Sikkim….Rumtek Monastery

Continuing with my Sikkim journey: No trip to Sikkim is complete without visiting Buddhist Monastries, there are supposedly 200 of them, enveloping the state in an aura of mysticism and religiosity. The vibrant, aesthetically crafted Tibetan-Buddhist Rumtek Monastery is on our map of architectural wonders of Sikkim.

Rumtek, nestled on the hills opposite Gangtok, stands tall in its Tibetan splendour amidst the verdant Himalayas and this is one sight we would have missed if we had listened to hired cab driver. ‘The road is bad, real bad, and do you still want to go”. Our collective, angered response “we have come all the way from New Delhi for this and no roads, bad or broken, can deter us”.

We had set off from Downtown Gangtok on time … 7 am, as few minutes or hours later would have meant inching along with the serpentine queue for exiting. there was a seperate line for entering the city. The early morning city pantomimes of garbage collection, women washing utensils outside crowded homes, children lining up for school buses is soon forgotten and we immerse ourselves in salubrious surroundings. The 45 minute drive from Gangtok to Rumtek Monastery, 4900 ft above sea level and 24 km from Gangtok, is a natural delight of lush green hilly terrain and misty mountains, hillside villages, terraced fields, sheer valleys, gurgling streams and waterfalls. We watch the driver manoeuvre the thin ribbon of tar blocked by road rollers and boulders and steep drops down the mountains. The bumpy scratchy road (under repairs due to constant landslides and widening exercise) seems never ending and it was a thankful trio that reached within vicinity of Rumtek.

Finally, we are at the main gate and the vivid colours zap us. Tourists buses and private cars dislodge passengers and we go towards the main doorway manned by Security personal. It takes a minute to register the army presence at entrance of a spiritual place that is one of the monasteries that is an epitome of Buddhist art and architecture. There is more security inside and later Googling information I learn that the safety measures had something to do with the succession battle between two rival organisations, Karmapa Chatitable Trust and the Tsurphu Labrang, supporting different candidates to be the 17th Karmapa. Religion intrigues and politics does rear its ugly head

From the gate it is a long winding mountain walk to Main Hall and we request the guards to let the cab drop us to the Monastery. The request is granted after checking Id and ₹10 entry ticket, more security, frisking, face-to-face with a laid back Labrador, we walk inside a courtyard strewn with drying clothes or hanging on lines.

Rumtek Monastery or the Dharma Chakra Centre in eastern Sikkim is one of the most important centers of Kagyu lineage of Buddhism. It is the seat of His holiness Gyalwa Karmapa, the 16th Karmapa and the charismatic leader of the Karma Kagyu order of Tibetan Buddhism. Rumtek, identical to the Kagyu headquarters in Tibet, was originally built under direction of Changchub Dorje the 12th Karmapa Lama in mid 1700s. By the time Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, the 16th Karmapa, arrived in Sikkim from Tibet in 1959, it was said to be in ruins. The Karmapa was offered alternate land by the Indian government but the surrounding ambiance of snow-capped mountains, clear streams and pristine forests, motivated him to rebuild the monastery at the same spot away from footfalls and development roars. In the present, 2017, the approaching commercialism with settlements and markets is hedging the Monastary. Financial help from the Indian government, the Sikkim royal family and the local people helped complete Rumtek in four years. It was inaugurated by the 16th Karmapa as his main seat in exile and installed with the sacred items and relics from Tsurphu Monastery, the Karmapa’s seat in Tibet.(Google Information)

History and architecture is forgotten as we stroll the encircling corridor, ablaze in deep, warm Tibetan colours of ceilings, doors, windows and curtain all the way to the Main entrance with traditional Buddhist design and layout. I am tempted to knock on one of the doors in the passage, to peep inside, then remember it is a monastery. They are the monks’ quarters that enclose a spacious stone courtyard for ritual lama dances to commemorate significant dates in the Tibetan Buddhist calendar. The Main Door is guarded by life-size images of the Four Guardians of the universe: Virudaka, Virupaksha, Dritarashtra, and Vaishravana, protecting the east, west, south, and north cardinal directions. The Guardian Kings are depicted at the entryway because they had approached Buddha ,after his Enlightenment, and promised to protect all his monasteries and temples in the future.

It takes time to adjust to the resplendent interior of beautifully done Buddhist artworks, wall murals and Thangkas. There are nearly 1001 miniature gold Buddha statues inside the monastery. Photography is not allowed and we miss out on rare artworks. Maybe, in future I should doodle on paper in places where cameras are not permitted.  To the right and rear of the Main Shrine Hall are the Mahakala and Mahakali Shrine Rooms, where a puja (prayer ceremony) is held every morning and evening. To the left are the two gonkhangs or protector chapels of Tsering Che Nga, female protector of the Kagyu lineage and Dorje Drolo, the wrathful emanation of Guru Padmasambava.

The cordoned interior, crowded with artefacts, tourists and monks is no place to loiter and few moments admiring the ornate holy throne awaiting the 17th Karmapa, we make our way out. The special ‘Black hat’, worn by Karmapas during festivals, is under lock and key at the Monastery and no one knows when it will be worn by the still to be elected 17th Karmapa. The first Karmapa was given strands of hair from 10000 fairies as a boon for his meditation and those strands were woven into a black hat.

Out in the courtyard we head for the tiny convenience store, opposite the entrance, for sodas, water and gifts. My friend purchased a Tankha as souvenir and we make place for a group of young monks deciding on patties as lunch time snack. A girl, probably 4 years, addresses them as ‘Monk-ies’ and the ‘boy’ monks were impassive and un-amused. Maybe it is the language barrier or they were least interested in worldly banter. .

The never ending presence of tourists, devotees, security fabricates a daunting resurgence of religiosity in the vastness of the Himalayas. We spent a few hours sitting in the shade taking in

*: Rumtek or Dharmachakra Centre, is a Gompa and the reason for tension within the Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. The ongoing legal battle in Indian courts between the two organisations supporting different candidates for the 17th Karmapa surround the monastery in a haze of mystery and intrigue. The battle between the two organisations,Tsurphu Labrand and the Karmapa Charitable Trust, has been going on since 1992 and neither candidate resides at the monastery.

Other Attractions
Close to the Monastery is the Nehru Botanical Garden showcasing a mix of tropical and temperate plants and trees as well as exotic orchids. For children there is a small playground with swings, see-saw and a winding footpath ideal for a stroll. 

Timing: The best time to visit Rumtek Monastery is from March to late May and from October to Mid-December.

15 thoughts on “Sikkim….Rumtek Monastery”

  1. It looks like a beautiful place, and the trip to get there sounds both challenging and rewarding. It seems many monasteries don’t allow photography inside, which, as an outsider and traveler, is very disappointing to me. I wonder if it could be captured in sketches. There is a lot of history here, and as well the intrigue of the opposing candidates for the 17th Karmapa. It sounds like a fabulous place to go. Thanks for sending the link to me to include in my next call to place, to post on Thursday, May 28. 🙂

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