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Archive for June, 2008

With impatient anxiousness I was waiting for the helicopter to land at the Bhaku helipad, for I was finally leaving to Lachen for my project. I was introduced to the UNDP official Mayura, and another consultant Raj Basu, who were going to be my accomplices on the journey. The initial part of the drive is simply amazing as it passes through thick evergreen (sub temperate) forests bejeweled with numerous waterfalls. I was awestruck at the sight of such lush green forests even though from a distance. Our conversation wavered from Lachen and its people, to the hydel project on Tista, to other community based projects. During this course I was to find out that Raj had been working in the environmental and community based tourism field since the past 21 years all around the North East and was an extremely knowledgeable person. Our five and a half hour journey brought us to Lachen at 8.30 in the night, whence we were greeted by the pipon and Nima.

A bright sun was already staring me in my face, leaving me no option but to wake up by 5.30. Took a small walk around the village and the first think I noticed was that it really wasn’t as small and rural as I had thought it to be. Post breakfast we had a meeting with the village council in which Raj spoke about his thoughts on ways and means to increase the tourist inflow and increase profitability of the hoteliers. Later Mayura, Raj, Nima and Myself were taken around the village by Tshering who would also assist and help me in my work in Lachen. Our walk started with a tour of the monastery which is amazingly beautiful, the resident monk explained to us the significance of some of the paintings and statues within the monastery. Later, Nimbum the thanka painter of Lachen also joined us and invited us to tea where he was explaining to us the intricacies of painting a thanka. From here we went down the gompa road to the Tourist Information Centre which was shut ( no surprises here) and when we had it opened they hardly had any information and all their broachers and books were years old (still no surprises). It seemed that the TIC was the most unfriendly and unlikely place from where a tourist could get any sort of information. Since it was not being put to use we decided to have the interpretation centre for Lachen in their premise. The remaining part of the day was spent in more discussions and brain storming for improving upon the benefits of tourism to the people.

Project backgroundWill digress a bit over here to give a brief background on the project currently going on in Lachen. The Ministry of Tourism and UNDP (United Nations Development Program) are executing a project in Lachen to promote a more sustainable and equitable form of tourism, thus improving the livelihood of the people. The NGO I am volunteering for, namely TMI (The Mountain Institute) is assisting UNDP in executing the project on ground. It has taken a better part of two years in just developing relationship and trust with the local people over here to finally get the project running from May. The people of Lachen are a very closed community and they don’t speak to people outside or open up easily, and since they have their own system of local governance even the government can’t do much over here. But things have finally started rolling and the new village chief is eager to get the project going. My role over here is to develop a guide book about the place and the people , help out in developing the website and do a recci around places in Lachen, which have a good tourist potential. Besides this am also helping out in driving the ‘zero waste’ program, and making a sort of Interpretation Centre.

To assist me in my work over here a girl named Tshering has been assigned to me. A graduate in Political Science with budding enthusiasm to work towards the betterment of her village, she represents the new face of Lachen. Along with her I met up with quite a few people to document their food, culture and history which till now has been the most difficult part as nobody is sure about their history and it remains a gray area. A lot of help and information has been provided to me by the postmaster Rinzing Chewang, who has painstakingly and meticulously recorded the customs, culture, governance system and travel places over the years. I spent many of my evenings in his ever enthusiastic company, talking about anything and everything related to Lachen, thus learning a lot in the process.

The village and it’ people

Lachen is located at an altitude of 8838 feet in the North district of Sikkim. The village has seen a good deal of expansion in the recent past, with around 180 households and around 20 hotels; not really as small as I had initially expected it to be. The locals, who are Bhutias by race originally came from Chumbi valley in Tibet and the Ha valley in Bhutan, sometime in the 17th century (or so it is believed). Being herders they led a nomadic life , staying in Lachen during winters and moving up to Thangu during the summer months. Till a few years back the entire village would move to Thangu in summer but now since most people have a settled life only the herders move up.

The most unique feature about Lachen is it’ administration and local governance system called Dzumsa which literally means the meeting place. This system of self governance was introduced sometime in the beginning of the 19th century and even after the panchayat system was introduced all over Sikkim it was not imposed in Lachen and Lachung, thus the Dzumsa system continues to function till this day. The Dzumsa is a group of people chosen by the villagers to represent them and manage the village affairs. The council of representatives known as lehyan consists of two pipons who are the head of the village, assisted by five village elders called gyambos , two treasurers called tsipos , two messengers gyapons and three elder monks. This council or lheyan is changed every year unless the villagers wish to renew their mandate. Traditionally the Dzumsa system came into existence to organize and regulate the people while dispensing the benefits to the entire community. The Dzumsa not only determines the code of conduct of all individuals in social as well as economic issues but also implements and monitors them, while collecting fines from those who break the norms and rules. The Dzumsa performs all the developmental functions that are assigned to the panchayats in other areas and also have customary judicial power for trial of cases in their respective villages.

