Some 34 km from Gangtok and 158 km from Siliguri lies Martam, a small hamlet in east Sikkim, accessible only by road — the condition of which wasn’t what could be expected because of the monsoon and landslide debris hampering progress in some stretches.

Although the Border Road Organisation was working at full tempo to clear the road, our car had to stop frequently, even if for a couple of minutes, to allow upcoming vehicles right of way. I was going to Martam on the occasion of Janmastami to attend the inauguration ceremony of a Radha-Krishna temple that had been renovated with funds provided by local legislator Mechung Bhutia and donations raised, but apart from the beauty of the temple I was awestruck by the lush green surrounds.

The temple is perched at a height of around 3,000 feet. Thankfully, there was no rain and when I got there it was pretty hot and the umbrella I carried came in handy by way of a parasol and a walking aid, when necessary. The land for the temple had been donated by the family of the late Kul Bahadur Bhansari, who wanted to build the temple himself but for some reason couldn’t accomplish this in his lifetime. But after his demise, family members stepped in and there we were, seated in the shade of the awning stretched across the door of the temple.

Around two-three decades ago, children from Martam had to walk every day to school in Gangtok and better-off parents would keep their children there as paying guests. The trod to Gangtok , even following the best shortcuts, took no less than two hours for a one-way journey, though the return trip took slightly less because of the descent. The situation has now changed completely since the Sikkim Democratic Front took over in 1994. There is a high school in Martam, the road is also metalled and electricity is not a problem, though, during inclement weather, there is the occasional blackout. Every house has cable TV and wherever I looked, I found only cemented structures. I learnt that every poor household was given a two-roomed structure by the government and a free electricity connection. The government has worked wonders to improve the conditions of the poor. 

As importantly, tree felling is almost nil in contrast with nextdoor neighbour Darjeeling, where trees are cut down rampantly. Simply go to Ghoom near Darjeeling any early morning and you cannot miss the transportation of loads of illegally felled wooden logs culled from nearby forest. In Sikkim, nobody even dares cut down a dead branch and every citizen of Sikkim is dedicated to saving trees; even plucking leaf is prohibited and every tourist is told by the driver never to pluck any leaf because this could attract a fine.

In Martam, I made time to meet a centenarian, social worker and World War II veteran, Sarvajit Bhansari (Pradhan).  An ex-army man, he had served under the British during the war and I learnt that while in Libya he was once taken prisoner by the Italians and lodged in a a Prisoner of War camp for several months before being liberated by British forces. Though he faltered some times due to age, I found his memory quite sharp. He said that with the victorious army he also entered Berlin and after D-Day his battalion also landed at the coast of France. Then they were taken to England after the war. In 1945, after an almost month-long sea voyage in a British battle ship that took a long detour via the Cape of Good Hope, his battalion finally landed at the Gateway of India.

He said once in London he had also seen Churchill when the latter had visited the Gurkha army base. Once back in Martam after the war, he took voluntary retirement and adopted cultivation as a means of livelihood. He was so fascinated by Adolf Hitler and General Rommel during the war that he named his eldest and second sons Hitler and Rommel respectively. He has seven sons and a daughter, who are well settled, but all their names represent one or the other important contemporary personalities. One of his army friends had also named his eldest Churchill. 

In Martam back then, those returning from the Great War literally followed this practice when it came to naming their children. Recently, Bhansari’s eldest son,  Dr Hitler Pradhan, an eminent eye surgeon of Sikkim, retired as medical superintendent of the  Sir Tashi Namgyal Memorial Hospital. He told me that during his high school days he had to walk to Gangtok every day but despite this regular laborious four-hour trek hrough difficult hilly terrain, he never compromised on studies, always passing every examination with high marks, which was the reason he was selected from Sikkim to read in a medical college in West Bengal in those days when Sikkim was not yet formally merged with India. This is called dedication. These days, in spite of receiving every comfort, most children do not excel in studies, which is an irony!

Bench terracing is practised by Martam’s farmers. This practice is adopted to make sloping land cultivable or stable, though nowhere here is the slope more than 30 degrees. These terraces consist of platforms or mostly level benches cut into hill slopes in step-like formation. The platforms, it appears, are separated by very steep sides, often with retaining walls supported by rock or vegetation, and are highly effective. The ploughable surface has been sloped slightly back into the hills to hold back water from flowing over the benches and I thought this highly scientific. I feel that if these terrace walls are strengthened by shrubs of medicinal plants, the farmers can earn an extra income. Hopefully, the state government might want to consider this proposal. 

Martam’s soil is highly fertile because of the liberal use of organic fertiliser —  as is the case throughout the state – and it presents majestic views of lofty mountains, lush green vegetation, a proximity to nature and ever green forests with their endless species of birds and butterflies coming as an extra bonus.

The world famous Rumtek Monastery is just six kilometres from Martam, where Buddhism is still taught to students. I even saw foreigners learning the art of meditation with absolute dedication and submission. Visitors to Gangtok would do well to spare some precious time to visit Martam to realise its affinity with nature. Accommodation is no problem because there are around two dozen thatched huts with modern facilities for tourists and a hotel they can book with tour operators in advance. 

Martam can be visited throughout the year, but the monsoon offers the better choice because of the endless green, the perennial chirping of multicoloured birds and the constant buzz of dragonflies and beetles. But you would need to carry either an umbrella or a raincoat, because rain is uncertain in the hills at all times of the year. Also, if time permits, make the effort to meet Sarvajit Bhandari and learn how he keeps perfect health at this old age.

By PK Chhetri