Transformations in The Land of Vajrapani (Part 1)

Rajib Aditya: ‘Nepali is the lingua franca, and there is support and sympathy for the ‘Greater Gorkhaland’ movement. While many Government positions are handled by the Nepali population, indigenous ‘tribal’ people have some protection in terms of land and property held by them, which cannot be transferred to ‘non-tribal’ people’

Those Days Are Gone Forever, Over A Long Time Ago: Steely Dan

Forest fires dot the hills of Kalimpong. The Teesta flows below. View from near Kalijhora

Is this your first visit?’

‘No, it’s my eighth,’ I said. ‘I came here first in 1978.’

And because I love being wicked, I added, ‘Were you born then?’

‘No, Sir’ he laughed.

Joel Gathhani. Young. Amiable. Tattooed. Long-bearded.

He looked more like a ZZTop guitarist than a taxi driver in Sikkim.

The traffic congestion at Matigara had delayed us far too long. After that, the drive through the Sevoke forest, past the Sevokeshwari Kali temple and the Coronation Bridge, onto the hills, was a relief.

I told Joel that I’d like to stop at Kalijhora, just after the first climb into the foothills. This used to be a tea-halt every time I travelled to Sikkim by public transport. The first clutch of wooden shacks that served as a gateway to the hills. Over the years the place kept growing until it became just another dump for bulldozers, oil, backhoe loaders and handymen in leather boots. The roads must be kept open. That needs people and machines.

‘Nothing here to stop for, Joel, let’s drive on’ I said.

The inevitable march of ‘civilization’ into every nook and cranny in the hills has transformed Sikkim beyond recognition over these 40 years.

Gangtok. View from the roof of Lall Bazaar

In ’78 Gangtok was an empty place, with very few people on the roads. On our slow drive up to Enchey Monastery, our poor old Ambassador car groaning at first gear, an old lady came up and stuck out her tongue in the traditional Tibetan greeting. My uncle nearly lost control of the steering wheel, shocked at the ‘mad’ gesture. There was no one else we met on that road that day.

Today Enchey is building a residential extension, which I understand they are going to hire out to tourists for staying. Tourism is good business. People are thronging the hills and monasteries.

Prayer wheels at Enchey Monastery

The traffic at Gangtok is an unending queue that starts at Ranipool—a good 12 kilometers before the city.

When we reached Shishagolai in Gangtok, after winding our way through miles of traffic, pharma-company buses, educational institutions and glitzy fashion boutiques, it was already 8 in the pm.

Ornate style of Enchey Monastery’s architecture. Built in 1909 in a Chinese Pagoda style

I remember that during my first visit to the city, leaving aside the Chogyal’s Palace and other grand official architectures, there was just a tiny bazaar that sold Chinese ‘smuggled goods’. And perched on the hillside overlooking it, was the Hotel Tashi Delek, where we put up. Sikkim was a new addition to India. Legend was that Mr.Agrawal, the owner of Tashi Delek, still had his bank account in Tibet.

Today Tashi Delek is hemmed in by the M.G.Road Mall on one side, and a narrow lane of unending traffic on the other.

The beautiful Mall at M.G. Road. Social hub of Gangtok. Just after a shower

Thankfully, the Mall (M.G.Road) is a no-vehicle zone today. It is well maintained, beautifully done up—it’s cobbled pathways the social hub of the city.

‘Have you noticed?’ my daughter pointed out, ‘everyone is shaking hands with everyone.’

‘Yeah, that’s the custom here. You should do it too,’ I joked.

No more sticking out tongues.

The fountains and lights at the Mall, as dusk falls

The customary greeting of the Tibetans comes from the time the Dzungars invaded Tibet in 1717.

Local people were forced to stick their tongues out so the Dzungars could tell if the person constantly recited black-magic mantras, which was supposed to make their tongues black.

That custom prevailed as a greeting, until recent times.

But the demographics of Sikkim too has changed over the years. The Lepchas, Bhuteas, Tibetans are a smaller part of the population today. Nepali is the lingua franca, and there is support and sympathy for the ‘Greater Gorkhaland’ movement. While many Government positions are handled by the Nepali population, indigenous ‘tribal’ people have some protection in terms of land and property held by them, which cannot be transferred to ‘non-tribal’ people. This makes the other ethnic groups feel unwanted, neglected and like second-class citizens. All the more reason to demand a Gorkhaland.

Tourism, Bollywood and the Defence forces are the 3 vectors that have also carried in Hindi into the heart of Sikkim. At 13000 feet above sea level lies Thangu.

Approaching Thangu

They don’t make traditional dishes here anymore. Maggi and Wai-Wai are on the menu. Yamden and Dozi, who travelled with us to Gurudongmar to sell tea and Lays Chips, told me in perfect Hindi “Momo banana bahaut mushkil hai”. (It’s difficult making momos). While transporting anything from the plains is indeed costly, it’s still easier for ‘Thupden Fast Food Cum Bar’ to serve Wai-Wai on the menu.

Yamden prepares Wai-Wai for our breakfast

Sometime in December 1998, 10000 feet above sea level on the road to Katao, my wife and I had huddled in with BRO road workers into a small GI-sheet shack to get away from the snow and cold outside. Inside, a fire was going, and Tibetan salted tea was on the house.

The main attraction at Thupden Fast Food Cum Bar

This time around when I asked for salted tea on the way to Lachen, a young tea-stall owner told me in Hindi ‘Woh zamana gaya, sir’. (That era is gone, sir)

Words and photos: Rajib Aditya

About of author: Rajib Aditya makes corporate and training films for a living. He also talks to ecologists, farmers, NGOs, professors, authors and other aliens who regularly brainwash him with strange and contrary ideas. So, he has to make pilgrimages to mountains to keep himself sane.


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