Himalayan Journals or Notes of A Naturalist Index      Next Chapter VIII


Chapter VII

Continue the ascent of Tonglo — Trees — Lepcha construction of hut — Simsibong — Climbing-trees — Frogs — Magnolias, etc. — Ticks — Leeches — — Cattle, murrain amongst — Summit of Tonglo — Rhododendrons — Skimmia — Yew — Rose — Aconite — Bikh poison — English genera of plants — Ascent of tropical orders — Comparison with south temperate zone — Heavy rain — Temperature, etc. — Descent — Simonbong temple — Furniture therein — Praying-cylinder — Thigh-bone trumpet — Morning orisons — Present of Murwa beer, etc.


Continuing the ascent of Tonglo, we left cultivation and the poor groves of peaches at 4000 to 5000 feet (and this on the eastern exposure, which is by far the sunniest), the average height which agriculture reaches in Sikkim.

Above Simonbong, the path up Tonglo is little frequented: it is one of the many routes between Nepal and Sikkim, which cross the Singalelah spur of Kinchinjunga at various elevations between 7000 and 15,000 feet. As usual, the track runs along ridges, wherever these are to be found, very steep, and narrow at the top, through deep humid forests of oaks and Magnolias, many laurels, both 1 Tetranthera and Cinnamomum, one species of the latter ascending to 8,500 feet, and one of Tetranthera to 9000. Chesnut and walnut here appeared, with some leguminous trees, which however did not ascend to 6000 feet. Scarlet flowers of Vaccinium serpens, an epiphytical species, were strewed about, and the great blossoms of Rhododendron Dalhousić and of a Magnolia (Talaunaa Hodgsoni) lay together on the ground. The latter forms a large tree,


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with very dense foliage, and deep shining green leaves, a foot to eighteen inches long. Most of its flowers drop unexpanded from the tree, and diffuse a very aromatic smell; they are nearly as large as the fist, the outer petals purple, the inner pure white.

Heavy rain came on at 3 p.m., obliging us to take insufficient shelter under the trees, and finally to seek the nearest camping-ground. For this purpose we ascended to a spring, called Simsibong, at an elevation of 6000 feet. The narrowness of the ridge prevented our pitching the tent, small as it was; but the Lepchas rapidly constructed a house, and thatched it with bamboo and the broad leaves of the wild plantain. A table was then raised in the middle, of four posts and as many cross pieces of wood, lashed with strips of bamboo. Across these, pieces of bamboo were laid, ingeniously flattened, by selecting cylinders, crimping them all round, and then slitting each down one side, so that it opens into a flat slab. Similar but longer and lower erections, one on each side the table, formed bed or chair; and in one hour, half a dozen men, with only long knives and active hands, had provided us with a tolerably water-tight furnished house. A thick flooring of bamboo leaves kept the feet dry, and a screen of that and other foliage all round rendered the habitation tolerably warm.

At this elevation we found great scandent trees twisting around the trunks of others, and strangling them: the latter gradually decay, leaving the sheath of climbers as one of the most remarkable vegetable phenomena of these mountains. These climbers belong to several orders, and may be roughly classified in two groups.—(1.) Those whose sterns merely twine, and by constricting certain parts of their support, induce death.—(2.) Those which form a


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Clasping roots of Wightia

network round the trunk, by the coalescence of their lateral branches and aerial roots, etc.: these wholly envelop and often conceal the tree they enclose, whose branches appear rising far above those of its destroyer. To the first of these groups belong many natural orders, of which the most prominent are—Leguminosć, ivies, hydrangea, vines, Pothos, etc. The inosculating ones are almost all figs and


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Wightia: the latter is the most remarkable, and I add a cut of its grasping roots, sketched at our encampment.

