The great and nearly contiguous concatenation of mountains from the Himalayas to the Hindu Kush in the South, and the Tien Shan to the Altay in the north, are a warren of gods and spirits. The pantheon of Hindu gods hails from the Himalayas at the point where the Aryans encountered them, in Uttarkhand Pradesh, and the Mongol and Turkic tribes of the North saw the deity, Tengri, in the white peaks of Central Asia. But along most of its breadth, the Himalayas are Buddhist…and in an earlier time, so were the lowlands. Now Buddhism clings to the uplands and the ravines, its few remaining kingdoms tucked away from view and suspended from pinnacles and crags bedecked by the lush vegetation of anomalous cloud forests. The few kingdoms that remain were built by warrior priests from the spiritual metropolises of Tibet and, in time, have been reclaimed from romantic imagination by Asian realpolitik. Sikkim is one of these princely states, absorbed by India not too long ago.
From our hotel in Pelling, we headed up the fir and bamboo-lined roads to the old Pemayangtse Monastery, founded by the same warrior monks who conquered the Valley from their subsequent parishioners, the Lepcha people. It is the oldest Monastery in the region and the traditional “Lotus flower” of Sikkim. We found it festooned with white and saffron flags and humming effervescently with the intermittent tabernacle of autochthonous monks. From its perch atop a hillock of the long ridge, Pemayangtse was aligned with the leering hulk of Kanchenjunga, and its old fortress walls pointed out towards its peaks and the old invading Nepalese foe, crouching behind them to the West.
The monks fed us tea and pointed out things invisible to us along the skyline. The buddhist children in Sikkim are sometimes commended to the monastery for their education and live here off and on among the old saffron-robed monks, learning their prayers somewhat haphazardly and sometimes crowding along the digitally-superior angle of the old redoubts to take in a soccer match or a western movie on their iphones. Life here among the treetops and the buddhas seemed, though, nearly impervious to the world and the congenial spiritual noblesse oblige of the Buddhists helped to maintain the effervescence of things for outsiders. Flags swinging lazily in the breeze, the vast forbidding expanse of the world’s rooftop beyond the monastery seemed eternally peaceful.