The tiny and beautiful state of SIKKIM lies to the south of Tibet, sandwiched between Nepal to the west and Bhutan to the east. Measuring just 65km by 115km, its landscape ranges from sweltering deep valleys just 300m above sea level to lofty snow peaks such as Kanchenjunga (Kanchendzonga to the locals) which, at 8586m, is the third-highest mountain in the world. A small but growing network of tortuous roads penetrates this rugged and beautiful Himalayan wilderness.
For centuries Sikkim was an isolated, independent Buddhist kingdom, until war with China in the early 1960s led the Indian government to realize the area’s strategic importance as a crucial corridor between Tibet and Bangladesh. As a result of its annexation by India in 1975, Sikkim has experienced dramatic changes. Now a fully-fledged Indian state, it is predominantly Hindu, with a population made up of 75 percent Nepalese Gurungs, and less than twenty percent Lepchas, its former rulers. Smaller proportions survive of Bhutias, of Tibetan stock, and Limbus, also possibly of Tibetan origin, who gave the state its name – sukh-im, “happy homeland”. Nepali is now the lingua franca and the Nepalese are socially and politically the most dominant people in the state. However, the people of Sikkim continue to jealously guard their freedom and affluence and remain untouched by the Nepalese Gurkhas’ autonomy movement in neighbouring Darjeeling who occasionally disrupt the only roads leading into the state. Although only Sikkimese can hold major shares in property and businesses, partnerships with Indian (non-Sikkimese) entrepreneurs and subsidies to indigenous Sikkimese industry have led to prosperity – fuelled by its special status within the union as well as the reopening of the lucrative trade route along its borders with Tibet at Nathu La – that’s evident as soon as you cross the border from West Bengal.
Historically, culturally and spiritually, Sikkim’s strongest links are with Tibet. The main draws for visitors are the state’s off-the-beaten-track trekking and its many monasteries, over two hundred in all, mostly belonging to the ancient Nyingmapa sect. Pemayangtse in West Sikkim is the most historically significant, and houses an extraordinary wooden mandala depicting Guru Rinpoche’s Heavenly Palace. Tashiding, a Nyingmapa monastery built in 1717, surrounded by prayer flags and chortens and looking across to snowcapped peaks, is considered Sikkim’s holiest. Rumtek is the seat of the Gyalwa Karmapa – head of the Karma Kagyu lineage – and probably the wealthiest monastery in Sikkim. Besides monasteries and the staggering beauty of the land, many come to Sikkim to trek. The capital, Gangtok, a busy, colourful, bustling cosmopolitan town, perennially growing, is home to a bewildering array of trekking agents only too happy to take your money in dollars and to arrange the necessary permits.
Sikkim’s gigantic mountain walls and steep wooded hillsides, drained by torrential rivers such as the Teesta and the Rangit, are a botanist’s dream. The lower slopes abound in orchids, sprays of cardamom carpet the forest floor, and the land is rich with apple orchards, orange groves and terraced paddy fields (to the Tibetans, this was Denzong, “the land of rice”). At higher altitudes, monsoon mists cling to huge tracts of lichen-covered forests, where countless varieties of rhododendron carpet the hillsides and giant magnolia trees punctuate the deep verdant cover. Higher still, approaching the Tibetan plateau, larch and dwarf rhododendron give way to meadows abundant with gentians and potentilla. Sikkim’s forests and wilderness areas are inhabited by a wealth of fauna, including extremely elusive snow leopards, tahr (wild goat on the Tibet plateau), bharal or blue sheep, black bear, flying squirrels and the symbol of Sikkim – the endangered red panda.
The best time to visit is between mid-March and June but especially March, April and May, when the rhododendrons and orchids bloom – although temperatures can be high at this time of year, especially in the valleys. Any earlier than that, and lingering winter snow can make high-altitude trekking arduous. During the monsoons, from the end of June until early September, rivers and some roads become impassable, though plants nurtured by the incessant rain erupt again into bloom towards the end of August. October (when orchids bloom once again) and November tend to have the clearest weather of all. The colourful harvest festival of Losung is in early December after which it can get bitterly cold (especially at high altitudes), with long periods of clear weather. The impact of global warming is proving tragic for Sikkim, with rapidly receding glaciers and unpredictable weather patterns resulting in excessive rain and the disruption of the state’s fragile road systems.
