Legend has it that, in 1516, Guru Nanak visited what is now northeastern India. On his way from Chungthang to Bhutan, he passed through the eastern Himalayas. As he travelled past a frozen lake, yak grazers approached him with a prayer: All water sources in the region were frozen during winter. Could the guru help them, please? Guru Nanak struck the lake with his staff, and the waters have remained ice-free ever since. In honour of the miracle, the lake was named Gurudongmar.
Reports say that British colonial maps also refer to the lake and the area by this name. Sikh sources say that local Buddhists referred to the guru as Nanak lama. Apparently, it was common for lamas from the region to visit the Golden Temple, where they would be received with great honour. In the 1960s, an eponymous gurdwara was built by the lake. The initiative came from Sikhs in the Indian Army. Later, the shrine was expanded. Today, it is a Buddhist monastery. The Guru Granth Sahib (holy book) has been moved out; the relics of Guru Nanak are not on public view anymore.
Sources said that a strong Tibetan Buddhist upsurge, allegedly fomented by Chinese agents, influenced local tribes to convert the gurdwara in August 2017. Allegedly, they have now dared the Army to re-convert the shrine. THE WEEK had a tough time getting permissions to visit the shrine, because the local self-government (Dzumsa) has banned visits by the media and Sikhs. So, eventually, I had to tell the Army and the tourism department that I was a tourist.
The Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) sent a three-member team to Gurudongmar. It was led by Dr Balwinder Singh Jaura, head of the SGPC’s religious propagation committee. But, the team was denied entry. Col. (retd) Dalvinder Singh Grewal, an SGPC adviser who was part of the team, said, “It [the sudden upsurge] was instigated by Chinese spies. China is using disgruntled Tibetans in Sikkim and the northeast. They get information about Indian defences from these people, who are being used to subvert the Indian government’s rule of law. I have learnt from Army sources that Dzumsas, over which the state government has no control, work at the whims and fancies of Chinese spies in places like Lachung, Lachen and Chungthang. They are closer to Tibetans than to Indians. The locals were not like this before. But, the heavy influx from Tibet, through Bhutan, has made them anti-India. North Sikkim is slowly turning into a Kashmir.”
After the team was denied permission to enter the gurdwara, the SGPC asked the Siliguri gurdwara committee to fight a legal battle on its behalf. “Not all gurdwaras come under the SGPC. But, since Gurudongmar is a historic gurdwara, the SGPC is fighting the case,” said Dalvinder Singh, secretary, Siliguri gurudwara committee.
My stops on this trip were Chungthang, Lachung, Lachen and Gurudongmar. Chungthang has a big gurdwara, which is also under threat. Jaura said a gurdwara in Ladakh survived a takeover bid recently. “That was near the Chinese border, too,” he said. “The locals objected to gurdwaras in their area. But, thanks to the Army, the gurdwaras survived.”
My journey to Gurudongmar started at 3am. It took 11 hours to cover 70km, from Lachen to Gurudongmar, thanks to the snow and the terrain. In Gurudongmar, I headed for the gurdwara and realised that it could hardly be identified as one anymore. The gate was closed with a stone. Inside the complex, Buddhist flags were aplenty. The inner door had images of dragons painted on them. As the gurdwara was closed, I got curious and sourced pictures of the inside. The photos showed images of the Buddha installed in the hall.
A big banner outside said the temple was dedicated to Guru Padmasambhava, also called Guru Rinpoche. However, a plaque at the gate said the gurdwara had been renovated in 1998 by Lieutenant General P.P.S. Bindra, then commander of the Sikkim mountain division. Buddhists believe that the Gurudongmar lake miracle was performed by Guru Padmasambhava in the eighth century. Hence, Gurudongmar is a holy spot for both Buddhists and Sikhs. Every year, the lake is visited by around 2 lakh Sikh pilgrims.
