President & Group Managing Director: Dr.Shelly Ahmed | Editor in Chief & Group CEO: M H Ahssan

Monday, January 19, 2009

Exclusive Report: Haven On Earth - Sikkim

By M H Ahssan

Sikkim is sheer magic. This is not just the most beautiful place in the world but cleanest and safest too. If once the charms of the state were limited to mists, mountains and colourful butterflies, they are now complimented by tangible development and progress. With its unique culture and natural landscape. Sikkim is a picture of perfection and pristine purity.

Nestled in the Himalayas and endowed with exceptional natural resources, Sikkim is a hotspot of biodiversity and development. Though small in size, yet Sikkim has been identified world over as an important repository of germplasms of unknown dimensions. Perhaps, there is no part of the world, which offers a spectaular scene with every turn of the road as Sikkim. Though land-locked, Sikkim is one of the most beautiful and strategically important state of the Indian Union.

Bounded by foreign nations on three sides, it shares its boundary with sister state West Bengal. Surrounded on three sides by precipitous mountain walls, Sikkim appears as a small rectangular Gem. Sikkim is like a stupendous stairway leading from the western border of the Tibetan plateau down to the plains of West Bengal, with a fall of about 5.215 metres in 240kms. Sikkim, in the west is bound by the north-south spur of the Great Himalayan Range which includes the world's third highest peak, Khangchendzonga and down to its south is Singalila ridge. In the north it is bound by Dongkia range and also partly includes the Tibetan Plateau. In the east it is bound by the Chola range. The average steepness is about 45 degree. Sikkim is the main catchment area for the beautiful river Teesta, which has its main source from Chho Lhamo lake in the north and is further strengthened by many streams and rivers of which Tholung. Lachung. Great Rangeet and Rangpo are important drainers. It also has about 180 perennial lakes, among which Khachoedpalri, Gurudongmar, Chho Lhamo and Men Moi Tso are some of the most scenic.

Dominating both legend and landscape of Sikkim is the mighty Khangchendzonga. Known to the outside world as Kanchenjunga, it is the third highest peak in the world. But to the Sikkemese it is much more than a mountain: Khangchendzonga is the Guardian deity, a country God whose benign watchfulness ensures peace and prosperity for the land. The five peaks of Khangchendzonga are the five Treasures of the Eternal Snow, a belief beautifully interpreted by the great Lama Lhatsun Chenpo: "The peak most conspicuously gilded by the rising sun is the treasury of gold, the peak that remains in cold grey shade is the storehouse for silver and other peaks are vaults for gems, grains and the holy books."

Each of the five peaks is believed to be crowned by an animalthe highest by a tiger and others by a lion, elephant, horse and the mythical bird Garuda. Along with the Guardian deity, the Nepal Peak, Tent Peak, Pyramid, Jonsang, Lhonak, Pahunri etc. and glaciers like Zemu, Changsang, Teesta, Changme are also important. The most important passes are jelep-la, Nathu-la, Cho-la and Thanka-la in the east; Donkiua, Kongralamu and Naku in the north and Kanglanangma and Chia Bhanjyang in the west.

- Area: 7096 sq km
- Capital Town: Gangtok
- Number of Districts: 4
- District Headquarters: North-Mangan, South-Namchi, East-Gangtok, West-Gyalshing.
- Population : 5, 40, 857 (Census-2001)
- Language Spoken: Nepali, English, Hindi, Bhutia (Sikkimese), Bhutia (Tibetan), Lepcha, Limboo.
- Literacy Rates: 69.68% (Census-2001)
- Best Season to Visit: March to June and September to December
- Maximum Summer Temperature: 300c
- Minimum Winter Temperature: 00c

Nearest Railway Station: The closest Railhead is at New Jalpaiguri in West Bengal, 148 km and Siliguri which are connected to Calcutta, New Delhi Guwahati and other major Indian cities.

Nearest Airport: The closest Indian Airport is at a distance of 124kms from Gangtok at Bagdogra in Siliguri in West Bengal, where scheduled flights operates from kolkata (Calcutta), Delhi and Guwahati and connecting flights onwards. Travel time from the irport to Gangtok is 4 hours. From Kathmandu you can fly to Bhadrapur in the east Nepal (1 hour), then drive to Kakarbhitta (Nepal-India border, 35 kms), to Siliguri (37 kms) and to Gangtok (110kms. 4 hrs). Or fly to Biratnagar also in the east.

Helicopter Service: The Bagdogra airport is connected to Gangtok by a helicopter service which takes approx. 30 minutes to reach Gangtok. Sikkim Tourism Development Corporation (+91-3592-222634) operates this service daily at 11:00 AM from Gangtok to Bagdogra and at 2:00 PM from Bagdogra to Gangtok at a price of Rs. 2000/- per person. It is a five seater chopper and mountain flights and other such tours to North Sikkim are conducted.