No one knows quite when or how the Lepchas – or the Rong, as they call themselves – came to Sikkim, but their roots can be traced back to the animist Nagas of the Indo-Burmese border. Buddhism, which arrived from Tibet in the thirteenth century, took its distinctive Sikkimese form four centuries later, when three Tibetan monks of the old Nyingmapa order, disenchanted with the rise of the reformist Gelugpas, migrated south and gathered at Yoksum in western Sikkim. Having consulted the oracle, they sent to Gangtok for a certain Phuntsog Namgyal, whom they crowned as the first chogyal or “righteous king” of Denzong in 1642. Both the secular and religious head of Sikkim, he was soon recognized by Tibet, and set about sweeping reforms. His domain was far larger than today’s Sikkim, taking in Kalimpong and parts of western Bhutan.
Over the centuries, territory was lost to the Bhutanese, the Nepalese and the British. Sikkim originally ceded Darjeeling to the East India Company as a spa in 1817, but was forced to give up all claim to it in 1861 when the kingdom was declared a protectorate of the British. Tibet, which perceived Sikkim as a vassalage, objected and invaded in 1886, but a small British force sent in 1888 to Lhasa helped the British consolidate their hold. By importing workers from Nepal to work in the tea plantations of Sikkim, Darjeeling and Kalimpong, the British sought to diminish the strong Tibetan influence and helped alter the ethnic make-up of the region, with the new migrants soon outnumbering the indigenous population.
After Indian Independence, the reforming and intensely spiritual eleventh chogyal, Tashi Namgyal, strove hard until his death in 1962 to prevent the dissolution of his kingdom. Officially Sikkim was a protectorate of India, and the role of India became increasingly crucial, with the Chinese military build-up along the northern borders that culminated in an actual invasion early in the 1960s. His son Palden Thondup, the last chogyal, married as his second wife an American, Hope Cook, whose reforms as gyalmo (queen) did not prove popular and also came to irritate the Indian government. The embattled chogyal eventually succumbed to the demands of the Nepalese majority, and Sikkim was annexed by India in 1975 after a referendum with an overwhelming 97-percent majority. The chogyal remained as a figurehead until his death in 1981.
The state continues to be treated with care by the Indian government, partly through a lingering sense of unease amongst the disaffected Sikkimese minority and an increasingly complex ethnic patchwork but, more importantly, because Sikkim remains a bone of contention between India and China despite huge progress in cross-border diplomacy and trade. Today, the Sikkim Democratic Front forms the government of Sikkim; generous government subsidies and loans have helped to ensure that life remains generally contented, while extensive road-building is bringing benefits to remote communities despite the many landslides in recent years.Read More
River dams and roaming bears
River dams and roaming bears
Industrialization and the construction of dams and numerous hydroelectric projects on Sikkim’s rivers has brought pressure on the state’s diminishing indigenous population especially in Dzongu, the heartland of the Lepchas, threatening their lifestyle and heritage. Although the voice of their protest is now all but lost, the destruction of habitat and the extraordinary strain on the state’s fragile road system is self-evident. For more information, visit wwww.weepingsikkim.blogspot.com.
The loss of forest cover has also brought out black bears wandering into villages and towns, including the outskirts of Gangtok, foraging for food. Attacks are not uncommon and the State’s only response seems to be to kill the unfortunate intruders rather than relocate them and protect their habitat.
Permits and restrictions
Permits and restrictions
Though foreigners need to obtain an Inner Line Permit (ILP) to visit Sikkim, getting one is a mere, if irritating, formality. Permits are available in India at the offices listed below and can also be obtained in advance along with your Indian visa, but agencies abroad charge exorbitant fees. In India Sikkim permits are free. Permits can be instantly acquired at the Sikkim border at Rangpo and there are plans also to make them available at Melli; go to the tourist office for an application form and then cross the road to have it registered by the police. If you’re picking up your permit after arrival in India, you’ll need two passport photographs, and photocopies of your passport and visa details.
