JARS v46n1 - Sikkim Experiences

Sikkim Experiences
Past, Present and Future
Clive Justice
Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

At the ARS Board Meeting held during the Northeast Regional Conference in Tamiment, Penn., on Oct. 24, 1991, the Sikkim Rhododendron Society was accepted and welcomed into the ARS as the J.D. Hooker Chapter. Sikkim is the smallest state in the Republic of India. It joined India in 1975 as India's twenty second state.

The ARS chapter name honours the man who started it all with his own Sikkim rhododendron experiences, while the charter president of the chapter, Keshab Pradhan, is the man whose great interest and passion to conserve and protect Sikkim's rhododendron and forest heritage brought the society and chapter into being.

Joseph Dalton Hooker was a friend of Charles Darwin and son of William Hooker, director of Kew Gardens. Both father and son were botanists, although son Joseph listed himself as a naturalist. Late in 1847 Joseph Hooker took ship to India. This was 18 years after David Douglas had botanized in the Pacific Northwest, and 55 years after Archibald Menzies had discovered Rhododendron macrophyllum growing on the Olympic peninsula in Washington State.

During the subsequent two years Hooker botanized in northern India, went on a tiger hunt and visited the botanical gardens in Calcutta and Sahamipur. Dr. Falconer was the superintendent at the latter while William Griffith was superintendent at the Calcutta Botanical Gardens and Dr. Robert Wight was superintendent of Madras Botanical Gardens in Southern India. All were friends and professional associates of J.D.

Hooker finally wound up in the eastern Himalayan foothills British rest and recreation station of Darjeeling. Hooker was hosted by and stayed with Mt. Hodgson in his bungalow which had a fine view of the Himalayas due north of the town that is perched along several radiating hill spurs. Dr. R. Campbell was resident commissioner and he and Mrs. Campbell lived in a hilltop bungalow which also had a fine view of the great snow covered peaks of Everest and Mt. Katchinjunga (elevation 28,000 ft), which dominates and fills the northwest corner of Sikkim. Darjeeling in West Bengal state is very near the south Sikkim border. It is four miles as the crow flies or two hours by Land Rover to Naya Bazar where the Rangit River coming from the northwest makes a big turn to the east and flows along the Sikkim Bengal border. The Rangit connects to the Rangpo flowing in from the east picking up the many branched Teesta which flows in the middle of Sikkim. At Rangpo the waters from all three rivers join and flow south, bursting out of the mountains onto the Indian/ Bengal plain.

Sikkim map

Hooker's Collecting

Hooker's two collecting trips in and about Sikkim were most fruitful ones botanically. He collected much more of the Sikkim flora than the spectacular rhododendrons he became famous for. Sikkim is rich in tree species, ferns, mosses and alpine flora such as Primula , Mecanopsis and Saxifraga . It has over 200 species of indigenous vines and creepers along with that rather bizarre botanical group, the Arasaemas. Sikkim has 12 species of these cobra Jack in the pulpit plants.

Hooker's second collecting trip was into northern Sikkim (the first trek had been to the northwest of Darjeeling into southwest Sikkim and into Nepal along its eastern border). Dr. Campbell, who was the tour leader of the safari, was thought to be important enough that he was kidnapped and held for ransom by one of the several Sikkim religious factions.

Hooker was spared arrest, as naturalists are not considered important enough to be ransomable. He stayed with Dr. Campbell and helped with negotiations while botanizing in the neighbourhood. The threat of a British Army punitive force, which had reached the border, secured the resident commissioner's release unharmed and without payment of any ransom. In this regard help was provided by Major Madden and Mr. Edgeworth of the Bengal Civil Service. Perhaps this is the reason for naming two rhododendrons he collected, R. maddenii and R. edgeworthii .

One hundred and twenty eight years later in 1974 another Sikkim rhododendron experience occurred. It was organized to rediscover the rhododendrons Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker had collected in the eastern Himalayan foothills, that he and his father had named honouring their friends, professional associates, those that had helped him and to honour the royals. Lady Dalhousies' and Lady Auklands' rhododendrons are in this latter category; both these ladies' husbands were governors general of India, one previous to and the other during Hooker's Indian botanizing.

