The words of Aim’e Cesaire come to my mind as the Maruti Gypsy powers over the loose gravel on the NH10 enroute to Sikkim.
Hurray for those who never invented anything
Hurray for those who never explored anything
Hurray for those who never conquered anything
But who, in awe , give themselves up to the essence of things
Ignorant of the shell , but seized by the rhythm of things
Not intent on conquest ,but playing the play of the world
I close my eyes and settle back into the upholstery, dreaming away the centuries on the southern slopes of the Himalayas and fight back the waves of nausea that well up within me. I am headed to Lachung in the north eastern state of Sikkim with my two little girls in tow. Until the 1950’s, the kingdoms of Sikkim , Bhutan, and Nepal were unknown to the West. Visitors were not welcome and the locals stayed untouched by foreign ideas.
There were no wheeled cars, no roads to drive them on, no radios, no newspapers, no cellphones …no worries worth worrying… It almost seemed that the shy and gentle Lepchas, the original people of Sikkim, had been born of the very same bamboo shoots that loom everywhere and their merry laughter rising in the nippy cold air froze into sparkling stars that shine so clear.
Change is inevitable and it happened in Sikkim. It is difficult to fathom if the mountains call mountaineers, or vice versa, but the call and the pull is difficult to ignore. With Mount Everest and the mighty Kanchenjunga in such close quarters, it was only a matter of time before the outsiders came exploring.
Perhaps the first stirrings of change came with Indian independence, but more likely by the appearance of Chinese communists in Tibet. The numerous mountain passes and valleys in this strategically important area drew the attention of the Indian military authorities. Sikkim lies in a cusp formed by two parallel Himalayan ranges that run north to south. The western range borders Nepal, but the eastern one has a more fascinating aspect to it, one that draws historians and dreamers to this place.
The Original Silk Route ‘ —-Nathu La lies here, one of the easiest passes to cross, and an important lifeline between Tibet and India . With constant infiltrations and incursions, Sikkim has become a cultural melting pot and its population is an eclectic mix of Tibetans and Nepalis in addition to the original inhabitants: the Lepchas and the Bhutias. After the 1959 Tibetan uprising, when India granted asylum to the Dalai Lama, and the eventual Sino-India War with China in 1962, these borders have become sensitive places.
But if you were to catch one of the original ‘oldies,’ they will start reminiscing about the good old glorious days, even before you realise it.
Three hours after we left Kalimpong, our aptly named ‘Gypsy’ bounced into the state of Sikkim with the turbulent Teesta River, a constant companion for most part of the journey. I gave up all pretence of trying to sleep and gazed at the sight around me. The road is littered with boulders and rocks from recent landslides and is a constant reminder of the fury of nature that has been sundered apart by civilization.
My dreamy vision of Hansel and Gretel-like cottages nestled in idyllic surroundings is rudely shattered by the profusion of TV dish antennas and the intrusive presence of the advertisements of mobile cell operators. What strikes you almost squarely in your face is the abundance and variety of stylishly dressed women who walk along the road.
Everyone, from the ladies who work in the fields to college students on their bicycles, to the lovely flower vendor who sold me some chrysanthemums, all look like they have stepped off the Milan Fashion Week. They stand out in their brightly coloured boots, their eclectic mix of modern, and the very traditional dresses and the latest shades of lip colour.
All around us the landscape kept altering and changing. Just when you thought it couldn’t get more breathtaking, another vista would open up in front of our eyes and leave us spellbound. The Teesta cleared a serpentine track, its fury stayed unchallenged, and the waterfalls that powered it rose plume-like into the sky, merging with the peaks . Never have I seen such thick vegetation and hues of autumn reds and oranges spread across the mountains, smoky at the top and descending to the earth as mist.
When the sun shines, there are rainbows across the chasms, multiple and intense and so brilliant that they seem palpable. The villages sped past as we crossed Chumthang and headed towards the Yumthang valley to spend a few days in Lachung . This scenic spot is located at an elevation of 9,000 feet and the temperatures had definitely dropped.
