First posted on November 12, 2019
I am back in Gangtok after many years. As I grew up here, I call it home. During a whirlwind book tour in India to talk about my new book, The Camel Merchant of Philadelphia, I decided to take a few days off to go home. It is raining heavily. I sit with a few friends at the Tashi Delek, the first posh hotel to be built in Gangtok bazaar. These are friends that I was with in school from kindergarten until I completed high school. A couple of them are doctors, one is a successful businessman. All still live in Gangtok, by the way. Nobody leaves this Himalayan paradise unless they are foolish, or perhaps in search of something.
Speaking of myself, I have been living in the US for many years. I was one of the few who left. The conversation is convivial. We sit under a canopy, the rain cascading down around us, taking in the glorious vista of mistcovered mountains and impossibly verdant valleys that stretch before us. The view from the Tashi Delek terrace is quite something. We talk about old friends, our school days, our teachers and high school romances, successful or otherwise, until one of my friends, out of the blue says: ‘I’m going to ask you something that’s a bit controversial; what do you think of Guru Dongmar?’
I am a bit nonplussed. What do I think of Guru Dongmar? It is a remote lake in the northernmost, most inaccessible part of Sikkim, that Guru Nanak, the first Sikh Guru, is said to have visited. Of late, it has been the subject of a most unseemly controversy, that I am only tangentially aware of. This is what the Sikkim Chronicle had to say about the controversy: “Gurudongmar lake, one of the highest and the holiest lakes in the world situated at 5430 m is a popular religious pilgrimage for many Sikkimese. The lake which has been known for its piousness now stands at a center of conflict between two communities. It all started in 1997 when army allegedly built a Gurudwara at the shore of the lake claiming it to be related to the Sikhism founder, Guru Nanak. Likewise, news was fanned across the country of this very Gurudwara being demolished by locals. This led to the court’s intervention with the case still going on at the High Court of Sikkim.
Although status quo has been maintained, Sikh groups and political parties particularly Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) has continued to pursue this case in all levels. The Sikkimese believe that the lake is blessed by none other than Guru Padmasambhava, who is said to have visited the lake to test an omen. He is regarded by the believers as the patron saint of Sikkim. Sikh groups have also written to high-profile ministers and the President of India to intervene in this matter, it is learnt. However, in Sikkim many see this as an attempt to destroy the unique historical and religious heritage of the state.“
And this is what the World Sikh News had to say: “The Sikkim High Court hearing a bunch of petitions by Sri Guru Singh Sabha Siliguri, acting on behalf of the SGPC and Amritpal Singh Khalsa Advocate and social activist Ajmer Singh Randhawa, in the case of attempted usurpation of historic Gurdwara Sahib Gurudongmar, Sikkim by a Buddhist sect, ordered a status quo for two weeks restraining both the Sikhs and the Buddhists from worshipping at the place till 6 October 2017, enabling the two sides to take necessary steps in the matter.“I guess now it is clear why my friend asked the question somewhat apologetically. And then he explained his rationale for asking: ‘You are a Sikh and yet as much a Sikkimese as any of us. Especially because you are a student of history and a writer, I would love to see you write something about this. Before sharing my opinion I would like to reiterate what I know about Guru Nanak’s visit to Sikkim….