Very few people know this about the Sandakphu Trek. The trail you trek on, the villages you camp at, and mountain peaks you see, are all steeped in cultural and mythological significance.
And it’s a culture like no other, owing much to its geographical location. Located on the Indo-Nepal border, the trek starts in Darjeeling, crosses over to Nepal, and ends in a small village in West Bengal. You see intriguing cultural transformations throughout the way.
Having been on this trail and the Jaubari base camp for a few months, I’ve been able to make some observations about these. And having done many other Himalayan treks, I can say that I haven’t yet seen such an endearing culture elsewhere.
A thriving Buddhist and Hindu presence
Right from the moment you begin your journey towards the base camp Jaubhari, you see little colorful flags threaded together like beads on a necklace. You might have come across these flags during your travels through Spiti or Ladakh as well.
As you trek past villages, you will notice these flags hanging across the doors of all houses. You will soon grow fond of these flags as they accompany you on the next 6 days of your trek.
These are Buddhist prayer flags known as Panch Dhatu. They have prayers and hymns written in Tibeti on them representing five elements — water, air, clouds, fire and land.
In Buddhism, people believe that these five elements are essential for survival of any form of life. They also believe that any place where there is a confluence of these five elements is holy.
Which is why you’ll see these flags very close to rivers and lakes. You’ll also see these flags on mountain peaks, or high mountain passes. People believe that the strong winds in the mountains carry these hymns to far off places.
Om Mani Padme Hum is one such hymn that you will find. It is the hymn sung to maintain balance. A balance within yourself, and with the universe, and a balance of masculinity and femininity. This is considered the cosmic balance that people strive for.
A modern take on century-old practices and beliefs
On the way to Tumling from Meghma, you pass by a prayer wheel that is kept in motion by the force of flowing water. This is dedicated to the current Dalai Lama.
The rhythmic toll of the monastery bell in harmony with that of flowing water, and the sight of colorful flags waving in the wind, is soothing after an exhausting day of trekking.
At some of the tea houses you can see an entire room decorated elaborately with idols, flags, scriptures and with the fragrance of incense sticks. These are the praying rooms.
Early in the morning, you might see an elderly person of the household walking around the house with son-patti dhoop. It is an incense holder, attached to a chain so that the structure can be swung. This helps in the smoke from the incense spreading around the house.
The belief is that this son-patti dhoop cleanses the air and purifies the surroundings. The sight of this, and the fragrance, is very peculiar to the Sandakphu culture.
The architecture, where every structure tells a story
Another unique thing that I noticed, and admired in their culture was the architecture. Their monasteries had dome like structures with a pointed top. Some of these were created as repositories for holy scriptures called Maney and some in remembrance of loved ones who passed away called Sortin.
You will also see many concrete benches with names engraved on them. These are built by families who have lost a loved on. I found this extremely touching.
Another architectural aspect unique to this trek are the bright, coloured, wooden houses. Nearly all the houses you will pass by on this trek are made up off wood. They are painted in lively, bright shades of blue, yellow, green, pink etc.
To add to their charm, they have pots with huge colourful flowers lined up along their porches. While passing by them during your trek, you cannot help but stop and smile. And even if only for a moment, you will feel the urge to settle down there only and start afresh.
Unlikely spice in the cold mountains
Lastly, something that you will get to taste only in the Sandakphu region is the Dunley Khursani. It is a tiny round, red chilly. Even the smallest bite is enough to get your eyes running. You will see them at tea houses, stored in glass jars. The locals store them this way before using them to make pickles.
At Jaubhari, chutney is made out of this chilly and served to our trekkers. Do not miss this.
These are a few reasons why I think Sandakphu is a unique cultural experience. If you have other thoughts on what makes Sandakphu unique, do let me know in the comments below! 🙂