Permits are date-specific and initially valid for fifteen days from entry (though at the time of writing this was being changed to an initial thirty days with an extension of a further thirty), normally renewable for a further fifteen days, and can be extended up to a maximum of sixty days. Extensions can be obtained at the Foreigners’ Regional Registration Office, Kazi Road, Gangtok (t03592/223041), and are also available through the superintendents of police at Mangan, Gyalshing and Namchi, the capitals of the three other districts. As well as Gangtok and its surroundings in East Sikkim, the general Sikkim permit (ILP) covers all of South Sikkim and most areas in the east and west of the state, apart from most high-altitude treks. Sensitive border areas, like Tsomgo Lake (also known as Changu or Tsangu) in East Sikkim, most of North Sikkim except for Mangan and its immediate vicinity, and all high-altitude treks including the Singalila Ridge and Dzongri, require the additional Protected Area Permit (PAP); foreigners can only enter these areas in groups of at least two accompanied by representatives of approved travel agents who arrange the permits. Some areas, such as Nathu La on the border with Tibet in East Sikkim, and Gurudongma Lake in North Sikkim remain completely off-limits to foreigners.
Offices in India issuing permits
At the four main entry points: Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai.
Foreigners’ Regional Registration Offices
In Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai. Also in Darjeeling.
12–14 Panchsheel Marg, Chanakyapuri, New Delhi t011/2611 5346.
Sikkim Tourist Centre
SNTC Bus Stand, Hill Cart Road, Siliguri t0354/251 2646.
Sikkim Tourist Information Centre
Sikkim House, 4/1 Middleton St, Kolkata t033/2281 7905.
Trekking in Sikkim
Trekking in Sikkim
Although the potential is huge, high-altitude trekking in Sikkim remains a restricted and expensive business. This is partly due to the stringent system of permits and the fact that foreigners have to pay for the services of Gangtok-based tour operators in US dollars.
Trekking permits (aka Protected Area Permits) for high-altitude treks are only available from the Sikkim Tourism offices in Gangtok and Delhi; trekking or tour operators in Gangtok make the necessary arrangements. Check papers before you set off, as the slightest error can lead to problems later on; check itineraries too as you don’t want to be rushed, especially at altitude. Trekking parties consist of a minimum of two people; tour operators charge an official daily rate that ranges from $40 to $150 per head per day depending on group size and route.
The high-altitude treks most commonly offered by the operators are the Dzongri–Goecha La route (plus its variation starting from Uttarey) and the Singalila Ridge. The exhilarating trek from Lachen to Green Lake is possible, but permission must be obtained from Delhi (most easily arranged through a Gangtok agent) at least three months in advance. At the moment, Dzongri still bears the brunt of the trekking industry in the state, and the pressure is beginning to tell severely on the environment. Softer, low-level treks such as the rhododendron trails around Varshey are a pleasant alternative (and only require local permits for protected forests), and there are numerous other rewarding possibilities throughout the state that you can do on your own. A word of warning: don’t go trekking unaccompanied in forest areas due the threat of attack by black bears. The Ecotourism and Conservation Society of Sikkim (ECOSS) in Gangtok (t03592/228211, wwww.sikkiminfo.net/ecoss) is an independent organization seeking to develop sustainable tourism while protecting natural resources, customs and the environment.
While most major peaks require special permits for mountaineering and permission from the Indian Mountaineering Foundation in Delhi with at least three months’ notice, the Sikkim government, through the appropriate Gangtok trekking operator, hands out permits for Frey’s Peak (5830m) near Chaurikhang on the Singalila Ridge; Thingchenkang (6010m) near Dzongri and Jopuno (5935m) in West Sikkim; and Lama Wangden (5868m) and Brumkhangse (5635m) in North Sikkim. On top of operational costs, fees starting at $350 (Rs15000 for Indians) are levied according to group size. Recommended Gangtok agents include Namgyal and Yak & Yeti.
Flavours of Sikkim
Flavours of Sikkim
Sikkimese food is a melange of Nepalese, Tibetan and Indian influences; rice is a staple and dhal is readily available, while gyakho is a traditional chimney stew served on special occasions. Sikkimese delicacies include ningro (fern rings), shisnu (nettle soup), phing (glass noodles), and churpi (yak cheese) cooked with chillies. Look out for tomba, a traditional drink consisting largely of fermented millet, with a few grains of rice for flavour, served in a wooden or bamboo mug and sipped through a bamboo straw. The mug is occasionally topped up with hot water; once it’s been allowed to sit for a few minutes, you’re left with a pleasant warm, milky beer best on a cold evening.