Rabdentse Ruins, Near Pelling, West Sikkim, Sikkim, India, June 20, 2018:
Like many things of a bygone era, you wouldn’t know there was a palace in the vicinity if you were walking or hiking in the Pelling area. And chances are you wouldn’t notice it from a distant elevation either since the original palace is said to have been destroyed in 1814 by an invading Goorkha army.
And yet, once you have walked around the significant premises of the erstwhile Rabdentse Palace, it is quite easy to imagine how magnificent the structure must have been and that it would have been visible from certain vantage points and yet hidden from external prying eyes.
Rabdentse was established as the second capital of the former consecrated Kingdom of Sikhim (Sikkim) in 1670 by Tensung Namgyal (the second monarch of Sikkim); and it stayed as the capital of the Kingdom till 1793 when Tsugphud Namgyal shifted the capital to Tumlong. In the 123 years of its ascendancy, Rabdentse saw six kings reign over Sikkim.
Today, the ruins of the Rabdentse Palace are a tourist attraction situated 3 kilometres from the sleepy little village of Pelling (which is an important part of the modern-day Sikkim tourist circuit).
Sikkim is one of the remote Himalayan states in India, famous for its history, culture and also for being home to Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the Himalayas (Kanchenjunga stands at 8,586 metres or 28,169 feet above sea-level).
History, like many other documented social sciences, can tend to reflect the story of those who consciously set out to be remembered. As such, it is important to keep in mind that when one refers to the ‘Kingdom of Sikkim’ and the ‘monarchs of Sikkim’, this a reference to the Namgyal dynasty of religious kings (Chogyals or priest-kings) that ruled over Sikkim in a hereditary manner from 1642 till 1975. There were indigenous rulers and chiefs and kings (of Lepcha and other origins) in Sikkim before the Namgyal dynasty as well but the Namgyal kings – though indigenous – were of Bhutia ancestry (descendants of migrants from Tibet in previous centuries).
Thus, when one visits Rabdentse, we are not just visiting an old palace but probably the seat of authority that brought together the different peoples of a land under a single, consolidating power, drawing inspiration from a common guiding natural entity like the Kanchenjunga. As one walks through the ruins, the thought occurs that Rabdentse as a capital represented the Kingdom of Sikkim at a time when it was emerging as a political entity and evolving into a new cultural representative of the peoples of Sikkim.
And the erstwhile kings of Sikkim could view the Kanchenjunga from the Rabdentse Palace since it was situated with a direct view of the range. The Kanchenjunga mountains lie partly in Sikkim and partly in Nepal. And this Himalayan Mountain has played a significant role in the religious, political and cultural development of Sikkim, since the Himalayas have immense significance to the Hindus, Buddhists, and followers of the indigenous Animist religion in the region.
At the time of the Yuksom capital, Buddhism was slowly taking over (from the indigenous religions of the Lepcha and Limbu and other people) as a prominent religion. Probably by the time of Rabdentse’s golden age and later, Buddhism was established as the main religion.
It wasn’t a coincidence that in 1793, Tsugphud Namgyal shifted the capital from Rabdentse- it was too close to Nepal and apart from being prone to frequent invasions, there was probably also an influx of Nepali people into the region. A factor that played out over the succeeding centuries – as of the 2011 census, while Buddhism still accounts for 27.3% of the state’s religious following, 57.8% of the population are followers of Hinduism (mainly of ethnic Nepali origin).
In present day, the Rabdentse site is a declared heritage monument under the care of the Archeological Survey of India and it is quite well maintained. The approach to the Palace is through a densely forested hill and the walk itself gives one a feel for the strategic thought behind the location since the kilometre long trail winds its way up and down the hill through centuries old trees before suddenly revealing the old stone Chorten that marks the beginning of the walkway up to the main grounds.
As you reach the main grounds, there is a little path that leads to a shed that is said to house old sculptures from the site, but it was closed when we visited.
What one sees as you enter the Palace site is a well laid out plan with grounds, stone steps leading to different elevations, stone structures of the erstwhile Palace, worship areas with stone chortens and the like. The antiquity of the ruins can be gauged from the moss-covered stones and ancient trees and architectural style.
The main structure is what is said to be the royal quarters and it has two large living spaces and an open stone courtyard that leads to the Three Chortens, where the royal family is said to have offered prayers. The Three Chortens (and the adjacent living quarters) have a direct view of the Kanchenjunga and the surrounding hills and valleys and river.
If one stands on the elevated area on other side of the living quarters, there is a clear view of the Pemayangtse Monastery on the hill opposite (modern Pelling) and beyond that one can see the Sangak Choeling Monastery at a much higher elevation.
Incidentally, one can see The Rabdentse Palace site from the Sangak Choeling Monastery.
Given that the Namgyal monarchy in Sikkim was said to have been established by Buddhist Lamas, this strategic positioning and close proximity of royal and monastic sites seems to have ensured the close association with the Buddhist spiritual guidance. Also, the monastery was always placed at an elevation higher then the political leadership site. One can see the same in the instance of the first capital of the kingdom at Yuksom (close proximity to Dubdi Monastery) as also in the the third and fourth capitals at Tumlong and Gantok (Gangtok).
Walking back from the ruins of the Rabdentse Palace, I realised that for a traveller to get a better understanding of Sikkim (and even of the historical significance of the tourist places one visits here), it was important to visit the historical capitals of the state and establish the connection.
(Research sources: 1. Official information on site at Rabdentse and Yuksom; 2. HH Risley’s The Gazetteer of Sikhim (2010 reprint; first published 1928); 3. website of Sikkim Tourism and Sikkim Government website.)