Under the Yuksom sky
I There’s a bit of serendipity in the way we decided upon Yuksom. We were travelling to Gangtok, Sikkim when Em, our resource person cum bodyguard, got a call from his ‘contact’ in Gangtok. The contact told him he was no longer in the city but had moved back to his home in Yuksom a year ago. I must tell you here that Em was supposed to have made arrangements with the contact, on whom we were banking for practically everything during our stay in Gangtok, atleast a week before. Em had messed up and hadn’t told us.
Us consisted of Fi, our firang friend and me, the wannabe globe-trotter who was travelling without her mommy and daddy for the first time in her life. Em, tried to look as collected as a guy being stared at by two livid women could and said, “Girls! Prasang has asked us to be guests at his house in Yuksom.” “Yuksom?” “Umm… yeah. It’s just 145 km from Gangtok.” After the initial ‘Hell hath no fury like two women misinformed!’ act, we decided to do the mature thing and be a little reckless. Without Prasang to show us its ‘hidden’ delights, Gangtok didn’t sound that appealing anymore. Yuksom, on the other hand, especially as none of us had even heard of the name before, could turn out to be an actual adventure!
And so we proceeded on the long way up from Gangtok to Yuksom; tripping on adrenaline, feeling like virgin conquerors out on a quest to unravel the secrets of an ancient city. Yuksom was, after all, the birthplace of Sikkim, the old abandoned capital, as we found out from a tourist pamphlet at the Sumo Rental Station. The sumo we travelled in was crammed with people bound for the same destination. So, it wasn’t quite the Macchu Picchu we imagined it to be. Still, a little role-playing never hurts!
Eloquent travellers have written about how picturesque the scenery is when you’re snaking up a mountain road. They write about how bewitching are the scent of pine cones and the sight of moss laden trees and cascading waterfalls; how exhilarating is a rock studded river with sparkling water when you look down. Let me tell you instead about what literally took our breath away when we were halfway up. A landslide.
The previous night’s rain had brought down a whole wall of rocks that made any kind of vehicular thoroughfare impossible. We were quite high up so even though there wasn’t a long line of vehicles waiting to cross- just two to be exact- it would be ages before a shoveling truck arrived. There were two things we could do: wait or channel our inner acrobat and cross over the ledge to the vehicles waiting on the other side. This was no easy decision but we saw people from the car in front disembark and make their way across. They looked like veterans of life and death situations such as these and they probably were. Our driver said he’d carry our backpacks over one at a time and then he’d come back for us. When I think about it now, I recall that none of us actually consulted each other. We simply did what we had to do. Quite brave of us, really.
Anyway, I was the first to go. The technique was simple. Be careful that the rock you’re stepping on isn’t loose. Do not step in between two rocks. Lighten up your body like a ballerina, step firmly but without force. Do not shuffle. Do not stop for more than a few seconds. And of course, the cardinal rule. Do not, at any cost, look down. “If you can remember this, then you can make it”, said Fi. ‘Wait! How do you know this?’ I asked, incredulously. “I’ve done the El Caminito. Of course, if a rock rolls down at you from above, then…” Up went my finger and that shut her up. I survived, as you can see, to tell the tale, and so did Em and Fi. About the rest of the way up? Honestly, we have no recollection. The driver gave us a couple of sips of a homemade brew from his flask to calm our nerves and we slept like babies.
We reached Yuksom at night. A flurry of handshakes and backslaps later, Prasang, who met us at the stop, took us home and tucked us in for the night.
Next morning I woke up to benevolent skies …a mellow blue that made you feel safe, forgiven, at peace. As the six o clock sunshine streamed down the mountains yonder edging the parting clouds with gold and prayer flags swayed to the rhythm of chants, I felt on the verge of an epiphany. Except, I was jostled away for breakfast by the two philistines I was travelling with.
Prasang surprised us with a bit of information. The oldest monastery in Sikkim, the Dubdi, was in Yuksom. It was a steep trek, dangerous even, but it’d be worth it, he promised. “Besides, I am the son of a Sherpa. He died on Everest,” he said, brimming with pride. Hmm…he had our itinerary lovingly planned.
Day 1: Dubdi monastery > Coronation ground > Holy Lake
Day 2: Holy Lake > Pemayangtse monastery > Rabdentse ruins.
“Two holy lakes?” I asked.
“Yes. You make a wish at the Holy Lake, it comes true. Two lakes, double guarantee!” he winked.
It’s a 3km climb up to the monastery perched on a hill; an incredibly steep trek and slippery too because the path is stone paved. It was exhausting, and not just physically, because we had to be constantly careful about where we stepped. Some of the stones were loose. But every now and then we’d get to these springs that’d magically pop out of nowhere and we’d drink up and splash our faces, and we were good to go. The monastery, after the tough climb, felt a little disappointing at first sight. It was decrepit, miniature in size, with paint peeling off on the outside. We were ushered inside by a little lama, and once our eyes got accustomed to the candle-lit darkness, we were awestruck. The interiors were ancient;faded thangkas, worn upholstery, the walls crumbling in places. However, there was nothing effete in the gaze of the statue of Padmasambhava at the centre of the shrine. You simply felt his presence and it was a powerful one. It was a gaze that could hold you in thrall and if you held it for too long, you could fall into a trance right there. “Foreigners who come here to meditate sometimes forget to leave,” said the boy lama. We sort of got what he meant.
