An avoidable controversy seems to be simmering in Sikkim, the last of the territories to be merged with the Indian Union in 1975. There is a notification of August13, 2019 of the Ministry of Home Affairs [MHA], Government of India which has hurt the sentiments of different ethnic groups of Sikkim. The order issued recently in fact concerns all the states in the Himalayan region, namely Jammu and Kashmir, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Sikkim. According to this order 137 mountain peaks in these states will be opened to foreign mountaineers desirous of mountaineering visas for climbing or trekking. There are 24 peaks in Sikkim of the Kanchanjunga in this MHA list of 137. According to reports, both Indians and foreigners interested in trekking or climbing these peaks can directly obtain permission from Indian Mountaineering Foundation[IMF]. The Delhi based IMF established in 1961 is the apex national body for mountaineering and allied sports that supports, promotes and regulates these activities.
The majestic 8586 meter [28169 feet] high Kanchenjunga, visible from many parts of Sikkim including the state capital Gangtok is located partly in Nepal and Sikkim and is the third highest mountain in the world and the second highest in Nepal after Mount Everest. Kanchenjunga can be approached from both Nepal and Sikkim, but the easier route is through Nepal. Kanchanjunga is a name derived from the Tibetan language which means “The Five Treasures of the Great Snow.” The reference to the number five is on account of the five prominent peaks of the mountains and the treasures referred to are salt, gold, precious stones, sacred scriptures and invincible armour. For the indigenous people of Sikkim, Kachenjunga therefore is absolutely sacred. It is because of their reverence to the mountains that going up to the peaks of these mountain ranges is considered sacrilegious. The objection to throwing open the peaks of the Kanchenjunga for trekking and climbing by the order of the Ministry of Home Affairs is therefore a major religious/ spiritual issue for large sections of the people of Sikkim.
The national media has almost ignored the sentiments and discontent among the indigenous people of the small mountain state of Sikkim. In the final analysis events in the entire North-Eastern states do not get adequately reflected in the so called national media. As someone who had a stint with the Sikkim Central University, called up a few old colleagues and friends to find out what exactly are the reactions of the Sikkimese people. One of them suggested a link of Voice of Sikkim and their channel, TVOS. With a little understanding of the Nepali language one saw an interview on the channel with the Convener of the Bhutia Lepcha Apex Committee [SIBLAC] Tseten Tashi Bhutia. In the interview Bhutia spoke about the scaling of Sikkim’s guardian mountain deity, the Kanchenjunga. He urged the Union Ministry of Home Affairs to roll back the permission for mountaineers, Indian and foreign to scale their holy mountain. He pointed out that it is a violation of an Act of Parliament and a blatant violation of the rights of the people of Sikkim. He was referring to Article 371-F of the Constitution which ensures “special provisions with respect to the State of Sikkim notwithstanding anything in the Constitution.”Bhutia also said that the Bhutia, Lepcha Buddhists believe that Kanchenjunga is the abode of their deities and hence they do not climb this mountain peak. There is also a Places of Worship [Special Provision] Act,1991 and expeditions to the Kanchenjunga was banned by the Government of Sikkim in 2001.
The latest order of the Union Ministry of Home Affairs is equated to the abrogation of Article 370 by some people in Sikkim. The bureaucrats who come out with such orders need to understand the belief systems and sentiments of people in sensitive border states. Sikkim undoubtedly is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful states of our country with very unique features. It is home for many indigenous communities, Nepali and people from different parts of India. The state has a legacy of Tibetan, Buddhist and indigenous cultures coexisting with Nepali and Hindu culture.
