A Poetic Journey in the Himalayas

I fly above the clouds. Clouds float as blobs of white cotton, rise as mountains of varied shapes and magnitudes. High Himalayan peaks allure me, invite me to their shining castles of immense whiteness. Soon, the clouds are way above me and I am on the ground at the Bhadrapur airport after an hour’s flight from Kathmandu. Post a quick visit to the customs office, I am on my way to Charlie where the highway begins, which takes me to Fikkal in Illam district and then to Pashupatinagar from where I cross to the Indian side. I am on my way to Darjeeling.
Crossing the border is like stepping into one’s neighbour’s courtyard. An hour’s drive from Pashupatinagar takes me to Ghum where I get a glimpse of the famous Darjeeling Toy Train, a priceless world heritage property, on the tracks. It’s here I start looking for the Nepali Sahitya Sammelan where I have been invited to recite my poems. The secretary of the Sammelan tells me about its location over the phone; he tells me to come near a certain petrol station. I pass by three petrol stations on the way in order to find him. He is not visible at any of the three. In the end I find him near the fourth one and am guided to the Sammelan building located in a by-lane.
A number of people are already seated and waiting when I enter. Gopichandra Pradhan, the president of the Nepali Sahitya Sammelan, who had invited me to recite my poems, introduces me. As the sammelan begins, several eminent poets of Darjeeling such as Gita Kshetri, Manika Mukhiya, Snehlata Rai, Indramani Darnal, Veena Hangkhim, Vimal Rai, Tekdhawj Jimba, Surya Kumar Shreshta, Jobhi Moktan and Karna Thami, recite their poems, some of which are in English and some in Nepali. Fortunately, my verses find an appreciative audience.
As we leave, it’s nice to see the hustle-bustle on the lovely mall road of Darjeeling, which is lit up. The shops are filled with woollen clothes, handicrafts and cacophony of buyers trying to strike the best deal. Dogs loiter around the tourists at the central square. A larger than life statue of Bhanubhakta Acharya, iconic Nepali poet, stands silently at one end of the square, and looks on.
The next morning, at 5 a.m., I rush to the Tiger Hill to watch the sunrise. After half an hour drive from the city centre, I am there. A sea of cars and people, some quibbling for space, greets me. Women hawkers shout ‘coffee… coffee… coffee’ three times in one stretch of breath, literally thursting coffee down my throat. Then the majestic crimson Kanchenjunga appears from beneath a sea of clouds, making all my sacrifices worthwhile. Beautiful Bengali-speaking young couples with their newborns – boisterous, crying and exuberant by turns, take up all the windows, leaving no room for others to get a glimpse of the rising red ball of fire.
Kanchenjunga continues to reveal her beauty peak by peak. The moon has not set yet, the sun has not risen yet. The moon provides the majestic contrasting view against the crimson of Kanchenjunga. Soon, the sun appears slowly as a bride, slowly in crimson garb, bit by bit, then changes colour from bridal crimson to red like an angry wife. The whole place is abuzz with the joyous shrieks of excited sun-gazers. I meditate, devouring the gorgeous Kanchenjunga, feast on divine mist of the Valley, then rush like an untethered calf breathing fresh air mixed with benzene down the Tiger Hill.
On my way to the Teesta river, I stop at Lapchu Bazaar, situated in the midst of cherry blossoms, to have breakfast at a roadside dhaba called Mukhia hotel, run by three young girls and a boy. I see them selling the local delicacy ‘Lapchu Peda’ and buy a few packets for friends in Kathmandu. In the background birds chirp, squirrels scurry around blithely. The backdrop is provided by the hills still wrapped in the morning mist. I lose myself in the lush green carpeting of the hills. Suddenly, I sight a statue of a handsome man, Virendra Thapa, who lost his life during the Kargil war. Suddenly, I am overwhelmed by sadness.
As I drive along the Teesta river, its light green water and white sand invite me to take a dip but I remind myself that I am on the way to Sikkim. After a few kilometres of drive I enter Rangpo, the place where Sikkim begins. I am welcomed by an ornamental gate and a few security guards. After half an hour of drive through circuitous mountain roads I am at Gangtok. Losing no time, I set out to explore Gangtok’s mall road where the heart of the city lies. The road, named after Mahatma Gandhi, is open only to pedestrians and is divided by a row of lovely flowers with two rows of wooden and stone benches thrown in.
After an hour walk on the Mall road, I reach Sikkim Akademi. Dr. Pempa Tamang, president of the Akademi, welcomes me and takes me inside a modest building where the local poets such as Rajendra Bhandari, Bhim Thatal, Prabin Khaling, Sudha M. Rai, Dweep Mustang, Deepa Rai and Arjun Yawa have gathered. I spot noted poet Rajendra Bhandari among them. It’s an interesting session as I get to hear the local poets and also recite my poems ‘Love’, ‘Quark of a poet’, ‘Once’and ‘Delhi’. After a brief discussion on poetry writing in Sikkim, Dr Tamang invites us all to a roadside joint next to the Akademi and treats us with a sumptuous meal and tea before bidding us farewell.
