It had been two months since I was out of work and was looking for an opportunity to go out and get motivated & inspired by the nature outside my doorsteps at Gangtok. So while all this was going in my head almost everyday at home, one of my dear friend from school Tshering Doma suggested we make a trip to Tholung monastery for the ” Khamsel” ceremony which apparently is held once in every 3 years. The idea fascinated me and all of sudden I started looking up for information on the internet. Before this all I knew about Tholung was that it was located in farthest corner of Dzongu (protected Lepcha reserve area in Sikkim) and was the epicentre of the earthquake of 18th September 2011. As I researched I found out that the monastery is probably the oldest in Sikkim built in the 1780’s and it holds some rare scriptures, relics & artifacts dating back to 1600’s. During the 1700’s Sikkim witnessed invasion of Gorkha from Nepal and this led the monks to shift the valuables belonging to the learned Guru Lhatsun Chenpo & other Lamas from Dubdi & Sanga Choeling monasteries to its current location at Tholung. So with this little information I packed my bags and decided to join Tshering & her Agya (brother in Sikkimese) for the trip towards to farthest corner of Sikkim I had ever been to.
In the early morning hours of 21st November 2013, I met more people who were part of the group heading to Tholung. After acknowledging each other we started off towards Mangan at 6 am. The drive to Mangan via Radyong Tintek & Dikchu was scenic and got a glimpse of morning sunrise over Khanchendzonga range. I already had a feeling that this was going to be a special trip. We stopped for breakfast at Mangan. Today we had to walk for about 12 kms (no one was sure about the distance) from the village of Bey to reach the monastery so we hogged as much we could. After breakfast we continued on our journey. We drove into the Dzongu reserve area after crossing river Teesta at Sankalang. The river looked wild & fierce at Sankalang and I couldn’t but be in awe of the sounds coming from river. I was happy to see the river flowing freely & wildly, it’s a rare sight nowadays in Sikkim to see a free flowing river. It didn’t take too long for the road conditions to deteriorate as we drove further into the Dzongu Reserve area. We drove past Passingdong village which is probably few of the villages in Dzongu open to tourism & run homestays locally. The landscape around; the tall hills covered in the changing colors of autumn trees , the cardamom fields, the ripe orange orchard, the waterfalls, the pink cherry trees couldn’t have been any more beautiful. The further we drove I felt as if I was travelling to a magical land. We drove past beautiful fields of gold at Lingza around 10 am. We were only about 5- 6 kms away from Bay from where the trek would begin, I was already jumping in my seat with excitement but it was shortlived as the road conditions were at its worse. The road was wide only for a single vehicle to drive, there was no room for a vehicle coming downhill. After half an hour of bumpy ride we reached Bay where the road ends and the trek begins. The village of Bay was destroyed by the September 2011 earthquake and only one or two families live here nowadays. After parking the vehicle, we strapped our bags and our trek began as we crossed the suspension bridge over Rimpi River at 11 am.
The devastation of September 2011 was clearly visible to us, large portion of the hill was brought down to the river bed and the starting portion of the trail is buried deep under. We took the alternate trail which ran along the river side and hopped rocks. As I was walking along on the banks of a turquoise river & climbing up the forest trail, I was overwhelmed by the place, so peaceful and local porters carrying loads with a smile that never left their face even during the steep climb uphill. The trail was decent with many tiny log bridges connecting sections of the trail at places.
There were 5 rest huts along the way and the nearer we approached to the gumpa the trail steeply climbed up. Catching our breath every now & then and stopping over for some snacks we walked for about 4 hours and finally reached the Tholung gumpa at 4 pm. People had already started arriving at the place before we got there. The place was crowded with monks & pilgrims. As we walked towards the gumpa we saw the quake had such a big impact on the monastery that the four walls of the gumpa had come down and now only the concrete pillars were holding the gumpa. After offering our prayers at the gumpa we went for the hot sogya(tea with salt) being offered to everyone by the volunteers. We were allocated a room in the basement of a building by the organising committee and it was getting dark so we went to the room to relax. The room was big enough for all of us in the group so we unpacked and put our sleeping bag in place and took some rest before dinner. The dinner was served at a hut by the organising committee for all. I was very well impressed at how accommodation & food was taken care of for the pilgrims by the committee. It had been a long day for us and after dinner we crashed on your mats & slept peacefully.
The next morning, in the early hours of dusk few of us from the group decided to go for a short hike to visit a place where people come to collect holy water (Thi in Sikkimese) and a nearby holy cave. We took the trail which went straight through the village and downhill through the forest to river side. We walked along the river bank and climbed up a massive land slide which had brought down with it tonnes of stones & boulder. An hour walk brought us to the Thi, many monks were already there praying and collecting the Thi. We joined them and after filling our bottles walked up steep steps to reach a cave which was located on the bottom of the cliff. The cave was lit up with candles & incense sticks on the inside, 2 – 3 people could enter the cave at a time. The people believed that Guru Rinpoche has meditated in this cave. On our way back we came across this rock cliff which if looked closely at resembled book shelf in a monastery with holy books stacked horizontally. The people believe that sacred religious books are hidden behind the rock. We were back at the village at 9 am and went to have some breakfast. After a stomach full of breakfast we went straight to the terrace of the building adjoining the monastery where the Khamsel would take place. People has begun to gather for the ceremony, we found ourselves a seat on the floor and settled down.The Rinpoche arrived and the ceremony began after a short prayer. I could see monks making their way towards the Rinpoche carrying a tin box which contained all the treasures & relics of Guru Lhatsun Chempo. Apparently there are around 18 boxes like those and the content of all the boxes would be displayed to the pilgrims. Most of these boxes contained holy works of Guru Rinpoche & Guru Lhatsun Chenpo. What was truly amazing were the clothes belonging to Guru Lhatsun Chenpo which were in perfectly good conditions for something which was about 300 year old. All the clothes were handmade of silk in bright colors of yellow, red & blue and had intricate patterns of dragons & flowers on it. Many sacred thankas were also put on display. The ceremony ended in the afternoon around 3 pm, the remaining relics would be shown on the next day. After the ceremony we wandered around the village talking to other pilgrims like us. The night ended early for us and after dinner went straight to bed.
The next morning we woke up to the sounds of monks performing puja at the choesum (alter in Sikkimese). After visiting the monastery for early morning prayers, we went for breakfast at one of the make- shift canteens put up by local people of Bay and had hot cup of tea & bread. Today we were leaving after the first half of ceremony so we packed our belongings and had everything ready before the ceremony started. In the ceremony today unique relics like the horse saddle, the cane basket which carried all these items from West Sikkim, holy books written in silver & gold, the Tashi Targye (eight lucky signs) made of gold which a part of the coronation ceremony held at Yuksam In 1642 AD, thankas and clothes were shown to the audience. We left the gumpa after the first half of the ceremony got over. We took the trail back to Bay and after 3 hours of downhill walk & physical exhaustion we reached Bay and drove back to Gangtok.
How to reach: Plenty of vehicle ply between Mangan & Dzongu. Indian nationals other than Sikkimese & International guests require permit to enter the Dzongu Reserve Area. The permits are provided by the Department of Forest, Government of Sikkim.
Best time to Visit: April- May & Oct- November
Where to stay: Forest huts are available at Tholung
Note: You can trek further from Tholung to Kishong which takes a day to reach from the gumpa. There are no accommodations at Kishong so it will be advisable to carry tents along. In case of winter travel carry warm clothes. During rainy season expect to be attacked by the leeches , so carry some salt along which keeps the creatures away. Most important : Do Not Litter.