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The Elephanta Caves

The Elephanta Caves , located on Elephanta Island, or Gharapuri, about 11 Km off the coast of the Gateway of India, Mumbai, are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A visit to these caves, excavated probably in the 6 th century CE, is awe-inspiring, and also thought-provoking. Over the years, I have visited the caves a number of times, and also attended a number of talks by experts in the fields of art, history and archaeology on the caves. Together, they help me understand these caves, their art, and the people they were created for, just a little bit better. Every new visit, every new talk, every new article I read about the caves, fleshes out the image of what the island and the caves would have been like, at their peak. I last wrote about the caves on this blog, in 2011, almost exactly 11 years ago. Since then, my understanding of the caves has, I would like to think, marginally improved. Hence this attempt to write a new and updated post, trying to bring to life, the caves of Elephan

Monasteries of Gangtok

Gonjang, Enchey and Rumtek Monasteries

Prayer Wheels at the Rumtek Monastery against the backdrop of the hills...

It was noon, and lunch was on our mind. “Let’s take a quick look around and leave” was our only thought as we stepped inside. The hum of chanting voices filled the monastery, and we stood, mesmerized, at the sight of rows of monks saying their afternoon prayers. 

All thoughts of lunch forgotten, we sat down and just listened, oblivious to the world outside. The chants went on and on, and I was reminded of the Veda chanting in temples. The rhythmic chant was so soothing and reassuring, we lost track of time. Then, some of the monks lifted their varied types of trumpets and horns, and the sounds reverberated through the hall, a fitting finale to the divine experience. And that is what I shall always remember of our visit to the Gonjang Monastery in Gangtok.

Figures over the entrance of the Gonjang Monastery

This was the second monastery we had visited in Sikkim, and this experience was just as divine, just as memorable, as the first one we visited – the Pemayangtse Monastery in Pelling, which I have already written about, here. Over the next couple of days, we visited two more monasteries, both in Gangtok.

The Enchey Monastery is located atop a hillock, and commands a wonderful view of the Kanchenjunga. The uphill walk from the entry was made easier by the prayer wheels which lined the path. Samhith was so busy trying to turn each and every one of them, he almost forgot to complain about having to walk!

The Enchey Monastery

This monastery, built like a Chinese Pagoda, was completely deserted when we visited, probably because it was afternoon, just after their prayer session. It was, therefore incredibly peaceful inside, and really cool, considering the harsh afternoon sun. We were wary of disturbing the peace, and didn’t even try to explore, but just sat for a while and came out.

Windows of the Enchey Monastery

Every monastery we had visited so far had been interesting, but we rued the lack of information. For laymen like us, who knew little about Buddhism, and even less of Tibetan Buddhism, there was nothing which explained the meanings of the paintings, or the names of the deities. We wished there was someone who could tell us more.

Then, on our last day in Sikkim, we visited the Rumtek Monastery, and there, the first thing we noticed, was a board announcing “Guides Available”! It was almost as if someone up there had heard our wish! The chap at the ticket counter was taken aback, when, even before asking for the ticket, I asked for the guide!

Monks and guards at the Rumtek Monastery. A dispute between two sects has led to the army being posted here!

A young man standing nearby smiled and came forward, asking me to buy the ticket, assuring us that he was the guide. Over the next hour or so, he took us around, showing us the highlights of the monastery, telling us about the concepts and ideas, and patiently answering our many questions.

Shankar deep in discussion with our guide

I was most fascinated by the concept of the Wheel of Life or the Bhavachakra, which adorns the front wall of each monastery. We had seen it before, but having it explained made all the difference. The idea of the three poisons – attachment, ignorance and aversion – leading to actions, or karma, which eventually lead to suffering, and being caught in the wheel of life, is a concept not too different from Hinduism. That this wheel can be escaped, and that we can attain enlightenment, is certainly a very Buddhist idea, and we had an interesting discussion, right at the entrance of the monastery.

The Wheel of Life

On the outer walls of the main monastery, we were surprised to see a painting of Ganesha. Interestingly, we learnt that the Karmapa, during the construction of this monastery, had a vision of Ganesha removing the obstacles which came in the way, and ordered the painting of Ganesha along with the four other guardian deities who adorn these walls.

Rumtek Monastery

Inside, the massive idols of Mahakala and Mahakali, which are taken out during festivals reminded me of our ‘utsava vigrahams’! (Photography isn’t allowed inside, so no photos, sorry). A beautiful painting of the Buddha adorns a wall, and near it stands an imposing, ten feet tall statue of the Sakyamuni Buddha. The painting, we were told, originally stood in place of the idol, and the eyes were painted by the Karmapa himself! Around them, in niches, stand one thousand small statues of the Buddha, representing the arrival of 1000 Buddhas in this era. The throne of the Karmapa takes centre stage. After all, this is his seat. And all around are religious texts – the sacred scrolls which are the commentaries of the Buddha’s teachings, translated from Sanskrit to Tibetan, and also commentaries on these teachings. It is surely the importance and veneration accorded to these texts which adds to the allure of the monasteries!

A painting of the Rumtek Monastery on one of the entrance walls

Our guide then led us to the hill behind, where we visited the Golden Stupa, housing the relics of the Sixteenth Karmapa. It was here that we learned of the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism, and that we had so far visited monasteries of two schools – the Pemayangtse Monastery as well as the Gonjang and Enchey Monasteries belong to the Nyingma order, which is the oldest school of Tibetan Buddhism, while the Rumtek Monastery belongs to the Karma Kagyu school, and is the main seat of the Karmapa (the head of the order) in Sikkim. There are two other schools, which we have yet to learn more about, and hopefully will have the opportunity soon!

Buddhas painted on the outer walls

One thing is for sure, the monasteries of Sikkim have whetted our appetite for knowledge, and we are now eager to explore more monasteries!


  • Gonjang Monastery is located 6 Km from Gangtok. We stopped at the Monastery while driving down from the Gangtok Zoo to the Bakthang Falls.

  • Enchey Monastery is located near the TV tower, about 3 Km from the city centre.

  • Rumtek Monastery is located about 24 Km from Gangtok.
    • Website:
    • Our guide at Rumtek was Monay Rai, an enthusiastic young man, who very patiently and exhaustively discussed Buddhism with us. You can write to him at or call him on +91 8343072702


  1. Beautiful monasteries. Glad to know more about them.

  2. Loving the series and absolutely love the photographs. We are planning a trip to Sikkim soon and I have a question ... can you please tell me the condition of the roads? I assume we will have to take cars or jeeps, hence the question.

    1. Thank you Sharmila! The roads arent all that good, but you can take a car. It is best to hire a vehicle from Sikkim itself since outside vehicles arent allowed everywhere. Small cars will work for tours in and around Gangtok, but bigger vehicles will be needed for other trips... such as Nathu La, or trips to North Sikkim.

  3. Thanks for sharing information on Rumtek Monastery. It is one of the most beautiful and popular monasteries in Sikkim.


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