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Tsongmo Lake, Sikkim, India

Also known as: Changu Lake, Tsomgo Lake

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Remote and beautiful describes India's Tsongmo Lake. The high-altitude glacial lake is fed by melting snows from the surrounding mountains and is shrouded in local myth and religious observance. Located close to the border with Chinese Tibet, the lake lies along the road to Nathu La Pass and border crossing. Located in the Sikkim Province of India, the area around Tsongmo Lake is an interesting mix of Sikkimese Buddhists and the more numerous Hindu followers of India. In past centuries, Buddhist monks used to study the changing colors of the lake's waters to divine future occurrences. Sikkimese faith healers or jhakris travel here each year on Guru Purnima, a holy day associated with the Raksha Bandhan festival, to offer prayers. Other visitors come simply to admire the lake's extraordinary beauty.

Also called Tsomgo Lake or Changu Lake, Tsongmo Lake is especially beautiful between May and August, when a profusion of rhododendrons, blue and yellow poppies, iris and primula put forth a riot of colorful blooms along the lakefront. A large flock of Brahmini ducks make their home here, but huge flocks of other migratory waterfowl also stop at the lake on their long flight from Siberia to the plains of India. The lake becomes a birdwatcher's paradise during the annual migrations. Surrounded by steep forested mountains, the area around the lake is perfect habitat for the shy red panda and other native species. A series of short walking paths allow visitors to enjoy the alpine forest surrounding the lake, but Tsongmo Lake is in restricted territory and one should not attempt to venture off the designated paths to avoid being challenged by military guards.

The Changu Lake bazaar offers a wide variety of interesting goods and cut flowers. A number of shops along the lakefront offer local souvenirs, crafts and yak cheeses. Locals offer yak rides on highly decorated and trained yaks, but visitors should strictly avoid any yaks not so engaged as many are semi-wild and can be dangerous. A small temple dedicated to Lord Shiva is a well-known pilgrimage destination of visiting Shaivites.

In winter Tsongmo Lake freezes over. The flowers are dormant, and the only hints of color in an otherwise starkly beautiful landscape come from the prayer flags fluttering in the mountain breezes. The road is usually open as far as Tsongmo Lake, but the portion that continues to Nathu La Pass is often impassible and extremely dangerous with heavy snows and a narrow roadway. Tourists who book travel arrangements should be aware that tours are sometimes arranged during the harsh winter months when there is little to see. Due to the lake being in restricted territory, Indian citizens are free to come at any time, but foreign visitors need to be pre-cleared for a special travel pass best arranged via a reputable tourist agent.

Due to restrictions, it is not possible to freely trek the alpine forest and mountains in the area around Tsongmo Lake. But other attractions not far away are worth a visit. Sikkim's capital city of Gangtok is only 25 miles from Tsongmo Lake and an ideal place to use as tour headquarters. A growing city, Gangtok is filled with visitors from other Indian provinces. Plenty of visitor lodgings can be found here and are likely the best option as facilities surrounding Tsongmo Lake are minimal. Hotels, small inns and guest houses offer accommodations, while numerous restaurants, cafes and street vendors make sure no one leaves hungry.

Gangtok's Central Market area can be hectic, so visitors seeking quieter sites will find traditional Buddhist gardens and religious edifices just outside the city center. The famous orchids of Sikkim are showcased in several botanical gardens; these orchids are the stars of the Flower Show Complex. The Institute of Tibetology is not to be missed for its exhibits of traditional Tibetan culture. The most important stupa (Buddhist shrine) in Sikkim, Do Drul Chorten, is a short distance outside of the city and well worth a visit. The Himalayan Mountains are ever-present on the horizon and add to the exotic atmosphere of the many temples and religious shrines on the most-visited list. Locally, there are walking paths to get out into the surrounding mountains to enjoy this unusual environment to the fullest.

The famous Ruimtek Monastery is about 40 miles from Tsongmo Lake and featured on nearly every organized tour of the area. The monastery is located a short distance west of Gangtok. Originally built in the 16th century by Wangchuk Dorje, the ninth Karmapa of the Buddhist religion, the monastery was in ruins until the 16th Karmapa escaped Tibet and decided the site was the ideal spot to serve as his spiritual headquarters in exile. With the mountains as a backdrop, a snowfield in front and numerous flowing streams with a river below, the site was considered auspicious for the main seat of the Karmapa in exile. With help from the Sikkim royal family and the Indian government, the monastery was rebuilt over four years and finished in 1966. The largest monastery in Sikkim, the facility is home to a community of monks who perform the rituals of the Karma Kagyu. A golden stupa on site holds relics of the 16th Karmapa. The Karma Shri Nalanda Institute for higher Buddhist studies sits opposite the monastery. Highly decorated with colorful religious paintings and icons, the monastery makes an ideal stop for visitors to experience the rich and varied culture of Sikkim.

Instability caused by Chinese suppression of the traditional Buddhist-controlled Tibetan government has spilled over into the religious-political intrigues surrounding the current Karmapa and Ruimtek Monastery. The Karmapa is second-in-command to the Dalai Llama, who also rules from exile. Factions supporting rival candidates for the 17th Karmapa disputed the traditional divination methods surrounding the selection of the next Karmapa when the 16th Karmapa died in the 1980s. Because the Karmapa died while in the United States, the traditional message was not passed regarding succession in the usual way. Occasional violence has broken out among rival factions, breaking from traditional non-violent Buddhist doctrine. The dispute is at least as much political as religious: China has a vested interest in gaining control of the Tibetan Buddhist community and, although the principals are not actually in Tibet, much of the control of the religio-political system still remains in the hands of these leaders in exile. The monastery remains safe for visitors to enjoy, however, and local intrigues shouldn't prevent Tsongmo Lake tourists from also visiting Ruimtek Monastery.

Visiting Tsongmo Lake is an adventure, a pilgrimage undertaken by those in search of the unusual. No place else epitomizes the stark contrasts of multi-religious Sikkim. The towering Himalayas serve as backdrop to the colorful scenes in evidence around Tsongmo Lake.


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