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Climbing the Stairway to Heaven.

Byline: AB

Spend time at one of Sikkim's most respected monasteries discovering your own spirituality quotient--quite literally!

There's a kind of test in Sikkim gompas to deduce whether you're getting close to spiritual enlightenment or not. After you've climbed up to the top and caught your breath--which takes quite a while because the monasteries are right up there on the peak of those forested hills--look around. You'll see monks in maroon spinning their prayer wheels as they begin to circle the outer walls. And most of the locals are following them. An X doesn't mark the spot, but it's quite clear when you've got there. You have to stand on one side of the path with your eyes shut and hold out your index finger. Across is a hole centred in a white rock called the Thakar Tashiding. To judge your spiritual enlightenment, you've got to place your finger exactly in that hole without opening your eyes. If you hit the bull's eye, you'll go straight to heaven. However no one tells you what happens if you miss it (which is very likely given the unevenness of the path). Instead the monks and devout visitors laugh and move on, spinning their prayer wheels. It's half a joke, someone will explain consolingly, and everyone misses.

Tashiding in any case is quite close to heaven. It lies near the foothills of the Khangchendzonga. The hairpin bends on the road up have gentle signs in English advising caution. It starts with "Be gentle with the curves" but as you get closer and the bends get more and more precarious, a note of philosophy creeps in: "If you judge people, you won't have time to love them" or "Imagination is better than wisdom". Whether the bus and lorry drivers have time to read these is debatable. And their positioning defies all logic--unless they signify that you're getting closer and closer to heaven.

Presumably whoever put them there was influenced by the closeness of the monastery and was transported to Nirvana, which accounts for the Confucius say factor.

Tashiding perches on a camel's hump kind of ridge. It takes a good half an hour of huffing and puffing to get up there. The landscape is splashed with orchids of all kinds and colours and there are rows and rows of prayer flags fluttering in the breeze. Around the boundary walls some ancient master craftsman has carved the 'Om Mane Padme Hum' mantra. Butterflies flit here and there amongst the white washed stupas. There is a rather considerate stone with a hollow that will fit a knee, which is rumoured to heal any aches and pains you had on the walk up. Take a moment and do try it.

Cheerful monks come out through the exquisitely carved and painted wooden pillars to snatch some sunshine, taking a break from their prayers. Butter tea will be offered as a kind of consolation prize for missing the hole in the wall. The tea is Tibetan, has a layer of fat floating on the surface and a distinctly salty taste.

Tashiding is the holiest of the monasteries in Sikkim run by the Nyingma-pa Sect, which is different from the sect to which the Dalai Lama belongs. It dates back to 1641, but the original building was wrecked in an earthquake. Chortens, in honour of chogyals over the centuries, dot the courtyard. And in their middle is a huge cypress tree with four gnarled branches below which lies a huge stone covering a secret pond.

On the way back you'll find another test for your spiritual enlightenment: two holy caves. Sinners get stuck in the narrow tunnels inside. Incredible or scary, you could try it out--it may be easier than the rock. At least you'll do this with your eyes open.


Bagdogra Airport in Siliguri is 140 km away from Yuksom. There are daily flights from Delhi and Calcutta and a helicopter to Gangtok. The nearest railway stations are at Siliguri (114 km) and New Jalpaiguri (125 km) from Gangtok, linked to Calcutta, Delhi, Guwahati and other important cities. Gyalshing is about 140 km from Gangtok, and about 40 km from the Tashiding Monastery (Sikkim). You can drive to Yuksom from Siliguri, the main base city from where one can get road transport to Sikkim, 140 km away.



In Sikkim

Sip millet beer from antiquated tongba-tubs in postcards from the edge hamlets like Thanggu

Watch two giant statues confront each other at Namchi from facing hillsides across this market town.

Hitch a ride to Yuksom (via Khecheopalri Lake using tour jeeps) and hiking from there to the quaint gompa village of Tashiding and then up to the monastery.

Watch the Khangchendzonga over a cup of espresso from a cafe in Pelling, or from its helipad.

Take a short yak ride round the Chhangu Lake.


In Sikkim

Tashiding monastery's main event is the Bumchu ceremony held between Feb and March. This ancient ritual is one of the holiest Buddhist festivals in Sikkim.

Visit the 'monastery of the flying monk', Enchey Monastery. Lama Druptob Karpo was a tantric master who had the gift of flight. Enchey is known worldwide for the religious masked Chham dance, part of a festival in January.

See the Alpine meadows and wildflowers of Yumthang, surrounded by mountains at 11,800 ft, 140 km from Gangtok.

Visit one of Sikkim's holiest and the second oldest Pemayangtse monastery, 3 km from Pelling.

Visit the sacred and serene Chhangu Lake, 18 km from the Chinese border. The Lake is frozen for most of the year but comes alive between May and Sept.

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Publication:India Today Travel Plus
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Jul 1, 2009
Previous Article:The Slow Train to Darjeeling.
Next Article:Chasing the Rain in Cherrapunjee.

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