Buddhists, Ibiza, earthquakes and Einstein

It was a scene of near perfection. As I sat on a stunning Himalayan hilltop, I watched a small group of Buddhist monks quietly eating a midday meal in a perfect circle, their maroon and saffron robes offsetting the crisp snow-capped peak of Kanchendzonga against a winter-blue sky.

But in India it’s best to expect the unexpected. Suddenly the strains of “We’re going to Ibiza”, the annoyingly catchy number one hit for the Vengaboys in 1999, were booming out from a stereo beside one of the monks.

Such incongruities are normal fare here – plenty of other half-familiar tunes emerge from tinny mobile phones hidden under monks’ robes below which peek the latest Nike trainers. Buddhism is nothing if not rooted in the everyday.

Did the earth move for you?

I’m currently in Sikkim. It used to be an independent Buddhist kingdom, but is now an Indian state nestled in the Himalayas between Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet. (Good series of maps here).

This is where tectonic plates collide, where the Himalayas climb up from the wide plain of the Ganges climbs up in dramatic fashion to the huge plateau of Tibet. Travel through Sikkim and the landscape changes rapidly from tropical jungles (at no more than 1000 feet above sea-level) to the icy wastes of the summit of Kangchendzonga at 28,209 feet. It all happens in less than 60 miles south to north.

Improbable towns and villages cling to steep hillsides below beautiful hilltop monasteries. In the deep ravines, huge boulders lie stranded on the riverbeds, testament to the power of the mighty rivers here in monsoon season between June and September.

It makes for stunning scenery, but some are worried that – with those damned tectonic plates still on the move – disaster may be just around the corner.

Lying 10 miles south of the Sikkimese state border, Darjeeling used to be part of Sikkim. The British “acquired” Darjeeling from the Sikkimese Chogyal king) in 1835 so that they could build a cool hill retreat for imperial servants, a place to get away from the steamy heat of Calcutta. The town sits astride a ridge. This particular ridge is nearly 7000 feet above sea level. The buildings are amazing feats of civil engineering, testament to a period when the British Empire truly believed that it had the right to be anywhere and do anything. The builders were, of course, local people.

But the one thing Darjeeling wasn’t designed for was mass habitation. And today, as the political and economic hub for the West Bengal hill peoples, it is becoming over-populated and starting to creak under the strain.

I got into a conversation with the owner of one of the shops perched on the steep streets, a distinguished local man whose family have been in the town for generations. He talked of the past with wistful eyes, but it was when we got to talking about the future that I got something of a shock.

“What we really need is an earthquake,” he said. “Get rid of the whole town. Sweep it down the hillside. Then we could build another town which would actually last.” Noticing my dropping jaw he quickly added, “I know that sounds a bit mean, but…”

His was a half-hearted – and typically honest – comment, but it got me thinking. The last earthquake in the region (in Sikkim) was in 2006 and was relatively minor – 5.7 on the Richter scale and only caused two deaths. The Richter is of course logarithmic though, so anything bigger than a 6.0 and the towns here – nearly all built up on hillsides rather than down in the valleys to avoid those monsoon floods – would be devastated.

The shopowner – despite his seeming disregard for the ever-growing population of Darjeeling – was highlighting a serious issue. With next to no effective planning laws, the sprawling hill-towns are a disaster waiting to happen.  The Sikimmese capital of Gangtok is slightly better built, but equally vulnerable, as are all the villages and towns.

It’s hard to see what will bring about change before nature strikes…

Time is a relatively political (or politically relative) concept

If you fancy a spot of time travel, Sikkim’s not a bad place to do it. Within the space of 50 miles east to west, you can be in four different time zones.

Today Sikkim is part of India, operating 5 hours 30 mins ahead of GMT. Go 15 miles to the east and you hit a tongue of Tibetan land, the Chumbi Valley. Given Tibet has been Chinese territory since 1950 (and that the Chinese decided in 1949 to impose a single timezone based on Beijing time across the whole of China), you’re now a full 8 hours ahead of GMT.

Keep going for a few miles further East and you’ll hit the Himalayan country Bhutan. Get your watch off your wrist again – you’re now back to only 6 hours ahead of GMT.

The biggest anomaly of all comes if you retrace your steps to Gangtok (back 30 minutes) and head west for 40 miles. Now you’re in Nepal which, in an effort to assert its political distinctiveness from both India to the south and China to the north, operates on 5 hours 45 mins ahead of GMT.

Time is nothing if not political. So is geography of course – the border crossings are heavily restricted and nigh on impossible for local people, let alone foreigners.

I’m with Einstein on this relativity thing.

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Filed under India 2010-11

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