The Gazetteer of Sikkim compiled by H.H. Risley in 1894 makes a brief mention about the 4 holy caves of Sikkim- the traditional abodes of Guru Rimpoche and LhatusunChhembo situated in the four cardinal directions surrounding Tashiding. About Lharinyingphu – the old cave of the God’s Hill – he writes “ It is situated about three day’s journey to the north of Tashiding along a most difficult path.” In the south is Kahdosangphu adjacent to the hotspring of Phurchachu. Pephu lies between the Tendong and the Maenam mountains. De-chenphu lies in the west and can be approached from Nampu near Pelling. The four caves somehow can be likened to the four Dhams that we have in Hinduism
But much water has flown down the Teesta since then. Motorable road communication is now available to far flung areas of Sikkim and accessing these caves is not as difficult as it was more than a century ago.
Lharinyingphu in the North andDechenphu in the West, however, continues to defy easy accessibility each involving steep treks to reach but of course much less challenging than Risley’s times. \
Having visited all the other three holy caves earlier, I had a longstanding desire to trek to fourth one too – the holiest of them all – Lharingingphu..
The 20 kilometersbumpy vehicular road from Tashiding via Chongrang, Gangyep and Kongri to Lapdang has made the Lharinyingphu cave considerably less inaccessible although it still involves a formidable and daunting seven hours arduous uphill trek.
After spending the night at the RDD DakBunglow at Tashiding, we have arrived at Labdang, also called Gurung Busty, early in the morning. Labdang is slowly gaining importance because of the Rellichu power project that is coming up just a few kilometers below. The Voluntary Health Association of Sikkim has also taken major initiatives in the heath and social sector in Labdang. A community centre cum dakBunglow has been set up by them here. The village of Dhupidara can be seen across and further away Mangnam over which rises Maenam. Towards the north, the peaks of Narsingh partly draped in clouds loom over head.Labdang is the take off point also for treks to Kasturi Oral.
We will be bivouacking and making a night halt at the cave and therefore a quick check of whether we are carrying everything required – sleeping bags, provisions, candles, utensils and so on
The older route to the cave by walking down from Kongri to Rellichu and then taking a steep uphill climb up via the village of Rungdung used to take two days to traverse to the cave and one day back. The Tourism Department, Government of Sikkim has recently carved out a shorter route to the cave by constructing a cobble stone path making accessibility much easier for those seeking spiritual merit – a very noble task indeed!
We walk four kilometers in the northerly directly through cardamom fields to reach the Relli-chu. We are now within the Kanchendzonga National Park. We negotiate a log bridge precariously laid out across the river. In fact last monsoon, the original bridge had washed away by a wall of water that came gushing down wreaking destruction and subsequently changing the course of the river. Because of this there was immense damage downstream to the upcoming Relli Chu Project and the NHPC Hydel Station at Legship.
We jump across rocks on the river bank and reach the cobble stone foot path. About a kilometer walk and the footpath suddenly disappears. Almost one hundred meters of it has been washed away by a huge landslip that had perhaps caused the Rellichu river to be dammed resulting in pondage and subsequent flooding. Clinging to stones and digging our feet into the mud for a foothold we negotiate this extremely dangerous landslip. We come across labourers repairing the footpath. I ponder that it is only because of their efforts that this harsh terrain is being converted to a readily accessible area and thank them from the bottom of my heart. We have to negotiate three smaller landslips. From here onwards it is a steep climb for about four hours through a thick forest. We stop once in a while to drink water from the innumerable small streams that cross our path.
Birds twitter and butterflies flit; a monal pheasant crosses our path. The thunder of Relli-chu flowing far down below resounds in the vaslley
Something incongruous like a mirage appears in this wilderness: a Dakbunglow. The tin roofed DakBunglow consists of three big rooms: two dormitories with attached toilet one for ladies and the other for gents. Three or four bare beds lie scattered in each room. Between them is a dining hall and kitchen. It must have been quite a Herculean task lugging the building material from the road head thirteen kilometers below. The DakBunglow does not have any caretaker and pilgrims are expected to just open the doors and walk in.
A signage outside the Bunglow says that the Cave is 1.5 kilometers away. Although dog tired and tempted to spend the night here we decide to instead biouvac at the cave itself as we have come to know that there are no pilgrims ahead of us meaning that accommodation is available at the cave which cannot accommodate more that six to seven people. This one- and- a half kilometer trek is almost vertical and takes a full hour to cover. The cliff marking the cave becomes visible through the gaps in the trees: in fact one of the caves is clearly visible. The last two hundred meters involves a short downhill walk and then a clamber through rocks to reach the cave.
Lharinyingphu is in fact a combination of four caves. Three caves lie adjacent to each other on a ledge on the edge of which grow thick foliage of cane and small trees. The first cave is the main one, the second is shallow and has a spring water source which is used by the pilgrims for drinking and washing utensils. The third one is small essentially used for bivouacking and spending the night. The fourth cave is a further ten minute uphill walk from here and offers a good view of the surrounding area. All the caves have colourful Lungtas strung across their entrances and stone altars with the floor littered with coins and discarded brass butter lamps.
It is late afternoon and our feet are weighing tons. On the narrow ledge in front of the caves we light a bon fire and cook our food. Devotees have left utensils, crockery and cutlery and I realize that we could have come here without carrying our own. Sadly, there is also a lot of litter around: plastic bottles, food wrappers, tins and left over food. Perhaps a mechanism of disposing this garbage would have to be developed. Notices should be put up exhorting the pilgrims to carry back their garbage to the road head and disposing it properly.
It is soon dusk. On the southern horizon the lights of Darjeeling come on and it looks as though the galaxies have descended on the earth. After partaking to an early dinner, we crawl into the cave and lay out our sleeping bags on the hay that has been so thoughtfully been laid out by the earlier pilgrims. The altar at the corner of the cave is adorned with the picture of Guru Padmasambva. The sweet scent of burning incense and the soft glow of light from the butter lamps quickly lulls us off to sleep.
The twittering of birds wakes us up early next morning. We enter the first cave the entrance of which has a small bust of Lord Buddha. Further inside there is a small gap just wide enough for a person to squeeze through that leads to a cavern about 10 feet high. From this cavern there is a labyrinth of tunnels inside with altars at the end of each. We crawl our way through these tunnels and offer our obeisance and prayers by lighting lamps and incense. Besides coins, butter lamps and khadas, people have made an assortment of offerings here: torches, pens, books and I even spot a transistor radio!
We walk back to Labdang covering the distance in about six hours. The journey has been a spiritually uplifting experience and has taken us to one of most hallowed corners of Sikkim.
This route has a good scope for being promoted as a part of the Buddhist circuit in the state. Pilgrims visiting Tashiding monastery during Bumchu in March should consider including Lharinyingphu as a part of their itinerary.