The third highest peak in the world, the majestic mountain, Khangchendzonga stands at 28,169 feet Credit: Karchoong Diyali

The third highest peak in the world, the majestic mountain, Khangchendzonga, stands at 28,169 feet. Those on my Twitter timeline know my obsession with the peak. I tweet pictures of the mountain every now and then. For reasons that I haven’t fathomed myself, I am drawn to it. When I look at it, its beauty is the first thing that mesmerises me. I feel (probably) what my ancestors must have felt when they looked at the mighty mountain and I understand why it is our guardian deity. Its easy to perceive what the western explorers must have experienced when they saw the mountain. The abstract power, the radiance, the grandeur of Khangchendzonga cannot be described in words. You have to pause from the monotony of life and stare at it to grasp its grace and how fortunate are we? It’s a luxury we can all afford.

‘Khangchendzonga: Sacred Summit’ is available at Rachna Books, Development Area and other bookstores in town

I first found the book, Khangchendzonga: Sacred Summit by Pema Wangchuk and Mita Zulca back in 2010. Pema Wangchuk aka Boss (My first job was at NOW: The English Daily as an intern in the summer of 2005 and Pema Wangchuk, who was the editor of the paper, was my first boss) is easily one of my favourite writer /orator /journalist/ person in town. Seriously, nobody comes even close to how awesome, cool and creative he is. The best thing about Boss is how effortlessly altruistic he is. He teaches you things and makes you see the logic and purpose and gives you the confidence to question anything that unsettles you. The man is everything that you wish you could be. And I’ve known Mita Di for a fairly long time. I mean, who in Sikkim doesn’t know her? She’s the lady with the strongest voice in Sikkim. She is fantastically fierce and unapologetic.

Anyway, Sacred Summit is my favourite non-fiction that I dip into and flip through every now and then. It is a treasure trove of history, facts, myths and mysteries that leave you in absolute delectation. Every Sikkimese must read this book. If I had the power, I’d even take excerpts and put it into the academic syllabus of all the schools in the state. Apart from how creatively and beautifully Boss and Mita Di have written, what you must know is that this book is the most important document of archives for all, mostly for the Sikkimese. This is the source of what/ why/ when and how you exist today. It is the sum of your being. That’s what it is. The reason that I am even talking about the book is because most of the knowledge and information I have derived for this post is from it. The following post contains huge portions that I have directly taken from the book for I couldn’t have even tried to describe and write what Boss and Mita Di have written.


Internet has verified and stated that the mountain on the currency is Mount Khangchendzonga as seen from Sikkim

Let’s start with something that most of you already know. Before the Ujawala soaked purple 100 rupee note took over the Indian market, we had the older (and better looking) 100 rupee note. Sometime in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, information regarding the picture on the 100 rupee started doing the rounds. The internet has verified and stated that the mountain on the currency is Mount Khangchendzonga as seen from Sikkim. In the “In Gratitude” section of the book, the writers state that it was Rajesh Lakhotia who sparked their interest when he pulled out a 100 rupee note and stated that it was the only mountain used as a motif on Indian currency.


Lepcha men on the road between Lengthen and Be in Dzongu in 1894. Photo from the private collection of Johnston & Hoffman series on Sikkim

Stones have always been special to the Lepchas, the autochthons of Sikkim. They have been using it as tools and even collecting and revering as charms and gifts. Khangchendzonga or ‘Kongchen Kongchlo’ as they call it is their original big stone. It is also their Eldest Brother — the first creation of their Mother Creator, Itbu Mu. The mountain is of great significance to the Lepchas. They believe that the first Lepcha couple, Tukbothing and Nazong Nyu (their respective Adam & Eve), were crafted from the fresh snows of Khangchendzonga’s summit and its presence permeates every aspect of the Lepch lifestyle. For them, it is also Kingtsoom Zaongboo Chu, the auspicious forehead peak, the highest veil of snow beyond which the spirits of their ancestors dwell in Rum Lyang – the land of Gods. The Lepchas call themselves ‘Mutanchi Rong Kup Rum Kup’ which translates to mother’s Loved Ones/Children of the Snowy Peaks, Children of God.

