by Joan Schweighardt
In January my son announced that he and his girlfriend were going to India in March to get married and that my husband and I were invited to travel with the newlyweds for a few weeks after the wedding. Since my then future daughter-in-law (Reena) offered to make the post-wedding travel arrangements, I didn’t even check out the places she wanted us to visit on the Internet. A surprise journey had never been offered to me before and I found it appealing.
Reena’s family lives in Imphal, in the state of Manipur, which is in the extreme eastern part of India, bordering on Myanmar. Manipur is home to the United National Liberation Front (UNLF), an insurgent group wishing to establish Manipur as an independent socialist state. The presence of insurgents (since 1964) is counterbalanced by a paramilitary presence. Between the two, Manipur is considered a “sensitive area.”
Because a traditional Hindu wedding has several components that unfold over a series of days, we did only limited sightseeing while we were in Manipur. But we did happen to be out visiting parks on our last day, which was the first day of Holi, the festival of colors. Holi is a Hindu tradition that celebrates Spring and also the victory of good over evil. It can last two or three days in Manipur. People observe it by throwing powders of every color on themselves (as well as on their friends and acquaintances) and then going out to dance in the streets. The wind picks up some of the powder and carries the spirit of love and celebration to corners where it might not otherwise find itself. As we were driving to Loktak Lake, we encountered many cheerful red, blue, purple, and green-faced young people. Some of them formed barriers and wouldn’t let us pass until we had given them rupees to help pay for their celebrations.
We heard small bombs going off that night, and there were more men with AK 47s outside our hotel than usual. In fact, there were a few soldiers inside too, sitting on folding chairs guarding the doors of some diplomats who happened to be staying there. That a tradition celebrating the dissemination of goodwill could co-exist with insurgent and paramilitary thunder does not seem like a contradiction to the people who live in Manipur; they are used to it. Or at least they will not allow it interfere with their way of life. And it didn’t seem like a contradiction to me by the time I left the country either, because in many ways, India is everything. It is opulence and poverty; it is democracy and subordination; it is vibrant and spicy and exotic, and it is clamorous and pestilent. If it’s true that everything contains its opposite (yin and yang; the wave and the particle), then India exemplifies that truth.
We flew from Imphal to Kolkata to Bagdogra for a journey into the foothills of the Himalayas. Our first two nights were spent in Darjeeling in the state of West Bengal. Our driver picked us up at four in the morning on our full first day and took us to Tiger Hill, on the Ghoom summit, to witness the sunrise. Since Tiger Hill was only 11 km from our hotel, we didn’t understand why we were getting such an early start. The answer became clear as we approached. Tiger Hill is immensely popular, and every tourist in West Bengal visits it. The road going to the top of the mountain is spectacularly narrow, and as our skilled driver maneuvered his way up between parked cars and even (somehow) around cars that were inching forward ahead of us, I couldn’t help but think that except for the fact that we were moving vertically, we could have been in rush hour Manhattan. Finally we got as far as we were going by motor and our driver let us out to join the throng of people walking up the mountain.
At the top of Tiger Hill there is a four-storied, glass-walled observatory, and even though there was still another hour or so until there would be anything to observe, its decks were completely full. We found places to stand near the iron railing at the edge of the mountain. In no time the crowds behind us were six deep and movement was no longer an option. Since it was bone-chilling cold, this was in some ways a blessing. Enterprising locals milled through the crowds selling paper cups of coffee, poured from steaming thermoses. Prompted by their parents, children of all ages appeared between the guard rail and the first stratum of people.
The cheering began as soon as the top edge of the orange orb appeared. The higher the sun rose, the louder the crowd became. People with cameras vied for position. The assembly tightened, so that we could smell each other’s breath. And then at last, the spectacle: Kangchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world, was illuminated. (Everest was illuminated too, though we were told since Kangchenjunga was closer, Everest would appear smaller and might even be hard to pick out.) Almost as intriguing as the sight of the sun shining pinkly on these incredible peaks was the enthusiasm of the crowds, almost all of whom were Indians. They shouted and danced and pumped their arms in the air to welcome this natural and daily event with a passion one associates with soccer matches, or the falling of the time ball at Times Square on New Year’s Eve.
On our second morning in Darjeeling we climbed several flights of stairs to our hotel’s observation deck and watched the sun rise over Kangchenjunga all over again. Not having to put on long johns and get up two hours early and drive up a narrow mountain road with thousands of other cars (I still haven’t figured out how our driver managed to turn his vehicle around for the return trip) had its advantages, but somehow it felt disrespectful, like bypassing the donation box in a museum. Also, there is something to be said for experiencing a majestic site in the midst of a swarm of humanity.
After Darjeeling we visited Sikkim, our main destination. Sikkim is a landlocked Indian state (since 1975) located in the Himalayan mountains. It is bordered by Nepal to the west, Tibet to the north and east, Bhutan to the southeast and West Bengal to the south. Because Sikkim features roads that lead into other countries, it is a restricted area and we had to obtain special permission documents in order to travel through it. While you will read in articles on tourism websites that a large percentage of Sikkim’s revenue comes from tourism, we saw relatively few sightseers, and the ones we did encounter, as in the case of Tiger Hill, were mostly Indians from West Bengal or other points south. In fact, there are not many people in Sikkim, period. While the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of India is that it is home to well over a billion people, Sikkim harbors only just over 600,000 of them; it is India’s least populated state—and perhaps its best kept secret.
