The monastery is at a distance of 23 kilometres from Gangtok. In fact, it is located on the hill facing Gangtok.
The present monastery was constructed by His Holiness, the Gyalwa Karmapa in the 1960s. Gyalwa Karmapa was the sixteenth Karmapa and came to settle in Sikkim in the late fifties when the Chinese invaded Tibet. He passed away in 1981.
The Kargyugpa Sect of Buddhism has its origins in Tibet in the twelfth century. It is said that after the first Karmapa spent many years meditating in a cave, ten thousand fairies came to congratulate him and each offered a strand of hair. These strands of hair were woven into a black hat.
This black hat came to be passed down and is still at the Rumtek Monastery. It is said that unless held with the hand, or kept in a box, it will fly away. It was worn by the Karmapas on ceremonial occasions.
The monastery is certainly the largest in Sikkim and is an example of fine Tibetan architecture. The Main Monastery is three storied and has a large prayer hall on the ground floor lined with small tables which the monks use to keep their religious books to read during prayers. The prayer hall is intricately decorated with Statues, wall paintings, thankas and tubular silk banners. On the first floor are the living quarters of the last Karmapa. The top floor has a terrace and a small stupa. The monastery is surrounded by a courtyard and the living quarters of the lamas. A flight of stairs from just outside the Main Monastery Complex takes you to the Nalanda Institute for Higher Buddhist studies. You are greeted by a huge painting of Lord Buddha just outside the Nalanda Institute: for the Buddhists, gods loom large in art as they do in belief.
Just adjacent to it is a small hall that has a stupa that contains the bone and ashes of the Sixteenth Karmapa. The stupa is surrounded by small statues of all the earlier Karmapas. On the same level as the Nalanda Institute is a small two-storied building, in which the Gyalwa Karmapa used to reside during the summers. A few metres ahead is an aviary containing the most exotic birds. The Gyalwa Karmapa had a special liking for birds and dogs and I have fond memories, as a child, of playing with his dog during one of my many visits there.
About half a kilometre uphill from the aviary is a hermitage in which monks go into complete seclusion for meditation for periods of up to 3 years.
A fifteen minutes walk downhill from the Main Monastery takes one to the old Rumtek Monastery, which was first built in 1730 by the ninth Karmapa but was destroyed due to a fire and had to be reconstructed to its present state.
The main puja or dances of Rumtek also called the Tse-Chu Chaams are held on the 10th day of the 5th month of the Tibetan calendar around June. Dances called the Kagyat are also held on the 28th and 29th day of the tenth month of the Tibetan calendar in the Old Rumtek Monastery.
After the XVIth Karmapa passed away in 1981, the search began for his reincarnation. But it was almost ten years later that a boy who met the requirements was traced in Tibet. Ugen Thinley was recognised as the XVII Karmapa by the Dalai Lama. Ugen Thinley escaped from Tibet in 2000 and is presently staying in Dharamshala in Himachal Pradesh.
Half a kilometre before the Main Monastery is the Shambala Tourist Resort((03592-252240 or252243) which provides modern amenities in typical rural settings with tourist huts built in traditional Lepcha, Bhutia and Nepali styles. The Martam Village resort ((223314,236843) 10 kilometres ahead of Rumtek is located in the tranquil countryside and offers accommodation in nine thatched cottages built in traditional style but providing all modern facilities: a good place to get away from the hustle and bustle of modern life.