Perched high atop the mountains amid the clouds are the amazingly colorful Buddhist monasteries of Sikkim. We had seen many Hindu temples and Jan shrines in India, but no Buddhist monasteries. While Buddhists are only a fraction of the population of India, they make up nearly a third of the population of Sikkim. Overflowing with color and history, the monasteries of Sikkim seem unreal. While we couldn’t take photos inside, the interiors were even more colorful than the exteriors.
Butter Candles and Tormas
One of the incredible things we found were the rows upon rows of burning butter candles. Typically made of ghee (clarified butter) in bronze metal cups, butter candles are burnt as offerings. Today they are often housed in separate buildings due to several disastrous fires. Inside the monasteries you will also find beautiful colorful Tormas, colored sculptures made of Yak butter. We were captivated by their beautiful designs and complexity. There is even a special festival in Tibet where they construct gigantic ones and light up the night with butter candles.
The seat of the Karma Kagyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism, Rumtek is the largest and arguably most beautiful monastery in Sikkim. It was in ruins before the 16th Karmapa (head of the Karma Kagyu sect) restored it in 1959 after fleeing from Tibet.
Located high above the small town of Yuksom, Dubdi monastery built in 1701 is the oldest in Sikkim. After a beautiful, but very steep walk that left us out of breath, we arrived at the top of the mountain at Dubdi. Sadly the outside was undergoing renovations, but we got to talk to a teacher for a bit that was teaching the younger monks English.
After a bumpy taxi ride, and crossing one of the scariest bridges I’ve even seen (any bridge that has guys with wrenches tightening the bolts is bad), we arrived at Tashiding. We had just missed the annual Bumchu festival. Every year the monks fill a giant pot with water from the river and then a year later they open the pot and the level of the water is said to predict the fortune of the area for the next year. The monastery was surrounded by a beautiful area with chortens (burial stones) and inscriptions.
One of the more important and famous monasteries of Sikkim is Pemayangtse. It is the head of the Nyingma sect of Tibetan Buddhism in Sikkim, which includes Dubdi and Tashiding monasteries. The Lama of Pemayangtse was also responsible for anointing the Chogyal, or King, of Sikkim. When we visited it was drizzling so we didn’t get any pictures of the outside. On the top floor of Pemayangtse though is an incredible seven-tiered painted wooden structure full of rainbows, a giant tiered building, and fantastical creatures. Created by one artist over five years, it depicts the Guru Rinpoche’s Heavenly Abode.