Sikkim is another of India’s contradictions. On the one hand, it offers little in the way of comfort for travelers. The military check points, at which we had to stop to show our passports and permits, were frequent and slowed us down. The roads were not just scary; they were heart-stoppingly terrifying. We traveled during the dry season but we were told that during monsoon season landslides are a regular event that can leave small towns and villages isolated for months. While the BRO (Border Roads Organization), a division of the Indian Army, works hard to maintain the roads, it’s not an easy task when they are all on the edge of steep mountains. Many sections of the “highways” (I use the term loosely and only to demonstrate that there was usually only one route to get from one mountain to another) were unpaved and without guardrails.
Also, they were mostly very narrow, so that when a vehicle was coming from the other direction, someone was forced to back up (a horrifying ordeal on the edge of a mountain in a SUV whose back window is obstructed by luggage) to a slightly wider section of road or squeeze in against the jutting rocks of the mountainside to allow the other to pass. To make matters worse, the area suffered a 6.9 earthquake in September of 2011, and when we were there in March of 2012, many of the boulders that had come down on the roads had still not been removed. The BRO is concentrating first on the ones that impede traffic.
We spent many hours on the roads of Sikkim. Not only were the destinations on our itinerary far apart, but the condition of the roads required us to go slowly. When the roads were particularly bad, our drivers (we had different ones each day) rolled up the windows, but we still inhaled (and coughed up) dust. And always we were bouncing. The first day I held onto the door handle to keep myself from colliding with whoever was next to me, but after a while I gave it up and let the rhythm of the potholes carry me along. We made Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim (a great city with delicious food), our headquarters, and from there we traveled as far east as Tsomgo Lake (a remote and sacred glacial lake only 55 km from the Tibetan border) and as far north as LaChung (a former trading post between Sikkim and Tibet, known for its many varieties of rhododendron). We were scheduled to go further north, but the road we needed to take to get to the hot springs in Yumthang Valley had been blanketed over by a series of avalanches.
While we did not encounter any avalanches in action, a landslide occurred once on a stretch of road just ahead of us. Luckily it was a minor one and the cascade of stones and dirt had ceased by the time we got there. On another occasion a lone rock came down the mountainside and struck our vehicle. Since it was only the size of a football, it didn’t have the force to thrust us from the road, but it left a sizable dent on the side of the SUV.
But offsetting any physical discomfort we might have suffered were the spiritual pleasures that were lavished on us. The scenery was breathtaking and a spiritual experience in and of itself. The music piped into our hotel’s hallways featured Buddhist chants, and it was lovely to encounter them each morning when we first opened our door thinking only “coffee.” The local people we met along the way, mostly Nepalis and refugee Tibetans, emanated benevolence. The Indian tourists we met wanted to have their pictures taken with us, especially my husband who is 6’4 and light-colored. When they lined up with us in front of the camera, they threw their arms around our shoulders and held onto us like we had been friends all our lives. Some people might call this a lack of boundaries. To me it felt like exuberance. Most of the tourists we met at Tsomgo Lake, which is at altitude of 3,780 m (12,400 ft), had never seen snow before—and they hadn’t dressed for it. Yet that didn’t stop them from sliding down hills on their backsides like children. Even the women, dressed in saris and sockless in slippers or sandals, participated. Watching them, from inside my many layers and my REI down jacket, I felt momentarily deficient.
There are close to a hundred Buddhist monasteries in Sikkim, and we visited at least a dozen of them. Each one was a work of art, eye candy at its most extravagant. Like everything else in Sikkim, the monasteries are built into the mountainsides. In every case, our drivers dropped us off at the bottom of the steep paths leading up to them. All the way up and all the way down these paths, on the left and the right, were prayer wheels, cylinders on spindles featuring Sanskrit mantas on the outside and more mantras written on paper inside the cylinder. At some monasteries, the prayer wheels surround the buildings entirely, like fencing. We spun every wheel we saw, clockwise to follow the direction of the sun, releasing the blessings of Om Mani Padme Hum to scatter into the air, like the colorful powders of Holi, to find its way into nooks and crannies everywhere. Om Mani Padre Hum, the most universal of the mantras, invokes the blessings of Chenrezig, the Tibetan Buddhist Buddha of Compassion. It is the essence of all Dharma, all righteousness.
And it was not only in the streets of Manipur and at the Buddhist monasteries that we encountered such wholehearted gestures of altruism. All along the mountain passes there were prayer flags fluttering in the wind, discharging blessings for all humanity, twenty-four seven. They hung from peaks so high it was hard to imagine how any human had managed to maneuver the stringing of them. They hung from rickety wooden bridges, over terraced gardens, on the sides of pucca houses (those made of cement, bricks or wood) and kutcha houses (those made, like birds’ nests, from mud, bamboo, leaves and other indigenous materials) alike. Sometimes they were all one color and sometimes they were multicolored. Sometimes they were crisscrossed back and forth so zealously that you couldn’t see beyond them. And there were shrines along the roadsides too, erected in the most unlikely places, where passersby could stop to pray. When the terrain was too rugged to erect a shrine, mantras were carved right into the stone.
Mark Twain had this to say about India: "India has two million gods, and worships them all. In religion all other countries are paupers; India is the only millionaire." Amen. And Om Mani Padre Hum. Even if you deny the magic of colorful powders and prayer flags, who can deny the virtue of the gesture?