Entering into the heartland of Eastern Himalayas

JOURNEY THROUGH RAJGIR (ရာဇ္ၿဂိဳဟ္)

It was early March 2015.

As a week of time consumed, I’d departed the holy land Gaya for my new destination with a private taxi.

Gaya 1

(Before departing from Gaya Myanmar Monastery)

On the way through I was crossing ancient city Rajgir surrounded by seven hills. RG 2 RG 3 RG 4 RG 5

Lord Gautama Buddha spent several months meditating, and preaching here, also delivered some of his famous sermons and initiated king Bimbisara of Magadha and countless others to Buddhism. On one of the hills is the Saptparni cave where the First Buddhist Council was held. Coincidentally again I met here my in-laws U Soe Than & Daw Aye Aye Han family. We all missed Mi Kay Thi, Ye Khant, and Hnin Oo Mon.

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NALANDA (နလႏၵာ) Through my continuing journey I dropped in on for a while at Ancient University of Nalanda which I admired much.

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It was acclaimed as an enormous Buddhist monastery in ancient Magadha Kingdom, centre of learning from 5th to 1200 CE. Flourished under the patronage of Gupta Empire, and later, rulers of Pala Empire. Finally ransacked by an army of Muslim Mamluk Dynasty under Bakhtiyar Khilji.

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I’d visit to the Black Buddha and also call round for a moment to Nava Nalanda Maha Vihara University to meet with my friend Venerable Professor Dr Dhamma Jyoti from Ladakh.

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SILIGURI

My travelling trek was long and somehow tiresome under the summer heat of India. Distance from Gaya to Siliguri by road is about 520 Km and driving time typically 9 hours. S 6 S 5 S 4

I’d overpassed the bridge on the River Ganges and entered the Siliguri Corridor or Chicken’s Neck, which is a narrow stretch of land that connects northeastern states to the rest of India. Nepal and Bangladesh are resting on either side of this corridor and kingdom of Bhutan being on the north. By almost non-stop driving I reached to Siliguri about midnight. Its location is strategic geographically on the plain of Mahananda River valley at the base of Himalaya. Gateway to hill stations such as Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Kurseong and Mirik and North East, it is famous for 4 ‘T’s: tea, transport, tourism and timber. S 2 S 1 ENTERED INTO DARJEELING DISTRICT In Siliguri, I’d met with my young, active, and good hearted friend, Babit Gurung, who is a Writer, Social Worker, Rural Tourism Promoter and Consultant. DJ 3

Continuing trip was going on in accordance as planned. Entering into Darjeeling area (Queen of the Hills), which is the northernmost district of eastern India in the foothills of Himalayas. Along the feminine curves of Teesta River, famous beauty of green mountainous region welcomed me, and the cold air is scented with the fragrance of highland.

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Bridge Baghpool (tiger bridge) or Coronation Bridge (commemorate the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in 1937 and completed in 1941)

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There are several hydro-electrical power projects and dams which create high water level, threatened the natural environment and inhabitants especially who resided near the river bank. IMG_2117

This entire hilly region comes under Gorkhaland Territorial Administration, a semi-autonomous administrative body under the state government of West Bengal.

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When reached to Bara Mangwa, I stayed in Mr T. N. Ghising’s Orange villa surrounded by 7-8 acres of sloped Orange orchard renowned as most beautiful in the whole District of Darjeeling. Hospitality there was really heartening. It was a fun experience to explore a nearby Bat Cave.

BM 8 BM 6 BM 7 Scenic views of surrounding are gorgeous. Observing magnificent Mt. Kangchenjunga, third highest mountain in the world, from far distant make me thrilled. It is located in eastern Nepal and Sikkim, India called “Five Treasures of Snow” for its five high peaks (represent 5 repositories of God- gold, silver, gems, food grain, and religious texts), and worshipped by the local people.

BM 2 BM 3 ANCIENT VAJRAYANA MONASTERY In Bara Mangwa, we’d visited to an ancient Vajrayana Buddhist monastery “Phonchok Choiliong Gompa” with its charms of architecture, murals, collection of many antiquities that brought back some glimpses of old days.

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Paying reverence to the monk in-charge, venerated in the meditation room, and enjoyed in the museum like prayer hall, I automatically picked up a hat and knowing only afterwards that it was once of Lama Urgen Tenzing Sangpo’s Dorjee Lopen hat bestowed to him by some high priest in Tibet in early 1880’s.

