Dechenphu continues to defy easy accessibility. It has the highest altitude amongst the four caves and involves a one-day daunting and murderous trek – taking you from almost 5000 ft to 10000 ft above mean sea level.
Fourteen kilometers downhill from Pelling is the village of Namphu at about 5000 ft above mean sea level and it is here till where the vehicle goes. We have arrived at Namphu and dawn is just breaking. It is a rather melancholic day: a faint drizzle and an overcast sky. I ask my porter who is also doubling as a guide the general direction of the cave.
He points almost vertically upwards and says, “There, behind those clouds”. We will be making a night halt at the cave and therefore a quick check of whether we are carrying everything required – sleeping bags, provisions, candles, utensils, and so on
A twenty-minute steep downhill walk and we are at the banks of the River Rimbi. Fed by the monsoon rains and melting snow, the river is gushing and thundering. The water has been harnessed a few kilometers downstream to generate electricity. Without crossing the river, we walk along its banks for about forty minutes to reach the village of Rimbi.
In this remote village, salesmanship also thrives. The lady shopkeeper from whom I purchase candies and chocolates to munch on the way says that there are no shops further up and recommends that we purchase all our last-minute requirements from her. She charges Rs 30/- for a bottle of coke that ordinarily costs Rs 20/- at Gangtok. “Carrying Costs” she justifies succinctly. I think she has a point there so without arguing proceed onwards.
The track here bifurcates with the one on the right going towards Chawri and Zongri. We take the track on the left leaving the Rimbi river and walk along its tributary the LungamanKhola. We now get a taste of the steep climb that lies ahead. The track at a moderate gradient passes through maize fields, meadows, and grazing grounds. In slightly less than an hour, we are at Tsetanthang a picturesque village with a predominantly Limbu population – which seems to be untouched by the ravages of civilization.
In a hut, an old man, surrounded by sheep wool, is using a “Charka” to spin out the thread that would be used to weave wool carpets. We come across a man whose face has been badly dis-figured – he was mauled a few years back by a bear that he tried to chase out of his farm. We must be at 6000 ft for that uncouth white scar of Pelling on the opposite hill looks to be at the same level.
We pluck out the leeches that are sticking to our feet and legs and take a quick breakfast in one of the houses. Refreshed, we are set to move again. For the next six hours, we just climb, climb and climb. There is not a single habitation on the way. The footpath is kutcha and is lined with thick vegetation and trees of magnolia and rhododendrons. The foliage is so thick that even the sky is not visible. At places, the track becomes bouncy and soft because of decaying vegetation that has compacted overages.
Midway, the vegetation begins to thin out and gradually gets replaced by pine, cane, and shrubs. Through a gap in the clouds, we can see the cliff on which the Dechenphu is situated. The cliff face glistening white is a sheer drop of about a thousand feet. It reminds me of Taksang Monastery in Bhutan which is also situated on a cliff.
We finally reach the cliff face. The path bifurcates with the one on the right going towards the Singelila range – a further four hours walk away and onwards to Nepal. Far in the east, we can see the roof of the Tashiding Monastery against the backdrop of the Rabongla ridge and in the southerly direction, the Pemayanste Monastery. After negotiating a narrow path that has skillfully been sculpted on it we are at the hut just below the cave and on the base of the cliff.
The cliff looms ominously above us. The hut has been constructed by the Rural Development Department for the convenience of the pilgrims. It has a single room measuring about 30 ft by 15 ft and has a tin roof and walls made of wood planks. The floor is just hard ground covered with hay and grass which act as cushions. We lay out our sleeping bags, rest a while and after a cup of tea prepared by our porter on firewood get ready to pay our obeisance at the cave just about 300 feet away.
The track leading to the cave is very narrow and lined with a profusion of prayer flags (Lungtas). The mouth of the cave is about 6ft high and about 5 ft wide it becomes a cavern inside about 8 ft high and then after 15 ft rapidly truncates to about a height of 2 ft. One can crawl and squeeze in further and after 20 ft reach a small hole on the cliff side. The smallness of Dechenphu as compared to the other three holy caves in Sikkim is sufficiently compensated by its altitude and the fantastic view around.
A small statue of Buddha adorns the mouth of the cave. The floor is littered with coins and discarded brass butter lamps. We offer khadas, light butter lamps, and incense and ring the bell the sound of which echoes in the hills. It seems many students visit the cave as we find books kept at various places in the cave seeking blessings of the Buddha. The cliff is pocked with a few smaller caves but these are not very significant. LungamanKhola flows just below our hut and we use its pure mineral water for drinking, cooking, and ablutions
As dusk falls, the nocturnal insects come alive. A cricket clicks and is followed by hundreds of others until the whole forest below the cave reverberates with a deafening din. Big water drops seeping out of the cliff continuously bombard the roof of the hut. All this noise does not disturb us at all. We are dog-tired and lulled off to sleep. The lights of Darap, Pelling down below us and Darjeeling on the Southern horizon twinkle in the darkness