{Here’s one fact about myself: My maternal grandmother is a Lepcha, hence I also come from the snowy peaks and I am also a child of God. Ok, bye.}


A Limboo Muhigum Ongsi — they are incarnate Phedangmas (priests/shamans) who lead the life of ascetics and are mostly involved in preaching and devotion

Along with the Lepchas, the Limboos are regarded as the autochthons of Sikkim. Their traditional stronghold known as Pallo Kirat lies in Eastern Nepal now (earlier the region was Sikkim) in the valleys where the western arm of the Khangchendzonga range ends in Mount Kumbhakarna, which they know as Phoktanglungma. This range commands an imposing presence and the Limboos locate almost all important events in their myths and legends on this peak starting with their version of the creation of the human race, the Limboo people to be more precise. A Limboo folklore states that Sirijonga, a religious and pious man who was a devout follower of the Yuma Samyo-goddess of wisdom and learning, Nisammang Ningwaphuma prayed and meditated invoking the goddess. She appeared to him in his dreams and directed him towards Phoktanglungma, the mountain to the right of Khangchendzonga. She led him to a cave at the base of the mountain and when they reached the deepest realms, she directed him to a stone slab on which the Riki Bed (holy scripture modern day Rig Veda) had been copied. It was at the foothills of the great mountain that the Limboos were grated the boon of knowledge.


The Head Lama of Pemayangtse monastery, West Sikkim with other monks photographed by W.H Connell in 1909

Evidence and logic both state that back in he 17th century, the Nyingmapa sect of Tibetan Buddhism needed to discover the hidden lands as prophesied by the patron saint, Guru Padmasambhava or popularly known as Guru Rinpoche. The range dismisses the established structure of the Himalayan layers of Siwaliks, lower Himalayan Range and the Great Himalayas churning them together instead into one compact upheaval of mountain scape, keeping the region conveniently protected from the expansionist moves launched from the south. Since there was no layered approach, the region became too foreboding for anyone to venture into. History also states that the Mauryan King, Ashoka moved up to Kashmir, Nepal and while his route spawned out of neighbouring Bihar, he never attempted to move into Sikkim. What you must remember is that back then (268-232 BC), Sikkim did exist but no one invaded or even thought of visiting the land. Hence when the three Nyingmapa masters arrived in the later half of the 17th century, Sikkim was the hidden land, the untouched land and the paradise that was prophesied by Guru Rinpoche himself. This laid the foundation of Buddhism, probably the first organised religion of the state.


Dancers perform the Pangtoed Chaam at a monastery

The third Chogyal (King) of Sikkim, Chagdor Namgyal, in 1709 became the first ruler to realise the importance of instilling a feeling of nationalism and fan patriotism so as to protect and defend Sikkim against invaders. He understood the need to give people a central figure to inspire commitment to the land and draw courage from. It is believed that he got the vision of the Pangtoed Chaam or the warrior dance in his dreams and he choreographed and taught it to the people of Sikkim. The third Chogyal incorporated the Pangtoed Chaam to Pang Lhabsol, one of Sikkim’s most important festivals that is dedicated to the guardian deity, Mount Khangchendzonga. He formalised the personification of Khangchendzonga as the Warrior God. dZonga, the deity who resides on the summit became the religious warrior chief who would lead battles against those who threatened the Hidden Land. The dancers were lay persons and by that analogy, all Sikkimese became dZonga’s soldiers, Sikkim’s defenders. Thus, the idea of a nation was established.

Also Read: How Shankar Mahadevan was impressed by Assam flutist Dilip Hira


The beautiful and legendary actress, Vivien Leigh

In 1913, Ernest Richard Hartley, a British broker and his heavily pregnant wife, Gertrude Hartley, a devout Christian arrived in Darjeeling. She had lost her last baby during childbirth. She and her husband had rented a cottage in Darjeeling to escape the Calcutta heat. Gertrude heard a mountain-lore that an expecting mother who contemplated on the peak of Khangchendzonga and meditated hard would give birth to a child with the perfect face. Gertrude spent every dawn in Darjeeling meditating on Khangchendzonga. On 5th November 1913, she gave birth to a baby girl who was named Vivian Mary Hartley which she later changed to Vivien Leigh. That little girl born in the Himalayan winter went on to star in many movies, particularly in what is considered one of Hollywood’s classic and iconic films, Gone With the Wind. She is regarded as one of the most beautiful looking actresses even today.


Roerich was an artist, scholar, philosopher and humanitarian

LA Waddell, a 19th century Tibetan Buddhism researcher and traveler explains that Khangchendzonga means The Great Snowy Repository of Five Treasures, Kang: Snow, Chen: Great, dzo: Treasure House, nga: Five.

On the five peaks of Khangchendzonga are believed to be hidden secret stores of salt, gold and turquoise, holy texts, weapons and grains and seeds. These, it is believed will be discovered by Tertons in times of dire need and shared with the people of Sikkim and through them with the world.

Nicolas Roerich, the Russian artist and philosopher who spent years in the Himalayas, interprets the Five Treasures in his text from Abode of Light in these sentences. “Kinchenjunga, the Five Treasures of Great Snow. And why is this gorgeous mountain so called? It is because it contains a store of five most precious things in the world? What things? Gold, diamonds and rubies? By no means. The Old East values some other treasures. It is said: there will come a time when famine will overtake the whole world. On that day will appear a Man, who will unlock the giant gate to those vast treasuries and will nourish all mankind. Certainly you understand that this man will nourish humanity not with material, but with spiritual food.”

In his book, he also mentions how beyond the Khangchendzonga lie old menhirs of the “great sun cult” where the Swastika was born and how below the mountain are subterranean passages which lead to the mythical Shambala. Although none of the local stories and folklore mention anything on the Swastika, stories of secret passages on the foothills of Khangchendzonga are common.

Roerich’s Khangchendzonga 1936


Chomolungma, after cartographic numerals, is known as Mount Everest while Chogori or Dapsang is known to the world as K2

Out of the top three peaks in the world, Khangchendzonga is the only 8,000-ner which is known by its local/vernacular name globally. Chomolungma, after cartographic numerals, is known as Mount Everest while Chogori or Dapsang is known to the world as K2. Khangchendzonga, although has been spelt differently over the years, has always been Khangchendzonga.

Another interesting thing about the mountain is that geologists believe that it is this range that gives the Sikkim horseshoe a weather system of its own and is the reason why the state harbours a bio-diversity hot spot.


It was Colonel Waugh, surveyor-general, who stated that he had discovered Khangchendzonga and an American quarterly journal, ‘Littel’s Living Age’

In 1849, Khangchendzonga became the tallest mountain in the world, a position it held until 1856 when the provisional results of calculation on peak b’s height were released as standing at 29,002 feet above sea level.

It was Colonel Waugh, surveyor-general who stated that he had discovered Khangchendzonga and an American quarterly journal, Littel’s Living Age in its Jan-March 1857 edition published the news. It must be mentioned here that although Everest had been measured in 1848 itself, the announcement did not come until November 1856, probably because the surveyor who took the readings, James Nicolson was struck down by malaria and it was not until 1854 that Waugh started work on Nicolson’s calculations.


The only available photograph of Kinthup Lepcha taken by Gerald Burrard in Shimla

From Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, the (in)famous Botanist to Sarat Chandra Das to Lama Ugyen Gyatso, Malling Kazi there have been numerous tales about the early explorers and their significant contribution. These were the brave men who went on to explore the unexplored. However, the one explorer who overwhelms me is Kinthup Lepcha. Not much is written or spoken about the man but the truth is, if not for him, the Western explorers would have never been able to pass the mountains. I first discovered him in Sacred Summit. The book rightfully credits the man and his tales of hard work, slavery and betrayal. It was in the late 1800s when Captain HJ Harman of the Survey of India sent Kinthup into Tibet disguised as a servant of a Mongol monk. The Captain was sure that the river Brahmaputra and Tsangpo were the same and he sent Kinthup on an adventure with specially marked 500 logs which he was to float down the Tsangpo.

In the meantime, Kinthup was duped by the monk and sold into slavery at a monastery and miraculously with the help of a kind monk who freed him, Kinthup made his way back home to discover that his journey and watch had been abandoned and ignored. However in 1911-12 Colonel F.M Bailey found Kinthup’s records and following his instructions and theory made his own expedition into Tibet. It was only after this that Kinthup was credited and his journey, acknowledged. I came across him again in Bells of Shangri-La by Parimal Bhattacharya. His book which is a tale of scholars, spies and invaders in Tibet tells a fascinating story of Kinthup whose contribution is what the Western and early explorers should have been grateful and given him the right credit but instead worried that the mountain man would live a long life and the administration would have to supply him with pension. In 1914 they called him to Shimla, thanked him for his service in a lowly ceremony and gave him a meagre amount of money. The tragedy of Kinthup’s tale is that he died within months after returning from Shimla.


Douglas Willian Freshfield led an expedition in 1899 to the lower and upper ramparts of Khangchendzonga and became the first to examine the western face of Khangchendzonga

Compared to Everest and K2, it is said that the climb up Khangchendzonga is more arduous and even mystical. In 1930, The New York Times ran a story called Tell of “Secret” of Kanchenjunga in which the article states this:

Conquest of the mountain is hopeless, unless the attempt is preceded by a long period of proper worship of the grim peaks and wine offerings are made to the “gods of the peaks.” It concludes with these sentences: General C.G Bruce associated with several expeditions to climb Mount Everest, the highest peak in the world, has said that a ascent of Kanchenjunga offers a much more difficult problem in mountain climbing. In his opinion and that of many other experienced mountain climbers, the conquest of Kanchenjunga offers by far the most serious obstacle of any mountain on the globe.

Khangchendzonga has been climbed by less than 200 mountaineers and forty have died on its slopes, giving it a fatality rate of more than 20%. Everest, by comparison, has a fatality rate of 9%. Alan Hinkes the first Briton to successfully scale the mountain in 2005 has stated — “The final summit push was without a doubt the hardest climb of my life. Risk of avalanche was incredibly high and every step of the way was a matter of physical and mental endurance.”

In 1955, a British expedition team who made their way up to the mighty mountain did not ascend its peak and left the mountain untrodden in deference of Sikkimese sentiments which attached divinity to the peak. Thus, Khangchendzonga still remains the only 8,000-ner in the Himalayas which has been conquered but its summit left undefined.


Aleister Crowley is also sometimes referred to as ‘The Beast’

Aleister Crowley, the famous British occultist who is nicknamed the “wickedest man in the world” attempted to scale the peak in the early 1900’s. He was notorious and claimed to have been made contact with the supernatural. He traveled around the world and came to Darjeeling in 1905 and on August 31st started his expedition. He was rude and mean to his fellowmen, most of all to the porters who had to climb barefoot and a string of unfortunate events and avalanches followed. Three of the porters were buried and suffocated to death in the avalanche and Crowley had to abandon the mission.


German artist Herman Von Schlagintweit-Sakünlünski’s ‘Summit of Kanchinjinga in the Himalaya of Sikkim’

Artists from all over the world have been stunned by the beauty and radiance of Khangchendzonga. Edward Lear, Nicholas Roerich, Hiroshi Yoshida, Marianne North, Alfred Williams, Thomas Somervall, Julian Cooper and our very own Chogyal, Sir Tashi Namgyal have produced remarkable artwork that has been inspired by the mountain.

American author, Mark Twain came to Darjeeling and Sikkim in the late 1800’s. Twain writes, “I got a pipe and a few blankets and sat for two hours at the window, and saw the sun drive away the veiling gray and touch up the snow-peaks one after another with pale pink splashes and delicate washes of gold, and finally flood the whole mighty convulsion of snow-mountains with a deluge of rich splendours. Kinchinjunga’s peak was but fitfully visible, but in the between times it was vividly clear against the sky- away up there in the blue dome more than 28,000 feet above sea level- the loftiest land I had ever seen.”

Twain had been told that some times tourists have to wait for several days to catch a glimpse of the mountain

Twain had been told that some times tourists have to wait for several days to catch a glimpse of the mountain. Keeping his humour intact, he writes, “I was told by a resident that the summit of Kinchinjunga is often hidden in the clouds and that sometimes a tourist has waited twenty-two days and then been obliged to go away without a sight of it. And yet went not disappointed; for when he got his hotel bill he recognised that he was now seeing the highest thing in the Himalayas.”


‘Khangchendzonga: Sacred Summit’ states that d’Auvergne’s accounts COULD have been the inspiration for Herge’s ‘Tintin in Tibet’

All of us who call the mountains our home have had our childhood filled with the tales of the Yeti. Many claim to have seen the snow creature and some early westerners who tried to explore the Himalayas have even stated on how a “hirsute” creature attacked their servants. Footprints of a gigantic creature have been found in the ranges and while the topic is debatable, our mountain is closely associated with the mythical Yeti. In 1884 Colman Macaulay, Finance Secretary to the Government of Bengal stated that he saw “a pair of huge footprints” in Thangu, North Sikkim. A fascinating fact about the Yeti tales in Sikkim includes that of Captain d’Auvergne who fell ill in the trekking routes of West Sikkim in 1930 and claimed that he was rescued by a Yeti.

Home — The place where the sacred summit will always be in my line of sight

Khangchendzonga is more than just a mountain, it is more than a terrain. It has existed before time and will continue to do so. I consider myself fortunate, lucky and most of all, blessed that the mountain is my guardian deity and as long as I am being watched over, I will kowtow to the Sacred Summit. The stories, like the mountain will never end.

(The article first appeared in:

(Views expressed are personal. The author can be reached at; Twitter: @shiori2305)

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