After a long gap spanning nine years, Tholung in North Sikkim witnessed the revered 233-year-old tradition of Khamsel with more than 6,000 devotees from across Sikkim and Bhutan, and tourists alike gathered from November 23 to 26.

Located in Upper Dzongu, at an elevation of 8,000 feet inside the Kanchenjunga National Park, Tholung is considered one of the most sacred monasteries in Sikkim.

Khamsel is a triennial exhibition of ancient Buddhist and Tibetan relics dating back to as early as 7th century AD. Khamsel, a conjunction of two words Kham meaning drying and Sel meaning airing in Tibetan is when clothes and belongings of Lhatsun Chenpo, the founder monk of Sikkim, is exhibited.

For 233 years, since 1789, the practice is carried out to keep the relics and the belongings of Lhatsun Chenpo and some of the holy books afresh, which grew into a tradition known as Khamsel, carried out every three years.

The two rinpoches overseeing the Khamsel and conducting the ritual this year were Gonjang Monastery Rinpoche from Gangtok and Lachung Rinpoche. Photography of the relics were strictly curtailed at the monastery but the exhibition was open for all the devotees.

The three-day Khamsel was divided into 11 boxes being exhibited on November 24 and 5 boxes that were exhibited on November 25. The final day was when wang (blessings) was given by the two rinpoches, including the holy water taken from the ancient site of Namzom and Thewkhang, further uphill from Tholung. These two sites are traditionally believed to be where Guru Padmasambhava, a much revered Buddhist mystic who is credited with introducing Tantric Buddhism to Tibet, is said to have meditated and fought a demon.

The history of Khamsel

Traditionally, there were 19 boxes that housed the relics, but in due course, the newer and swankier 16 boxes now house all the relics, which are stored in a strong room. The strong room is accessible only to Tholung House descendant Palden Nangpa, who is the 9th descendant protector of Tholung.

Tholung was revealed as a sacred place by 4th Lhatsun Kunzang Jigmed Gyatso in 1760. In 1789, Pema Dechhen Gyatso constructed a monastery at this site. During the reign of Chogyal Tenzing Namgyal, the Gorkha invasion from Nepal caused much turmoil to the Buddhist monks in the region resulting in Lama Gyatso ordering the transfer of the region’s precious collections to Tholung from the then Sikkimese capital of Rabdentse in West Sikkim.

After the Nepalese invasion, Lama Gyatso traveled to Tibet where he selected two monks, Tagye Tshampo and Jo Tshongpon, to watch over the relics. Nangpa’s family are the descendants of the two monks who historically served as Pipons of Dzongu and are now considered as protectors of Tholung monastery and the ancient relics.

But in due course of time with Sikkim becoming a part of India, the strong room is accessible to the special Sangha seat legislator, who today is Ecclesiastical Minister Sonam Lama, Ecclesiastical Secretary Pasang Dorji Phempu, Rinpoches and head of Tholung monastery.

The tough trek to Tholung

Since the 2011 earthquake and 2016 landslide in Mantam, further downhill in Dzongu, with frequent cut offs at Richen, the Khamsel festival was not carried out for over 9 years.

The Sikkim government’s unique ecclesiastical department, which oversees all the monasteries and religious practices in the state, decided to revive Khamsel this year.

While every previous Khamsel would attract some 500 devotees, this year the festival welcomed a record crowd of over 6,000 devotees. Many of whom were reaching for the first time, with most of the younger generation developing a keen interest upon witnessing the ceremony.

Apart from the Ecclesiastical Minister, legislators and ministers such as Samdup Lepcha from neighbouring Lachung Mangan constituency, Dzongu legislator Pintso Namgyal Lepcha, Barfung legislator Tashi Thendup Bhutia, among many others were in attendance both to oversee the affairs of Khamsel as well as devotees themselves.

Reaching Tholung is a pilgrimage in itself owing to its remote location. First the roads reach only till Bey in Upper Dzongu, the vehicles have to be then changed at Lingzya further downhill as the road connecting Bey is semi constructed with the narrow road having room for only one-way traffic. After reaching the last habitation in Bey, devotees or visitors have to trek 14 kilometres stretching well over six hours to reach Tholung while passing through dense foliage, rapid rivers and streams and dangling wooden bridges.

In the 2011 earthquake, the Tholung monastery, which was built around 1760, was damaged and its foundations had become weak. Sikkim’s Tourism department took the initiative of reconstructing the new monastery, which is heading towards its completion in less than a year. Along with the monastery, the tourism department has set up two additional cottages for tourists.

At Tholung, devotees usually stay in tents that they bring themselves. However, the monastery’s welfare committee, State Rural Development Department and the Tourism department do make provisions for impromptu accommodation.

Guru Padmasambhava’s cave

Namzom and Thewkhang above Tholung are other sites worth seeing. There is a cave that is said to have housed Guru Padmasambhava while meditating. Photography in the cave is strictly prohibited, but the sites surrounding the cave are a marvel on its own. Built of unique rock formations weathered over the years, devotees tend to believe many of the markings to be footprints of Guru Padmasambhava when he was fighting a demon.

Another site has a rock formation that looks like piles of books, which Buddhist devotees tend to believe to be their holy books. While another rock formation is said to have contained the demon in contention who fought Guru Padmasambhava.

Also read: Nagaland: International Tourism Mart focuses on staycations, homestays

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  1. Monasteries of Sikkim are popular place of worship for the Buddhist monks who reside in Sikkim. These monasteries mainly follow the Nyingma and Kagyu order of Buddhism. There are about 200 big and small monasteries which not only depict the cultural heritage and life style of Buddhists in Sikkim but also preach the ancient rituals of Buddhism. These are mainly established by the well known and most revered monks who lay the foundation of these monasteries.

    Monasteries of Sikkim are mainly known for upholding the tradition folk culture through the monk dances and mask dances that take place according to the calendar of ancient Tibet. Decorated with frescos of Buddhist legends, rare silk and brocade fabric are some of the most colourful sites in Sikkim. Established during the 17th and 18th century these monasteries are mainly known for their architecture as well as their religious practices.

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