Article by Charlie Waite, founder and owner of Light & Land – www.lightandland.co.uk
A land of dramatic sub-Himalayan mountain-scape, lush valleys and terraced agriculture, laced with 200 Buddhist monasteries and countless rural villages where life has changed little in centuries, Sikim is a delight for both the landscape and portrait photographer. Unusually among such photogenic locations of the world, rural Sikim has not been inundated with either tourists, nor photographers, and so still holds that increasingly rare opportunity to make a portfolio of images that can serve as a voyage of discovery for others.
Nestling between Nepal, China and Bhutan, Sikim is arguably amongst the most spectacular and exciting places to make images in all of India. The influence of its varied history is evident today in the landscape and its people.
Positioned in the shadows of the Himalayas, Sikim was originally sparsely populated by animist settlers from 13th century Burma known as the Lephcas and later became home to the buddhist refugees (the Bhutias) of Tibet in the 15th Century. The area was considered a sacred place for both the Lepchas and the Bhutias, with the imposing mountain peaks, dramatic topography and evocative light-play inspiring the search for the divine. The great mountain of Kanchenjunga dominates the landscape and the Lepchas believe they are descended from sacred Kanchenjunga snow.
The now famous Buddhist Monastery of Tashiding was built in 1717 when a rainbow was seen to connect the spot on which it was constructed to the peak of Mount Kanchenjunga. For those who have experienced it, the pre dawn drive to the vantage point which affords one of the best ‘first light’ views of Kanchenjunga followed by that incredible moment where the peak of Kanchenjunga catches fire with the suns first rays is a breathtaking moment that remains imbedded in their minds.
For the photographer the dawn and dusk light paints the mountain ranges in exquisite pastel shades of varied intensity and the languid clouds caress the mountain peaks to reveal and conceal and make even more mysterious the incredible landscape. Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim, with a fascinating Bhuddhist past has staggering views of the full grandeur of the Himalayas.
In the early 1800's this former Buddhist kingdom attracted the attention of British tea plantation owners when they lost their monopoly on the tea trade with China. During this period there was a large influx of Hindu Nepalese tea plantation workers and still today Napalis represent the majority people. At 2,134 metres above sea level, Darjeeling feels truly to be on the roof of the world, sitting as it does in the shadow of the mighty Kanchenjunga. The great explorer, Sir Francis Young husband described looking up to Kanchenjunga, "up and up through tier after tier of forest-clad ranges, each bathed in a haze of deeper and deeper purple, till the line of snow is reached; and then still up to the summit of Kangchenjunga, now so pure and ethereal we can scarcely believe it is part of the solid earth on which we stand; and so high it seems part of the very sky itself."
For the photographer the sight of a group of tea pickers dressed perhaps in vermillion red or fluorescent green and blue with giant tea baskets on their backs, seems almost too much of a ‘photography gift’ and with the tea pickers happy cooperation, many a good hour of photography can be enjoyed amongst the clean and ordered slopes of the tea plantations.
Just a few kilometers away might be the classical Victorian hotels where the fires are still lit in the bedrooms to ensure the guests comfort.
In the years after the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950, Sikim provided refuge for hundreds of Buddhist monks. Locals today still talk of "the hillside burning scarlet as if with fire" as a flood of orange-robed monks walked for days along the mountain passes into Sikim, using the old salt and wool trade routes from Lhasa. Any journey through Sikim is visually enhanced by the dance of prayer flags of all shapes, sizes and colours curling and bouncing in the mountain winds and lacing the paths to the many monasteries that cling to the hillsides. These often centuries-old monasteries provide rich opportunity for the photographer looking to make images representing sacred traditions that have been passed down from generation to generation. There is often a timeless, ethereal quality to the best images made in these monastic environments, where the photographer has allowed the atmosphere and reverence of the setting to envelope them and quietly influence the nature of the images themselves. The haunting Monastery of Pemayangtse (between Darjeeling and Gangtok) is a must-photograph destination.
Within the monasteries, there are numerous opportunities to make images in a context that will be unfamiliar and challenging and surely this is where the photographer can be stretched and enthralled by the potential that is offered. Once again, the monks are literally ‘far above’ caring about a humble photographer who may wish to make images. The atmosphere within the monasteries is calm and easy.
After the British left in 1947, Sikim became an Indian protectorate and in 1975 was incorporated as a state of India, resulting in significant investment in infrastructure for the local area. So travelers today find an area that is unusually affluent for a Himalayan region, whilst still retaining its rich heritage and authentic mountain lifestyle. Sikim has long been considered one of the last Himalayan Shangri Las. But as is so common today, those wanting the experience of the Sikim of rich tradition and subsistence living should visit soon, as the area is increasingly attracting the attention of wealthy Kolkotans seeking to escape the city heat. Fortunately, although Sikim is small, its crazy contours make road construction difficult and slow.
So for now, finding the ‘real’ Skim is just a matter of walking away from the metalled roads or choosing the routes less traveled. Some let the flow of the fine Teesta River, sweeping through the countryside and garlanded by amazing manmade rice terraces on its steep shores guide their valley route. Explore the remote villages dotted amongst the terraces, like Martha, which is set in some of the most remarkable rice terraces to be seen anywhere in the East, a natural amphitheatre lending itself to some extraordinary landscape photography. Wild banana, bamboo, rhododendron and fields of orchid set against a staggering Himalayan backdrop quite literally complete the breathtaking landscape.
As though the awe-inspiring landscape, delightful peoples and rich traditions of rural Sikim were not enough, any photographer visiting the region will surely want to experience the sight of, and perhaps attempt to make their own quintessential image of the incomparable Taj Mahal. It is said that no matter how many times this stunning monument has been seen in countless publications, nothing can prepare you for your first sight of this breathtakingly beautiful pearl. It is thought by many contemporary architects alive today to be one of the few buildings on the face of this planet to be of quite perfect proportions.
Sikim is still little known amongst the traveling fraternity and for the photographer, this remote and spiritual destination can provide great and varied potential to perhaps assist the photographer who wishes to be presented with a chance to ‘see anew’ and return home with a portfolio of work that will remain as special and sacred as Sikim itself.
Take a look at Charlie Waite's previous article: The Hidden Gems Of Tuscany
Charlie Waite, owner and founder of Light & Land is leading a tour to Sikim departing 30 January 2012. Places are very limited – full details can be found at Light & Land or by calling the Light & Land office on 01432 839111.