Joseph Dalton Hooker, the legendary British botanist and explorer, and Darwin’s closest friend, and iconic mountaineer George Mallory, both travelled in Sikkim, awestruck by its beauty
Sikkim has always fascinated the British over a long period in history. The legendary British botanist and explorer and the closest friend of Charles Darwin, Joseph Dalton came here to explore the then independent kingdom for its flora.
He was fascinated by my land and noted that Sikkim has all the flora of North America and Alpine Europe put together, plus some more. And he was a trained botanist so he was not just a simple awestruck tourist!
Hooker arrived in Calcutta in 1848 and got the permission to travel in Sikkim in 1849. He reached Darjeeling via Siliguri. Darjeeling was then a part of Sikkim under the rule of the Namgyal Dynasty.
Hooker travelled to Sikkim via the North West up the Lachen Valley to the Kongra Lama Pass and then to the Lachung Pass.
He was travelling with the then British India representative for the area, Archibald Campbell.
It is noted from Hooker’s travels that Sikkim is home to around 5,000 species of flowering plants, 515 rare orchids, 60 primula species, 36 rhododendron species, 11 oak varieties, 23 bamboo varieties, 16 conifer species, 362 types of ferns and ferns allies, eight tree ferns, and over 900 medicinal plants
But for some reason, the team was arrested by the Chogyal (King, or Dharma Raja of Sikkim).
The British sent forces to secure their release. But there was no bloodshed, and Hooker and Campbell and their men were released peaceably by the Chogyal. The Chogyals were essentially non-violent Buddhists.
It must be said here that both Lachen and Lachung valleys are the most fascinating bowls of flora, and even today there is a rhododendron reserve in Lachung.
A visit between May and June – when the trees are in bloom ‑catches the unsuspecting tourist by surprise. It looks like the forest has caught fire!
It is noted from Hooker’s travels that Sikkim is home to around 5,000 species of flowering plants, 515 rare orchids, 60 primula species, 36 rhododendron species, 11 oak varieties, 23 bamboo varieties, 16 conifer species, 362 types of ferns and ferns allies, eight tree ferns, and over 900 medicinal plants.
Rhododendron is the State Tree of Sikkim.
Interestingly, it is said that many of the rhododendrons seen in English gardens were sprouted from seeds taken from the Lachung rhododendron flowers.
But Hooker was not the only one.
As the old saying goes, a legend never dies. Iconic mountaineer George Mallory and his teammate Sandy Irvine, while trying for the third attempt to conquer the mighty Mt Everest, went missing when they were just a few hundred meters below the summit.
The year then was 1924, and it was as many as 75 years later that a search party was lucky enough to recover the missing body of Mallory, with his badge struck on his weathered cloth.
This story of George Herbert Leigh Mallory had always tickled my fantasy.
My excitation knew no bounds when I came to read that Mallory on three separate Mt Everest Expeditions (1921, 1922 and 1924) had passed through Sikkim on his way from the north side of Tibet, since the route through Nepal was closed for western travellers.
The failures of the 1921 and 1922 expeditions did not deter Mallory. Once a reporter asked him why he wanted to climb Mt Everest, and he had smirked: “Because it is there!”
Like in the earlier Everest expeditions, the 1924 British Everest Expedition team too had arrived in Darjeeling – which I have said was part of Sikkim till 1850.
In two separate groups, the team passed through the land of Sikkim via Kalimpong-Pedong to Rongli, all part of Sikkim till then.
One of the groups halted at Rongli Dak Bunglow, while the second group rested at Ari Dak Bunglow (now popularly known as Aritar Dak bungalow in East Sikkim district).
Rongli being my birth place, I always get goosebumps to watch the photographs (Collection of Benthley Benthem) of Mallory and his fellow members taking bath in the Rongli River.
More than 80 years later, it seems hard to recognise the river bank now, but I feel proud that the legend had stepped in there.
The other classic photographs of the 1924 Everest Expedition team shot at Lingtam, Phadamchen, Kopup and Gnatongare precious enough to be kept in archives.
The books written on the accounts of these mountaineers had mentioned the forests of Sikkim as a greenhouse with extreme rich and beautiful biodiversity.
From the banks of Rongli Chu (Chu means river), they had moved to Sedongchen (now Phadamchen) and later reached Gnatongat some 12,000 feet for a night halt.
The mountaineers saw the scattered stone huts at Gnatong and wrote about the hamlet as ‘filthy, dry and bleak’ and ‘a most depressing place’ with its existence solely made up from the fact it was the only British outpost at the Sikkim-Tibet frontier.
Here Mallory felt nostalgic about the magical land he had left behind and wrote: “Goodbye beautiful wooded Sikkim and welcome ‑God knows what we will see (next).” And they entered Jelep La, the gateway of Tibet.
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The author is currently a school teacher by profession, though he started off as a journalist. He is a well-known blogger on Sikkim since 2007. He enjoys photography, collecting autographs, stamps, coins, banknotes, and even matchboxes! He plans to set up a museum in his hometown, Singtam, Sikkim, to display his passion https://sikhim.blogspot.com