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The Healing Alchemy of Sikkim

Places heal, vacations heal. Physiologist Gerhard Strauss-Blasche and his colleagues, of the University of Vienna, have been researching "The Vacation Effect". They found, according to Reuters, " ... that 2 weeks of vacation boosted the workers' physical health for as much as 5 weeks afterwards."

As the electronic-and-cyber world intrudes into our lives we begin to substitute `electronic reality' for the real thing. But we are creatures of the real world. If we are deprived of it for long we become sick: physically, mentally, spiritually, socially sick. This is why you have to choose, and plan, your vacations carefully. You must get away from your daily lives. Experience the wilderness to balance the urban frenzy in which most of us live. Experience alternative lifestyles, other faiths, little-known societies. We also need the adrenalin-high of danger and the challenge of physical exercise: build these into your vacation. And then, like a good athlete resting, you must set apart time towards the end of your holiday to rest in serenity and allow all these experiences to sink in and become part of you. Only then will you feel the tingling rejuvenation of a truly healing holiday.

This is exactly what we discovered when we returned from our chosen Healing Land: Sikkim.

Earlier this year we had been asked by two Internet portals to write six articles for them every month. By the time we had got through communicating with lawyers, accountants, editors and administrators in Chennai, Bangalore and Delhi from our cottage in the Himalayas, we were frazzled, irritable and bone tired. We decided that the only way we could retain our sanity was to down tools and take off. This is what we did and w're very glad we did.

From the moment we drove into the little riverine town of Rangpo, in the sub-montane lands of south Sikkim, weeks of tension began to evaporate out of us. We stood on the balcony of our room in the Tourist Bungalow and looked out. In the soft, blue, light of dusk, the Raugpo River flowed like molten silver around a wooded promontory met the river Teesta, and curved back around the feet of rising, forested, mountains. Mist drifted down the valleys and wreathed the peaks, hazed more mountains receding into the distance. It was like a window opened into a fairy tale. All the weariness drained out of us and we smiled for no apparent reason, and then we laughed like children released from the drudgery of school. We were free, free, free and a great, wide, world of unlimited wonder lay before us.

The next morning, as happy as larks on a summer's day, we drove into Sikkim and our haling began. The roads were often very good, often rugged, always unforgettably scenic. The wilderness embraced us. Springs and streams gushed down green hillsides, cascaded in waterfalls down dusky canyon walls, starred ferns and orchids and clumps of fragrant cardamom. The air was clear and cool as if the Creator had just breathed over a new world. We began to feel hungry as our bodies responded to the oxygen of new experiences. We drew up at the side of the road and stopped for a picnic snack near a but with bamboo-mat walls, rising on bamboo stilts, with a bamboo-chicken-coop, a bamboo wood store, a bamboo grain-storage basket. "Doesn't the rain seep in through all this bamboo?" we asked. The lady-of-the-house beamed at our city-slicker ignorance. "Not if you weave it properly", she said. Added her husband, "And if the wind does blow in the rain, then we can weave new mats. After cutting, new bamboos grow again in six months, sometimes less." A guest, sitting in the doorway, contributed his bit: "If you do it the way our ancestors did, then the wind will not blow in the rain."

That was refreshing: these people had not down-loaded their wisdom from the web!

We drove into the densely-forested hills around the monastery of Rumtek. All the cottages and shops, even the smallest of them, were bright with lillies and orchids bursting with bloom. We trudged up the rain slicked path leading to the monastery. Fluted red columns rose out of blue pedestals, flared to capitals in blue, red and gold. Yellow balusters supported chocolate-brown rails. Blue windows were picked out in red, green windows in yellow. White awnings had blue, mystic symbols on them. The monastery rose tier upon tier like jewel-boxes stacked on jewel-boxes. On the walls of the verandahs of the main shrine, brilliant murals leapt to life: the guardians of the north, south, east and west and even one of the elephant-headed god of wealth. Visually, these murals are as appealing as stained-glass windows in the old Catholic churches of Europe. But, in fact, they carry a much deeper message clothed in symbolism.

Vajrayana Buddhism is a warm and appealing synthesis of spirituals exercises and physical practices. It seeks to realise the fact that all creation is, essentially, a network and that nothing, not even one's most secret thoughts, are independent of everything else. This is why Vajrayana appeals to people today: it offers a release from the confines of hi-tech cyber.

But even if you find Vajrayana to be too complex, do visit the monasteries of Sikkim. They are deep reservoirs of quietness from which you can recharge your depleted emotional batteries.

Beyond Rumtek rises the capital of Sikkim: Gangtok. A fair amount of Gangtok carries the ugliness of uncaring over-development. Even here, however, a healing process has set in. Plastic has been banned and the ban is being enforced. Orchid cultivation and floriculture in general have become a major commercial activity and there is a permanent Flower Show exhibiting seasonal blooms, in a natural garden setting, all through the year. As the head of a visiting Calcutta family put it: "There is nothing more therapeutic than the sight of beautiful flowers in a beautiful setting. This has rejuvenated my entire family!"

