Sikkim, India                 Click on thumbnails below for additional pictures ...

Mt. Kanchenjunga, 450+ species of wild orchids, and the Abominable Snowman are all native to Sikkim. Well, no one has ever found the Abominable Snowman, but he's supposed to live here, known as Yeti by the folks who look for him. Sikkim (with Darjeeling, historically part of Sikkim) is a distinct region of India. Its rugged mountainsides and narrow river gorges, which vary from the low-altitude Himalayas to over 28,000 ft, are covered with dense, lush, semi-tropical vegetation below about 10,000 ft.; above that, the vegetation thins until there's nothing but rock and snow, making for what is surely some of the most spectacular scenic beauty in the world.

The leading mother tongues here are Nepali, followed by Tibetan, Bengali and some tribal languages. Today, most Sikkimese also speak a fair bit of Hindi. The area was first settled only about 700 years ago by a hunter-gatherer group called the Lepcha. A hundred or so years later, Tibetan Buddhists migrated down to this area, set up villages and scores of monasteries, and ordained the first chogyal (king) of Sikkim. The  British arrived in the 1800s. During the ensuing wars between the British, Nepalis, and the Sikkimese (Bhutias), the Nepalis migrated here in large numbers (today constituting ~75% of the population). Darjeeling was carved out and given to the British. Later, the British outright conquered the Bhutia kings, reducing Sikkim to a "princely state."

When sovereignty was restored to the Sikkimese monarchy in 1947, this king realized that his was but a small nation with China breathing down its neck, and he saw what happened to Tibet in the 1950s. His subjects, too, were restless, calling for an end to feudalism and agitating for union with India. In the '62 Sino-Indian war, skirmishes occurred in Sikkim (then an Indian protectorate) at the Nathula Pass. With the situation untenable, the government put a referendum to the people in 1974, who voted by 97% to become a state of India.

Today, Sikkim remains relatively sparsely populated with a population about 80% Hindu (Nepali and Bengali), 20% Tibetan Buddhist (Bhutia), and a smattering of Lepchas and other tribals who still practice their shamanistic religions. The Lepchas, though integrated into the agricultural economy, maintain their separate linguistic and religious identity. The largest city is Gangtok, at about 30,000 people, and it goes down fast from there. The state is densely patrolled by the Indian Army stationed high in the mountains as a deterrent to a Chinese invasion (the Chinese weren't pleased by the Sikkimese solution).   [- Usha Alexander , Oct 05]







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