Except for the occasional hooting of an owl, the night was profoundly still during several hours after dark—the cicadas at this season not ascending so high on the mountain. A dense mist shrouded every thing, and the rain pattered on the leaves of our hut. At midnight a tree-frog (“Simook,” Lepcha) broke the silence with his curious metallic clack, and others quickly joined the chorus, keeping up their strange music till morning. Like many Batrachians, this has a voice singularly unlike that of any other organised creature. The cries of beasts, birds, and insects are all explicable to our senses, and we can recognise most of them as belonging to such or such an order of animal; but the voices of many frogs are like nothing else, and allied species utter totally dissimilar noises. In some, as this, the sound is like the concussion of metals; in others, of the vibration of wires or cords; anything but the natural effects of lungs, larynx, and muscles.*

May 21.—Early this morning we proceeded upwards, our prospect more gloomy than ever. The path, which still lay up steep ridges, was very slippery, owing to the rain upon the clayey soil, and was only passable from the hold afforded by interlacing roots of trees. At 8000 feet, some enormous detached masses of micaceous gneiss rose abruptly from the ridge, they were covered with mosses and ferns, and from their summit, 7000 feet, a good view of the surrounding vegetation is obtained. The mast of the forest is formed of:—(1) Three species of oak, of which Q. annulata ? with immense lamellated acorns, and leaves

* A very common Tasmanian species utters a sound that appears to ring in an underground vaulted chamber, beneath the feet.


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sixteen inches long, is the tallest and the most abundant.—(2) Chesnut.—(3) Laurineć of several species, all beautiful forest-trees, straight-holed, and umbrageous above.—(4) Magnolias.*—(5) Arborescent rhododendrons, which commence here with the R. arboreum. At 8000 and 9000 feet, a considerable change is found in the vegetation; the gigantic purple Magnolia Campbellii replacing the white; chesnut disappears, and several laurels: other kinds of maple are seen, with Rhododendron argenteum, and Stauntonia, a handsome climber, which has beautiful pendent clusters of lilac blossoms.

At 9000 feet we arrived on a long flat covered with lofty trees, chiefly purple magnolias, with a few oaks, great Pyri and two rhododendrons, thirty to forty feet high (R. barbatum, and R. arboreum, var. roseum): Skimmia and Symplocos were the common shrubs. A beautiful orchid with purple flowers (Cćlogyne Wallichii) grew on the trunks of all the great trees, attaining a higher elevation than most other epiphytical species, for I have seen it at 10,000 feet.

A large tick infests the small bamboo, and a more hateful insect I never encountered. The traveller cannot avoid these insects coming on his person (sometimes in great numbers) as he brushes through the forest; they get inside his dress, and insert the proboscis deeply without pain. Buried head and shoulders, and retained by a barbed lancet, the tick is only to be extracted by force, which is very painful. I

* Other trees were Pyrus, Saurauja (both an erect and climbing species), Olea, cherry, birch, alder, several maples, Hydrangea, one species of fig, holly, and several Araliaceous trees. Many species of Magnoliaceć (including the genera Magnolia, Michelia, and Talauma) are found in Sikkim: Magnolia Campbellii, of 10,000 feet, is the most superb species known. In books on botanical geography, the magnolias are considered as most abounding in North America, east of the Rocky Mountains; but this is a great mistake, the Indian mountains and islands being the centre of this natural order.


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have devised many tortures, mechanical and chemical, to induce these disgusting intruders to withdraw the proboscis, but in vain. Leeches* also swarm below 7000 feet; a small black species above 3000 feet, and a large yellow-brown solitary one below that elevation.

Our ascent to the summit was by the bed of a watercourse, now a roaring torrent, from the heavy and incessant rain. A small Anagallis (like tenella), and a beautiful purple primrose, grew by its bank. The top of the mountain is another flat ridge, with depressions and broad pools. The number of additional species of plants found here was great, and all betokened a rapid approach to the alpine region of the Himalaya. In order of prevalence the trees were,—the scarlet Rhododendron arboreum and barbatum, as large bushy trees, both loaded with beautiful flowers and luxuriant foliage; R. Falconeri, in point of foliage the most superb of all the Himalayan species, with trunks thirty feet high, and branches bearing at their ends only leaves eighteen inches long: these are deep green above, and covered beneath with a rich brown down. Next in abundance to these were shrubs of Skimmia Laureola,Symplocos, and Hydrangea; and there were still a few purple magnolias, very large Pyri, like mountain ash, and the common English

* I cannot but think that the extraordinary abundance of these Anelides in Sikkim may cause the death of many animals. Some marked murrains have followed very wet seasons, when the leeches appear in incredible numbers; and the disease in the cattle, described to me by the Lepchas as in the stomach, in no way differs from what leeches would produce. It is a well-known fact, that these creatures have lived for days in the fauces, nares, and stomachs of the human subject, causing dreadful sufferings, and death. I have seen the cattle feeding in places where the leeches so abounded, that fifty or sixty were frequently together on my ankles; and ponies are almost maddened by their biting the fetlocks.
† This plant has been lately introduced into English gardens, from the north-west Himalaya, and is greatly admired for its aromatic, evergreen foliage, and clusters of scarlet berries. It is a curious fact, that this plant never bears scarlet berries in Sikkim, apparently owing to the want of sun; the fruit ripens, but is of a greenish-red or purplish colour.


