Sikkim has many beautiful lakes dotting its landscape. Most of the lakes in Sikkim are considered sacred and are revered by the people. The North Sikkim plateau adjoining Tibet has a number of mountain lakes of which Gurudongmar and Chho Lamo are the most famous. Chho Lamo is the source of the Teesta River. The Tsomgo Lake in East Sikkim is the most popular with tourists while Khecheopalri in West Sikkim is one of the most beautiful and sacred.
a. Tsomgo Lake
The most visited lake in Sikkim is the Tsomgo Lake in East Sikkim. Located 35 km from Gangtok and at an altitude of 12,000 ft., the ethereally beautiful Tsomgo Lake is a must on every visitors itinerary Embedded in steep and rugged mountain terrain, the lake is covered with snow cover from early winter to late spring. Associated with many legends and myths, Tsomgo is regarded as holy by the Sikkimese. For the tourist a visit to the lake offers a wonderful outing. Rides on colorfully decorated yaks and mules are offered at the lake site, which also has a variety of eating stalls serving snacks and beverages. Snowboots and gumboots can be hired here. The lake also provides the perfect backdrop for the holiday photo.
b. Menmecho Lake
Located twenty kilometers ahead of Tsomgo is the much larger Menmecho Lake at an altitude of 12,500 ft. It is a stunningly beautiful lake with snow cover from early winter to late spring. It is surrounded by a rich, varied forest and some rather interesting rock formations. The lake is famous for its trout and a farm to cultivate these fish also exists nearby. Fishing is allowed at Menmecho Lake but you have to obtain a permit from Gangtok and ascertain the availability of fishing gear. Accommodation for the visitors coming here is available at the dak bungalow and tourist lodge near the lake.
c. Lampokari Lake
The Lampokari Lake at Aritar in East Sikkim saddled on the top of a hill. This serene Lake, surrounded by lush greenery is considered one of the oldest in Sikkim and is about 350 meters in length and 75 meters wide. Shaped curiously like a human foot, this lake, although natural, has been recently provided with artificial embankment to facilitate boating, a first for Sikkim.
d. Khecheopalri lake
Altitude: 1799 meters another holy lake is Khecheopalri in West Sikkim. Located between Gyalshing and Yuksum and surrounded by hills, Khecheoplari Lake is one of the most beautiful lakes in Sikkim and is considered as sacred by both Buddhists and Hindus. So hallowed is the lake in local imagination that it is believed that even birds protect its sanctity by carrying away any leaf or twig that drifts on to its calm and placid surface. Also known as the Wishing Lake, it is visited by a large number of people all year through. The green and clear waters of the lake along with the serene atmosphere make it a very popular tourist destination. A trekkers hut has been built near the lake for the convenience of tourists.
e. Gurudongmar Lake
At 17,100 ft., Gurudongmar is revered by both Buddhists and Hindus as a sacred lake. Encircled all around by snow-covered mountains the lake freezes during the winter, except at one spot said to be blessed by Guru Rimpoche. The water of the lake is believed to have the miraculous power of granting children to issueless couples.
2. Hot springs
Sikkim has many hot springs known for their therapeutic value. High in Sulphur content, the waters are believed to have great medicinal properties with the average temperature of the water in these hot springs close to 50c.
There are some well-known hot springs in North Sikkim. The Yumthang Hot Spring is located some distance away from Yumthang village. To reach the hot spring one has to walk a few hundred yards from the road and across a pedestrian bridge on the River Lachung. For the convenience of bathers, there is a hut with two pools which contains hot spring water. Hot water rich in sulphureted hydrogen gas from a spring just behind the hut and is diverted to the pools.
A 25 kilometer drive up from Yumthang takes you to the Yume Samdong Hot Spring at the base of the Donkia-la Pass.
Another popular hot spring is the Reshi Hot Spring, located about 25 kms from Gyalshing, near Reshi, on the banks of the Rangeet River. The water of these springs, being high in sulphur is believed to have special curative powers for skin diseases. There are trekkers' huts for the convenience of the tourists. Close by is Kah-do Sang phu or the cave of the occult fairies considered sacred by the people.
Borong and Ralong Hot Springs are located within a distance of 7 kms from each other. Popular with visitors from all over the region, these natural spas are said to have curative powers. Ralang Cha-chu can be reached after an hour long walk from Ralong monastery while Borang Cha-chu is reached after a 7 km drive to Ralong and then a 40 min walk downhill. For overnight stay temporary huts are available but you have to carry your own bedding and cooking utensils.
