Guest Blog by Gauri Noolkar-Oak
A day later, I set out on the last leg of my journey – through Sikkim, to the source. The journey from Kalimpong to Singtam and further to Mangan was breathtaking. The mountains grew taller as I climbed higher, the Teesta keeping me company all the while. It rained breezily and the clouds came down, clinging to the thick cloak of green that draped the mountains. Beauty was all around me and at one point, I just had to put my camera away and take in the splendour of nature.
From Singtam, I travelled further north to Mangan, headquarters of the district of North Sikkim. This second leg of the journey was even more beautiful, though I saw less of the river now, except near Dikchu, where it came back in sight, swelling and brown from the Himalayan silt. I could see more and more sign boards of the NHPC (and other companies’) hydropower projects, the bone of contention between state (and central) authorities and the Sikkimese people, most notably, the Lepchas.
As I approached Mangan, snow peaks began to come into view and for the first time in this journey, my eyes were riveted on something other than the Teesta. The tall, majestic Himalayas, adorned by pure white snow sparkling in the afternoon sun were pure delight; my camera just could not do justice to their aura and divinity. Mangan itself was a beautiful town, and after an unbelievable sighting of the sun rising on the Kanchenjunga peak from my bedroom, it was easily my most favourite place in the whole journey.
I was almost there; with a permit to visit Tso Lamo tucked into my sling bag, I moved further northward to Lachen, the last major town before hitting the Indo-China border. The beauty, if it was possible, was only enhanced; it got colder as I climbed higher, and the Teesta turned from a turbid green and brown to a frosty white and blue. I passed innumerable streams and rivulets which flowed down from the steep slopes of the towering mountains, feeding the Teesta. Villages and settlements got sparse; army presence markedly increased. At Chungthang, where the Lachen and Lachung rivers confluence to form the Teesta, I spotted yet another hydroelectric project (the controversial 1200 MW Teesta III project of Teesta Urja Company, now a joint venture with Sikkim government). Then, following the Lachen stem, I reached the cold, rainy and sleepy town of Lachen, tired and poorly equipped to deal with the cold.
The next day, I left at dawn. The sun was still peeking, but its cold rays illuminated the clouds that were floating down to the lush green valley. After Thangu, however, the landscape changed abruptly; gone were the deep gorges and the thick green vegetation; the mountains were noticeably shorter, there was more flat ground, and the green and blue turned to white and brown. Now, a very small rivulet flowed alongside. We had entered the Tibetan Plateau in North Sikkim, India, close to the Indo-Chinese border. After the final check post, the landscape changed even further. The flat expanse of rock and pebbles was surrounded by hills, covered by a sheet of snow. I watched transfixed as snowflakes floated merrily out of nowhere, and even the driver was surprised; not even once in his thirty-odd years of life had he seen so much snowfall in that area.
I was lost in the surreal sights of the snow-covered desert when the driver suddenly stopped and pointed to a grey sheet of water, half-covered by snow. “Tso Lamo,” he told me. I couldn’t believe my ears. This was the moment, the sight I was working towards, throughout the journey, and indeed, many times in my imagination before that. But nothing prepared me for this. Clad in canvas shoes, a pair of jeans, a jacket and a scarf at 17000 feet, I quickly got down from the jeep into a growing snow storm. I instantly knew I couldn’t spend much time here, gazing at the source, building a literary analogy around it like I had at the confluence. And yet, in those few minutes, my entire journey as well as the Teesta’s flashed before my eyes. In that moment, I did not know water conflicts, dams, communities or political borders; I did not know the cold biting my feet or the wind piercing my ears. In that moment, I only knew silence, the language of my soul, and the divine Tso Lamo, origin of a mother that nourished a myriad of civilisations for centuries. My palms joined, head bowed, eyes closed and I did the only thing that resonated in my heart. I prayed.
This journey was challenging and life-changing for me at many levels. It was my fortune that I met some great people along the way whose kindness, generosity and help made the journey happen. While it is impossible to list all of their names here, I must say that people from both sides of the border, and indeed from the Netherlands, joined hands in the true spirit of humanity and friendship. Every extraordinary journey is possible only through the extraordinary contributions of people. To them, I am forever indebted. – Gauri Noolkar-Oak (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Courtesy: South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP)