Sunday, August 09, 2009

Dzongu : Hidden Paradise of North Sikkim

North Sikkim - Dzongu

Dzongu, the special Lepcha reserve, lies in the North District of Sikkim amidst steep inclines and deep valleys in the last range of earth covered hills ahead of the rocky Himalayan snow clad peaks. An almost virgin territory with a scanty population of Sikkim’s native inhabitants, it is a beautiful land of dense jungle groves and pristine glacial streams that nurture both the human and natural habitation around. Numerous waterfalls cascade down steep cliffs and bubbling hot springs can be found hidden beneath the shelter of caves. The area is remote and surrounded by formidable jagged peaks that reach out to the sky. Elevation ranges from 500m to 6000m and the extremes have nurtured an amazing diversity of plants and wildlife.

Homeland of the Lepcha, the original inhabitants of Sikkim, the territory was designated a special reserve for the Lepcha community since the 1960’s when Sikkim was still a kingdom ruled by Chogyal Palden Thondup Namgyal. It borders the Khangchendzonga National Park and Biosphere Reserve offering panoramic views of Mount Khangchendzonga (8,585m), the third highest summit in the world and the protective deity of Sikkim.

Sparsely populated, the area’s steep hills pitching into deep ravines portray a picturesque setting of solitude and calm. Although agriculture is the mainstay of its natives, large tracts of the terrain is too steep to allow terrace cultivation of grain crops, so here the major produce is cardamom which can comfortably take root and flourish in sloped inclines.

Dzongu's terrain (Photo: Pema Wangchuk, NOW)

This is the last bastion in Sikkim of Lepcha culture where one could possibly meet some of the last local shamans referred locally as the ‘boongthing’ who still practice the ancient animistic rituals. Sadly, this culture is coming close an end with Buddhism taking over as the dominant religion.

The Boongthing (Lepcha shaman) of Tingvong
(Photo: Pema Wangchuk, NOW)

Places of Interest in Dzongu

Traditional Lepcha House

A Lepcha museum is located at Namprikdong, 10 minutes' drive from the Sangkalang police check post and its construction displays the ingenuity of an age-old tradition of laying the superstructure on open surface (over stone slabs) to counter the effects of powerful earthquakes. Another unique feature in the construction of traditional Lepcha houses is that no nails are used. This is an interesting point to begin ones exploration of Dzongu. While visiting the traditional house, one can walk further beyond to see the confluence of the Teesta River (Rongyoung Kyong).

Tholung Monastery

This is one of Sikkim’s oldest monasteries and was built during the first visit of Guru Lhatsun Chempo. A festival celebrated every three years puts on display the treasured clothing of the revered Guru. Exploration around the periphery of the monastery, there are hot springs and sacred caves.

Cane Bridges

Traditional Lepcha bridges are made from long sections of split bamboo, a ingenious feat of grass root engineering and can be seen at Passingdong and above Tholung Monastery.

Cane Suspension Bridge near Tholung Gompa


Waterfalls are everywhere in Dzongu, with the biggest and the best is in Lingzya, on the way to Sakyong and Pentong. The Ruk Shot waterfall has a drop of 250 ft.

Waterfall below Kishong Lake - above Tholung Gompa


Lakes are sacred to the Lepcha as they believe that some of the clans originated from the lakes. Some important lakes with historical significance in Dzongu are Kishong, Tung Kyong and Dawathang.

Sakyong and Pentong

Folklore suggests that the twin villages of Sakyong and Pentong to be the ‘legendary sacred portal to Khangchendzonga’ and seemingly so, it's locale reveals an awesome view of this beautiful mountain amidst a facade of verdant valleys abounding with lush meadows and thick forestland. Facing each other across a valley-divide, the two pretty villages lie amidst forest groves and cardamom fields with waterfalls roaring down the mountain cliffs. Both villages lie remote and are worth visiting for their pretty views and ethnic culture

Tingvong Village

Tingvong is located on a gentle slope overlooking the yawning valleys amidst terraced farmlands of mustard, millet and vegetables. Sparkling streams flow through the village and its tranquil surroundings make it an ideal base for your stay in Dzongu and from here you can map out other day excursions to nearby villages and monasteries in the surrounding area.

Tingvong (Photo: Jim Ratcliffe)

Lingthem Village

Lingthem is famous for its spectacular views of the Khangchendzonga Range. The village is a three hours uphill walk from road head at Passingdong across terraced fields and pine ridges. Though the ascent is strenuous, the labour of your efforts is richly rewarded with great mountain views and the mesmerizing beauty that nature has on the offer. Here, one has the opportunity for a close look at old traditional houses still intact, probably the last relics of Lepcha architecture.

Lingthem (Photo: Jim Ratcliffe)

Bird Watching

Dzongu is a natural paradise for birds and there are more than 200 species in the area. The sparse population with scattered houses, dense evergreen forests with topographical extremes creates a perfect arena for avifaunal diversity. Bird watching is an enjoyable and educative experience and Dzongu offers this opportunity. Of the 1200 species of birds found in India 550 species have been recorded in Sikkim. The Dzongu hills comprise an area that is approximately 540 sq km in area. The upper reaches comprise of glaciers, snow clad peaks, alpine lakes, moraine and meadows. A network of streams with several waterfalls along the course flows into the Ringpi Chu River. This river originates at the Kishong Lake, 4228 m and cascades down to meet the Rongyong Chhu at an altitude of 1085 m - all in a distance of 26 km. The lower half of the valley has mixed open forest with amazing biodiversity. The altitudinal variation, variety of trees and shrubs, lack of human population and vehicular traffic combine to make it a haven for birds, and a prime birding site.

Home Stay

With little possibility for entrepreneurs to set up a hotel in the area due its status as a special reserve and restricted area, but since visitors are allowed entry with special permission, several home owners have decided to take in ‘home stay guests’.

A Dzongu home stay is a unique experience and a great way to understand local culture and make new friends. Visitors will live with the families and eat meals prepared by the family. Local villagers serve as guides and cultural programs of folk dancing and singing will be organized to highlight local cultures and traditions.

Children at play - Tingvong (Photo: Pema Wangchuk, NOW)

Home stay hosts will ensure that their visitors are kept comfortable in every way possible. They are trained to provide food and drinking water in a hygienic manner. Drinking water is boiled. Guests are served traditional village food unless they request otherwise. All Home stay hosts have been trained to provide clean rooms and fresh linen.

Many guests are apprehensive about toilet facilities on a home stay but even if the facilities do happen to be rudimentary and basic in comparison to Western standards, they nevertheless are kept clean and well maintained. While some homes do have western-style toilets, it is quite likely that you will have to walk a little distance beyond your room when it becomes necessary to answer the call of nature.

The Lepcha are a shy and timid people with an uncanny sense of the wilderness as a result of their ancestors having lived off the land eating wild plants and hunting animals. Their language and culture indicates ancestral ties with the indigenous people of Northern Burma and Southern China, and nearer home, to the hill peoples of North-East India (Nagaland and Manipur).