Pelling sits below the old monastery of Sanga Choeling and just up the road from the old summer residence of the last royal Chogyal. Until recently, Sikkim had been a relic nearly lost to time and to the subcontinent that lay beyond the horizon of hills to the South. The annexation of Tibet had forced Sikkim to seek the formal protection of India, to which it had not acceded by treaty when the British orchestrated de-colonization. But Sikkim had retained its quixotic independence, existing on the lore of inaccessibility and the imperviousness of its customs, until 1973.
One would not expect to find in Pelling an international entrepot, but it, in its own small way, is. Home to a confusing mix of languages, customs, and sartorial styles, Pelling exists in a state of indissolubility tempered only by tourism. The Nepalese who had initially moved into Darjeeling and the southern Sikkimese valleys during the Raj, now form a majority here, but are matched by Indians from further into the plains of Bengal and Jharkhand below. The Bhutia, of Tibetan ancestry, live here, too, joined by the native Lepchas and . Chinese are here, as are Christian missionaries from Kerala and Goa. Christians are educated in Buddhist schools and some Buddhists attend mass at St. Thomas near a hairpin curve about two thousand feet below the town and on the way to the regional center of Geyzing. It is a mix that is impenetrable for a foreigner and scarcely susceptible to description by any other than a ethnologist.
On our last day there, we walked up through the festive bazaar, decorated for the New Year, and on to Sanga Choeling. A drastically vertical road silted with the remnants of the monsoon season led to the occluded summit. We passed the usual complement of workers digging peremptory trenches against the distant rainy season and, as we came up over the last summit in the steep road, we saw the scaffolding around the glinting Buddha that we had made out the previous day from an opposing prominence. We wandered over to the sculpted outcropping opposite the main shrine. There was a view here over the precipice and, in the hazy depth of the valley below, a wispy line of smoke wafted lazily over the tea gardens. A monk, passing in the direction of the terraces beyond the monastic yard, paused by us, and explained in nearly-perfect English; “it is a funeral,” he said, “last fire.”