Pilgrimage to the Four Sacred Holy Caves of Sikkim
Sikkim has Four Great Holy Caves – ‘Phug Chen Zhi’, which are included in ‘gNas-chen-InGa’ (Paanch Dhaam) of Sikkim. These Caves are located at four cardinal directions of Tashiding (West Sikkim), namely –Sharchog Beyphug in the East, Lho Kando Sangphug in the South, Nub Dechenphug in the West and Jhang Lhari Nyingphug in the North. Tashiding, according to Holy text, is the Navel point of “Bayul Demajong”, and is considered as the 5th Dhaam of this Holy Land.
Guru Padmasambhava sanctified these Caves as the abodes of various Protective Divinities of the Esoteric Buddhism. Today, these Caves have become the most important pilgrim destination of the Buddhist followers of Sikkim, Darjeeling and for the devotees of Bhutan. For the Sikkimese Buddhist, these Caves are like ‘Char Dhaam’ of the Hindus. The ardent Buddhist devotees especially from Sikkim make pilgrimage to these caves at least once in their lifetime.
How and From Where to Start the Pilgrimage
There are many ways to get to the Four Holy Caves and although it is not mandatory to visit these holy caves all at once, it is strictly recommended that one follows the correct procedure to reap the full benefits of conducting this pilgrimage of visiting the Four Holy Caves. It is also recommended that one initiates this pilgrimage during the months of February and March or October and November, when the weather is relatively favorable and the conditions in these sites are suitable for visits.
The pilgrimage to the Four Holy Caves should be clockwise, circumambulating the Tashiding Hill, which means one has to start their pilgrimage from the Eastern Cave ‘Sharchog Beyphug’ then onward to Southern Cave ‘Khadro Sangphug’ thereafter to the Western Cave ‘Nub Dechen Phug’ and then to ‘Jhang Lhari Nyingphug’ and finally to Tashiding to wind up their pilgrimage.
Here is a day wise plan as to how one should conduct the pilgrimage if one wishes to;
One should first make provisions to get to Sangmo Village near Rabongla in South Sikkim, from where our pilgrimage begins early in the morning. Once at Sangmo Village, the pilgrims can visit the first cave, ‘Sharchog Beyphug’ and offer prayers and soak in the spectacle. After this visit, the pilgrims should head towards Gyalshing or Pelling, as it is from here that we move toward our third cave, early next morning. On the way to Gyalshing taking the Rabongla – Kewzing Road and on reaching Legship, one should take the diversion toward Jorethang Road and about 4 kms before reaching Reshi, the pilgrims can visit the second cave. ‘Khandro Sangphug’. In order to reach this cave, one has to dismount the vehicle and walk down towards the River Rangit which is just about 200 meters from the road. Pilgrims then need to cross the River Rangit where the second cave awaits. Here the pilgrims can also enjoy the natural hot spring which is believed to have medicinal and healing qualities. After this visit is over, the pilgrims should head back towards Legship and then towards Gyalshing /Pelling via the Legship –Gyalshing Road for the night halt.
Early next morning, the pilgrims can explore Pemayangste Monastery and the Rabdentse Ruins before heading toward the third cave. After the visit to these sites, pilgrims should head towards Darap via the Pelling-Darap Road and after reaching Darap one should head towards Rimbi Power Station, where there is a small village and it is only till here that motorable road exists. Pilgrims now need to take a hike towards Dechenthang which is a small village and acts like a base camp towards the third cave. The hike to Dechenthang is about an hour’s journey. Thereafter, from Dechenthang one must endure a 6 hour uphill trek through treacherous landscape in order to reach Dechenphug. So it is advisable to spend the night at Dechenthang and rejuvenate before continuing the trek.
Pilgrims can hire porters and a guide at Dechenthang and should start early in the morning if they wish to return to Dechenthang for the night. However, if one wishes to visit Kagye Lhakhang as well there is a small R.M.D.D Hut near the third cave ‘Dechenphug’ where the pilgrims can halt for the night after visiting the cave. The hut can accommodate up to 20 individuals. If the pilgrims wish to visit the Kagye Lhakhang, then one must start early next morning to visit this Lhakhang and head back towards Dechenthang, or if one does not wish to stay at this hut then one must skip the visit to Kagye Lhakhnag and can trek back to Dechenthang the same day after exploring the cave, and spend the night at Dechenthang.
The pilgrims must start early on the 4th Day as this entire day and the next would be spent on travelling. The pilgrims must hike back to the village near the Rimbi power station, and head toward Yuksam. One may visit the Khecheopalri Lake on their way to Yuksam and by the time the pilgrims reach Yuksam it would already have been late in the evening, so the pilgrims may spend the night there.
