Saturday, October 01, 2011

Unique Charm of Thumb-shaped State of India

Sikkim spans just 7,000sqkm but if the tour operator insists you visit just two districts in one trip, he isn’t taking you for a ride. The state has four distinct sections — the North, South, East and West districts — and each has its unique charm. One such quaint spot in West Sikkim is the site of the coronation of the first king or Chogyal. Legend has it that Mahaguru Rimpoche, the founder of Tibetan Buddhism, had made a prophecy about Sikkim in the 8th century. Nine centuries later, three wise lamas gathered from the north, south and west at Yoksam and launched the search for “a man from the east, bearing the name Phuntsog”, as foretold in the prophecy. The chosen young man was found near Gangtok and crowned the first king of Sikkim in 1642. At that historic spot today stands a stone throne shaded by a 300-year-old fir tree. As a homage to the erstwhile kingdom, a stupa nearby contains soil and water from all over Sikkim and is maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India. Sikkim gave up monarchy and became a state in the Union of India in April 1975 after popular sentiments went against the Chogyal. Between 1947 and then, Sikkim was a special protectorate. The Government of India managed its external affairs, defence, diplomacy and communications. The monarch had autonomy in other matters. Sikkim’s accession to India remains a sore point with China, which considered the state a territory occupied by India till 2003. As Buddhism was once the state religion, monasteries and stupas abound in Sikkim. Some of the famous ones are Rumtek Monastery, Peymiangtse Monastery, Sangachoeling Monastery, Dro-dul Chorten stupa (in Gangtok) and a stupa resembling the Swayambhunath temple of Kathmandu in a monastery near the holy Khecheopalri Lake. Speaking of lakes, Sikkim has nearly 180 of them. “Of them, Khecheopalri, Gurudongmar and Chhangu are the most scenic,” said Priya Majumdar, who visited Sikkim a second time a few months back. The state is also famous for its numerous therapeutic hot springs. Sikkim’s lifeline is the Teesta, which originates in Cholamu Lake in North Sikkim and unites with her “lover”, the male river Rangit, near Teesta Bazaar. But the most defining geographical feature of the state is the Kanchenjunga (8,586m), the third-highest in the world and the guardian deity to the people of Sikkim. Residents believe that beneath the slopes of this sacred mountain, God created the original man and woman, from whom all Sikkimese have descended. The slightest whims of the deity can unleash floods, avalanches and hailstorms upon the valleys. Earthquakes too. Joe Brown and George Band were the first to summit the Kanchenjunga on May 25, 1955. The British expedition honoured the beliefs of the Sikkimese people by stopping a few feet short of the actual summit. Since then, successful summit missions have followed this tradition. The people of Sikkim can be broadly divided into three ethnic communities — the Bhutias, the Nepalis and the Lepchas, who are the oldest inhabitants of the land. Each community has its own traditional costumes, customs and festivals. “The communities, though distinct and diverse, live in harmony. The Sikkimese, like most hill-dwellers, are simple, hardworking people,” said Pranab Basu, a Calcutta-based photographer who has shot extensively in Sikkim. While keeping their ethnic traditions alive, the Sikkimese have embraced modern living. The government aims to achieve 100 per cent literary by 2015. The present figure stands at 76.6 per cent, a notch above the national average of 74.04 per cent (2011 preliminary census figures). Carpet weaving is a thriving industry, as are handicrafts and watch-making. This, however, is true mostly for people living in and around Gangtok and in towns such as Pelling, Jorethang or Mangan (which is close to the epicentre of Sunday’s quake). “In the remote corners of the state, particularly in North Sikkim or in tribal-protected zones such as Dzongu, the old ways of life hold sway and shifting or jhum cultivation is the norm,” says Surajit Chakraborty, who is involved in tourism promotion in Sikkim. The opening of Nathu-la for cross-border trade with China in 2006 not only provided a fillip to the state’s economy but also helped thaw relations in the region. In recent years, the government of Sikkim has extensively promoted tourism. As a result, the state’s revenue has increased 14 times since the mid-1990s, according to some estimates. The natural beauty of Sikkim, with its mountains, glaciers, valleys, rivers and streams, orchids and butterflies, red pandas and snow leopards, make it a nature lover’s paradise. And an island of tranquil safety. “It’s so ironical that Sikkim, which is blessed with such stunning natural beauty, should suffer nature’s wrath in this way,” said Calcutta resident Shipra De, who has travelled the length and breath of the thumb-shaped state.

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