Gangtok is, really, a walking town. The roads curve and rise and wind and dip through the mountains on which the capital has been built. There are a number of taxis which race around breathlessly but vacationers, who seek a more leisurely pace, often stroll up to Enchey Monastery along a long avenue of conifers and prayer-banners. Enchey has bright trapezium windows with a colourful facade and, if you can persuade a monk to open the doors to the verandah, you will be able to see its murals. A young monk agreed to play his flute in front of one of the windows and though he was no Zamfir, his soft refrain wove gently, soothingly, through the soughing of the conifers.

The walk to Enchey helps one to take in lungfuls of clean Himalayan air but, if you really want to test your lung capacity, take the trip to 4,320 meter high Nathu La Pass on the Indo-Chinese border. Those with dicky hearts should not attempt this drive; otherwise, if you begin to feel a little breathless, it's probably all in your mind. As you can see, we were in fine fettle in spite of the cold, the mist, the rain and the reputed scarcity of oxygen. The Army does not allow visitors to carry their cameras up to the Pass because it's a high security area, but you can get a picture against a rock which proclaims its WELCOME TO NATULA, a little below the top.

There's also the steel-grey changu Lake, 3,753 meters high. There are snack bars and tea-stalls near the lake and you can take a slowly-jouncing yak ride to a cave some distance around the shores of the lake. a yak handler said that a dip in these frigid waters would give us robust good health but we replied that we'd have to be in very, very, good health to risk such a dip in the first place so why should we plunge in? It is a fact, however, that once you make the trip to Nathu La, and stop over at this icy Changu, you feel that you've never been fitter. And you're probably right!

Now, you really must put yourself to a slightly harder test: the 1/2 km. hike up a steep little path to the monastery complex of Tashiding, Even we, who live at a height of 2,000 meters in the Himalayas, found ourselves puffing and panting with our camera bags slung over our shoulders. The path, which is often little more than a goat-treck, leads past a small homestead with cardamom fields, cows and a few chickens; offers interesting views of distant hills seen through breaks in the dense, damp, forest; and emerges on the fairly flat top of the mountain.

Your legs will probably ache, and your lungs pump like bellows, but, once you arrives, the complex is so enchanting that all the effort will seem worthwhile. And there is that additional adrenalin-high of knowing that you have done it and can pause and look around.

Across the greensward and down avenues of fluttering prayer banners, are a number of monasteries, an exquisite little chapel, and a most impressive group of stupas in a stone-walled enclosure. There are old, crumbling, stupas and stupas with divine and semi-divine beings painted around their base; some stupas have gold turrets and some have images of Buddhas in jewel-bright alcoves.

The most impressive stupa is covered in gold or, possibly, gold-leaf: real gold beaten tissue thin. This, according to a local, shaven-headed, monk is the stupa of the last Chogyal of Sikkim.

We spent a long time here, our bodies and minds charged with elation because we were here, and because it was so beautiful, and because the stillness was somehow, enhanced by the soft, sonorous, chanting of monks at prayer. This was, in all ways, another benign, spiritually calming, world.

After Tashiding there was only one stop left in our journey to holistic healing: the stop that would knit it all together.

We left Tashiding and drove up to the high valley of Yuksom. The road was rough in patches but the changing views of the mountains made us forget the often-bumpy drive. At the end of the journey, Yuksom opened around us: a green valley with a tiny, sacred, lake; terraced fields below little villages framed in bright prayer banners; rising mountains threaded with silver stream; strolling, rambling, hiking, trekking trails meandering into the wooded heights; and the historic grove of the sacred throne. And, it all, permeating the valley like the fragrance of incense, was an atmosphere of peace and serenity so palpable that we breathed it in till it enriched every part of our being. We were buoyed up in an ecstasy of contentment. It was an unforgettable feeling of well-bring as if every cell in our bodies had been charged with strength and was glowing with vitality.

We did what was expected of us. We visited the grove around the stone throne where the first Chogyal had been crowned by three revered Lamas. We took photographs and spoke to people. But, for much of the time, we just sat on our balcony and let the tranquillity of Yuksom work its quit, sustaining, magic on us. clouds covered the sky and rested gently on the crests of the encircling ranges. We were being re-created in this soft, green, quiescent, womb and we could have stayed here on and on, cosseted in this protected place against the buffeting of the outside world.

But that would have been dropping out.

The next morning, a little before dawn, the clouds parted for a brie moment and the white peak of Mount Kabur appeared between the rounded masses of dark, enfolding, mountains.

We left Yuksom and drove back, revitalised by the healing alchemy of Sikkim.