I awoke the next morning to the glorious sight of a bright orange golden light beginning to touch the tips of the snow capped peaks while the rest of the valley remained in darkness . I am a rapt admirer of light. Nothing fascinates me more and for me, it is the ultimate wonder of the world. Sikkim is the ultimate photographer’s paradise, their Holy Grail, and the place has the unique ability to allow the photographer to make the images an extension of their own personality.
For the photographer in me, the essence of Sikkim lay in its elusiveness, the ever mysterious light that shines on its elusive people and their unique lifestyle, and I needed to capture that somehow through my lens. Photography is much more than semantics. As you struggle to capture the place, the people and the light, and realise the futility and the enormity of the task, you soon discard your photography equipment and lose yourself in the rhythm of the place, succumbing to the sensuality offered.
A little later in the day we headed towards a place called the Zero Point in the Yumthang Valley, the last outpost. This is where the road ends. But to get here is a different story altogether.
I was amazed at the havoc the landslides had created. It was scary to imagine rocks of that size rolling down the mountains and literally changing the course of the river and people. On the way lies Singhba Rhododendron Sanctuary and Kanchandzonga National Park, a splash of reds and oranges, mosses, and ferns.
“This is the perfect place to picturize the remnant of the “Blair Witch Project” I muttered to myself as I gazed upon the view. At the Hot Springs, the numerous small cafes had been colonized by the extended Bengali families on vacation who had reached before us. A few adventurous ones had abandoned the trademark Bengali rubber floaters and donned the gum-boots being sold in the shops as they posed and pouted for selfies with the Teesta and colorful fluttering prayer flags in the background.
The honeymooners were easily identifiable with their open exchanges of affection, shared out of range of their ‘kakimas’ in their cotton sarees and hand knitted scarves. Ah Young love! A phase when it seems perfectly alright to address your sweetheart as ‘momo.’
Across a little bridge lay the hot sulphur springs. In a ‘zenana’ kind of women’s only enclosure, I bent down into the warm, odorous waters and hoped to ward off the pains and aches brought on by my recent burst of Zumba enthusiasm. Ahead lay a room that seemed to be some kind of communal kitchen. The stench hit me like a wall when I opened the door.
Mutton stew laced with fat bubbled in an aluminum Gyako pot and the ceiling was stretched out with chicken and yak meat hung from ropes stretched taut from end to end. In one corner sat bales of masalas and spices in dusty sacks. I gagged and almost threw up so strong was the odour. I retreated, chased by a sour face and very annoyed lady.
The next day definitely proved to be more adventurous . En route to Lachen and the scenery turned even more spectacular. How can one not love a place where the signs read “No bottled water, we have purer options?” Maybe it was my imagination but the people here seemed more gentle and smiling. Heaven on earth is North Sikkim and Lachen was a pleasant surprise.
Situated at an altitude of 8838 feet / 2750 meters, Lachen has been made accessible to the tourists just a few years back . A tiny hamlet along with snowy peaks and black cliffs, it is inhabited by very few people. Surprisingly I saw no foreign tourists at all.
Sighting a few women working in a government nursery for rare plants, I made my way over to them. The gate itself was surrounded by tall bushes. No sooner had I put my hand on the latch, I noticed them gesturing frantically, but by then it was too late. My palm and fingers had started turning red and began itching furiously.
While one of spirited one found it hugely hilarious and entertaining, the other was more sympathetic and plucked some leaves from the bushes growing nearby and rubbed them on my fingers. The antidote worked and the itching stopped. My rescuer indicated that she would prefer some cough syrups and Combiflams as thanks for the help she had provided.
Drinking deeply from the bottle, she reminisced about the times when she carried hip flasks in her youth on her trips to Sikkim which would take weeks to traverse. The weather was beautiful and clouds entered your home through the open front door.
