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.
PLACES TO VISIT IN THIS REGION
Modern Gangtok reflects the recent changes in Sikkim's culture and politics, but its Buddhist past is attested by Tibetan research institutes, fascinating Ongyo monasteries and an impressive collection of Lamtecs, a source of attraction for visitors. Monastery, 24 km west. in the city. The ridge above the city, a building used by the brothers on the tree-lined boulevard between 1894 and 1975, is now partially restricted under government control and constitutes a closed arena of the Shikimo heritage. Sikkim's proud orchids grow in and around Gangtok, and flower shows are held at the complex or ridget.
PLACES TO STAY IN GANGTOK
Gangtok hotels are expensive during peak season (usually April June and September-November), but discounted rates apply during the rest of the year. As the city expands, accommodation options are available and there are many excellent hotels and guesthouses within walking distance of the city along the Deorari Highway.
EATERIES IN GANGTOK
Gangtok has developed into a modern city with charming restaurants and bars, but most places close at 9pm.
SHOPPING IN GANGTOK
The best shops in town are the local farmers market in the main market, 1 km along the MG Marg Promenade, and the concrete Kangchenjunga (Quiet Market) shopping centre. Stalls here sell dried fish yeast, yak, cheese (yeast) and craft beer la tomba. On Sundays there is a market selling traditional products of the country. The Curiosity Store on MG Marg and Pulger Stadium Road sells religious items such as turquoise and coral jewels, silver plates and pearls.
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ATTRACTIONS IN GANGTOK
Enchi Monastery is a small two-story Ningma gompa above the city, below a large telecommunication tower. welcome visitors. The best time to visit is between 7am and 8pm when the monastery is full and well lit. The monastery was built in the mid-19th century on the site of Driptop Karpo, a sailor known for his skills as a pilot. The building is surrounded by tall cedar trees and houses over 100 monks. Although damaged by the 2011 earthquake, it remains a local gem. The beautifully painted pockets of the chapel were built by the Chogyal family in traditional Tibetan script and are filled with frescoes depicting guardian deities and the borders of the law. The shells adorning the door are an auspicious symbol of Yemen. Enchey throws a hood party at the Los Angeles Film Festival in early December every year.
Ganesh Tok offers panoramic views of the expansive city with beautiful landscapes adorned with prayer flags. Hanumantuk (2300m), further 5km along Lake Somemgo, is another direct landmark in eastern Sikkim, where the royal family was cremated and the remains of those who died in the tower remain. The origin of the name, Hanuman Mandir, is more modern.
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.
Himalayan Zoological Park
Visitors visit the 506-acre Himalayan Zoo to see red pandas (which are very prominent), snow leopards, Tibetan bears and giant pandas.
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.
The Karma Kagyu and Rumtek
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.
Phodong and Labrang
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.