Travel Bucket List: India – Sikkim Part 1

The next state we will explore is the gorgeous Himalayan state of Sikkim. Bordering the Tibet Autonomous Region of China in the north and northeast, Bhutan in the east, Nepal in the west, and West Bengal in the south, Sikkim is also close to India’s Siliguri Corridor near Bangladesh. One of the least populous and the second smallest among the Indian states, Sikkim is a part of the Eastern Himalayas and is well known for its biodiversity, including alpine and subtropical climates, as well as being a host to Kangchenjunga, the highest peak in India and third highest on Earth. Almost 35% of the state is covered by the Khangchendzonga National Park – a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Kingdom of Sikkim was founded by the Namgyal dynasty in the 17th century and was ruled by the Buddhist priest-kings known as the Chogyal. It became a princely state of British India in 1890 and following Indian independence, continued its protectorate status with the Union of India after 1947, and the Republic of India after 1950. In 1973, anti-royalist riots took place in front of the Chogyal’s palace and in 1975, after the Indian Army took over the city of Gangtok, a referendum was held that led to the deposition of the monarchy and Sikkim joining India as its 22nd state.

Modern Sikkim is a multiethnic and multilingual state with the official state languages being English, Nepali, Sikkimese and Lepcha. Additional official languages include Gurung, Limbu, Magar, Mukhia, Newari, Rai, Sherpa and Tamang for the preservation of culture and tradition in the state. The state’s economy is largely dependent on agriculture and tourism and accounts for the largest share of cardamom production in India and is the world’s second-largest producer of cardamom after Guatemala. Sikkim became the first state in India to convert its agriculture to becoming fully organic and is also among India’s most environmentally conscious states, having banned plastic water bottles in any government functions and meetings and polystyrene products throughout the state.

The origin theory of the name Sikkim is that it is a combination of two Limbu words: Su, which means new, and Khyim, which means a palace or a house. The Tibetan name for Sikkim is Drenjong which means a valley of rice, while the Bhutias call it Beyul Demazong, which means the hidden valley of rice. According to folklore, after establishing Rabdentse as his new capital, the Bhutia king Tensung Namgyal built a palace and asked his Limbu Queen to name it. The Lepcha people, the original inhabitants of Sikkim, called it Nye-mae-el, meaning Paradise. In historical Indian literature, Sikkim is known as Indrakil, or the garden of the war god Lord Indra.

The Lepchas are considered to be the earliest inhabitants of Sikkim while the Limbus and the Magars lived in the inaccessible parts of the west and south districts as early as the Lepchas perhaps lived in the east and the northern districts. The Buddhist saint Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rinpoche, is said to have passed through in the 8th century and is reported to have blessed the land, introduced Buddhism, and foretold the era of monarchy that would arrive in Sikkim centuries later.

According to legend, Khye Bumsa, a 14th-century prince from the Minyak House in Kham in eastern Tibet, received a divine revelation instructing him to travel south to seek his fortunes. A fifth-generation descendant of Khye Bumsa, Phuntsog Namgyal, became the founder of Sikkim’s monarchy in 1642, when he was consecrated as the first Chogyal, or priest-king, of Sikkim by the three venerated lamas at Yuksom. Phuntsog Namgyal was succeeded in 1670 by his son, Tensung Namgyal, who moved the capital from Yuksom to Rabdentse, near modern Pelling. In 1700, Sikkim was invaded by the Bhutanese with the help of the half-sister of the Chogyal, who had been denied the throne. The Bhutanese were driven away by the Tibetan people, who restored the throne to the Chogyal ten years later. Between 1717 and 1733, the kingdom faced many raids by the Nepalese in the west and Bhutanese in the east, culminating with the destruction of the capital Rabdentse by the Nepalese. In 1791, China sent troops to support Sikkim and defend Tibet against the Gorkha Kingdom. Following the subsequent defeat of Gorkha, the Chinese Qing dynasty established control over Sikkim. Following the beginning of British rule in neighbouring India, Sikkim allied with Britain against their common adversary, Nepal. The Nepalese attacked Sikkim, overrunning most of the region including the Terai. This prompted the British East India Company to attack Nepal, resulting in the Gurkha War of 1814. Treaties signed between Sikkim and Nepal resulted in the return of the territory annexed by the Nepalese in 1817. However, ties between Sikkim and the British weakened when the latter began taxation of the Morang region. In 1849, after two British physicians ventured into the mountains of Sikkim unannounced and unauthorised and were detained by the Sikkimese government, the British led a punitive expedition against the kingdom, after which the Darjeeling district and Morang were annexed to British India in 1853. The Chogyal of Sikkim became a titular ruler under the directive of the British Governor as a result of the invasion.

