Transformations in The Land of Vajrapani (Part 3)

Rajib Aditya: ‘t was then a quiet little village, known only to trekkers. I met Tenzing Norgay on that trip. And Nawang Gomboo. The first man to climb Everest twice’

It is not as if no one understands that something must be done to preserve destinations. But unfortunately, our ‘solutions’ are often just knee-jerk reactions. The Lachung Dzong (local council) has banned plastic bottles. On the face of it, this is the right move. You have to dump your water bottles (single use) at a point after Chungthang. Good.

Yak rides for hire. It costs Rs.100, but I didn’t ask how long the ride would last

But at the destinations (Lachung and Lachen) most hotels don’t have any water purification. While that’s probably all right for Indians, this might not work for foreign tourists. Without putting in place an alternate solution, a blanket ban on bottled water seems like a knee-jerk reaction.

In 1995 Alex Gabbay, a ‘pucca Brit’, decided to give up designing shoes. He bought a Canon XL video camera and landed up in Sikkim, hoping to make a film.

Dried yak meat, at Lall Bazaar, Gangtok

As providence would have it, at around the same time, Sonam Paljor Denjongpa, who ran a restaurant in USA, decided to visit his hometown in Sikkim. Sonam had also been ordained as a Buddhist monk, as is the case with many ‘family men’ in the region.

He would visit the Pemayangtse monastery to continue his religious training.

At Pemayangtse he was told by the Dorje Lopen, the head monk, that a hydel project was coming up on the Rathong-chu river. Rathong-chu takes birth near Dzongri, a popular trekking destination, and passes through Yuksam, after which it joins the Rangeet river below Tashiding.

The dam for the project would come up close to the spot from where water for one of Sikkim’s most important religious ritual—the Bhum Chu ceremony at Tashiding Monastery, is drawn. The construction would defile the sacred space, the monk said.

The next morning, the Dorje Lopen passed away.

Sonam took it upon himself to lead a protest. He mobilized the monks and a movement was born. From this also took shape Alex Gabbay’s first film, ‘The Gompchen From Massachusetts’. In the same year, 1995, ‘The Concerned Citizens of Sikkim’ forum too, was formed.

Feeding pigeons. Rumtek Monastery, 2018

In 1986 on my way to Dzongri, I had crossed Yuksam. It was then a quiet little village, known only to trekkers. I met Tenzing Norgay on that trip. And Nawang Gomboo. The first man to climb Everest twice. Both were perfect gentlemen. And Nawang Gomboo even offered to send us to Switzerland to learn mountaineering. We were perhaps all too happy in those days.

Rain at Gangtok. Roof of Lall Bazaar

32 years down the line things are very different—even Tibetan Buddhism has taken a hit. There are factions and in-fighting. Rumtek monastery, one of the highest seats of Tibetan Buddhism, is under constant Army protection.

But all hope is not yet lost. In 2012, in the outskirts of Delhi I happened to meet Maria L. Denjongpa. American, with a Sikkimese surname. I couldn’t resist asking her—’Are you from Massachusetts?’

Yamden and Dozi on the way to Gurudongmar

Of course, the jigsaw fit. She was indeed the wife of Sonam. Now settled in Sikkim, running a school near Rumtek. And she had written a book based on a Sikkim story. (See the interview here.)

Yamden and Dozi’s tea and chips stall at Gurudongmar Lake

While standing in the queue at Kolkata Airport (April, 2018) I saw a young girl trundling her suitcase towards the boarding gate. Somehow, she reminded me of Maria. Deep in my heart something said—she’s Maria’s daughter. But I did not approach her. Opportunity lost. But then again, perhaps it was just my fertile imagination.

In any case, I lost her after we collected our luggage at Bagdogra and made our way to the taxi stand. The next day we had Rumtek on our itinerary. As we walked up the steep path to the monastery, I checked the houses on both sides. They seemed different from my earlier trip. I walked in into a restaurant.

I asked, ‘Weren’t there Tibetan carpet weavers in these houses?’

Alas! Woh zamana gaya, Sir.

Gurudongmar Lake

Every day we lose destinations. Every day we lose cultures and languages. We lose history. We lose traditions. This loss is no less significant that the extinction of endangered animals.

2017 saw 1323 million international tourism arrivals worldwide—after a steady growth for 8 continuous years. Disposable income and population growth is ensuring a 4% year on year growth in tourism. Can we sustain this growth and retain our destinations? Can we convince the tourist to watch carpet-weaving instead of indulging in Lungi-dance?

What is tourism selling? Somewhere, sensibility has to prevail. And the tourism industry has to wise up.

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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