Our travel writer planned to write about Sikkim as a destination but got diverted by an intriguing military-tourist to a Sikh soldier’s shrine up by the India-China frontier.
Crossing state borders in India does not tend to be very eventful, unless you are badly hassled at a checkpoint leading into some sensitive zone. The landscape is usually the same, linguistic boundaries are not really clear until much later, and development patterns are much the same; a lot of other little things seem very similar, at least for a while. Boundaries tend to blur. Not so with Sikkim. It is beautifully different, and you realise this as soon as you enter this “twenty-second” state, incorporated into the “Indian Union” in 1973. Sikkim was a former kingdom, and it was nice to see that Sikkim Tourism feels confident enough to once again use the ‘k’ word, however so innocuously – its current advertising campaign describes itself as “The Flower Kingdom”.
The drive up to Sikkim from Siliguri passes through some very beautiful country. Try and get a front seat in one of the buses or jeeps running shuttle services. The breathtaking views apart, there is imaginative free advice along the road for drivers from the Border Roads Organisation – “Better be late than The Late” or “Be Gentle on My Curves”. The winding road is surprisingly good and follows the river Teesta for a long stretch. The river is blue and wild-white, and rafting companies are in business at this time of year. If you are coming from Darjeeling, there are tea gardens that follow you for quite a distance and forests of planted teak three decades old, and further up, lush hillsides and beautiful terraced farmlands.
The driver was a young Tamang, friendly and informed. “Try and avoid the peak tourist season,” he advised. True enough, when we got to the capital at dusk, most lodges were full and the permits to some of the best places in Sikkim taken. This is that time of year when ‘domestic tourists’, mostly Bengali, outnumber locals. There are few ‘foreign tourists’ about, notwithstanding ’11 September’, as the state is still to fully exploit the ‘Shangri La’ image it can lay claim to, like Bhutan to the east. Sikkim, probably the prettiest of Indian states, is seeing a major tourist boom – not only for sightseeing, but also to trek, raft and follow wildlife and bird-watch.
We were stopped at several places on the way to Gangtok by groups of youngsters who offered us prasad and put tika on our foreheads. But the driver refused every time because, he said, “The community heads impose a fine of INR 5000 on anyone celebrating the festival of the brahmins and chhetris”. According to him there is a resurgence of ethnic pride and the movement is gaining strength. “There is the other five thousand rupee fine in these parts”, he said, pointing to a signboard announcing the penalty for littering in Gangtok. Polythene bags are banned and shopkeepers give you stuff in paper bags. The capital of Sikkim is remarkably clean.
The town, nestled and now overgrown on the western flank of a longish hill running northward, is easy on the traveler. People are friendly and courteous, there are no touts hustling the tourist, it is a nice place for long walks and there are interesting places to see like the Rumtek monastery and settlements along the trails that lead off the capital. It also affords brilliant views of the Kangchendzonga range. There is little level ground; one is mostly ascending or descending to get to places – but that is why this is a hill town.
In the tourist season it is tough to even get a vehicle to go up towards Nathu La, one of the two main passes to China (The other is Jelep La, which you reach from Kalimpong, and both lead up to the Chumbi Valley route pioneered by Younghusband to get to Lhasa). Special permission is required to go up to areas that are considered ‘sensitive’ (and most of Sikkim is) and all permits were taken. It would have to be a couple of days before we could even get a booking to Yumthang in the north. So the next day we would go to Tsomgo Lake (pronounced Chhangu), in east Sikkim.
In search of a shrine
A convoy of jeeps and vans sets out for the high-altitude sacred lake each morning of the tourist season. There is a lot of needless commotion as families settle in and squabble over side seats before the jeep departs to Gangtok. The climb is steep, and the engine groans and whines piteously for about four hours, with falling efficiency as the altitude increases from 5000 feet above sea level to 13,500 feet – the road follows the old Lhasa- Kalimpong trade route. Above the groan, the topic of the necessarily loud conversation turns to Baba Harbhajan Singh.
The story goes roughly like this. Harbhajan Singh was an army man who died in an accident on the Chinese border. Because of his dedication to his company and regiment he never took leave, and to this day he continues to protect the border and the soldiers stationed there. A shrine has been put up at the site of his ‘samadhi’ and the Baba visits every night, puts on his uniform and regulation boots and does his rounds. He is known to be a stickler for unit discipline and is said to admonish soldiers who have had one too many. There is a camp bed kept ready for Harbhajan Singh in these Sikkimese heights, and the Punjabi baba is said to use it every single night. Each morning, the crumpled sheets are smoothed out or changed, his boots are polished and his uniforms are readied. The departed soldier still draws a salary and even takes annual leave. He answers prayers, grants boons and guards the lives of soldiers on the inhospitable border. Besides providing psychological sustenance to the jawans guarding the cold heights, it becomes clear that Harbhajan Singh’s bed is a unique, if unlikely, tourist resource of Sikkim. Certainly, his story sustained us on the four hour swaying ride up to Tsomgo.
