What beckoned us to Sikkim beyond its lush greenery, hills, and valleys was the state’s carbon-negative initiatives like massive afforestation and organic cultivation. In love with the Himalayas and pristine nature anywhere, my family of four was drawn to the bucolic charms of the state.
One summer, escaping the scorching heat of the plains and equipped with both rainwear and woollens, we alighted at the New Jalpaiguri railway junction. A three-hour drive through forested plains and up the hills led us to Shanti Niwas homestay in Burung near Sangkhola in east Sikkim. Our cottage perched on a hillock, overlooking valleys bordered by rolling hills.
Our host Rounak greeted us by draping white silken scarfs around our necks. It is a traditional way to welcome someone in regions that practise Tibetan Buddhism, and the white scarf is called khata. Next up was a delicious Nepali thali with dal bhat, tarkari (lentils, rice, and vegetables), chutney, and chicken curry. The homestay’s organic kitchen garden was bursting with seasonal greens.
We learnt that Rounak was from Siliguri. Burung, the ancestral village of his wife, has traditionally been home to a Nepali-speaking community. By evening, dark clouds gathered over the mountains and it started drizzling. Rounak invited us to the bamboo gazebo for a drink of tongba. “This is the traditional alcoholic drink of the Nepalis and is made from fermented millet,” he explained, pouring hot water over a fistful of millet in a bamboo mug. He let the liquid sit for five minutes and then dipped a perforated bamboo straw so we could sip the clear liquid. It tasted slightly alcoholic and a bit tangy.
We woke up to a sunny and cheerful morning the next day. Rounak had already arranged for our North Sikkim tour—Pravin Rai was behind the wheels of his Mahindra Xylo. It would be his extensive expereince of driving on treacherous mountain roads that would ensure our safety on the four-day road trip. Terraced rice fields, forested hillsides, mossy rocks, wildflowers, and waterfalls greeted us on narrow rural roads before we joined the Gangtok-Mangan highway and passed the majestic Naga Falls. Further on the route, we were joined by the meandering Teesta River that strode delightfully parallel to our route. Before Mangan came Dzongu Valley, home of the Lepchas—the first indigenous people of Sikkim. Visitors can stay in one of their homestays to experience their spartan lifestyle and unique culture.
Once ruled by the Chogyals (Buddhist priest kings), the then Himalayan kingdom of Sikkim merged with India in 1975. The state has led the way in environmental awareness since. It is well known that Sikkim was the first state to go totally organic in 2016.
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