Rinchenpong beauty and its people

By: Sumit Chakraborty
A sleepy town in West Sikkim that is an epitome of rich heritage, natural beauty and culture - heaven on earth. Situated at an altitude of 5580ft Rinchenpong is a fairly new but must go tourist destination.

Eleven visits in four years and I am ready for more. Totally succumbing to Richenpong’s magnetic appeal, I have explored every nearby village, woods and forests, rivers and rivulets of this little known Himalayan getaway, located at an altitude of about 5580ft in West Sikkim – 130 km from Gangtok. Rinchenpong’s history too is unique – when in 1960 the British Army attacked under the command of Campbell, the Superintendent of Darjeeling – they were easily defeated by the indomitable Lepchas. Refusing to surrender, the inhabitants poisoned the pond near the invaders’ camp. Soon the soldier’s fell grievously ill and abandoned the siege. Since then the pond has been known as Bishpokhri or the Poison Lake.

In December, 2008 during my travel to West Sikkim, the name ‘Rinchenpong’ fell upon my ears – the rhythmicity sufficed to arouse my curiosity. A friend and respective spouses in tow we snacked at a half an hour halt at Jorthang to reach Rinchenpong bazaar by evening – as Mt. Kanchenjungha peeped intermittently through the distant bluish cloudy haze; its crown glowing ember-like in the last rays of the sun.

Not only the landscape, even the people make this place special. Whether it was the young rosy cheeked girl who sought us out through every hotel, to return the mobile that we had unwittingly left behind in her parents’ tea shop – or baby Diya, who merrily accompanied us for day long sojourns, Rinchenpong bears an air of trust and camaraderie that speaks of an age bygone. The houses are frames in themselves – cardamom bushes and orchids growing in abandon, pretty wooden windows adorned with flowering plants, smiling faces, music, wafting fragrances of exotic cooking all add to the ambience.

The mountains are welcoming in every season – chilling winter, glorious autumn or in the rains – its exquisite beauty is a revelation. In Lepcha ‘rinchen’ means assembly while ‘pong’ stands for place – and indeed, it is a platform with mountains standing around in animated assembly – Mt. Kanchenjungha, Kabru, Jopuno, Narsing, and Kumbhakarn. Rinchenpong thus provides elusive sighting of the famous Sleeping Buddha – a panoramic view of peaks that appears to be a giant human in repose. Only once, surprisingly in June, did I view this majesticity – the memory however, will remain etched for a lifetime.

The region is a great attraction to birdwatchers and ornithologists as almost all the avian species found in the lower Himalayas are plentifully found here. The trees abound with grey headed canary, flycatcher, green backed tit, oriental white eye, green tailed sunbirds, small niltava, fire tailed sunbird, Himalayan bulbul, verditer flycatcher, white crowned laughing thrush etc. and even monal can be seen here.

Fig 1

One foggy morning, armed with a small hand drawn map, handed to me by the hotel owner, DK, I set off to a quest for the Reshum Monastery, 4 km from the market. A jungle and steps of stone awaited – beckoning me towards the hilltop. After precisely the 323rd step I stopped counting, lost in dream world – tendrils of mist in sinuous pursuit of each other, morning dew clinging to tiny blossoms, cicadas providing the perfect background for the lone song of the proverbial early birds. The mountain top came into sight with the mist was chased away by the sparkling sunshine.  The two storied wooden monastery built at the centre of a grassy patch seemed to be deserted at first, but as I called out a face peered out of a small sunlit window; and the only resident of the century old Gompha walked out to greet. Apart from a weekly visit to the Rinchenpong market his daily schedule comprised of a lonely meditation. He showed me the gompha, explained the basics tenets of Buddhism and guided me to a view point where Mt Kanchenjungha could be viewed – but for cloud screen that just never moved. On our way back, through the suggested short cut, I met a Lepcha family that spanned three generations – the oldest lady no less than hundred. They understood neither Hindi nor English, despite several attempts by young Namgiyal, who played the role of an interpreter, our queries remained unresolved.

The farm of Daoa Lepcha at Yungsome village, 3 km from Rinchenpong is one of my favourite haunts. A meandering path opens to a wooden gate and an orchid decorated hut. The earthen walled and rafter roofed room holds exquisite Tibetan artefacts – bamboo and wooden furniture Thangka, masks, silk paintings and more. As the lady of the house walked in with tea and homemade refreshments in tall lidded cups, inlaid with motifs and festive baskets, I couldn’t help marvelling at the warmth of traditions of this land. After the tea, Daoa ji showed us around his farm where he grew various vegetables, practised sericulture, tended a vineyard and also maintained a small nursery to supply saplings to the Forest Department, Govt. of Sikkim.

My next destination was a comfortable uphill walk away from the market – the Rinchenpong Monastery, an 18th century (1717) gompha that holds the Aati Buddha, where the Lord is seen in eternal meditation in his consort’s embrace. Complex explanations aside, I can only add that I have not seen such an extraordinary idol in any other gompha till date. On a typical Monastery’s morning begins with bread and salty butter-tea. Trainee Lamas (Tibetan teachers) after their prayers and trainings play pranks on each other till the day’s end. Their instructor Tenjing Chupel, invites me to each important event here – and I make it a point to be there, every time.

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