JUNE 9, 2004
TRAVELS WITH MY CAMERA /ANU MALHOTRA
THE CALL OF VERDANT VALES
I LOOK out of my hotel window at the dawn and all I can see is thick fog. Annoyed, I snap at me Assistant Director, Mikey – “why the hell did you wake up us so early? We can’t shoot!” –thinking longingly of my warm bed. Mikey assures me –“It will clear up soon that’s what the guide says”. Our guide, Ashok, certainly seems to have a hotline to the heavens, for as we have breakfast, the clouds in the valley below begin lifting. Soon, Gangtok is gets unveiled- a clutch of buildings and houses strung over hillsides, several with typical oriental sloping roofs, painted green or red.
We begin with filming typical landmarks like the tranquil Ridge Park, the Royal Chapel and the Drodul Gompa with its huge white chorten – a peaceful oasis of meditative calm, golden prayer wheels, smiling monks. We drive to the 19th
century Enchey monastery, strung and colourful prayer flags, sitting atop a hill from where we get panoramic shots, as far as Mt. Kanchenjunga. The monastery is a small colourful building with murals of fierce Buddhist Gods on the outside porch and an exquisitely painted prayer hall.
The Lal Bazaar is vibrant and jam-packed with vegetables and fruit stalls, tiny shops selling animal produce and clothes; jostling for space amidst crowds locals. I walk over to a stall to look at tiny white squares strung together. “That’s yak’s cheese (churpi
)”, Ashok urges, and “Try one” I do. And being chewing…and chewing! It’s hard and an acquired taste!
At the Govt. Institute of Cottage Industries, some of the handicrafts on display are quite beautiful-hand woven carpets in Tibetan designs, brilliantly hued thankas, red lacquer furniture and wooden painted figurines. I put together a pile of goodies but Mikey reprimands me “how the hell are we going to carry this”? I am miffed but meekly settle for one thanka
of Avalokiteshwara, Ashok tells me “This place” is also a training institute” and leads us through several halls filled with students hard at work. We film girls painstakingly weaving carpets and shawls on wooden looms; and boys carving pieces of wood and painting thankas,
meditatively. A teacher tells us “It is not just about making an item for sale, we teach them the discipline of working with focus, awareness and love.”
One evening, we are invited to dinner. Our host, Namgayal, seats us infront of red painted tables and serves us momos
. He offers me some “tomba” the local brew made from fermented millet. I sip it from a tall bamboo canister. Soon, I am feeling floaty and happy!
Another day, we drive to Rumtek to film the Dharamchakra Centre, the main seat of the black hat sect the Kargyupa order of Tibetan Buddhism. The 24km drive is picturesque difficult as we drive through verdant hillsides, lime green paddy fields and gushing streams. Long bamboo poles strung with thin vertical strips of white prayer flags line the approach drive. The prayer session is redolent with the aroma of butter lamps and juniper smoke: seated monks chant mantras
, which resonate in the darkened, hallowed hall. On the altar, a huge gold Buddha, with cool eyes, gazes into nothingness, and melts time into infinity. A gong resounds, bells are rung and Mikey nudges me out of contemporary nirvana.
We plan to film Tsomgo (Changu) lake a quick getaway from Gangtok. It’s charming, but a steep 37km drive, wherein we climb 12,000ft. The landscape changes dramatically from lush hills to stark mountain ranges. We cross the snow line to drive through a white wonderland of virgin slopes and snowy pines. Soon it begins to snow and we begin to freeze. I am mad with Mikey “Why didn’t you check, we are not adequately clad”. Mikey is sheepish. “I could not imagine the weather would changes so dramatically in two hours. Have brandy. It’ll warm you up in no time”. It certainly does, for in a while, we start a crazy snow fight –till I discover that all my fingers are stuck together!
Soon, we drive into a large expanse of the frozen Changu Lake. After quick shots with the anchor Gaurav, rolling though the snow –Shammi Kapoor “junglee” style- I am happy to drive back. The shoot, cold brandy and altitude have taken their toll, but of course, Mikey is in a mood to sing. I am reluctantly forced to give up my sleep when the boys being screeching Queen’s We Are The Champions.
I mumble under my breath, “Not for long Mikey. Not for long…!”
TRAVEL TIPS YOU CAN’T DO WITHOUT
- The best time to visit Sikkim is between March-May.
- The nearest airport is Bagdogra in West Bengal, a 4 ½ hour drive from Gangtok. Taxis for local traveling can be hired in Gangtok.
- Sikkim Tourism offers a helicopter service linking Gangtok with Bagdogra & West Sikkim, Gangtok, and a Kanchenjunga
- Trekking opportunities abound but permits are required, which are available from Sikkim Tourism offices in Gangtok and Delhi. Local trekking agents can handle permits and supply guides.
For more enquiries contact: Resident Commissioner, Sikkim House, 14 Panchsheel Mart, Chanakyapuri. Tel: 26115346