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yew, eighteen feet in circumference, the red bark of which is used as a dye, and for staining the foreheads of Brahmins in Nepal. An erect white-flowered rose (R. sericea, the only species occurring in Southern Sikkim) was very abundant: its numerous inodorous flowers are pendent, apparent as a protection from the rain; and it is remarkable as being the only species having four petals instead of five.

A currant was common, always growing epiphytically on the trunks of large trees. Two or three species of Berberry, a cherry, Andromeda, Daphne, and maple, nearly complete, I think, the list of woody plants. Amongst the herbs were many of great interest, as a rhubarb, and Aconitum palmatum, which yields one of the celebrated “Bikh” poisons.* Of European genera I found Thalictrum, Anemone, Fumaria, violets, Stellaria, Hypericum, two geraniums, balsams, Epilobium, Potentilla, Paris and Convallarić, one of the latter has verticillate leaves, and its root also called “bikh,” is considered a very virulent poison.

Still, the absence or rarity at this elevation of several very large natural families,† which have numerous representatives at and much below the same level in the inner ranges, and on the outer of the Western Himalaya, indicate a certain peculiarity in Sikkim. On the other hand, certain tropical genera are more abundant in the temperate zone of the Sikkim mountains, and ascend much higher there than in the Western Himalaya: of this fact I have cited conspicuous examples in the palms, plantains, and tree-ferns. This

* “Bikh” is yielded by various Aconita. All the Sikkim kinds are called “gniong” by Lepchas and Bhoteeas, who do not distinguish them. The A. Napellus is abundant in the north-west Himalaya, and is perhaps as virulent a Bikh as any species.
Ranunculaceć, Fumarić, Cruciferć, Alsineć, Geranicć, Leguminosć, Potentilla, Epilobium, Crassulaceć, Saxifrageć, Umbelliferć, Lonicera, Valerianeć, Dipsaceć, various genera of Compositć, Campanulaceć, Lobeliaceć, Gentianeć, Boragineć, Scrophularineć, Primulaceć, Gramineć.


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ascent and prevalence of tropical species is due to the humidity and equability of the climate in this temperate zone, and is, perhaps, the direct consequence of these conditions. An application of the same laws accounts for the extension of similar features far beyond the tropical limit in the Southern Ocean, where various natural orders, which do not cross the 30th and 40th parallels of N. latitude, are extended to the 55th of S. latitude, and found in Tasmania, New Zealand, the so-called Antarctic Islands south of that group, and at Cape Horn itself.

The rarity of Pines is perhaps the most curious feature in the botany of Tonglo, and on the outer ranges of Sikkim; for, between the level of 2,500 feet (the upper limit of P. longifolia) and 10,000 feet (that of the Taxus), there is no coniferous tree whatever in Southern Sikkim.

We encamped amongst Rhododendrons, on a spongy soil of black vegetable matter, so oozy, that it was difficult to keep the feet dry. The rain poured in torrents all the evening, and with the calm, and the wetness of the wood, prevented our enjoying a fire. Except a transient view into Nepal, a few miles west of us, nothing was to be seen, the whole mountain being wrapped in dense masses of vapour. Gusts of wind, not felt in the forest, whistled through the gnarled and naked tree-tops; and though the temperature was 50°, this wind produced cold to the feelings. Our poor Lepchas were miserably off, but always happy: under four posts and a bamboo-leaf thatch, with no covering but a single thin cotton garment, they crouched on the sodden turf, joking with the Hindoos of our party, who, though supplied with good clothing and shelter, were doleful companions.

I made a shed for my instruments under a tree; Mr. Barnes, ever active and ready, floored the tent with logs


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of wood, and I laid a “corduroy road” of the same to my little observatory.