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Thanks to madam Mayura’ beauty bath we were late by an hour . Bid farewell to Raj as he had to leave for Sillgury while Nima, Mayura , Tshering and Myself proceeded on our way to Gurudongmar with our driver Budul Lachenpa. The road upto Thangu is quite winding as it skirts the valley giving us good views of the waterfall ridden land with pretty rhododendrons and melodious birds. As one rides to the lake one can literally see the change in terrain from the temperate oaks and conifers, to the alpine shrubs, to the barren Tibetan desert. Our drive brought back fond memories of my trip to Ladakh, the barren mountains with the most amazing shades of red, brown and green standing beside snow clad mountains ornate with stunning hanging glaciers. The first thing I felt as I stepped out of the jeep was a tinge of dizziness due to the lack of oxygen reminding me that I was now standing at 17,100 feet.

 GurudongmarThe lake is a pearl in the desert and has a spell bounding beauty. It is the largest lake in Sikkim and is considered a very holy one by the Buddhists and Sikkimese alike. Legend has it that Guru Padmasambhava crossed this lake when he went to Tibet in the 8th century. On the shore of the lake you see all around stones which have been piled one on top of another (mostly four to five stones), like a pagoda called Lapse, this is to ward of the evil spirits and bring peace and harmony in the valley. Recently a footpath has been built around the entire lake, which supposedly takes around an estimated three hours to walk.

 

On our way back we took a brief halt at Chopta valley where there is a yak breeding centre, from where we proceeded to Thangu. Over here I had my first glass of Tibetan tea which I was over zealous to taste, as I wondered how tea with butter and salt would taste. My verdict was a mixed one and in anyways I was to get used to drinking tea with salt very soon. Thangu is the summer residence of the Lahenpa herders as during this time of the year they get their yak, sheep and goats to the green meadows of this valley. There was once a time when the entire village would migrate over here being nomadic tribes, but with changing times most people have settled down in Lachen. The flowering meadows were inviting us for a walk amongst their beauty , to which we readily obliged. Our driver Budul was quite an expert on flowers and had a good knowledge about them and identifies quite a few varieties of rhododendrons, primulas and wild flowers for us. The path meandered through the meadows and led us to the Chopta chu (stream) cutting right across it. The water had carved some amazing rock formations creating some spectacular light effects. Relaxed by the stream for some time before we left to go back and return to Lachen.

 The entire area near Thangu was covered with flowers giving an appearance of a grand flower basket. I was lost in this dreamy world when all of a sudden I find that Budul had taken a sort of a detour and we were driving on a mud road. He got us to some rustic village covered in clouds, where horses roamed about freely. This was the village of Talem, which somehow seems to have been lost in time. The houses over here are more than a 100 years old, made of mud and timber. There was an amazing tranquility to this place and for a few movements it appeared that I had actually traveled back in time. But a single honk from Budul awoke me from my dreamy state as we returned back to Lachen from a most exciting and enthralling day.

                 

                     

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Sunday at Tsamgo

I was waiting for Sange’ call to provide me the details of the driver who would take me to Tsomgo . As soon as my mobile hummed I picked it up to speak to Sange who provided me the details of the jeep and driver whom I had to meet at the Vajra theatre. He asked me to take a taxi over there but after some scouting around, chose to walk it down to the theater which turned out to be a very pleasant 20 minute walk. I was greeted by complete chaos and cacophony at the taxi stand and now I was wondering how I was to find the jeep number Sange had given. Half an hour of hunting in the stand didn’t yield much result and I called Sange back to provide me with the mobile number of the driver. A couple of phone calls later I finally managed to bump into the driver who was to take me there. At 9.30 am I was at last packed of with nine other people to see Tsomgo and Baba mandir. All nine of my companions were either from Bihar or UP and it was extremely entertaining to listen to their conversation in the typical hindi style.

 The road is winding all the way to the top but it well compensated with the scenic beauty of the surrounding mountains. There were times when it appeared that we were floating in the clouds as there was a layer of fluffy cumilo-nimbus clouds right below us. All of a sudden our jeep came to a halt and all I could see ahead of us was a bee line of jeeps, trying to break their line (in the normal Indian impatient way) and honk their lungs out creating an utter mess of the place. The reason for this chaos turned out to be the army checkpost where all the tourist jeeps had to show and register the permits for all the passengers they were carrying. This is an army ritual which needs to be followed by all going to Tsomgo lake or Nathula, due to the close proximity of the area to the China border. At the check post met up with Sange, who introduced me to one of his colleagues who would show me around the lake . After the check post the entire path is dotted with army camps of varying sizes . When we reached Tsomgo lake the driver told me that we would first go to Baba mandir and then halt at Tsomgo on our way back. So I made the decision to carry on with them ionstead of getting down at Tsomgo, which proved to be a wrong one at least in terms of weather.