There are different accounts on who inhabited in the territory first. The earliest ethnic group in Sikkim is believed to be the Lepchas who claim to be the original inhabitants of the land. According to another account they settled here in the 13th century. The Bhutia community on the other hand is believed to have come from Tibet in the 14th century and had developed relations with the Lepchas. They introduced Tibetan Buddhism in the region. There are also groups like Limbu, Rai, Yakkha, and Sunuwar, which are from the ethnic group, ”Kiratas” of the Himalayan region, again believed to have been of Sino Tibetan origin. Other groups include the Gurungs and the Magars both of Nepali origin. 1n 1642 the Tibetan Bhutias established a monarchy under the ‘Chogyal’ which means divine king in the Tibetan language. The monarchy considered Lepchas and Limbus to be original races of the Kingdom. In the 18th century, the Gorkha rulers of Nepal conquered the western part of Sikkim following which various other Nepali tribes settled there. By 1819, there was a data about the population break up in Sikkim- roughly half Lepchas30% Bhutias and 20% Limbus.
The above broad account is included to illustrate the complexity of the ethno-cultural diversity of Sikkim. According to Census 2011, Hinduism constitutes 57.76 of the total population of Sikkim of 610,577. Buddhism comprises a significant 27.39%. Interestingly, these religious groups have lived in complete amity with Nepali as the official language/ lingua franca. There are over two hundred Buddhist monasteries in Sikkim and to understand the significance of religious practices and indigenous cultures people need to travel through different areas of the state. If you visit Namchi in South Sikkim, besides the Ngadak and Ralang monasteries and the statue of Guru Padmasambhava in the Samdruptse hills, in Solophok there is a sprawling replica of CharDham. Guru Padmasambhava [lotus born] also called Guru Rinpoche is considered the patron saint of Sikkim who is venerated as a ‘’second Buddha “ by adherents of Tibetan Buddhism in Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan and in the Himalayan states like Sikkim. His Namchi statue, 118 feet tall is a must visit for devotees and tourists. The Char Dham or Siddheshwar Dham consecrated in November, 2011 is a replica of12 Jyotirlingas and the four most revered Dhams of Hindus, Jagannath[Puri], Dwarka[Gujarat], Badrinath in Uttarakhand [ all Vaishnava] and Rameshwaram in Tamil Nadu [Shaiva] all established by Aadi Shankaracharya.
In West Sikkim a visit to the Khecheopalri lake is another legendary place sacred for both Buddhists and Hindus. Guru Padmasambhava is believed to have preached here to a group of yoginis and the lake is considered the footprint Goddess Tara Jetsun Dolma. Hindus believe that the footprint is that of Lord Shiva. The water of this lake is considered holy by devotees who feed the hordes of fish in the lake.
For a proper view of the snow capped Kanchenjunga, a local friend told me, a vintage point would be the government Cherry Resort. From Namchi one has to travel to Ravangla and then drive about 17 kilometers from there, entering the sprawling lush green Temi Tea Estate owned by the Government of Sikkim. The most striking sight of the estate is that of the deep pink cherry blossoms. These trees are almost a rarity in the plains of India, but here in this shadow of the majestic snow capped Kanchanjunga one saw plenty of these magnificent cherry blossoms. From the Resort what unveiled in front was the mighty Kachanjunga in all its myriad hues in the splendor of the setting sun. For religious tourists the peaks of the mountains are the dwelling places of their deities not to be desecrated. The next morning one got up very early to watch the glorious sun rise in the mountain ranges, an inexplicable sight, nay, experience.
There are voices of protest against the opening up of the Kanchenjunga peaks for climbers from home and abroad by the Ministry of Home Affairs. The opposition political parties in Sikkim have joined the protests while the ruling Party reportedly is waiting for discussions with the central government. Bhaichung Bhutia, football legend and founder of the Hamro Sikkim Party[HSP] has demanded the immediate withdrawal of the August 13th MHA order. HSP in a press statement said that, ”The notification is a blatant disregard to the will of the common people who had wanted the ban as well as an imposition by the central government in contravention of people’s wishes.” The right wing Vishwa Hindu Parishad [VHP] has termed the order as “An insult to the Hindu- Buddhist religious sects of the state”.
The alleged unilateral notification of the central government to open the two dozen Sikkim peaks of the Kanchanjunga may have good commercial prospects. But it definitely hurts the sentiments of the people of Sikkim who should be treated with sensitivity so that the situation in one of the most peaceful states in the country remains peaceful.