14 March 2024

Altitude 3970′

North is Mt. Kangchenjunga and Tibet. Northeast is Bhutan. The lofty Himalayas surround us, which have been continuously blotted out by haze. Unable to pass thru the mountains , we drive south and retrace much of our route. Nothing is straight here. Our route represents one hairpin twist after another. Best news is my ginger pills work.

Rumtek Monastery

Not more than 30 minutes and at least 300 turns from our hotel is our first stop of the day, spectacular Rumtek Monastery. The complex is just down the road from the Asha Marine College, “dedicated to the task of creating leaders with zeal and commitment to Merchant Navy.” Seems a long way from any water to be training for a life at sea.  

Rumtek Monastery

Originally, the Rumtek Monastery, or Dharma Chakra Centre, acted as more of a Buddhist fortification than the typical monastery and its purpose continues to be teaching and meditation. The 9th Karmapa Lama founded the Rumtek in 1734 with the support of the Maharaja (Royal Family). (The Karmapa is the spiritual leader of the nine-hundred-year-old Karma Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism.) 

By 1956, the monastery was in serious disrepair. When the 16thGyalwa Karmapa pilgrimaged to Sikkim, he was asked to help. When he later fled China and Tibet, he was welcomed first into Bhutan and then invited to come to Sikkim.

This 16th Karmapa could choose from several sites within the Kingdom of Sikkim in which to establish a new seat in exile. He chose Rumtek. With the support of the Maharaja of Sikkim and Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, the new complex opened in 1966. Rumtek thus became a focal point for sectarian tensions within the Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism and the 17th Karmapa.

Karmapa Controversy

Until recently, two men held the throne as the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa. The controversy revolves around the recognition and legitimacy of the 17th Karmapa, Urgyen Trinley Dorje, the spiritual leader of the Karma Kagyu (Black Hat) sect. Born in Tibet, he escaped to India in 2000, seeking refuge. The Dalai Lama recognized Urgyen Trinley, and has made it clear that his successor will come from the “free world”, thereby excluding Chinese-ruled Tibet.

The Dalai Lama’s recognition suffers opposition from another candidate, Trinley Thaye Dorje, chosen by China and supported by some Kagyu followers. The controversy involves political and religious dimensions and murky stories involving Chinese currency and accusations of spying. It raised serious questions about Tibetan Buddhist leadership and lineage authenticity.

Divisiveness started in the 1990s. Over the years, separate organizations and lamas supported one Karmapa or the other. According to our excellent Rumtek guide, Monay Rai, Indian security forces removed monks supporting Trinley Thaye Dorje from Rumtek in order to quell violence between the two factions.

Today, Indian soldiers, with big guns!, continue to patrol the monastery to prevent further sectarian violence. My passport is required before entering the monastery grounds.

In 2018, Ogyen Trinley Dorje and Trinley Thaye Dorje met and began creating a relationship with one another and encouraging their individual spiritual communities to join together in the interests of preserving the Karma Kagyu tradition.

It was just last December, 2023, that the two wrote a joint statement that together they would recognize the 15th  Shamar Rinpoche, the second oldest lineage of reincarnated lamas and one of the highest lineage holders of the Karma Kagyu school. They also agreed to oversee his education, empowerments and instructions. 

For someone not versed in teachings and genealogy of Karmapas and Dalai Lamas, the history and lineages are as confusing as trying to understand the machinations of the British Royal Court.

Sikkim’s Most Significant Monastery

We arrive at the stunning monastery of Rumtek amongst armed military, young monks and boys just beginning the education and life as a monk. Rumtek is the largest, and probably the most significant, monastery in Sikkim. The main structure represents the traditional designs of Tibetan monasteries. It is a store house of many religious art objects and some of the world’s most unique religious scriptures.

Murals, frescos, traditional Tibetan architecture, sculptures, and paintings decorate the interiors. The shrine hall is decorated in a traditional manner with a religious text, Thangkas, silk banners, and includes a 10 foot statue of Sakyamuni Buddha. The monastery contains statues of Virupaksha, Virudaka, Dritarashtra and Vaishravana, who were considered the guardians of the universe. A golden stupa contains the relics of the 16th Karmapa.