Sikkim became a British protectorate in the latter decades of the 19th century, formalised by a convention signed with China in 1890. Sikkim was gradually granted more sovereignty over the next three decades and became a member of the Chamber of Princes, the assembly representing the rulers of the Indian princely states, in 1922. Before Indian independence, Jawaharlal Nehru pushed through a resolution in the Indian Constituent Assembly to the effect that Sikkim and Bhutan, as Himalayan states, were not Indian states and their future should be negotiated separately and a standstill agreement was signed in February 1948.

The Indian independence movement spurred a fledgling political movement in Sikkim, giving rise to the formation of Sikkim State Congress, a pro-accession political party who in their list of demands included an accession to India. They then launched a civil disobedience movement after which the Chogyal, Palden Thondup Namgyal asked India for help in quelling the movement, which was offered in the form of a small military police force and an Indian Dewan. In 1950, a treaty was agreed upon between India and Sikkim which gave Sikkim the status of an Indian protectorate. Sikkim came under the suzerainty of India, which controlled its external affairs, defence, diplomacy and communications and in other respects, Sikkim retained administrative autonomy. In 1973, anti-royalist riots took place in front of the Chogyal’s palace and in 1975, the Prime Minister of Sikkim appealed to the Indian Parliament for Sikkim to become a state of India. In April of that year, the Indian Army took over the city of Gangtok and disarmed the Chogyal’s palace guards. Thereafter, a referendum was held in which 97.5 per cent of voters supported abolishing the monarchy, effectively approving the union with India. On 16 May 1975, Sikkim became the 22nd state of the Indian Union, and the monarchy was abolished.

In 2000, the seventeenth Karmapa, Urgyen Trinley Dorje, who had been confirmed by the Dalai Lama and accepted as a tulku by the Chinese government, escaped from Tibet, seeking to return to the Rumtek Monastery in Sikkim. Chinese officials were in a quandary on this issue, as any protests to India would mean an explicit endorsement of India’s governance of Sikkim, which China still recognised as an independent state occupied by India. The Chinese government eventually recognised Sikkim as an Indian state in 2003, in return for India declaring Tibet as a part of the territory of China; New Delhi had accepted Tibet as part of China back in 1954, but China appears to have believed that the agreement had lapsed. The 2003 agreement led to a thaw in Sino-Indian relations and on 6 July 2006, the Sikkimese Himalayan pass of Nathu La was opened to cross-border trade, becoming the first open border between India and China. The pass, which was first opened during the 1904 Younghusband Expedition to Tibet, had remained closed since the 1962 Sino-Indian War.

The state is characterised by mountainous terrain with almost the entire state being hilly. The summit of Kangchenjunga, the world’s third-highest peak, is the state’s highest point, situated on the border between Sikkim and Nepal. Numerous snow-fed streams have carved out river valleys in the west and south of the state with these streams combining into the major Teesta River and its tributary, the Rangeet, which flow through the state from north to south. About a third of the state is heavily forested with the Himalayan mountains surrounding the northern, eastern and western borders of Sikkim. The Lower Himalayas, lying in the southern reaches of the state, are the most densely populated. Eight mountain passes connect the state to Tibet, Bhutan and Nepal. Sikkim’s hot springs are renowned for their medicinal and therapeutic value. The springs, which have a high sulphur content, are located near river banks with some known to emit hydrogen. The state has five seasons: winter, summer, spring, autumn, and monsoon season and the climate ranges from subtropical in the south to tundra in the north.

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