R. griffithianum cum auklandii is perhaps the most important of the Sikkim rhododendrons to United Kingdom - Pacific Northwest gardens that Hooker collected. It is the basis for the Loderis and, subsequently in the Pacific Northwest, the large leaved, large flowered 'Walloper' grex. 'Point Defiance', as an example, has over 50 percent R. griffithianum blood through its complex development from 'Beauty of Littleworth' to 'Norman Gill' and 'Jean Marie de Montague' to 'Anna' to 'Marinus Koster'. All these great hybrids have R. griffithianum as a parent.

R. griffithianum
R. griffithianum , a native of Sikkim, is
parent to many great hybrids. This specimen
grows at Aduaine, Scotland.
Photo by George F. Smith

Sikkim Revisited, 1974

When Britt Smith of Kent, Wash., an engineer with Boeing, organized the 1974 Sikkim Trek, two Canadians, Keith Wade and the writer, joined the group of Americans who were mostly from Washington and Oregon. We travelled via Boeing 747 from Seattle to Frankfurt and New Delhi and from New Delhi to Bagdogra by Boeing 737. Bagdogra is a military airport on the Indian plain at the base of the hills and is the entry point to Daarjeeling and Sikkim.

Thirteen of us, 11 men and two women trekked; the others were overcome by altitude sickness before we started the trek into Sikkim from a mountain top called Sandakpu in Bengal (elev. 12,000 ft.). None of us had ever trekked at these altitudes.

The evening before the start of the trek we had reached the mountain top rest house, but the jeeps and Land Rovers following with our baggage, bedding, blankets and the lanterns had failed to arrive. The darkness found us with only light rain jackets for protection from the cold of 12,000 feet in June. Some very strong gusts of wind buffeted the rest house. We all sat huddled together on the floor with our backs to the walls in the one room with a open fire fueled with logs of R. falconeri or R. hodgsonii which smoldered giving off much smoke, some heat and even less light. It was in this cold, smoky and dark environment as we passed around a bottle of Jack Daniels, provided by Dr. Simons of Edmonds, Wash., to keep our spirits up, that the J.D. Hooker Chapter of the ARS was first formed. Twenty six of us shared that Sikkim experience.

We trekked for five days in the southwest corner of Sikkim covering some of Hooker's 1848 first collecting trip route. On the third day of the trek we met our host Sikkim's Chief Conservator of Forests, Keshab Pradhan. The writer remembers straggling into camp with Dr. Forrest Bump of Forest Grove, Ore. He and I were always the last to arrive at the end of a day's six to eight crow fly miles or 18 to 24 Sikkim miles trek.

The third day camp was not a rest house bungalow as the others had been but a tent camp set up in a forest clearing looking out over several ragged topped Magnolia campbellii and Quercus lamella to a faraway distant view of Mt. Kangchenjunga not seen until first light on the first morning. As we straggled in we met the Chief CF in suit and tie sitting on a wicker shooting stick directing the camp setup with a nod and a look to the small army of uniformed forest guards scurrying about the camp.

He shook our hands and beckoned to a beret headed forest guard who served us a glass of champagne from a sterling silver tray. The champagne was French, the cut glass Bavarian. Dinner was served that evening on fine china, also Bavarian, with sterling silver cutlery, all packed in on someone's back. Even a 4-wheel drive vehicle could not have made it into that remote off road campsite. That evening around a campfire we had our first taste of the local Sikkimese millet beer, a sour tasting brew drunk through a bamboo straw from a wooden tankard. A unique Sikkim experience.

During the day's trek we had gone through thickets of R. grande in full bloom and discovered the wide variation in colour. The previous day we had trekked through forests of R. falconeri and thickets of R. cinnabarinum . Hooker had called a variety of R. cinnabarinum that he collected after his friend Dr. Royle. A separate species with its more flared and larger flower, R. roylei is now a subspecies of cinnabarinum. The name comes from "Cinnabar", the red ore from which mercury is extracted.

