India’s second smallest and least populous State, Sikkim, is a jewel embedded in snow-clad mountains. Barely 100 kms from North to South and 60 kms across, the small State is entirely mountainous with elevations ranging from 250m in the South to over 8500 m. In just a few hours of travelling by road you can leave behind the sub-tropical heat of the lower valleys and get to the cold of the rugged mountains that reach up to the areas of perpetual snow. The third highest mountain in the world, the majestic Kanchenjunga (8598 m), lies in the Northwest and is revered by the Sikkimese as their protective deity.
A land of myths and legends, Sikkim is inhabited by gracious Lepchas, Bhutias and Nepalis. While the Lepchas were the earliest settlers, the Bhutias made their way here from neighbouring Tibet in the 14th century. The Nepalis, who now form the majority community, settled here during the 18th and 19th centuries. Thus, Tibetan Buddhism and Hinduism (practiced by the Nepalis) are the two religions that play a dominant role in the lives of these hill folk.
The closing of the popular Jammu & Kashmir to tourists for a few years in the mid-90s brought Sikkim much more into focus and thousands of tourists looking for a cool retreat have now ‘discovered’ this largely unspoiled, fascinating land. The State has responded by significantly upgrading the accommodation, transport and communication facilities. A regular helicopter service provides an opportunity for sightseeing by air and discovering Sikkim’s mystique and rugged beauty. You can get a most memorable close-up aerial view of the awesome Kanchenjunga as well as the nearby Mt. Siniolchu, believed to be the most beautiful mountain peak in the world.
The capital, Gangtok (1750 m), is a blend of the modern and traditional, where present day concrete multistoreys cling to the hillside amidst chortens, stupas and monasteries; where you see lamas in their colourful maroon and saffron robes mingle among local youth in jeans and T-shirts.
A 40 km drive eastwards, on a narrow road which snakes precariously along steep mountain sides, brings you to the serene Tsomgo Lake (3700 m) which remains frozen for the greater part of the year. However, between May and August it comes alive as rhododendrons, primulas, irises and poppies burst into bloom on its banks and on the nearby hill slopes. Barely 20 km from there, at Nathu La, lies India’s border post with China. Though not open for visitors, the post boasts of the world’s highest Conference Hall (4400 m) where Indian and Chinese military officials discuss points of mutual interest at periodic conferences.
The State is dotted with Buddhist monasteries, notably the Enchey Monastery at Gangtok, Rumtek Monastery 24 km from Gangtok, and those at Pemayangtze, Tashiding and Dubdi – each with its own history and significance for the people of Sikkim. Yuksom, the first capital of Sikkim, where the first Chogyal was consecrated in 1641, lies 32 km from Pemayangtze in West Sikkim. Apart from being considered sacred by the people, it is also the start point for the treks to Dzongri and other places farther North, as well as to the base camp for Kanchenjunga.
Ideal for adventure activities, Sikkim offers opportunities for treks through breathtaking mountain routes, mountain hiking to remote areas to witness colourful festivals and intriguing rituals (including dances in fearsome masks), white river-rafting, and hang-gliding.
The three-month periods before and after the South-west monsoon are the best for visiting Sikkim. However, the monsoon months (May to September) have their own special charm. Rain water cascades down the craggy or emerald green mountain slopes in scores of milk-white rivulets and waterfalls to join the Teesta river and its many tributaries that flow through the State. Snow-white clouds rising from the river valleys come rolling by, engulfing the whole countryside in sublime tranquillity. It is truly an unforgettable experience.