Early next morning one can visit all the holy places around Yuksam, such as the Holy Throne of the three lamas who crowned the first King of Sikkim, Dubdue Monastery, Phagmorong and Thakthungrong caves situated near this monastery and then head toward Sunon Monastery. To reach this monastery, the pilgrims need to take the Yuksam- Tashiding Route and take a diversion at Chongrang Village to reach Sunon Gonpa where the pilgrims can halt for the night.
Now, the pilgrims may start early from Sunon Gonpa by vehicle toward Gurung Goan at Labdang. Here one can find porters and guides for the trek toward the final cave, ‘Jhang Lhari Nyingphug’. The pilgrims now need to trek for a grueling 8 hours before reaching a small R.M.D.D hut, where the pilgrims need to spend the night at this hut. It is advisable that the pilgrims carry provisions for cooking and bedding before embarking on this journey.
Early next morning the pilgrims must trek an additional 1 hour before reaching the fourth and final cave, ‘Jhang Lhari Nyingphug’. After an hour or so of worship and exploration one can head back to R.M.D.D hut, and take a break and then trek back to Gurung Goan where the pilgrims can mount their vehicle and travel towards Tashiding to wind up this pilgrimage. On reaching Tashiding, the pilgrims can halt at Sinek Bazaar at Tashiding.
Now the pilgrims can visit the Tashiding Monastery and explore the area chanting mantras and worshiping the stupas and other religious artefacts. After this, the pilgrims may return to their homes accordingly.
Immediately after a lapse of one week, the pilgrims has to perform a ‘Nay-shak’at their home by means of engaging a minimum of four lamas, which is an act of purifying oneself of unseen or unnoticed sins committed and unknowingly breaking the sacred vows during the course of this pilgrimage. Nayshak puja is simple Tshog (Prasad) and Chime (Butter Lamp) offerings with prayers by the lamas.
With this the pilgrimage officially concludes and this however is the actual prescribed procedure of conducting the pilgrimage to the four great holy caves.
4. Flora and Fauna
The glory of Sikkim is its breathtaking array of flowers. Sikkim’s geographical positioning has gifted it a repository of over 5000 species of flowering plants. Forests of magnolia, blue poppies, primulas, gentians and geraniums create a spell-binding floral spectacle. Orchids, gladioli, poppies, azaleas and camellias add to the heady collection. Its great variety of rhododendron ranges from shrubs at ground level to towering specimens that set the terrain ablaze in a riot of colors.
The first study of the flora of Sikkim was undertaken by Sir Joseph Hooker, the noted English botanist. Hooker traveled to the interiors of Sikkim, including remote mountain regions in 1848-49. His expedition resulted in amazing new discovery of numerous plant and animal life in the area. He published the Rhododendrons of Sikkim in 1849 while his record of his travels in Sikkim published as Himalayan Journals is the most comprehensive guide to the botanical splendor of the region.
Hooker divided Sikkim into three botanical zones, the tropical from almost sea level height to around 5000 ft., the temperate from 5000 feet to 13000 feet, and the alpine from 13000 feet upwards.
The tropical vegetation, mostly along the banks and valleys of the rivers Tista, Rangit and their tributaries, consists mostly of figs, laurels, sal trees, ferns and a variety of bamboo. The temperate zone has oak, chestnut, maple, birch, alder, magnolia and silver fir, at the higher regions, while the lower alpine zone has juniper, cypresses and rhododendrons.
Sikkim has a rich heritage of different kinds of flowers. While these include poppies, gentians and primulas, the real treasures are the orchids and rhododendrons. Available in different colors and shapes they are found abundant in the region. Of the 5000 species of orchids known in the world, 600 can be found in the lower reaches of Sikkim alone, along with 30 species of rhododendron.
Orchids are found in Sikkim, mostly in the tropical regions up to 7000 feet elevations but some species inhabit altitudes of 10000 feet and above. Sikkim orchids belong to two categories: epiphyte and terrestrial; the epiphytes are better known and more numerous. The popular epiphytal orchids in Sikkim belong to the genus Dendrobium, Cymbidium, Vanda, Phalaenopsis, Caelogyne, Arachnanthe or Saccolabium. Of these the Dendrobium Nobile has been adopted by the state as its official flower.
Found in super abundance and in a riot of colors, the rhododendron is in its full glory in Sikkim. Growing mostly in sub-alpine and alpine regions they cover complete hillsides in a blaze of beauty. The route to Dzongri, the Singalila trail and the Yumthang valley in North Sikkim are covered with rhododendron shrubs and trees. Around 30 species of rhododendron are found in Sikkim in different sizes and shapes. While the Rhododendron grande is over 10 m tall, the Rhododendron nivale grows barely a few inches above the ground. Rhododendron niveum has been declared as the State Tree of Sikkim.