Perhaps, Sikh Army personnel posted in the region might have built the first structure in the 1960s. “In 1970, I was posted there as a lieutenant,” said Grewal. “The small gurdwara was there, and it was not on Army land. It is believed that the Sikh regiment posted there built the gurdwara for their prayers. However, no one knows for sure.”
When Grewal was posted there again in 1987, he saw that the structure was a little dilapidated. “I spoke to Thankgu Lama and other Buddhist monks,” he said. “All of them told me about the coming of Guru Nanak and that he was known to local people as Guru Nanak Lama.” So Grewal and his Sikh colleagues rebuilt the gurdwara with donations. “We spent around Rs 3 lakh. The money did not come from the Army,” said Grewal, who retired in 2004.
Lt Gen P.P.S Bindra took command of the Sikkim division in 1996. By then, the Gurudongmar lore had spread far and wide. Now retired, Bindra lives in Pune and is a trustee of the Army’s Queen Mary’s Technical Institute for Differently Abled Soldiers. “I was told that the gurdwara has been there for a long time now, though I don’t know exactly how many years,” Bindra said. “But, on learning the history, I provided funds for rebuilding the gurdwara.” Bindra said the money came from the Army’s local area development fund, and the local residents had no objection to the construction. The gurdwara was then named as the shrine of Guru Nanak Lama, keeping in mind the beliefs of the local people. “The chief minister and the governor visited us and appreciated our efforts. In fact, the governor even initiated langar [community kitchen] there,” he said.
About the current developments, Bindra said, “I have not visited Gurudongmar since then. But, nothing is impossible, and I would not like to go into the details. It is the act of some vested groups, who want to vitiate the atmosphere of Sikkim. What is happening is absolutely unfortunate and dangerous.”
Contrary to the claims of Sikhs, local Buddhists claim the monastery was built by Lepcha Buddhists. The wall of the shrine has an inscription that says: “It is further believed that Guru Rinpoche personally consecrated the site, where Lepcha Buddhists built a monastery in 1788 AD and named it as Tsungthang Ridgzin Choeling Gonpa”. Forty steps run down from the shrine to the lake, into which some pilgrims toss coins. Sometimes pilgrims pray by the lake, and sprinkle water over themselves.
In Lachen, I visited the Dzumsa, which barred journalists and Sikhs from visiting the shrine. Dzumsa member Sonam Bhutia said Dzumsas function only in north Sikkim, and there are only two—Lachen and Lachung. Dzumsas are part of the traditional Tibetan administrative system, and have been defunct in Tibet for some time now. But, in the merger agreement with Sikkim, India had promised to retain the Dzumsas here. This also means that India’s border with China starts with a completely liberated zone, where Indian law does not hold.
The Lachen Dzumsa has also placed certain restrictions on who can stay at Lachung, Lachen and Chungthang. “Even the Gorkhas, who are in majority in Sikkim, cannot come here and stay without taking permission,” said Tashi Bhutia, a Dzumsa member. “For labourers from other parts and tourists, we issue permits and they cannot extend their stay here.”
Dzumsa head Tshering Gangen said the gurdwara was an illegal structure built by the Army, violating the Forest Act. “They planned to build the highest gurdwara in the world here,” Gangen said. “We have told them to do that in Canada. Even the US and Canada governments are scared about their plan to build gurdwaras, and have asked them not to do that. We did no wrong.” Gangen said that during the Doklam stand-off, the Dzumsa provided hundreds of horses, yaks and local vehicles for the Indian Army to travel up to the border. “We had provided them with food and necessary items. But, they act against us by violating the rule of our land,” said Tashi.
Retired army officer S.K. Mokha said, “These people do not want to be ruled by anybody, and they get angry at the presence of the Indian Army. Thanks to Chinese spies all over the chicken’s neck corridor, the situation has now worsened.”