After our trek we journeyed on the narrow and winding white knuckle handmade roads to the capital Gangtok and the only hotel in the country, the Norkhill, which had been built for the guests to the Chogyal's coronation some years after his marriage to American socialite Hope Cooke. We met the others of our group who hadn't trekked but had day tripped to alpine areas and the R. thompsonii forests in and around Gangtok. We were perhaps the last group to be royally received and entertained at a banquet and soiree at the bungalow/ranch house style Royal Palace in Gangtok. In 1975 the Chogyal was quietly deposed and the country voted to become a state of the Republic of India.

Sikkim Revisited, 1991

During the 15 year interval between 1974 and 1991, Keshab Pradhan, the Chief Conservator of Forests, had risen through the state bureaucracy to become Chief Secretary for Home Affairs, the most senior and top civil servant in the Sikkim state government.

At the request of the Chief Secretary and through the aegis of the Canadian Executive Service Organization a recent Sikkim experience occurred over six weeks in March and April 1991. We came to Sikkim to assess the potential and existing visitor facilities and attractions. We were able to visit and assess 26 of these sites in the month we stayed in Sikkim and spent the next two weeks writing a report with the comments at Sikkim House back in New Delhi.

We made suggestions for improvements for signage, for walkways, for entry pergolas and vines, for walkabouts of monasteries, parks, historic sites, animal, forest, alpine and rhododendron sanctuaries. Sikkim has adopted the native but elusive red panda as its state animal while their state bird is the red pheasant.

Headquartered at the Norkhill Hotel and under the direct care of the present Chief Conservator of Forests Mr. P.K. Bassnett and his staff, we set out each morning over the winding mountainside roads to visit one or more of the sites on that day's itinerary. We stopped for lunch or a picnic at one of the system of forest rest houses, forest tree nurseries or roadside parks located at intervals throughout the four forest districts in the state. Before or after lunch we participated in the planting of a tree or a rhododendron in the rest house grounds, garden or park.

planting of
R. niveum, Norkhill Hotel Park, Gangtok
Hari Bhakta Sharma, botanist and rhododendron
expert, assists Wanda Justice with planting
of R. niveum , Norkhill Hotel Park, Gangtok.
Photo by Clive Justice

Every visitor to Sikkim would not be required to plant as many trees as we did; just the act of planting one would be enough to get across the message of the vital importance of trees to the survival of the people and land of this Indian state. We recommended that every visitor to Sikkim have the experience of planting a tree.

One of the goals of the Sikkim assignment was to determine if the Sikkim Experience could be made possible, feasible as well as enjoyable and fulfilling for small tour groups of rhododendron, alpine plant, forest, tree, bird and nature enthusiasts who are not trekkers, backpackers or mountain climbers. Tourists who are retired but active enough to undertake a one to three hour walkabout and would want more depth and detail than the somewhat sometimes superficial interpretive guiding available at present. These groups would come from North America, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Europe. Given the time to improve facilities and to train guides and nature interpreters Sikkim will be ready to host these so called "Ecotours".

They already have the hotel space in Gangtok and Singtam and the buses for four to six tour groups to do day trips from there. To date the two most floristically interesting areas are the Fambonnglo wildlife sanctuary which has no developed day use areas and the Kyongnosla alpine sanctuary which has a great walkabout but requires army permission from New Delhi to visit.

There are already available a number of day trip venues that include the Institute of Tibetology and orchid garden where Sikkim's state flower the orchid Dendrobium nobile , both white and mauve forms, is featured. The day trip to the Nehru Botanical Garden is combined with the Rumtek monastery. Already in place is the Pinetum walk thru to the Gangtok overlook then on for a visit to the flower show. All these venues with slight improvements to protect the environment and facilitate visits will be prime attractions for touring groups.