During the night the rain did not abate; and the tent-roof leaked in such torrents, that we had to throw pieces of wax-cloth over our shoulders as we lay in bed. There was no improvement whatever in the weather on the following morning. Two of the Hindoos had crawled into the tent during the night, attacked with fever and ague.* The tent being too sodden to be carried, we had to remain where we were, and with abundance of novelty in the botany around, I found no difficulty in getting through the day. Observing the track of sheep, we sent two Lepchas to follow them, who returned at night from some miles west in Nepal, bringing two. The shepherds were Geroongs of Nepal, who were grazing their flocks on a grassy mountain top, from which the woods had been cleared, probably by fire. The mutton was a great boon to the Lepchas, but the Hindoos would not touch it, and several more sickening during the day, we had the tent most uncomfortably full.

During the whole of the 22nd, from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., the thermometer never varied 6·5°, ranging from 47·5 in the morning to 54°, its maximum, at 1 p.m., and 50·75 at night. At seven the following morning it was the same. One, sunk two feet six inches in mould and clay, stood constantly at 50·75. The dew-point was always below the temperature, at which I was surprised, for more drenching weather could not well be. The mean dew-point was 50·25, and consequent humidity, 0·973.

* It is a remarkable fact, that both the natives of the plains, under many circumstances, and the Lepchas when suffering from protracted cold and wet, take fever and ague in sharp attacks. The disease is wholly unknown amongst Europeans residing above 4000 feet, similar exposure in whom brings on rheumatism and cold.


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These observations, and those of the barometer, were taken 60 feet below the summit, to which I moved the instruments on the morning of the 23rd. At a much more exposed spot the results would no doubt have been different, for a thermometer, there sunk to the same depth as that below, stood at 49·75 (or one degree colder than 60 feet lower down). My barometrical observations, taken simultaneously with those of Calcutta, give the height of Tonglo, 10,078·3 feet; Colonel Waugh’s, by trigonometry, 10,079·4 feet,—a remarkable and unusual coincidence.

May 23.—We spent a few hours of alternate fog and sunshine on the top of the mountain, vainly hoping for the most modest view; our inability to obtain it was extremely disappointing, for the mountain commands a superb prospect, which I enjoyed fully in the following November, from a spot a few miles further west. The air, which was always foggy, was alternately cooled and heated, as it blew over the trees, or the open space we occupied; sometimes varying 5° and 6° in a quarter of an hour.

Having partially dried the tent in the wind, we commenced the descent, which owing to the late torrents of rain, was most fatiguing and slippery; it again commenced to drizzle at noon, nor was it till we had descended to 6000 feet that we emerged from the region of clouds. By dark we arrived at Simonbong, having descended 5000 feet, at the rate of 1000 feet an hour; and were kindly received by the Lama, who gave us his temple for the accommodation of the whole party. We were surprised at this, both because the Sikkim authorities had represented the Lamas as very averse to Europeans, and because he might well have hesitated before admitting a promiscuous horde of thirty people into a sacred building, where the little valuables on the altar, etc., were


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quite at our disposal. A better tribute could not well have been paid to the honesty of my Lepcha followers. Our host only begged us not to disturb his people, nor to allow the Hindoos of our party to smoke inside.

Simonbong Temple

Simonbong is one of the smallest and poorest Gumpas, or temples, in Sikkim: unlike the better class, it is built of wood only. It consisted of one large room, with small sliding shutter windows, raised on a stone foundation, and roofed with shingles of wood; opposite the door a wooden altar was placed, rudely chequered with black, white, and red; to the right and left were shelves, with a few Tibetan books, wrapped in silk; a model of Symbonath temple in Nepal, a praying-cylinder,* and some implements for common purposes, bags of juniper, English wine-bottles and

* It consisted of a leathern cylinder placed upright in a frame; a projecting piece of iron strikes a little bell at each revolution, the revolution being caused by an elbowed axle and string. Within the cylinder are deposited written prayers, and whoever pulls the string properly is considered to have repeated his prayers as often as the bell rings. Representations of these implements will be found in other parts of these volumes.