THE WEEK spoke to Sardar Saran Singh, 93, who belongs to the first batch of IAS officers, and who has worked with Indira Gandhi. “It is a great pity, because Sikhism, like Buddhism, does not approve of violence,” Singh said. “I will be writing to alert the chief secretary of Sikkim, the president of India and the secretary of the SGPC—who have a moral, if not legal, responsibility for safety, upkeep and running of all historical gurdwaras.”
Fort William, headquarters of the Army’s eastern command, refused to react on the developments, as the matter is sub judice. “The matter has gone to Supreme Court and at this stage it will not be possible for the Army to talk on this,” the Army spokesperson said. “However, Indian Army handed over the gurdwara to the local authority in 2001.”
The Siliguri gurdwara committee said that the issue is not between the Army and local residents anymore. “Thanks to the Army, the Sikh community came to know about the existence of a gurdwara which was visited by Guru Nanak,” said Dalvinder Singh, secretary, Siliguri Gurdwara Committee. “The matter is now of interest to the SGPC and the Sikh community as a whole. The Dzumsa has threatened to close the Chungthang gurdwara, too.”
The Chungthang gurdwara is bigger than the Gurudongmar one, and was built by Army officers. Interestingly, local lamas provided land for the gurdwara. But, in the 1990s, the gurdwara came under Delhi’s Bangla Sahib Gurdwara management committee, and a big building was constructed. “But today, the Dzumsa wants this gurdwara demolished,” said Baba Yadavendra Singh, chief of the gurdwara and a member of the Bangla Sahib committee. “When we refused, they encroached on the gurdwara’s land and started building a monastery.”
Yadavendra said he was in Gurudongmar on the day local residents encroached upon the shrine. “Tipped off by an intelligence officer, I reached Gurudongmar on the morning of August 22, 2017,” he said. “The Doklam crisis was at its peak, and the Army was busy at the border. Taking advantage of the situation, locals removed religious items, including the Guru Granth Sahib and its holy cover. In our religion, if we have to move the Guru Granth Sahib out, it is carried on a palanquin and taken out in a procession.”
On the day the Gurudongmar gurdwara was ransacked, Yadavendra went to the Dzumsa for help. “The Dzumsa and even the local subdivisional magistrate told me that they would allow only Buddhist shrines,” he said. Yadavendra said that Dzumsa members, their pipon (headman), and the magistrate said that Sikkim would be better off free from India.
After hearing about the incidents at the gurdwara, Amrit Pal Singh, a young Sikh lawyer from Mumbai, reached Gurudongmar on October 4, 2017. “The Siliguri gurudwara committee told me that the Sikkim government had sanctioned Rs 50 lakh for a monastery in Gurudongmar, but the Dzumsa wanted to turn our gurdwara into a monastery,” he said.
The Dzumsas are funded by the state government, and even the local police work under them. Amrit realised this when he reached Lachen on the night of October 4. “The hotel cancelled my reservation when they realised that I was a Sikh,” Amrit said. “The hotel owners told me that the Dzumsa had instructed them not to let any Sikh stay in the area.” So, he went hunting for government accommodation, but came up empty-handed as the Dzumsa controls everything. Things turned nasty when Amrit and Ajay, his cab driver, were heckled and thrashed by local residents. “They snatched the car keys from Ajay,” said Amrit. “I managed to get it back, but they tried to block the car. Somehow, Ajay managed to get us away,” he said. The duo then took refuge at the police station in Lachen, but the police refused to register an FIR. However, they were allowed to spend the night there.
The Buddhist upsurge in Gurudongmar was unexpected for the Sikkim government. Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh invited Chief Minister Pawan Kumar Chamling to Delhi, and discussed the matter in detail. Intelligence Bureau sources confirmed that the Centre had received several reports of Chinese influencers in north Sikkim. Global Times, a Chinese government-controlled English newspaper, wrote an editorial asking Beijing to stop recognising Sikkim as an Indian state. It said: “Beijing should reconsider its stance over Sikkim. As long as there are voices in Chinese society supporting Sikkim independence, the voice will spread and fuel pro-independence appeal in Sikkim.”