In the drive up to the lake, the vegetation changes very quickly from sub-tropical to alpine. Soon after you depart the capital there are bamboo forests in the valleys (which the driver informed us is a haunt of the red panda) and the air gets cold. Beyond the checkpost at Hanuman Tok, it is mostly army turf. Army establishments, mostly camouflaged shelters and villages established by locals who cater to these establishments, dominate the landscape as one proceeds higher. Otherwise it is bamboo and pine and, further up, rhododendron clumps and then alpine grasslands. There is the odd tent of the yak herders.
The arrival at Tsomgo is dramatic as the expanse of water at this height greets you. But this is the peak tourist season and the commercialisation on the left bank (known as the Khasa Strip) is hard to miss. There is a row of tin shacks that sell everything from Kashmiri shawls to Chinese blankets, fleece jackets and thermal underwear. Yaks wear woollen ‘Welcome to Tsomgo” knitwear on their foreheads, all manner of tourists ride yaks and stalls do brisk business selling woolies to tourists who have never been so high and so cold in their lives.
Fishing is not allowed, since the lake is sacred, and the faithful walk over to the middle of the frozen expanse in winter and feed bread to the fish. Tsomgo Lake, the driver (who doubled as a tour guide) told us, was where the son of the erstwhile ruler of Sikkim and his fiancé drowned. Ignoring all warnings the son of the Choegyal drove over the ice in a jeep and disappeared into the lake. The bodies of the young couple were never recovred and were probably eaten by the numerous trout in the lake (The real story is quite different: the crown prince was driving down from Gangtok wearing a black bakhhu when the lamas had told him not to wear the black bakhhu that day, and a truck coming the other way slammed into his Mercedes, which is how he died).
The place looks like the venue for the world’s highest fancy dress party. Hordes of tourists, Bengalis mostly, dressed in Tibetan clothing (available for hire at Rs 10 a piece) wander about posing for pictures along the lake and astride obliging yaks. Many are drunk on the liquor that comes remarkably cheap in Sikkim.
The other interesting observation concerns the goods sold at Tsomgo: fleece jackets, windcheaters, sweaters, scarves, caps, shawls and underwear. Most of the stuff comes from China, all the way from the Khasa-Tatopani border point north of Kathmandu (and a long way west of here). These are brought here through Kathmandu, past the Pashupatinagar border point. Prices double and treble on this journey, but the Tibetan traders who dominate the trade at Tsomgo still find it worthwhile. This is a particularly circuitous trade route especially since the Chinese border is only a stone’s throw away. Things are bound to change before long, however. Both India and China are committed to opening the Northern and Jelep La routes, and when that happens, the goods and tourists will flow well beyond this high, cold pass. The highways and godowns are ready on both sides of the border, and the obstacles to an opening seem surmountable. Depending upon whom you ask, the roadblock has to do with a) Indian wariness of the Chinese market acumen and their ability to swamp India with electronic goods and other manufactured items; b) China’s refusal to accept the ‘annexation’ of Sikkim by Indira Gandhi and India, which would be recognised if the route were to be opened.
A soldier arrives and drivers disappear behind the vehicles for a huddle and a ‘deal’. This is, after all, still ‘India’. Soon, the drivers announce that while we still could not go to Nathu La we could make it all the way to Baba Mandir. For an extra fifty rupees a head we could even go further and higher, if the majority of passengers in each vehicle agreed. One man and his wife said they would come if they were given the front seats and charged a reduced price. The driver asked them to stay put, and we departed.
The alpine meadows were turning red, hinting at the approaching winter. Semi-wild yaks and mules grazed on the sparse vegetation and we passed the road that branches off towards Nathu La. Several small streams meander through the treeless landscape and make their way down to the lake. The driver pointed to where his father came from, across the pass that is the route that a lot of Tibetans fleeing the Tibetan Autonomous Region still take – and it was here that thousands arrived daily during 1959. Today, they are brought down by the army and then sent off to Dharmasala to be cared for at a “reception centre” of the government-in- exile. Baba Mandir is situated at 14,500 feet, bustling with military presence.
Harbhajan Singh was a sipahi of the Sikh regiment. The guide-and-driver had this to say: “The Bihar Regiment was posted here first but the Biharis couldn’t take the cold and so the Punjabis came.” Whatever the military history and general feelings towards plains people, the weather does take a toll on the men manning this frontier – their faces are darkened by the ultraviolet rays at this rarified altitude and they all look like they’ve walked out from duty at a brick kiln. At the Baba Mandir, a Sikh soldier who hands out sweetened prasad to the tourists-turned-devotees is not willing to answer many questions about the Baba. It is possible he does not know, but more likely he is trying to conserve energy at these oxygen-depleted heights.