Road: Gangtok is well connected by a road to Siliguri, 114 kms. 4 hours, which functions as the major transit point for the North and Eastern sections of the Indian Sub continent. Gangtok is further well connected by road with Darjeeling (4Hrs), Kalimpong and with Bhutan, Phuntsholing (6Hrs).

- State Animal: Red Panda (Ailurus fulgens)
- State Bird: Blood Pheasant (Ithaginis cruentus)
- State Flower: Noble Orchid (Dendrobium nobile)
- State Tree: Rhododendron (Rhododendron niveum)
- Cash Crop: Cardamom (Amomum Sublatum), tea, ginger, potatoes, oranges, medicinal plants, flowers and flower bulbs.

In the year 1592, when men in power were still God fearing and honored their word, a sacred covenant between the Lepchas - the indigenous people of Sikkim, and the Tibetan Bhutias was solemnized. This historical event took place near Gangtok, the present capital of Sikkim.

A bull was sacrificed to the Gods and an oath was sworn over its blood that the Lepchas and Bhutias would never fight and live as blood brothers in peace and harmony. Who ever broke the sacred oath would be cursed along with his descendents. From then on, on the 15th of every ninth month of the Tibetan calendar, the people of this region would make an offering of food and drink to their God to celebrate this sacred covenant. However the Tibetan rulers of the Sikkim could not keep their word for long and broke the sacred oath, inviting the wrath of the curse on themselves. The Namgyal dynasty that ruled over Sikkim from 1642-1975, came to an end on 16th May 1975 and Sikkim became the 22nd State of India. However during my recent trip to the eastern Himalays I realized that while the rulers of this region broke the sacred oath of peace the people of this region continue to follow the sacred covenant.

Kalimpong was my first experience of the eastern Himalayas. We arrived by road from Bagdogra at night, occasionally stopping on the way for tea at some roadside dhaba. It was a different world – the silence, the hills and the trees breathing refreshingly moist cold air, the narrow winding roads fading into a foggy corners, the simple rural folk, the place seemed so romantically remote and away from the everyday absurdities of city life.

The next day, a local Bhutia driver took us around Kalimpong, telling us a little bit about all the major land marks. He was a gentle and friendly man and would greet every third person on the road as we drove around the town. When I commented on his popularity among the locals, his response was simple – “since we do not know how long we are going to live, we might as well live with friendship and love while we are still alive !”

Kalimpong, as well as the rest of the region of eastern Himalayas, is home to people of different tribes and faiths. There are Nepali Hindus, Lepchas and Bhutias who are mostly Buddhist and a small Christian and a Tibetan Muslim population. The Lepchas, meaning ‘ravine folk’ are believed to be the original inhabitants of Sikkim. They are the people who lived with and worshiped nature – they venerated the spirits of rivers and mountains before adopting Buddhism or Christianity. Their closeness to nature is reflected in their language, which though not well developed, is rich in vocabulary related to the plants and animals of this region. The Bhutias are of Tibetan origin who migrated from Tibetan to Sikkim, Himalayan West Bengal and Bhutan after the 15th century. They follow Nyingmapa and Kagyupa school of Tibetan Buddhism. Majority of Nepalis here are Hindus, except the Sherpas and Tamangs, who are Buddhist.

Few outsiders are aware of the fact Tibet had, and perhaps still has, pockets of Muslims entrenched within its borders. Tibetan Muslims trace their origin to immigrants from China, Kashmir, Ladakh and Nepal. Islamic influence in Tibet also came from Persia and Turkestan.
After 1959, during the Chinese aggression, quite a few Tibetan Muslims managed to escape out of Tibet into the border towns of Gangtok, Kalimpong and Darjeeling. A large number of them moved to Kashmir. However, according to one report, about 50 Tibetan Muslim families still reside in the Kalimpong-Darjeeling region. Tibetan Muslims in Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Nepal have a joint Tibetan Muslim Welfare Association based in Kalimpong. I met some of them outside the Jame Masjid in Kalimpong. When I asked one of them if there was any friction among the different communities, he seemed to be taken by surprise, ‘What is there to fight about?’ he wondered. ‘We are simple folks, and our only concern is to earn a living and save for our children’s future’ he added. That moment all the petty politics of hate and communalization over the Jamia Nagar encounter and Malegaon blast come to my mind and I felt a bit ashamed of myself. The rest of India broke its sacred covenant of brotherhood long time ago and God knows how many of our future generations will face the wrath of the curse.

It was in Kalimpong where a Buddhist taxi driver and a pious namaazi taught me the refreshingly simple philosophy of peaceful co-existence. It was in Kalimpong, too, that I got my first glimpse of eastern Himalayas and Kanchendzonga, the highest mountain peak of India. The serene landscape of hills rolling into the far horizon with the mighty Kanchendzonga rising far above the clouds reminded me of what Pir Inanyat Khan, the great musician and sufi, once wrote - the spiritual centre of a region lies at its highest point.
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