest restaurant in the world 🙂 They not only gave us certificates to show that we were there, but also offered us some army ration apple juice- all thanks to my friends’ starting a conversation about “home” with these soldiers.

I suddenly started feeling a burning sensation in my throat and by the time we were back into the same room of the same hotel at Lachen, I was bent over in the washroom, puking my guts out. I didn’t realize what had hit me but somehow the burning sensation reminded me of the ginger i had been munching.

I cleaned up and dragged myself down to meet the driver. Told him that the ginger i had “eaten” seems to have burnt the food pipe and perhaps even beyond. To which he calmly responded- “I had asked you to chew not eat the ginger. You were supposed to just keep it in your mouth”.

And here i was lost in translation- having eaten atleast 75 gms of ginger in one day on an otherwise empty stomach, with a burning sensation so severe that I was imagining myself as a fire spewing dragon from another life.

Organic farming – tough road ahead

I went on a trip to Sikkim, with a pal who works for organic farming certification in that state. And while I was doing my sightseeing, managed to enquire a bit about how organic farming is structured and marketed in the country.

Quite an interesting case study it is.

Organic farming

Organic farming involves complete dependency on natural products during the agricultural cycle, which means organic seeds, no fertilisers, no pesticides, no weedicides- all these chemicals replaced by organic/natural stuff. It is claimed that organic farming restores the “natural” composition of the soil and keeps it productive for a sustained period- unlike fertilizers which will give higher productivity in the short term but spoil the soil so that eventually it would be unfit for agriculture.

While I have no doubts on the benefits of organic farming (better health, soil conservation etc) I developed some really serious doubts about its adoption in a country like ours. Here’s why:

– The financial motivation to the farmer is not very strong. This is primarily because the end consumer demand for organic products is low, which means there is not a big enough market for the farmers to go to where they might get a handsome premium.

–  Organic farming is a slow process as in takes almost 2 years for the soil to come back to its same productive levels that you would have seen with moderate use of chemicals and its only in the 3/4th year that you see substantial incremental benefits of refraining from using chemicals. Most Indian farmers would not have enough security to afford a cut in production/revenues for 2-3 years. And I guess thats why some of the govt entities are trying out ways to subsidise this.

– The true  local effects of organic farming can be seen only if its a community level initiative. One of the ways Organic farming is “sold” to farmers is by telling them that the chemicals are not only spoiling the soil but also contaminating the ground water that your children and family consume. Now even if I have some financial security to take in a cut in production- how will the ground water be un polluted if the farmer next door doesnt adopt Organic farming techniques. So i guess in a way its like starting a revolution- creating an awareness in villages so that people start using it simulatenously.

–  Complex implementation process. Now comes the tricky adoption bit. It seems for your farm’s produce to sell under organic umbrella, you need a certification. Sounds acceptable. But in order to get the certification one needs to practise it for 6 years and maintain a log-book which carries all the relevant details of what has been added to the farm on which date in what quantities. This overhead means that the farms cannot be too widespread or remote. Logic is thus- the co. which will deploy a dedicated resource to maintain this field book would be able to recover costs only if the resource is shared between enough number of plots. So organic farming will flourish only in big enough villages till some tech smarts are implemented.

–  Access to markets . From what I understand perishables are most in demand when it comes to organic produce BUT given the complex logistics its tough to guarantee profitability unless the farm is close to the market itself. In most cases where it isnt, its the staple crops like pulses, grains etc that are cultivated the organic way- where in the inherent demand is not too high..

The way I would have attacked this is:

–  Extensive lobbying  with state governments for subsidies where demand for organic products already exists. I would assume metros and centres with cosmopolitan lifestyles.

– Start  doing branded stuff/span in small niche areas and use technology in demand estimation. That way atleast the spoilage losses would be minimised and one would be able to mature the logistics as the demand picks up.

– Since awareness for organic products its benefits is low- create a forum of stakeholders who collectively manage PR around this. Look at high profile evangelists who can easily make this an in thing 🙂

– Make  certification move towards self-assesment/span with regular checks. This would bring the cost of certification down.

–  Build data models/span which can plug in local factors to come up with estimates of harvest for each plot under organic farming- aggregate the same and find buyers well before the stock moves out of the fields.

Sikkim- Gods own garden

Nestled between China, Nepal, Bhutan and West Bengal is the small and beautiful state of Sikkim…
With a population of barely 6 lakhs residing in 7000 sq Kms, its indeed one of those few places (in India) where man has not yet tarnished the natural beauty. Infact in Sikkim , it seems we have found the right way to co-exist. The state has been completely organic in its agricultural activities since a long time and the level of vegetation & afforestation shows the awareness in the local population.

My trip was like most others, quite an unplanned one. A friend of mine is doing some ground level work in terms of certification for organic farming and he was planning a trip to various parts of Sikkim to take stock of his team’s performance- I just decided to tag along…. and what a trip it has been !

Sikkim has just four districts- North, West, South, East and the respective district HQs are the biggest towns in that area, namely- Mangan,Gyalshing, Namchi, Gangtok.

My favourite experiences during this short trip were:
Gurudongmar lake– high up in N Sikkim at an altitude of 18000 ft, when your breathing becomes laborious with low levels of oxygen- you get a glimpse of an almost frozen lake… nature’s own painting with only twin colors of blue & white..

Gurudongmar lake

– The kanchenzonga view from Pelling – esp during sunrise the mountain glows orange with everything else around it completely dark. its this 3rd highest peak which is probably the biggest tourist mascot of Sikkim.

kanchenzonga from pelling
kanchenzonga from pelling

Monasteries @ Ranka & Rumtek- Like all monasteries these are also high up in the mountains and are adorned with some really bright & colorful paintings…And not to miss the much colorful Pemayangste Monastery at Pelling

ranka monastery
Ranka monastery

– The numerous waterfalls– the most famous and probably overhyped being the 7 sisters fall. Once we found the logic behind the name, we spent almost two days trying to christen the other waterfalls we encountered– from joint family to family planning… you can see em all here

Suspension bridges– sadly in a few years these would all be completely gone and replaced by concrete bridges- which are no doubt safer but lack the charm of the wood and iron suspension one.

– The beautiful women 🙂 its hard to miss the fact that almost all women of this small state are gorgeous and you end up saying “wow” a little too often….