Harbhajan Singh was the first casualty of the regiment after it was raised in 1966, soon after the disastrous war with the Red Army. He was not a battle casualty; he was reported missing after he had gone escorting a mule train to a remote outpost. He had slipped off a treacherous slope and since the loss of a soldier with a weapon is a serious matter, a manhunt was launched. It took the army three days to find Harbhajan’s body, which was later cremated with full honours. The story has it that he himself led searchers to the site. It was after this that a legend began to take shape around the sipahi-saint’s life and afterlife, and how he became Baba Harbhajan Singh, protector of the border and soldiers, a saint who grants boons and an angel of peace.
The other soldiers in the regiment reported that the Baba had been appearing in their dreams and imploring that a shrine be built to his memory. The regiment obliged and a shrine was raised at Tuk-La where the company was posted. Soon other soldiers were reporting visions and there were more tales of Harbhajan Singh’s spirit doing the rounds. Today, the legend is firmly established. Soldiers posted to Nathu La and Jelep La believe that he guards the border and will give them a three-day warning if hostilities break out or anything untoward happens. Some officers here say the Chinese too have the early warning assurance – the Baba has also promised the Chinese a three-day warning before trouble breaks out. During flag meetings with their Indian counterparts, the Chinese are said to set aside a chair for the saint. This is a bit like the Sufi shrine in the Khemkaran sector of Punjab with its Hindu priest, worshipped by Indians and Pakistanis alike. The Pakistanis pray from 200 metres away on their side of the border.
Every year on 14 September, an Army jeep pulls up at the shrine and departs with the Baba’s personal effects. This is the Baba (or his spirit) going on annual leave, to visit Kuka, his native village in Kapurthala district in Punjab. Regular railway reservations are made for him and an orderly accompanies the luggage to Kuka where the “spirit” of the Baba and his personal effects are handed over to the regiment posted there. A small sum is sent every month to Harbhajan Singh’s mother in her village.
The approach to the shrine does not give you an idea of what to expect. It looks like a Hindu shrine with saffron flags bearing om kar, fluttering by the dozen. There was a time, according to the driver, when the place was a wood and tin shack, and when a few people made the pilgrimage out of sheer faith – it was mostly an army affair. Now, it is part of a tourist package. The Sikh aspect to the shrine is the langar that is held each Friday. Otherwise, there are pictures of Hindu gods alongside a huge framed portrait of the Baba, sardar Harbhajan Singh, cans of water that the faithful bring to be blessed and to take back, and flowered candy doled out by the barefoot Sikh soldier who prefers to smile but not to speak. The faithful prostrate, ring the several bells as they walk in, and leave offerings of money and incense.
Curiously, there are other Sikh shrines in these remote mountains, but they are mired in controversy. These include the shrine of Guru Dongmar (at over 18,000 feet) in Sikkim and the Menchukha Gurudwara in Arunachal Pradesh. The reason the Baba Mandir of Nathu La and the myth of the saint-sentinel survive is probably because it is only incidentally a Sikh shrine – it actually valourises the military. That is how it has been packaged, mainstreamed and sold. It is important to tourism in these parts and clearly the army, tourist operators and businesses all the way to Nathu La and back benefit. In fact, the shrine was moved from its original consecrated location to where it is now situated so that more people could visit. And as happens with such places, it now enjoys ample funds, some of which are used to help the local population and children adopted by the 164 Mountain Brigade, so said the driver.
Harbhajan Singh was not the first Sikh to come to these parts and make history or legend. All these places have a Sikh history older than the arrival of the Sikh Regiment and the mountain brigades on the border. Guru Nanak visited the area on his eastern travels in 1516. After his visit to Kailash Mansarovar, Guru Nanak is said to have returned to the plains via the Kali Gandaki river into Nepal. There is an ancient Gurudwara in Kathmandu that commemorates this visit. After visiting several other religious places in Nepal, he made his way to Tibet. From Tibet he entered Sikkim, where he is reported to have engaged in fruitful discussions with Buddhist leaders, helped some high altitude herders with water for their animals (which is why lake Guru Dongmar never freezes, 18,000 feet above sea level, it is said) and solved the problem of altitude affecting their virility. Then he went to Bhutan, before making it all the way to Arunachal Pradesh.
A month or so after this visit, the government of Sikkim announced that several places – including Tsomgo and Yumthang – would be closed to visitors out of respect for the sentiments of the Bhutia community. One wonders if this will be enforced and what then will happen to the tourist destination of Tsomgo and its annual fancy dress ball and yak rides, and more importantly, to Baba Mandir and the myth of Baba Harbhajan Singh.