The surroundings are spectacular and the colorful architecture sparkles against the green forests and blue sky. Haze continues use to obscure the peaks of the Himalayas.

On the Road Again

Twists and hairpin turns

We depart this peaceful spot to return to the twists of the road and the snaking route to the Sikkim border. From there we drive to Kalimpong in West Bengal. Below us is the Teesla River as we follow the winding road for 45 miles.

Countless “View Points” dot the roadside but haze covers all. The forests are dense with the occasional village and ubiquitous lazy dogs in the road. I don’t count the turns and am thankful the ginger pills tend to calm my stomach and allow me to enjoy the ride.

A stop for fresh tangelos


We arrive into Kalimpong about 3’pm. The town, with a population of about 50k, is a colorful mix of homes flowing down the hillside. It once was a gateway for trade between Tibet and India before the annexation of Tibet by China. Before the Anglo-Bhutan War in 1864, a succession of Sikkimese and Bhutanese kingdoms ruled Kalimpong. After the war ended, the Bhutanese territory came under the control of the British East India Company. 

Following Indian independence in 1947, Kalimpong became part of the state of West Bengal, this following the partitioned of Bengal between India and East Pakistan, which is a whole other long story of confict.

After 1959, many Buddhist monks fled Tibet and established monasteries in Kalimpong bringing with them rare Buddhist scriptures. In 1962, the Jelep Pass above Gangtok permanently closed and trade between Tibet and India slowed to a stop leading to an economic collapse of Kalimpong’s economy. Today, tourism is a major contributor to the economy. I see signs about which protest Chinese interference in Tibet.

Kalimpong is a charming village of traditional Buddhist and colonial architecture. It lies along a ridge between two high hills. Today Kalimpong, along with Darjeeling, is a center for many Indians who call for the creation of the separate state of Gorkhaland. The majority of citizens are ethnic Indian Gorkhas. Indian Gorkhas are Indian Nepalis, an ethnic group native to India but speaking Nepali as a common language. One might recognize this group because of the vicious looking Kukri, the traditional Gorkha knife. Generally, they make impressive soldiers and their fighting men have worked alongside U.S. Army men in the past. 

Monastery Atop Binocular Hill 

Like tea plants, a monastery is never far away. Outside Kalimpong atop Durpin Dara or “binocular hill” is the Zang Dhok Palri Monastery. On a clear day, the Durpin Dara’s panoramic view overlooks the town of Kalimpong, the Teesta River, the snow-draped Himalayan ranges of Sikkim and snowcapped Kanchenjunga, and the Jelep Pass in the distance to the north. Today, it skies are blue overhead with a few white clouds. The horizontal view is haze and limited to maybe a foggy mile.

Zang Dhok Palri Monastery

Due to the proximity of the 3-county international border (Tibet China, Bhutan and India), the Indian Army has a very large presence here. While some may believe the Bhutan-China border is a settled agreement, neither country has ever publicly acknowledged such. In 1998, the two countries signed a peace and tranquility agreement, although border disputes remain.

Lights and colors in main hall

At the very top of the hill is the monastery consecrated by the Dalai Lama himself in 1976. The monastery holds over 100 volumes of holy books and scrolls removed from Tibet after the Chinese invasion. Zang Dhok Palri is one of the largest monasteries in Kalimpong. It has important religious significance because of the sacred Kangyur or sacred texts  kept inside the monastery, all were carried by Dalai Lama during his exile. 

Murals depict the hell of today with hopes that one’s Karma will reach heaven.

Today we are in time to observe the monks as the drum calls them to prayer session. In the tranquil sanctum of the monastery, the monks gathered. As they settled into their meditation, the resonant sound of their voices and horns filled the space.

With closed eyes and bowed heads, the monks offer their devotions, their voices blending harmoniously with the melodies of the horns, cymbals, rhythmic drums and conch shells. The ancient instruments, passed down through generations, serve as conduits for the expression of reverence and humility, punctuating the stillness with a divine cadence. With finger snapping and verse, the monks commune with the divine, seeking enlightenment surrounded by sacred text and brightly painted murals.

Tomorrow, our destination is Bhutan!


Retired. Have time for the things I love: travel, my cat, reading, good food, travel, genealogy, walking, and of course travel.


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