Norbugang Coronation ground:
Yuksom means ‘The place of meeting of the three learned monks’. Legend has it that this threesome crowned Phunshog Namgyal as the first ‘Chogyal’, the King of Sikkim. As part of the consecration ceremony, they built a Chorten or stupa with mud and water from all over Sikkim and a massive stone throne for the King. All of this is said to have happened at Norbugang. When we got there, we were shown the throne, the Chorten and the actual pine tree under which the coronation had taken place. Then Prasang, acting all mysterious, took us to a slightly fenced in area and asked us to lift a metal plate that lay innocuously on the ground. There it was! A 400 year old impression of the foot of the head lama. It was a pretty believable likeness. “What a big-foot!” Em said, looking around to see if we’d gotten the joke. He was an expert at duds.
Holy Lake 1 (Kuthok) :
To get to the lake, we had to scramble over a wall. The compound gate was padlocked. We made our way to the slushy edge, muck squelching under our feet, sank our arms elbow deep in the water and made wishes. Prasang told us what he’d wished for; probably thinking we’d take him into confidence like he’d done. Which none of us did. “I wish my girlfriend, who is a police in Darjeeling, resigns and we marry in Yuksom and have twins. One boy, one girl.” “Awwwww!!!” we went.
The places that Prasang had planned for us to visit on Day 2 were spaced out along the road from Yuksom to Pelling.
The first stop was the other holy lake; ‘holier’ than the one we’d previously wished at, said Prasang. It was called Khecheopalri or, Sho Dzo Sho which means “Oh Lady, Sit Here.” There’s a lot of folklore and mythology tied to the Khecheopalri lake. One legend calls it the footprint of the Goddess Jetsun Tara Dolma, another says it was here that Padmasambhava gave sacred wisdom to 64 yoginis . Even Lord Shiva is said to have meditated in the Dupukney Cave just overhead the lake, making it a sacred place for the Hindus as well, especially on Nag Panchami. The best one though is the tale of a Lepcha girl called Nenjo who was gifted an incredibly precious gem by the lake Goddess, which the girl promptly lost. They say the gem still lies in the lake bed and the shoals of catfish in the lake are actually guarding it. You’re allowed to feed these fish with crumbs and the like, and watching them converge on a tidbit helps you imagine what piranhas would look like shredding their prey! These fish are huge and scary and pretty much untouchable. There are strict laws against fishing. Nobody would anyway. They’re supposed to be the 64 yoginis, except with whiskers and fins.
The first thing we noticed when we entered the compound of the Pemayangtse monastery was how utterly handsome all the monks were! There was a reason for this, we were told. The monastery was built to house only the purest Ta tshangs; monks of pure Tibetan lineage who were physically impeccable and (yet!) celibate. “Oh! The irony!” Fi sighed.
As beautiful and intricately decorated as its interiors are on the ground and first floors, what really captivated us in the monastery was a wooden structure on the top floor. Guru Rimpoche’s Heavenly Palace, as this seven tiered, exquisitely detailed structure is called, is a miniature representation of the Buddhist cosmogony, complete with tiny figures of Asuras at the very bottom, Apsaras at the top and the whole panoply of Buddhas and Boddhisatvas occupying their hierarchical places in the middle. Painted on the walls of the room is a continuous Buddhist mural which merits a great deal of ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ by itself. I was curious about the golden curtains that had been strung for apparently no reason on parts of the walls. Were they concealing something or were they just decoration? I couldn’t help but lift one and look. Oh man! Each of these curtains had been strategically placed over highly graphic depictions of Tantric sex. We know your secret, Pemayangtse!
The story of how the beautiful Rabdentse palace turned into the ruin that it is, is one of royal intrigue and murders executed with Oriental finesse. A king found dead in the blood tinged waters of a hot spring, the cause inexplicable (very effective blood-letting apparently), a murderous princess strangled with a silk scarf and of course, the indiscriminate use of poison… a lot of it!
A brief, winding trek will bring you to the ruins which are still beautiful. The chortens and the higher ramparts were shrouded in mist so that people at a distance were either completely concealed or moving blurs. It was slightly eerie. I wanted to explore the outer fringes on my own, the others were just happy lounging and taking photographs. But Prasang said I might easily lose my way if I entered the surrounding woods and would be leopard food in no time.
“Headlines on tomorrow’s newspapers!” Fi announced. “Assam girl lost in Sikkim jungles. Firangi desperate!”
Back in Yuksom in the evening, we were treated to a feast by Prasang’s family. Pork cooked in four different ways, fresh greens fried with cardamom, fragrant rice. We washed it all down with Chhang, a liquor made from fermented millet which you have to sip from a triple tiered wooden contraption. It was a heady concoction. Tasted good too!
Sufficiently tipsy and very sated, we walked to a clearing in the forest where there were logs we could sit on and a spring to dip our feet in. The stars were out and we all agreed that they looked close enough to touch. Em, as sloshed as he was, took it a tad literally and kept sprinting with his arm outstretched. “I’ll pluck a star and give it to Fi so she’ll marry me!” he kept saying. “I think we can make an informed conjecture here on what Em wished for at the lakes. “What did you wish for, Fi?” I probed. “I wished for a chance to come back to India again and soon and with my boyfriend. What about you?” “Fat chance I’ll tell you!” I sniggered and was duly punched in the arm!
Now, when I’m finally writing about it, Yuksom seems to have taken on a shimmering quality, like something sprinkled with fairy dust. Yuksom is beautiful, mystical, serene… but it’s only when you’ve come away that you understand how special the experience of it truly is. The Yuksom sky by day or by night glows softly, lending a measure of peace to all beneath it. If ever you find yourself in Yuksom, look up. There’s no sky quite like it.
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