The next day, I visit the famous Rumtek Monastery, the seat of the Karmapa of the Kagyu sect of the Tibetan Buddhism. After half a kilometer walk up the hill from the outer entrance, I reach the inner perimeter of the Rumtek Monastery. A large square compound that hosts Rumtek monastery is visible from here. Entering the compound, I see a rectangular building painted with Tibetan motifs. Inside I see a wonderland of painted walls and ceilings, a blur of yellow, red and green. In the centre, right across the entrance, a portrait of Karmapa looks at me with kindness. The chair below it is empty. A Lama tells me that two Karmapas have made claims to that seat and the matter has gone to the court. For the second time in the day, I feel sad. Stepping out of the monastery, I climb the stairs to the golden pagoda which, as per the legend, has a hat woven from hair strands of a thousand fairies. A statue of the Buddha sits in the centre. Marie, Britannia and Tiger biscuits and paper currencies of different countries offered by devotees decorate the interiors of the pagoda. The legendary hat, unfortunately, is not visible.
The next day I go exploring the city. First to the Tashi viewpoint that promises to give a spectacular view of the peaks of Kanchenjunga and two monasteries but nothing is visible because of bad weather. I rush from one place to another to get a glimpse of Gangtok. I see a wide array of orchids swinging majestically at a flower show. The Gangtok rope-way is closed for maintenance, depriving me of the magnificent aerial view of the city. I spend a quiet afternoon at the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology, relishing the rare statues, paintings and manuscripts associated with Tibetan Buddhism; then take a quick look at Do-Drul-Chorten, a historically important stupa located nearby.
In the evening I visit the Himalayan Zoological Park which is the first open zoo of its kind in India where animals are kept in their natural habitat. There is nobody at the entrance to sell me a ticket. I enter the park, hoping to catch a glimpse of some of the wild animals. After a 20-minute walk, I come across a signboard carrying a picture of a bear that points towards a sidewalk. After five minutes on the sidewalk, I get to see a vast high walled open space down the valley where I see a bear resting in her natural habitat. The sun has not yet set. I rush to catch a glimpse of the other residents of this unique zoo, I see a barking deer looking at me with curiosity and then vanishing suddenly. The sun sets and I run to the Rachana Bookshop, ‘a must visit place’ suggested to me by Prajawal Parajuly, a writer friend from Gangtok. The bookshop has a wonderful collection of poetry books. I end up buying all of them. Feeling satisfied, I rush to the M.G. Road to take a last glimpse of the heart of Gangtok, its shimmering lights, flowery sidewalks and cheerful evening choirs of the young lovers.
The next dawn, on my way to Kathmandu, instead of driving to Darjeeling from Teesta, I drive to Siliguri and then to Kakarbitta on the way to Bhadrapur. The sinuous beauty of hills gives way to the monotonous boredom of plains. After crossing the Mechi river, I enter Nepal at Kakarbitta and reach Bhadrapur but get the news that my flight has been cancelled because of the haze. This gives me an opportunity to stay the night in Bhadrapur at a local hotel. Surprisingly, the place has wi-fi, and poets, thus saving me from the prospect of a boring evening. The local poets such as Chudamani Regmi, Khagindra Khusi, Krishna Nirakar Subedi, Devi Charan Bhandari, Dron Kumar Upadhyay, Hom Subedi, Tara Vivid, Lata Kharel and Arati Pokharel gather for a spontaneous and lively poetry reading session the next morning.
By the time the poets finish reading their poems, the sky has cleared and it is time to depart. I bid farewell to the fellow poets, their poems still playing in my mind. There is no doubt about the power of poetry in forming close bonds among human being, particularly poets. As the plane takes off, I look out of the window for a view of the majestic Himalayan peaks but they have all vanished under the vast cover of cotton clouds. All I can see is an amphitheater of the great Himalayas, where nature enacts its own play, in splendid solitude.
(The author is a poet-diplomat)

Author Profile

Abhay K
Abhay K
Cdr. Abhay Singh is a Research Fellow at the Military Affairs Centre in the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. He is an Indian Navy veteran with extensive command and staff experience spanning 27 years. A surface warfare officer with a specialisation in Missile and Gunnery Warfare, he has commanded various naval platforms which include frontline frigate, submarine rescue & deep diving vessel, and fleet auxiliary. He has also served as Director (Military Affairs) in the Disarmament and International Security Division of the Ministry of External Affairs.

Cdr. Singh is an alumnus of the Naval Academy, Defence Services Staff Course and Naval War College. He has an MSc (Defence and Strategic Studies) from the University of Chennai and an MPhil from Mumbai University.

His publications include: “Maritime Exclusion Zone: Legal Perspectives and Strategic Option,” Maritime Affairs, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Summer 2008), 79–111; “Cross LOC Strike and India’s Reputation for Resolve”, IDSA Comment, October 21, 2016; “The Admiralty (Jurisdiction and Settlement of Maritime Claims) Bill 2016 – The Long Journey of an Important Maritime Legislation”, IDSA Comment, October 03, 2016.