Into the Mountains (Sikkim)

We have made it to Gangtok, capital of the tiny mountain state of Sikkim, but a great deal of Hindu puja, Christian candle lighting and Buddhist wheel spinning will have to be undertaken if we are to continue this journey in any semblance of safety. The deities who seem to rule this, the greatest mountain range on Earth, are currently hurling thunderbolts at each other, visibility is close to zero and the roads we hope to navigate over the next few days are in considerable danger of being washed away. Business as usual in the North East of India, I suppose, but at least we missed the earthquake. Only just.

Yesterday while we took an early evening nap at our hotel in Kolkata, I felt the bed give a sustained hop and skitter across the floor and the initial delight in experiencing my first proper seismic tremor quickly gave way to anxiety about whether we would be able to make our flight to Bagdogra next morning. It is embarrassing to admit how often one’s first thoughts are so selfish in these circumstances but a trip downstairs to watch the “breaking news” confirmed that the epicentre was deep beneath the earth’s crust on the Myanmar/Indian border and that no casualties were being reported.

An obliging driver supplied by our travel organisers* helped us to make the best possible use of a half day in Kolkata which can seem dauntingly large and difficult to navigate even on a subsequent visit. Despite not having the recommended prior permission, we were able to visit the Marble Palace, one of the best preserved relics of Indian nouveau riche during the time of the British Raj that I have ever seen. And it is quintessentially “Indian nouveau” rich in that it has belonged to five generations of the same wealthy Indian bullion dealers rather than the “filthy Nabob” rich of the expatriate British rulers.

I would love to find out more about how this slightly frayed and tarnished pile of Carrara marble, Meissen porcelain and Venetian glass has managed to remain in private hands despite Independence and the strong Communist leanings of the state of West Bengal.  Amongst all this ostentation are some surprisingly good “school of” Old Masters and the open central courtyard is home to cage upon cage of exotic birds. I had to wonder if a magnificent pair of crimson macaws could really live happily there or whether they had been chosen simply to set off their glazed and painted counterparts. Besides: all that ammonia from the guano can’t have been good for the curtains.

On our way to visit friends (and of course deliver the obligatory family greetings from South London) we took a detour through the oldest market streets to see the Nakhoda Masjid, or Mariner’s Mosque. With a capacity of 10,000, this is Kolkata’s largest and busiest Mosque and its many domed interior spreads over most of a city block. The narrow, teeming streets make it impossible to get a proper “architectural” shot of the building which apparently boasts an entrance designed to echo the great gateway of Akbar’s fabled city of Fatepur. On the other hand, tantalising glimpses of a place of worship so integrated into the life of the city that its outer boundaries can hardly be discerned more than compensates. Over a fifth of the population of Kolkata is Muslim and, amongst the great Indian Metropoles, only Mumbai has a greater proportion.

We have reassured Raika and the family that we will be back in Kolkata on our way home. There are always last minute gifts and messages, after all. Now, let’s just ask every member of Elisabeth’s travel pantheon to ensure that we see Kanchenjunja and some of the other sights of Sikkim first. (Up here in the Himalaya there must be a few gods and spirits that even she hasn’t met).

* Skylink, Wembley, UK. This company specialises in Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist pilgrimages for Non-Resident Indians but their staff are more than happy to provide bespoke trips for the true Indiophile of any persuasion.



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