The dense forests of Sikkim are home to a variety of animals. The Musk Deer, the munjak or the Barking Deer roam the jungles in the upper temperate zone while the Himalayan Black Bear is found in forests of the lower valleys to around 12,000 feet.
Also found here is the Red Panda, belonging to the raccoon family, the Red Goral, a horned animal closely related to the Serow, the Blue Sheep or bharal, the Shapi, belonging to the Himalayan Tahr family and the elusive Snow Leopard, an almost mythical animal, found in the arid cold alpine region. Another animal found mostly in the alpine zone is the Yak. These animals are domesticated and reared in North Sikkim and provide useful service. They are used mainly as beasts of burden over mountain terrain and can survive even sub-zero temperatures.
Sikkim is rich in avifauna too and is considered to be a birdwatchers paradise. Its avian population extends to almost 550 species. The avifauna of Sikkim is comprised of the Impeyan pheasant, the crimson horned pheasant, the snow partridge, the snow cock, the lammergeyer and griffon vultures, as well as golden eagles, quail, plovers, woodcock, sandpipers, pigeons, Old World flycatchers, babblers and robins.
Sikkim also has a rich diversity of arthropods, much of which remains unexplored even today. The best studied group remains the butterflies, with 50 per cent of the 1,400 butterfly species recorded in the Indian sub-continent found in the state. These include the endangered Kaiser-i-hind, Yellow Gorgon and the Bhutan Glory amongst others.
a. Blood Pheasant
The Blood Pheasant is the state bird of Sikkim. The only species in genus Ithaginis of the Pheasant family, it has 15 different subspecies. It is so named because the males have vivid red coloring on the feathers of the breast, throat and forehead. Females are more uniformly colored with duller shades of reddish brown. Both males and females have a distinct ring of bare skin around the eye that is crimson colored, in addition to red feet. Subspecies are determined by varying amounts of red and black feathers. The habitat most preferred by Blood Pheasants is coniferous or mixed forests and scrub areas right at the snowline. The pheasants move their range depending on the seasons and during the summer is found at higher elevations. Populations move to lower elevations as the snow increases in the fall and winter.
b. Red Panda
The State Animal of Sikkim is the Red Panda. This species belongs to the raccoon family and lives mostly on tree tops. It is found in altitudes ranging from 6000 to 12000 feet. The red panda is bright chestnut in color, has a triangular face with a dark stripe covering the cheeks to the chin, sharp pointed ears and a bushy ringed tail. It is never more than 2 feet in length and usually moves around in families.
Red Pandas are excellent climbers and forage largely in trees. It is specialized as a bamboo feeder with strong, curved and sharp semi-retractile claws standing inward for firm grasping to facilitate substantial movement on narrow tree branches and seizing leaves and fruit. The Red Panda does little more than eat and sleep due to its low-calorie diet. Bamboo shoots are more easily digested than leaves and exhibited the highest digestibility in the summer and autumn, intermediate in the spring, and low in the winter.
c. Blue Sheep
Blue Sheep also known as Baharal, occupy one of the highest ecological niches in the world. The Green Lake basin and also the area around the Doukia Pass. There are only a very few such animal and it is high on the endangered list.
5. Wild Life Sanctuaries
a. Kanchendzonga National Park (KNP)
KNP encompasses an area covering 1784 sq. km. It is bounded in the north by the Tent Peak and the ridge of the Zemu glacier. The eastern boundary of this park comprises of the ridge of the Mountain Lamaongden. The southern boundary includes Mount Narsing and Mount Pandim. The western boundary comprises of the mighty Kanchendzonga which presides over its namesake park and the Nepal Peak. Being bounded by such formidable features, it is no wonder that the park has remained ecologically untouched and therefore has provided a natural protection to the flora and fauna it shelters. The fauna includes the Snow leopard, Himalayan Black Bear, Red Panda, Barking deer and many other species. The KNP is surrounded by biosphere which combines nature conservation with scientific research, environmental training, environmental education monitoring and demonstration. Many places in this park have perhaps never been trod by man and it is very likely that new species may be discovered here.
b. Fambong Lho Wildlife Sanctuary
This is located about 20 kilometers from Gangtok and covers an area of about 5200 hectares above the road between Singtam and Dikchu with the highest point at a place called Tinjure where a wooden observation tower of the Forest Department exists. The Sanctuary is the home of Himalayan Black Bear, Red Panda, Civet cat and many varieties of birds and butterflies.
c. Maenam Wildlife Sanctuary
It is located in South Sikkim above the town of Rabongla and covers an area of about 3500 hectares with its highest point being at Maenam at 10,600 ft. It shelters the Red Panda, Leopard cat, civet cat, blood pheasant, black eagles and other animals of the temperate forest.
d. Singba Rhododendron Sanctuary
It is located near Yumthang in north Sikkim and contains a vast variety of rhododendrons. When in blossom the rhododendrons provide a riot of color to this small 33 hectare park.
e. Kyongnosla Alpine Sanctuary
It is situated around the area adjoining the Changu Lake and covers an area of about 400 hectares.
f. Varsey Rhododendron Sanctuary
This Rhododendron Sanctuary lies in the West corner of Sikkim.