Upgraded, the Pandim Hotel at Permayangtse in southwest Sikkim would allow for two groups a two night stay with a day trip to the sacred Khecheoperi Lake and lakeside nature trail, where Rhododendron griffithianum and six of the 12 species of Arisaema are found. The Norbuggang Chorten and Throne with its 600 year old Cupressus cashmiriensis grove and the thickets of R. arboreum is another daytrip from Permayangtse also worth a visit.

A third two night venue one day's distance from Gangtok that would complete the chain, allowing a continuous flow of four groups each for a seven day stay, in Sikkim, is the trip to the Yumthang valley and the rhododendron forests there, with Shingba Rhododendron Sanctuary and Yumthang hot springs. The route would be north out of Gangtok via Changthang and Lachung with stops at Kabi Longsok, Phodong monastery, lunch at Chumthang rest house, then stops at Bop falls and cave and Bitchu falls on the way up or on the return.

Access into this area also requires New Delhi permission to visit, but it is by far and away the mother load of Sikkim's rhododendron heritage. The forest rest house needs enlargement to house and feed the tour groups so that these non-trekker tour members can experience something of the traditional type of Sikkim mountain accommodation, the forest rest house.

As to the rhododendrons, here is what I wrote for a hypothetical bus tour guide to comment on as the bus winds back and forth across and up this flat Abies/Tsuga and Rhododendron forested valley on the way up to Yumthang rest house: "Note that the dominant Rhododendron species occur in elevational bands with filtering into the band above or below. This Rhododendron forest begins at the Dragon Rock rest house at approximately 10,000 feet elevation and extends to Yumthang at 13,000 feet. At dragon rock, Sikkim's official state tree R. niveum occurs in a narrow band (the only natural occurrence of this purple flowered version of R. arboreum ). R. arboreum and R. ciliatum also R. hodgsonii and R. thomsonii occur in the next band stretching across the valley. Then at approximately 11,500 feet elevation, R. grande and R. wightii predominate. R. setosum and R. campanulatum occur at the forest rest house at Yumthang where the whole 100 acre open hillside is covered with the latter."

What a thrill it would be to wake up at this rest house in mid May morning surrounded by a hillside field of R. campanulatum and across the valley a riverside meadow (a fork of the Teesta), spread before a rampart of magnificent mountains. The ultimate Sikkim landscape experience.

Throughout the valley at all elevations are Rhododendron , Primula , Vaccinium , Mecanopsi , Mahonia and Gaultheria in rich profusion. What photo opportunities there would be on the descent the next day to be let off the bus at a layby and to walk via gently sloping trail to the next layby through forests of R. hodgsonii and thickets of R. thomsonii and groves of R. wightii . As yet only the R. thomsonii thickets have been included in the Shingba Rhododendron Sanctuary boundaries.

As to getting those permissions from New Delhi and the in depth interpretation and guiding, here is where, it is hoped, the newly formed Sikkim Rhododendron Society J.D. Hooker Chapter ARS comes in. It is proposed that each tour group would be hosted while in Sikkim by the Sikkim Rhododendron Society. Acting jointly with the state forests and tourist departments, they would get the permissions and provide the guides and nature interpreters for each tour group.

In exchange the tour group would contribute directly and indirectly to local programs of habitat protection, conservation and management of rhododendrons along with alpine and forest flora and fauna enhancement and protection.

This writer would like to see a planting of the Loderis and the Wallopers in Gantok's Pinetum along with their greatest of great grandparents R. griffithianum . Seed, pollen and rhododendron information exchange are some of the minor benefits for us in the ARS from having a chapter in Sikkim.

I also believe that the J. D. Hooker Chapter ARS will come to provide the linkage and the means to help us to repay in some small measure the debt we owe to Sikkim for providing our gardens with such a great measure of natural beauty.

Clive Justice, a member of the Vancouver Chapter and District 1 Director, is a landscape architect, park and display garden planner and government advisor in the area of landscape design.