“These Bengali tourists are so noisy,” my host Sonam Yungda Bhutia said good-humouredly, though I noticed a trace of resentment in the tone. I enquired if this was particularly so for Bengalis, or for other tourists also. He clarified that he meant ‘Indian’ in general. Foreign tourists, in contrast, were more respectful and quiet, and they even helped with picking up the garbage on the trails. I winced, wondering if this was a gross generalisation or really true.
My colleague Sujatha Padmanabhan and I were at Khecheopalri Lake, one of western Sikkim’s wetland jewels. Set amidst densely forested hills, the lake is ecologically important, and being sacred to Buddhists and Hindus, has remained strictly off limits for human use other than pilgrimage and visits. It was originally called Kha-Chod-Palri (‘wish-fulfilling jewel’). From one lookout point high above the lake, its shape appears to be that of a footprint, and local Buddhist belief is that this is where the goddess Tara Jetsun Dolma (the Buddha’s mother) stepped; the Hindus believe it is Shiva’s footprint. Scientists, somewhat more mundanely, say that the lake is a result of ancient glacial action. Whatever the origin, the lake’s great cultural significance is borne out by the hundreds of prayer flags lining its banks and walkways, the various taboos and beliefs attached to it, the dozen or more folklore and mythological tales explaining its origins…and the quiet resentment towards badly behaved tourists who desecrate its surrounds.
First published in Outlook Traveller, February 2014