VYM 2

TAKDAH AND LAMAHATTA

As Takdah ‘Tukdah’ (mist or fog) was a cantonment in British India, beautiful British architectural structures can still see.

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Enjoy scenic views of nearby tea gardens, blooming orchids, walking trails through coniferous forests on mountain slopes, there is a place “where lovers meet” with a romantic story. A young girl Teesta and a youthful lad Rangeet who prayed many years to Lord Shiva for the blessing to congregate forever and finally granted as the confluence of 2 rivers.

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Lamahatta is a calm and peaceful place amid majestic pine forest with imminent Mt. Kanchenjunga in forefront. Buddhist prayer flags are fluttering with cold breeze where an ancient Buddhist Monastery located nearby. Inhabitants are mostly tribal Buddhist.

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GARDENING ARTIST

Visit to the orange land (Bara Mangwa) cannot be completed without the legendary story of late Dr. Sunita Gurung, an eminent Entomologist who’d done a lot of researches on the natural connections of citrus plantation and the insect world, knowledge helpful much to the farmers of Orange production in the areas of Darjeeling. Tragically she died young at the age of 42. Her elder brother Mr. Gurung adorned his estate artfully by combining with natural environment.

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The garden is created like a dream land with trails under the green shades, surrounding orchards, a wooden bridge, writer’s house, tree house for meditation, etc. A small paradise on this earth connected with the depth of the Mother Nature.

KALIMPONG

Kalimpong (Land of Kings or Stockade of the King’s Ministers) once was a gateway of the ancient Silk route for Tibet-India trade before China’s annexation of Tibet and Sino-Indian War. It is located on a ridge overlooking Teesta River, owing temperate climate, magnificent Himalayan beauty and proximity to popular tourist locations. As a Centre of Buddhism, Zang Dhok Palri Phodang monastery is famous for keeping some rare Tibetan Buddhist scriptures. Much delightful for me was to visit St. May Church with the architectural pattern and decorations very similar to a Tibetan Buddhist temple.

PEDONG

My next sojourn was Pedong, which is located on a ridge, grasps a panoramic view of Himalayan range including Mt. Kanchenjunga. It lies on the historic Silk Road that once connects India to Lhasa. An acme here is “the Cross Hill”. Fr. Augustine Desgodins erected a cross at a vantage point directly facing Tibet in 1882, with a hope that someday the Evangelists who lost lives or never came back in their Tibet Mission may return. Sangchen Dorjee Gonpa Monastery, built during the Bhutanese rule, is one of the oldest monasteries in this region. The body of late Shabdrung Rimpoche (Dharma Raja of Bhutan) has been preserved and revealed only on an auspicious day. Lepcha, the natives of Pedong are so gracious and affable. Their hospitality to me was incredible.

SIKKIM

DARJEELING CITY Winding back from the gate to Sikkim, I was headed to Darjeeling city, which is located in the Mahabharat Range or Lesser Himalaya at an elevation of 7,100 ft. Darjeeling’s growth dates back to mid-19th century, when the colonial British administration set up a sanatorium and a military depot. Then the extensive tea plantations were established in the region. Distinctive Darjeeling tea is now internationally recognized among most popular black teas. It has several British-style public schools, which attract students from India and neighboring countries. Kanchenjunga, the world’s 3rd highest peak (28,209 ft) is well visible in days clear of clouds. Through the multicolored crowded streets I’d visited to Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

THURBO TEA ESTATE I reached and stayed at this Tea Garden (about 500 hectares) which is located in the lavishly scenic valley of Mirik at an altitude ranging from 980-2440 mts. It has planted and produced quality Darjeeling teas since 1872. The name relates to a historic event, originated when the British set up a stationed here at the time of their Nepal invasion and used camps or tents, which in local language is called ‘Tombu’ and this may later have developed as ‘Thurbo’. Mechi and Rangbang rivers flow down through this tea estate. Picturesque views, tranquil environment and simple lives! Blessed with “the Bridge of Heaven” and I get an opportunity to pray at this village Buddhist temple. Cordial hospitality of Mr. Palden Lama and family was incredible.

MIRIK

Just nearby to Thurbo tea estate is Mirik, a scenic hill station nestled in the serene mountains. The name Mirik (Mir-Yok) means “place burnt by fire”. It is popular for its climate, natural beauty and easy accessibility. Focus of all attraction is Sumendu Lake, surrounded by a garden and pine trees on each sides and linked together by Indreni Pull (Rainbow Bridge). A road girdles the lake is used for walks with view to the Mt. Kanchenjunga on far horizon. Highest point is Boker Monastery at about (5,801 ft.), and lowest point is Mirik Lake about (4,902 ft.) I met there with Mr. Ashwini, a writer and educationist, and other friendly companions. Neighboring is a Rock Garden, fantastic creations of Mother Nature’s hand on stones which is no wonder, so suitable for Megalithic rituals.

SUNTALEY KHOLA

My next stopover was Suntaley Khola, which is a small village at the foothill of Himalaya, altitude ranges from 650 to 950 m. Gets its name from a small stream (Suntaley-orange, khola-stream). Green territory near Suntaley khola is amazing and holds many rare birds and butterflies. Several trek routes originate from here, most of which are within Neora Valley National Park, located just adjacently. It is known for its beautiful landscape with green tea gardens, hills and forests, which attract a lot of tourists. Many locals are involved in tourism-related services, like my friend Babit Gurung and his family.

KUMAI

It is admixed tea gardens, agricultural lands and natural forests, located between most renowned tourist destinations of Darjeeling district like Samsing, Suntaley Khola, Gorumara-Lataguri. I’d truly enjoyed the diverse beauty of nature since beginning of this trip starts from plains and slopes gradually rises to the hills covered with dense forest of Neora Valley. I was welcomed to Kumai Gorkha Homestay, owned by Mr. Bijay Thapa, a veteran who once proudly served in one of the most courageous troops of the world – Gorkha Regiment, and his family. Their warm and sincere cordiality was really remarkable remembrance for me. I went to see a significant religious place with a huge Banyan tree and a group of beautiful stupas. It was also so delightful to visit a village kindergarten.

TOTOPARA

I was entered into famous Jaldapara National Park area and joined by Mr Ram Kumar Lama and Mr. Rajeev. Then proceed to Totopara which is bounded by the foothills of Bhutan at North, Torsa River at East, Titi River and reserve forest on South-West separated by Hauri River. This small village is home to the isolated Toto tribe who are nearly extinct in 1950s, but recent measures helped to preserve their heritage and also support population to grow, now increased about 1400. Totos are considered as Mongoloid people and their language belongs to Tibeto-Burman family of sub-Himalayan group, as classified by Hodgson and Grierson. Coincidentally I got a chance to attend a Toto traditional wedding ceremony. Meeting with Toto poet, philosopher Mr. Sri Dhaniram with his own remarkable personality was also noteworthy.   Totos worship god Ishpa who live in the Bhutan hills, causes sickness when displeased and goddess Cheima who keeps the village and its people safe from troubles and sicknesses.

BUXA TIGER RESERVE AND FORT

Located inside the Buxa National Park, its northern boundary lies along Sinchula range just bordered with Phipsu Wildlife Sanctuary of Bhutan. Eastern boundary touches Manas National Park of Assam. At the south-west, there is Chilapata Forests of Jaldapara Wildlife Sanctuary. Thus it serves as international corridor for Asian elephant migration between India and Bhutan. Along with some fellow travelers, I was trekking into the mountainous region towards Doars, and dropped in on for a moment to the ruined of Buxa Fort, which was captured by colonial British of India in 1865 after War with Bhutan. It was transformed as a high security, most notorious and unreachable prison for Nationalist revolutionaries of Indian freedom movement in 1930s.

I saw some determined faces of heroes at the small museum in the village nearby.

Nationalist revolutionaries belonging to the Anushilan Samiti and Yugantar group such as Krishnapada Chakraborty were imprisoned there in the 1930s.

Besides, some communist revolutionaries and intellectuals like the poet Subhash Mukhopadhyay were captivated here in the 1950s.

Whiff of those unforgettable stories still haunted in the air.

KALCHINI

Stationed at Buxa Jungle Homestay, which is a peaceful abode in the tranquil environment, I’d explored around Kalchini region, including the Atiabari Tea estate, with widespread tea gardens and also into the tea factory to see how the tea production functioned.

We proceeded to far Gangutia village, which is the native of my friend Mr. Ramkumar Lama, far but worth to come for its’ quiet and calm surroundings.

Finally, the time came to say farewell to all friends, whose warm hospitality and considerate caring are quite unforgettable, for my long journey ahead which I have to continue.

Now, I just murmured a piece of Robert Frost’s poem:

“The woods are lovely, dark and deep, But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.”

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