Rabong means “wet goat,” and few names would be more appropriate. The jeep ride from Gangtok took us through hill mists and showers, in and out of low hanging clouds. When we arrived the whole town was dripping, globbed by watery mud, run by rivulets flowing through the cracks in the streets, enshrouded by a thick white fog that gives everything within thirty meters a delicate and blurry glow — and obscures completely everything else. As we picked our way down the slick hill to the press seats, I was entranced by the ghostly spectacle of a radio tower, which faded into nothingness at its peak like some djinn-built babel ladder to heaven.
It was the first day of Pang Lhabsol, the annual Bhutia festival worshipping Mount Kanchenjunga and for little Rabong one of the biggest events of the year. The three days are packed with sports competitions, cultural programmes, religious ceremonies, development exhibitions and general merriment. The inaugural programme featured an address by the Chief Minister and a series of traditional tribal dances, to be performed on Rabong’s famous and now rain-slick volleyball court.
Coming from a society that has boiled away anything resembling traditional dances or tribal garb in the melting pot of history, and that probably wouldn’t be very interested in that kind of group identity even if we had any left, I must admit that I find these sorts of cultural demonstrations a little odd and not particularly exciting. With the overpowering dampness that had descended on Rabong that day, the whole endeavour seemed especially sad and banal. I didn’t realise the extent of it, however, until the first group of dancers shuffled out onto the court, shivering in their bare feet and colourful but sleeveless garments. You couldn’t see them. The fog was too thick. Barely thirty feet away, the dancers were pale will-o-wisps, bobbing in and out of the overtaking grey. Here dozens of residents and visitors had turned out in the rain to watch these dances, and all the detail of their clothes, all the precision of their hand movements and the coyness of their narrative smiles — all of it was lost in the dull depths of the cloud.
But as I looked around, expecting the audience to be filled with faces of disappointment, or at least resigned boredom, I saw none of that. Certainly the crowd was less than comfortable in the chill and the damp, but still they stared loyally into the fog, watching the dancers move and occasionally adding some sharp shout to the twangy, upbeat music. We went amongst the audience to ask how they were feeling, getting positive and carefree replies. And when we departed mid-programme to explore the other Pang Lhabsol festivities, we passed more coming to join the audience — young children and bent elders incredibly climbing up the many, many steeps steps from the bazaar to the Mane Choekerling Complex.
We found a similar enthusiasm in town. Though the moisture had turned into drizzle, and the drizzle into rain, residents and visitors still crowded the streets, eating or shopping or making their way to the programme above or just generally milling about. Festive little lights were strung overhead, and through they remained unlit the coloured wire still brightened the muddy scene considerably.
The Pang Lhabsol celebration in Rabong this year was marketed in part as a great event for monsoon tourism, so we were quite excited to spot what appeared to be two genuine monsoon tourists coming up the main road. Ruth and Yussef Habibi, a British couple, were visiting Rabong after spending several weeks volunteering at a school in East Sikkim. The two hadn’t known about the festival before arriving but considered the timing fortuitous and were keen to check it out. We asked how they were liking their “monsoon tourism experience,” and the couple replied that they were enjoying it, appreciating it for what it was — but weren’t likely to want to come back for a second go next year.
At the covered exhibition compound many stalls were still empty on the first day of the celebrations, but there were plenty of poorly lit displays of crafts both traditional and contemporary: seeds, shawls, handbags made from denim jeans and cheap good from Thailand. These last had been brought by a Bangkok resident named Yocshai, who, after previous visits to the the North Eastern hills, was contacted to bring his wares by a member of the celebration’s organising committee. Yocshai, more than anyone else we talked to, was dissatisfied with how things were going — not so much because of the rain but because of how slow business was going. Still, he hoped things would pick up over the next two days and said he wouldn’t rule out further trips to Sikkim in the future (if not to Rabong, then to Gangtok).
Wet and tired but somehow vaguely impressed with how the little festival was turning out, we took a taxi back to the Mane Choekerling Complex to catch the end of the cultural programme, not wishing to trudge up those endless stairs. And as we pulled into the muddy parking area, our driver, Anmol, told us how he felt about the whole event. According to Anmol, the celebration this year was actually better than it has been in past years — in fact because of the rain. More rain meant more people like us, willing to skip the stairs and spend Rs. 100 on a cab. The weather had to be working for someone, I suppose.
Mountains, perhaps more than any other entity or object worshipped by the myriad religions of the world, are things you can see. They are huge and imposing in their sheer size and physicality, and of course that’s what makes them worthy of reverence. I don’t know whether one could normally see Mount Kanchenjunga from Rabong, but that cloud-cloaked day of still and bulbous mists nothing was visible. The idea of worshipping a mountain that one cannot see seems to me both ironic and profound. It takes a certain perseverance, and maybe that’s what kept the residents of Rabong so chipper. Maybe that’s what made them willing to walk up a hundred stairs to watch a dance show they couldn’t even properly see. Maybe we’ll just call it faith.