Sheryl writes from India.

Part 1: Puri
Part 2: Kolkata
Part 3: Khalaigat
Part 4: Assam
Part 5: Trains
Part 6: Sikkim
Part 7: West Sikkim
Part 8: Darjeeling
Part 9: New Delhi

Home > Part 7: West Sikkim

Seems like forever since I've had Internet access. It's been raining all day so it's a good time to get warm and dry and catch you up on my adventures.

Since last I wrote from Gangtok, I've been in small villages and towns in south and west Sikkim. We spent several days in Pelling, at about 6200 ft., where i was fortunate to witness several Buddhist ceremonies.

We were fortunate to be at the Pemayangtse monastery during a puja ceremony for two young (8ish) boys who were joining the monastery as initiates. Buddhist families often "give" one son to the monastery to be educated. It is made to seem like a special occasion for the boys, with gifts and blessings by the monks.

Buddhist monasteries are much more peaceful and calm than the Hindu temples. As in all temples, you must leave your shoes outside the door so as not to desecrate the sacred space. Generally there's a large open room with wide pillars supporting the ceiling, and colorful prayer flags hanging from above. There are also Buddha statues and yak butter lamps glowing with eerie light, and offerings of food, like packaged noodles, candies, juice packages, cash, etc.

The monks are somehow able to concentrate fairly well with tourists walking around. The westerners are all respectful and quiet, standing to the back of the room and observing, while the Indian tourists are noisy and walk right up to the monks. To our western mind, they appear to have no reverence or respect for being in a religious place. A possible explanation is that Hindu temples are boisterous and people push and shove all over the place. So it may not be part of their understanding to be quiet in a place of worship.

There were about 12 monks sitting cross-legged around a rectangular area with an open center. They all had prayer books, which are long and unbound and the pages are flipped over when complete. They chanted in unison to a continuous drumming which increased at certain times. There were also horns and bells that were played occasionally. Anyway, like respectful people, we sat quietly along a wall with the family of the initiates. We must have observed for a couple of hours. The monks knew we were genuinely interested and when the "tea man" poured for the family, we too were served milk tea. We were also given "holy water" (alcohol) by a monk who ladled a small scoop into our right hand which we then slurped up as we observed the family doing. We felt very honored to be accepted as part of the ceremony.

Anne went off trekking for a few days and I remained to visit the other towns and got lucky again. One morning i noticed a crowd of locals sitting by a restaurant watching a box being decorated with prayer flags on the other side of the road. I knew the box contained a dead person and thought I'd stick around and see what was going to happen. The restaurant owner, Bimla, with whom i had chatted several times while eating at her place, explained that a man had died. He was a postman, around 60, and I found out later he had had liver disease. As restaurant owners, Bimla's family took on the responsibility of providing food for the "funeral" and she invited me to come along. So while a bunch of men walked to the cremation site carrying the palanquin with the dead man. (He is placed in a sitting position, so the box is about the size of a large TV.) We drove in a jeep with a large bucket of potatoes and tomatoes, bottles of juice, and plastic cups & plates, all very heavy, which we had to carry about 1/2 mile uphill to the site.

The cremation ground is near the site of the old capital of Sikkim, which is a restored tourist site. We took a dirt path and climbed up to a crude shelter where the food was set up. Bimla, myself, and another woman were the only females. Shortly after, men began coming carrying wood which was set up like Lincoln Logs to create a funeral pyre. An old tire was thrown in as well. Concurrently, three young monks chanted prayers. When the wood was stacked, the dead man's box was placed on top. Gasoline was poured on the wood on it and it was ignited. As it burned, the monks kept chanting, someone occasionally poured clarified ghee (butter) into the top of the box. So the air was full of smoke and ashes and to make matters worse, there was a small forest fire very close that kept flaring up with the wind. Nobody thought it a problem though. Occasionally someone would beat it with green branches. I was getting a bit worried but it was contained eventually.

After the fire was really roaring, people came to the shelter and Bimla dished out some food to everyone. The juice was concentrated so it was poured into a bucket of water to dilute and make more. I stayed for a few hours, fortunate again to be part of the daily lives of locals.

That evening at Bimla's restaurant, i asked if i could contribute some money to the dead man's family, as is the practice in town. She took me over to their crude, dirt-floor wood hut where a bunch of men were sitting around talking. There was a plank bed with a young child sleeping and a wall of rough shelves with basic household items on them. The hut wasn't chinked very well and there was lots of airspace between the beams. Several of the men spoke English so we were able to talk. I gave the son-in-law 200 rupees ($4) which was an appropriate amount and quite a large sum, in fact. They brought me milk tea, which i normally don't drink but did out of politeness, and a plate of packaged cookies. Definitely special treatment for the foreigner. I stayed about 1/2 hour and bid farewell. I think they were touched that I wanted to help and I felt honored to be allowed to do so.

That evening my clothes smelled like campfire so I did the best I could washing them with a small amount of cold water in a bucket. Pelling did not have much running water so you could request a bucket of hot water from the hotel to wash up. A half bucket is plenty for me to have a good wash because of my small surface area and conservative nature. The trick is to pour a little water over yourself with the large plastic "measuring cup", always provided for butt rinsing purposes. Then soap up, then pour more water over to rinse. I could even wash my hair with the same 1/2 bucket.

So now, several days later, we've taken a very steep and windy jeep road up to Darjeeling, passing through incredibly steep tea fields along the way. I can only imagine that the pickers must rappel from above to retain their balance and have free hands to pick the leaves.

More about Darjeeling next time.