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glasses, with tufts of Abies Webbiana, rhododendron flowers, and peacock’s feathers, besides various trifles, clay ornaments and offerings, and little Hindoo idols. On the altar were ranged seven little brass cups, full of water; a large conch shell, carved with the sacred lotus; a brass jug from Lhassa, of beautiful design, and a human thigh-bone, hollow, and perforated through both condyles.*

rumpet made of a human thigh-bone

Facing the altar was a bench and a chair, and on one side a huge tambourine, with two curved iron drum-sticks. The bench was covered with bells, handsomely carved with idols, and censers with juniper-ashes; and on it lay the dorge, or double-headed thunderbolt, which the Lama holds in his hand during service. Of all these articles, the human thigh-bone is by much the most curious; it is very often that of a Lama, and is valuable in proportion to its length.† As, however, the Sikkim Lamas are burned, the relics are generally procured from Tibet, where the

* To these are often added a double-headed rattle, or small drum, formed of two crowns of human skulls, cemented back to back; each face is then covered with parchment, and encloses some pebbles. Sometimes this instrument is provided with a handle.
† It is reported at Dorjiling, that one of the first Europeans buried at this station, being a tall man, was disinterred by the resurrectionist Bhoteeas for his trumpet-bones.


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corpses are cut in pieces and thrown to the kites, or into the water.

Two boys usually reside in the temple, and their beds were given up to us, which being only rough planks laid on the floor, proved clean in one sense, but contrasted badly with the springy couch of bamboo the Lepcha makes, which renders carrying a mattress or aught but blankets superfluous.

May 24.—We were awakened at daylight by the discordant orisons of the Lama; these commenced by the boys beating the great tambourine, then blowing the conch-shells, and finally the trumpets and thigh-bone. Shortly the Lama entered, clad in scarlet, shorn and barefooted, wearing a small red silk mitre, a loose gown girt round the middle, and an under-garment of questionable colour, possibly once purple. He walked along, slowly muttering his prayers, to the end of the apartment, whence he took a brass bell and dorge, and, sitting down cross-legged, commenced matins, counting his beads, or ringing the bell, and uttering most dismal prayers. After various disposals of the cups, a larger bell was violently rung for some minutes, himself snapping his fingers and uttering most unearthly sounds. Finally, incense was brought, of charcoal with juniper-sprigs; it was swung about, and concluded the morning service to our great relief, for the noises were quite intolerable. Fervid as the devotions appeared, to judge by their intonation, I fear the Lama felt more curious about us than was proper under the circumstances; and when I tried to sketch him, his excitement knew no bounds; he fairly turned round on the settee, and, continuing his prayers and bell-accompaniment, appeared to be exorcising me, or some spirit within me.

After breakfast the Lama came to visit us, bringing rice,


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a few vegetables, and a large bamboo-work bowl, thickly varnished with india-rubber, and waterproof, containing half-fermented millet. This mixture, called Murwa, is invariably offered to the traveller, either in the state of fermented grain, or more commonly in a bamboo jug, filled quite up with warm water; when the fluid, sucked through a reed, affords a refreshing drink. He gratefully accepted a few rupees and trifles which we had to spare.

Leaving Simonbong, we descended to the Little Rungeet, where the heat of the valley was very great; 80° at noon, and that of the stream 69°; the latter was an agreeable temperature for the coolies, who plunged, teeming with perspiration, into the water, catching fish with their hands. We reached Dorjiling late in the evening, again drenched with rain; our people, Hindoo and Lepcha, imprudently remaining for the night in the valley. Owing probably as much to the great exposure they had lately gone through, as to the sudden transition from a mean temperature of 50° in a bracing wind, to a hot close jungly valley at 75°, no less than seven were laid up with fever and ague.

Few excursions can afford a better idea of the general features and rich luxuriance of the Sikkim Himalaya than that to Tonglo. It is always interesting to roam with an aboriginal, and especially a mountain people, through their thinly inhabited valleys, over their grand mountains, and to dwell alone with them in their gloomy and forbidding forests, and no thinking man can do so without learning much, however slender be the means at his command for communion. A more interesting and attractive companion than the Lepcha I never lived with: cheerful, kind, and patient with a master to whom he is attached; rude but not savage, ignorant and yet intelligent; with the simple resource of a plain knife he makes his


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house and furnishes yours, with a speed, alacrity, and ingenuity that wile away that well-known long hour when the weary pilgrim frets for his couch. In all my dealings with these people, they proved scrupulously honest. Except for drunkenness and carelessness, I never had to complain of any of the merry troop; some of whom, bareheaded and barelegged, possessing little or nothing save a cotton garment and a long knife, followed me for many months on subsequent occasions, from the scorching plains to the everlasting snows. Ever foremost in the forest or on the bleak mountain, and ever ready to help, to carry, to encamp, collect, or cook, they cheer on the traveller by their unostentatious zeal in his service, and are spurs to his progress.

Tibetan amulet


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