Sikkim & North East


When you think of beverages unique to a place, Paris and Wine, Japan and Sake or the US and Starbucks coffee are some of the things that come to mind. Countries like France take a lot of pride in their wines, and go to great lengths to promote them as a part of their culture as well as a tourist attraction. Infact there are wine tours and wine treks designed for beginners as well as afficionados. (Read Eric at the Paris Daily Photo blog, a truly fantastic blog, where he talks about one such wine ‘school’ in Paris)

In India ofcourse, Goa is the one state that is noted for its own drink, the Feni made usually from cashew fruit. The other one that comes to mind is Tamil Nadu (and maybe, Madras specifically) which is known for its filter coffee. (Check this customised tour of Madras aptly named Filter Coffee Tours!)

For me, a new addition to this list was – drinking Chang in Sikkim.

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Our hosts, the Lachungpa family who run this lovely homestay called the Hidden Forest Retreat arranged it as part of a traditional Sikkimese meal that we had one evening. We were told that the drink is made from millet grains which are fermented over time – as such it is very mildly alcoholic, though I suppose it could be made stronger ! The interesting thing is the way it is served, in those tall bamboo jars that you see. One has to literally suck the chang out through a straw, from the millet grain still in the pot. After some time, it dries up and then more hot water is poured in.

Give it a break, indulge in some good conversation or dreaming while looking at the fantastic views around. (which are never hard to come by in Sikkim). In this case the Hidden Forest has its own share of the picturesque, with beautiful flowers (including many orchids) all around.

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When you’re done, you can resume sipping again ! After a pleasant hour or so doing this, we went on to our fine dinner, which included steamed yak cheese momos, nettle soup and glass noodles, all home-made and delicious. What else does a hungry traveller need….

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Many of the world’s religions, are founded on various myths and beliefs, which may have certain historical or factual evidence, but often cannot be entirely supported on these. It is the believer’s faith perhaps that makes history out of this myth and gives it additional support in the form of evidence gathered from stories, folklore etc. Some of the newer religions however are less dependent on myth, as the lives of the founders are relatively better documented. While I am no expert, I always thought a religion like Sikhism, with a known founder , Guru Nanak, would therefore be more fact based, as opposed to say, Hinduism or Christianity. (Yes, Christ is known, but Christianity nevertheless is based on many unverifiable myths that need some degree of faith to be justified).

Finding the footprints of Guru Nanak, in North Sikkim then, along with a myth right out of Hindu or Buddhist tales was a revelation to me, that perhaps every religion will make its own myths along the way. Chungthang is a small town in North Sikkim, perhaps best known as a halt for folks heading on to the more picteresque and touristed areas of Lachung or Yumthang. We halted here in the evening, and with no specific “sight-seeing” to do, set out for a walk around the small town. Being February and off-season, there were practically no other visitors and walking around rather aimlessly, we came to some signs indicating the presence of a Gurudwara. Intrigued by this, we followed these, until we came to a small rock cordoned off, with a gurudwara nearby.

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The caretaker priest at the Gurudwara, a most welcoming person, then proceeded to tell us the story of the place. The tale went, that Guru Nanak, on one of his journeys along with his disciples, had come across this place and vanquished two demons here before proceeding. The footprints of that battle were believed to be still left on that cordoned off rock. What was strange was the presence of other Buddhist relics in the place, such as a large Buddhist prayer wheel. These seemed much older, while the Gurudwara and pictures of Guru Nanak which had been placed around looked obviously newer.

The priest was extremely sincere but it was all very puzzling. He even mentioned that Chungthang derived from the Punjabi, “Changa sthan” or good place, which Guru Nanak had bestowed on it. This did seem somewhat farfetched. On our return to Gangtok, at the homestay where we were, the owner told us, a little resentfully, that it was actually Guru Rinpoche, the Buddhist master, who had passed through Chungthang, and that this myth had been taken over and ascribed to Guru Nanak, with the aid of the Indian army which has a base there. Its possible ofcourse that the army would be far more conversant with Sikhism than Buddhism. Online resources do indicate Guru Nanak’s visit to Sikkim, though none of them are authoritative sources, and perhaps many derived from people visiting Chungthang themselves. On the other hand, it is known that Guru Nanak did undertake a number of such journeys, though I doubt Sikhism would include tales of Nanak-ji fighting demons?

The best explanation I could think of was that the earlier myth of Guru Rinpoche fighting the demons at Chungthang may have merged with the tale of Guru Nanak’s visit there to create this rather intriguing story !