Sipping again from the medicinal bottle, she rambled: “A few weeks of trekking just to reach Thangu, through thick swampy forests where all you did was dodge the free falling leeches and keep rubbing salt into your hair. That is how, walking through the forests we learned about the medicinal leaves and their benefits. The plains around Gurudongmar were even more rugged back then , surrounded by chortens and prayer flags .It was all so much richer before these dratted Bengali basti’s sprouted up .Even the monks were real monks then, tough farmers not these cellphone toting boot wearing salman khan monks.”
I slept that night wearing my newly bought hand-knitted tibetan socks and admired my bottles of homemade apricot brandy and cans of sardines smuggled across the Silk Route.
The next day’s stop is perhaps the reason why most people make the trek to North Sikkim; a view of the very majestic and breathtakingly beautiful ‘ Gurudongmar Lake.’ The folklore of this place is enthralling. You visit the place, listen in rapt attention to a villager describing the history and the story behind it, and suddenly the place comes alive when you see it through their eyes.
It is believed that Guru Padmasambhava blessed it while returning from Tibet. Located at 18,000 feet above the sea level in Sikkim, a portion of which never freezes even in the harshest of winters, Gurudongmar Lake rests on the northern side of the Khangchengyao Range in a high area next to the Tibetan Plateau. It is a place of high reverence for Sikkimese, Buddhists, and Sikhs. The clear, calm, shimmering blue vistas, surrounded on all sides by snow capped glaciers, and the silence despite the high winds makes it feel like a pilgrimage in itself. There is something about the place, something extremely overwhelming and spiritual.
It compels you to hang around just a little bit longer, and despite the shortness of breath, I couldn’t peel myself off to get back into the waiting vehicle.
This area is a hot favourite with the bikers. A number of trekking routes originate from Lachen, the popular ones being Lachen – Green Lake (Mount Khanchenjungha base camp) – Zemathang – Goecha La – Yoksum (in West Sikkim), Thangu – Muguthang – Lhonak Valley – Zemathang – Yoksum and Thanggu – Muguthang – Chorten Nyimala range.
I decided to spend the rest of my time with the local people of the Chattan – Thangu – Gurudongmar area. I swapped my morning coffee for ‘Sael Roti.’ Tea is constantly on boil in most village households, even before first rays of the sun hit the valley. The giant stove or cooking range forms a central point in most huts and the entire family spends the morning hours around it as the daughters get around to cooking a huge breakfast of meat and vegetables.
I was fascinated by the ‘Niguru with Churpi,’ normally not available in restaurants, but is commonly prepared as a household dish. Niguru is a local fiddlehead fern and its tendrils when eaten with churpi (cheese) form an irresistible dish.
I was delighted to notice that almost all homes have still retained their ancient rich and fascinating architecture and culture. The women of the family, without fail, place a container outside the front door every morning and light a little fire of fir leaves to ward off bad spirits. The uncomplicated indolent spirit of the people of North Sikkim is reflected best in a reply by a thirteen year old girl to my questions about her future plans and which college or university she plans on attending. She airily dismissed my questions by explaining that she was too young to bother about these things.
I returned home, my mind still in awe of these simply, hardy, mountain folk, who give themselves up to the essence of things, ignorant of the shell, but seized by the rhythm, not intent on conquest, but playing the play of the world.
Sonika on Sonika —- I am…as i am ….there isnt much else to say….i try to capture more often what i have come to term as ‘the intangibles’…..be it in my writings or in my images….not just the moment but what happens beyond the pool of light….My work is almost always a reflection of me , my personal experiences and metamorphosis…often abstract …….an effort….a struggle not to answer the questions around me but the emotional fabric from which they arise. I have never considered myself a photographer ,what i like is to tell stories, in every frame, in every composition . The small details be it of emotions moments, people or their surroundings are what fascinate and overwhelm me and what i try to portray…..
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