 Baba mandir was at least another hour from the lake and I was already wondering if I had made the right decision.   I was greeted by a flock of Indian tourists at 13000 feet all of whom were scrambling into the mandir . The mandir is actually a shrine which has been created in memory of   Harbajan Singh. The story goes that in October 1968 sepoy Harbhajan Singh was escorting a mule caravan from his battalion headquarters in Tekula to Dengchukla, he fell into a fast flowing stream and drowned. Search for Sepoy Harbhajan was made with no results, and it was on the fifth day of his being missing that his colleague Pritam Singh had a dream of Harbhajan Singh informing him of his tragic incident and his dead body being found under the heap of snows. Harbhajan Singh desired to have a samadhi made after him but Pritam Singh ignored the dream as just as an imagination. Later when the body of Sepoy Harbhajan Singh was found at the spot where he had informed, the army official was taken aback and to mark respect towards his wish a samadhi was constructed.

 By the time we reached Tsamgo it had become cloudy though I did manage to take a few photos. Once I reached the lake I met up with the two ‘pokhri rakshaks’ or lake guards.       The NGO I am working with has initiated a wetland conservation program called Pokhri Sanrakshan Samiti to save a few lakes from environmental degradation. For this they have started charging all tourists a sum of Rs.10 which goes into the upkeeping of the lake. The important thing is that they have empowered the local community as custodians of the lake and to take care and execute projects to reduce degradation.I will also be helping out on this project at a later date and would post more details about the same then.

 It had started to rain by the time we left from Tsomgo and was glad that was carrying my rain jacket. On our way back, one of the Bihari’ was in full mood and was cracking jokes about the place he was from getting everyone in splits. Frankly did not understand much but his accent and his way of talking just made me laugh out silently. Reached Gantok market at around 4 to put to an end an enjoyable Sunday outing.

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A short outing to Rumtek

Dallas was running out of ideas to pass our time on Saturday and so he suggested we go to Rumtek to see the monastery over there. It is touted as one of the main tourist attractions around Gantok and so I approved of the plan. Rumtek is around 22 kms from Gantok with good access via taxis , or so I thought. We went to the taxi stand but had to wait for around 30 minutes for the taxi to get full before it started . It was a one hour drive through lush greenery and some entertaining local gossip.  Along the way one gets good vistas of Gantok city surrounded by green mountain slopes giving an impression of a rudimentary castle in the air.

The first thing I notice as I enter the monastery complex is the ITBP guard station, from which one of them gives me a peering glance to inquire if I am a foreigner or not. I speak to him in fluent hindi to eliminate any of his doubt. A five minute walk through the complex gets us to the main gate of the monastery where I buy two entrance tickets for us. I walk into a huge quadrangle with the monks quarters on both the flanks and the main temple opposite the gate. It is the largest monastery in Sikkim and home to the Karma Kagyu sect of Buddhism.   The Rumtek complex was founded by the sixteenth Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje after he ran away from Tibet to avoid communist prosecution and to continue with his preaching.

The main temple is a magnificent and opulent four storied structure. I went inside the main temple hall which is open to all visitors and was enthralled by the vividity of the paintings and it’ colors. Unluckily I did not have much understand into the meaning of the paintings and Dallas seemed to be least interested in them. The hall is supported by red pillars from which silk banners and intricate thangkas hang. From here we walked towards to Nalanda Institute and the Golden Stupa. I was really astonished to see the number of ITBP cadets and they had an entire army post inside, it was both sad and painful to see a heavy army presence in such holy a place.

 

The Nalanda Institute was a richly painted five storied building. The institute was founded to preserve and propagate the teachings of Buddha and, in particular, the Kagyu tradition of Mahayana Buddhism. It is supposed to be the most important learning centre for Buddhism in the world.   

                                                       Namgyal Institute

Since we could not go in, just had to admire the institute from outside. By this time Dallas was really getting restless and so could take only a brief glance inside the Golden Stupa. It contains the precious relics of the sixteenth Karmapa and is bejeweled with ancient turquoise and coral, and decorated with filigree and fine metalwork. came out and roamed about a bit in the gardens to take in the peaceful and serene atmosphere, till I was interrupted by an impatient Dallas and asked if we could leave.

So started our homeward journey which turned a bit ugly and adventurous. On reaching back to the road we did not find any shared jeep to take us back and after 30 minutes of waiting did not yield any results we started walking down. But as fortune favours the brave we did manage to get one after about 20 minutes to comfortably reach Gantok.

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