Mountains scarred by landslides suggest that development activities are taking a toll on the environment and the flora and fauna are definitely being affected. The loss of topsoil, soil instability, degeneration of agriculture land and shrinking of catchment areas of the rivers are issues that are cause for concern. The alpine areas of Sikkim in particular which look so powerfully big and formidable are ironically most vulnerable and sensitive to environment degradation. High altitude soil is not readily regenerative and therefore overgrazing of yaks and sheep in alpine meadows has led to many stretches of land becoming barren. Man has realized that forests form an indispensable part of our life support system and placed their conservation high on the agenda. Perhaps in the thousands of species of flora in Sikkim, some of them unique to this state and not found elsewhere, are some which await to be discovered to provide lifesaving drugs to fight diseases like cancer and AIDS that are stalking mankind. It is truly said that in the wildness is the preservation of the world.
The best protection for the species is the people who know and care about them. The need for development and the preservation of the ecology have to be balanced and one should not be allowed to overwhelm the other. We do not I require an asteroid to destroy us. Like the anecdotal bull in the china shop we are destroying the world ourselves -slowly and irrevocably without realizing it. Emission of greenhouse gases is causing global warming and these cuts across borders and nations. But we have saviors in the form of trees. Quietly they stand absorbing the noxious gases. Perhaps the trees in Sikkim at some given moment would be absorbing carbon-dioxide emitted by a coal fired power station in China and releasing pure oxygen in return. Sikkim has the capability of earning good Carbon credits and doing carbon trading given the good forest coverage. The forest coverage in the state is steadily increasing due to the green initiatives of the state. Grazing in forest areas has been banned and the use of j chemical fertilizers banned as a step to make the state completely organic, Felling of trees is banned: Government also feels that trees can be more productive if left standing. Sikkim is perhaps the only state in the country to set up a Glacier Commission to study the effect of climate change on its glaciers.
6. Bird Watching
Sikkim is rich in avifauna and is considered to be a birdwatchers paradise. Its avian population extends to almost 550 species. The climate varies between the tropical heat of the valleys and the alpine cold of the snowy regions. The altitudinal zones of vegetation range from tropical, sub-tropical, temperate to Alpine. In some places only 10 Kms in a direct line separate the warm valleys from perpetual snow. The telescoping of terrain has created marked altitudinal zonation in the humidity, rainfall, climate and vegetation. This factor is responsible for the great variety and abundance of the resident bird life, making this area arguably one of the richest areas of its size anywhere in the world.
West Sikkim offers great birding opportunities. Barsey, located at 3300 m, on a massive ridge covered with protected forests of Silver Fir, hemlocks, magnolia, and Rhododendrons is one of the best birding areas in Sikkim.
Around Pemayangste and the nearby village of Pelling there are several excellent birding sites and hikes. Some important species like the Maroon-Backed Accentor, Red-faced Liocichla etc. are found around these forests.
The Khecheopheri Lake hosts migrant ducks and occasionally some rare species such as Black-necked Crane, Black-tailed Crane and many others.
For those who are enthusiastic about trekking in the high Himalayas, the best way to see higher altitude birds is to take the 10 day Dzongri. Some of the birds seen on this trip are Blood Pheasant, Himalayan Monal, Brown Parotbill, Fire-tailed Myzornis, Cutia, Sapphire flycatcher, White browned Bush Robin, Grandala, Rufous - breasted Accentors, White winged and collared Grosbeaks, Spot-winged Rosefinch.
In South Sikkim is the Maenam Wildlife Sanctuary. The sanctuary starts from 2000m, with a sub-tropical forest, gradually taken over by moist temperate forest at around 2500-3000m and then sub-alpine conifer forests at altitude higher than 3000m. Rabongla to Maenam top is about 12km and a further 1km trek will take one to Bhaledhunga, a cockscomb shaped stone. Important birds in this trek include satyr Tragopan, Kalij pheasant, rusty-bellied Shortwing, Minivet, Yuhina, flycatchers etc.