Sikhim and Bhutan/Chapter 04

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First visit to Sikhim, 1887. The brothers Khangsa Dewan and Phodong Lama, the Shoe Dewan and Kazis. Return to Gangtak with the Entchi Column, I888. First meeting with Their Highnesses the Maharaja and Maharani of Sikhim.

In the month of November, 1887, I paid my first visit to Sikhim. I accompanied Mr. Paul, who had been sent from Darjeeling to try and induce the Maharaja to return from Chumbi, whither he had retreated some time before, and to spend more time in his own country. Our first destination was Rhenok, a small village only a couple of miles beyond British territory, but in the hope that we might get into direct communication with His Highness we pushed on another twenty miles to the capital, Gangtak, the place I later spent so many years in. At Rhenok we left the road, and a bad one too, that had brought us so far, and for the remainder of the distance had to follow a track unfit to ride over even on a mule, and had to walk most of the way. Our first halt was at Pakhyong, which, in the expedition the following year, became the headquarters of the Entchi Column, where the 13th Rajputs were encamped for several months. It is a pretty little spot lying just under the saddle where the road commences the last descent before the final climb to Gangtak, and the hillside was covered with woods of chestnut and orchids in profusion.

In this camp I first saw the Kartok Lama, a son of the Khangsa Dewan, and head of the Kartok Monastery, situated a few hundred feet above Pakhyong. He was a headstrong youth, with a not very good record, and had to be admonished for some of his latest escapades, but he took it all in very good part, and although I have since, on several occasions, had to talk very seriously to him, we have always been on good terms.

On reaching Gangtak, we pitched our tents on the ridge, close to the Maharaja’s palace, then covered with jungle, now the site of a flourishing bazaar, with post and telegraph offices, dák bungalow or resthouse, charitable hospital and dispensary, and many large and flourishing shops, including that of the State bankers.

Mr. Paul was soon obliged to return to Darjeeling, but I, with a guard of Gurkha police, remained for another fortnight, hoping the Maharaja would either return himself or send some communication, but as he did neither I also went back to Darjeeling. During the time I was there I made the acquaintance of some of the head men and notabilities of Sikhim who came to pay their respects and to receive us on our arrival. First were the two brothers, the Khangsa Dewan and Phodong Lama, men of strong individuality and character, to whose wisdom and good sense Sikhim owes much, as they practically ruled the country for years during the prolonged absences of the Maharaja in Chumbi.

The Phodong Lama, although the younger brother, was the ruling spirit. He personally knew every one, constantly travelled over the country collecting information at first hand, was ever ready to give advice as well as assistance, and though always genial in his manner, was unfailingly strong and just to all, and was consequently universally liked and respected.

His elder brother, the Dewan, was of a more retiring nature and remained more in the background, but his influence was equally felt and the administration during the absence of the Maharaja was carried on in the joint name of the brothers.

Next the Shoe, or Poorbu Dewan, one of the most courtly men I have ever met, a true gentleman in mind and manners and a staunch and loyal friend. In appearance he was tall and spare, with an unusual type of face rarely met with in these hills, with its high cheek bones and rugged outline more nearly resembling that of the Red Indian. Behind a very quiet and retiring demeanour was hidden a fund of information which made him an excellent advisor. Possessed also of an unusual amount of tact and good sense, he did much, probably more than any one else, towards the welfare and advancement of the State, especially when the brothers were growing old and in failing health. He was a man looked up to and respected by all and whose advice was eagerly sought and followed. In my own case I consulted him on all sorts of questions and his opinion and advice were always to be considered and respected. In camp he was an excellent companion and many and many a pleasant hour have I spent sitting by a camp fire talking to him.

All three of these men are now dead, and the deaths of the Phodong Lama and the Shoe Dewan meant an irreparable loss to Sikhim. The younger generation, good fellows enough in their way, are of a different stamp, and there is no one to fill the places of the older men. The Phodong Lama lived to the age of sixty-eight and remained active and at work till within a comparatively short time of his death, but the Shoe Dewan was cut off at the early age of fifty-five.

Here also I first met the old Gangtak, Tassithing, and Entchi Kazis as well as many of the younger generation. Though these Kazis belonged to the leading families who had come into the country in the retinue of the Sikhim Rajas, they were, at the same time, of very little account; belonging to the old school, not caring much for anything that went on and given to getting very drunk; but notwithstanding they were good-natured and ready to do anything that was wanted of them to the best of their ability.

My return to Gangtak in the spring of the following year, 1888, was under very different circumstances. Hostilities had commenced, and on the day the main column of our troops crossed the Jeylap Pass into the Chumbi Valley, the second or Entchi column, to which I was attached, made a night march under Colonel Michell, of the 13th Rajputs, from Pakhyong to Gangtak. A fallen tree across the track caused a little delay, and we arrived on the Gangtak ridge at dawn only to find that the Maharaja and Maharani had again fled to Chumbi over the Yak-la road. I was just in time to stop some of His Highness’s ponies, and so lately had they gone their lamps were still burning alongside their beds in the Palace, which, the Maharaja having vacated, was occupied by us, but none of us remained in it very long. It was infested by fleas and they swarmed over us, rendering sleep impossible, and as soon as the sun rose we removed ourselves and our bedding to our tents until we could build huts which would, at any rate, be clean, and would be a better protection from the violent spring hailstorms than the tents.

The Maharaja arrived in Chumbi to find his house there also in the occupation of our troops, and he and the Maharani were sent back to live in Gangtak, and there I met them for the first time.

Thotab Namgyel, Maharaja of Sikhim, was a man of about twenty-eight years of age, of medium height, typically Mongolian in appearance and much disfigured by a bad hare-lip. He was a man of indolent disposition, whose inclination was to live in retirement and aloof from the worries and troubles of the government of his little State, of a very kindly disposition, and although weak and easily led, possessed also a good deal of common sense. He was entirely under the influence of the Maharani, his second wife.

This lady, the daughter of a Tibetan official in Lhasa, is a striking personality. Small and slight, beautifully dressed in brocades, velvets and silks, with much jewellery of rough turquoise, coral and amber, her hair adorned with strings of seed pearls, which reached to the hem of her gown, and wearing the curious Tibetan head-dress adopted by the Maharanis of Sikhim, she was a most picturesque object, a harmony of gold and brilliant colours impossible to convey in words and of which the photograph only gives a very inadequate representation.

Sikhim and Bhutan - Maharani of Sikhim.jpg


She is extremely bright and intelligent and has been well educated, although she will not admit that she has knowledge of any language but Tibetan. She talks well on many subjects, which one would hardly have credited her with a knowledge of, and can write well. On the occasion of Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee, she personally composed and engrossed in beautiful Tibetan characters the address presented by the Sikhim Raj, which runs as follows:

“To the most exalted and beautiful white lotus throne of Empress Victoria—the incarnate—Sri Devi—the glorious Goddess—who has been ruling and conducting the affairs of the great Empire, being Victorious in every quarter of the globe by the dint of her accumulated virtues and merits.

The Memorial.

“Gracious Majesty,

“From the ocean of merits has sprung your glorious self, whose fame has spread all round the world like the rays of the sun. Your Majesty’s reign in respect of Government, defence, of light, and in increase of prosperity has been perfect.

“It is our fervent prayer that Your Majesty’s glorious reign may with fame encompassing the world, extend to many happy years more.

“This humble vassal being extremely happy, with all his subjects, has been rejoicing at the Jubilee of Your Majesty’s reign, and prays that Your Majesty shedding lustre of good, just and benign rule, shall sit on the throne for a hundred great periods of time.

“With a pure white silk scarf, to represent the sincerity of wishes.”

Her disposition is a masterful one and her bearing always dignified. She has a great opinion of her own importance, and is the possessor of a sweet musical voice, into which she can, when angry, introduce a very sharp intonation. She is always interesting, whether to look at or to listen to, and had she been born within the sphere of European politics she would most certainly have made her mark, for there is no doubt she is a born intriguer and diplomat. Her energies were unfortunately, but naturally, owing to her Tibetan origin, misdirected for many years, until, finding out her mistake, she frankly confessed she had been in the wrong, and turned her thoughts and attention to matters which should lead to the welfare of her husband’s State. Her common sense and clear-sightedness were on many occasions of the greatest assistance to me in my task of administering and developing Sikhim, and when I laid various schemes before her she was quick to see the material advantages to be obtained and gave her support accordingly.