Sikkim Harmonious Himalayan Highland

  • By Rajiv Malik
  • November 15, 2017
  • 2739 views

This piece is Courtesy "Hinduism Today magazine, Hawaii".

India’s smallest and northernmost state of Sikkim is known for its Hindu, Buddhist and indigenous traditions, high mountains, serene environment, organic-only farming policy and, lately, for its strategic geography at India’s border with China and Bhutan. Join us as we explore Sikkim’s religions and cultures.

 

NESTLED IN THE LAP OF NATURE IN THE Himalayan northeast of India sharing borders with Bhutan, Tibet and Nepal, Sikkim is known the world over for its breathtaking scenic beauty, clean environment, magnificent Mt. Kanchenjunga and, most recently, being India’s first all-organic state. With 607,688 people as of 2011, it is India’s least populated state and one of the least dense, with just 86 people per square kilometer—by comparison, Singapore is 7,988.

 

Sikkim appears in the Hindu epics as Indrakil, the “Garden of Lord Indra,” but little is said about it. The Old Silk Route, a branch of the Silk Road which has existed since at least the first century BCE, ran from Lhasa in Tibet to Bengal via the Nathu La Pass on what is now the border of Sikkim and China.

 

Nathu La Pass, the fastest land route for pilgrims from India to reach Mount Kailash in Tibet, lies just 37 miles from Sikkim’s capital, Gangtok. Opened only recently to pilgrims, the pass was closed again as tensions flared with China over a border dispute with neighboring Bhutan, an Indian protectorate. Sikkim, Nepal and Bhutan sit just north of the Siliguri Corridor, a thin stretch of land called the “Chicken’s Neck”—less than 17 miles wide at one point—which connects the main part of India with its northeastern states. Chinese troops stationed in Tibet’s Chumbi Valley, between Sikkim and Bhutan, are a strategic threat, one readily felt here. The Indian army is much in evidence, and the movement of foreign nationals is restricted.

Photographer Thomas Kelly and I spent a week exploring Sikkim aided by a local guide, Manorath Dahal. With the blessings of Swami Tejomayanada, we were also assisted by Brahmachari Smaran Chaitanya and other devotees of the local Chinmaya Mission.

This very hilly state has neither airport nor train service. One flies into Bagdogra in West Bengal, then drives about 78 miles north to Sikkim’s capital, Gangtok, on the picturesque National Highway 10. Heavily trafficked in normal times, the highway is sometimes blocked by landslides or shut down by a bandh (strike) called as part of periodic protests in north Bengal. At a cost of USD44 million, Pakyong airport is now under construction 20 miles south of Gangtok. Carved into a steep hillside, it uses innovative soil packing technology to create retaining walls over 200 feet high on the down-slope side of the 4,700-foot runway. That that altitude, it will be one of the five highest in India.

Historical Background

 

In order to understand Sikkim’s complex religious landscape, some historical background is necessary. Among others, Rudra Prasad Podiyal, former principal director of the government’s education department and a specialist in Nepali literature, helped us understand the origin of the state’s various communities.

 

Sikkim’s earliest inhabitants were the Lepchas, presently 15 percent of the population, about 60,000 people. They originally followed the Mun religion—called “animist” by anthropologists, but sounding like a variation on Hindu tradition, with its beliefs in the chief Goddess Nozyongnyu, various other Divinities, rites of passage, festivals and ritualistic worship. Since at least the 8th century this area has received Buddhist migrants from Tibet, known as Bhutias. Today they number about 70,000. Guru Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rinpoche, is believed to have visited here in the 7th century. With this strong Tibetan influence, the Lepchas mostly converted to Buddhism, but still retain many Mun beliefs and practices. The state has a number of architecturally marvellous monasteries and is a popular pilgrimage destination for Buddhists worldwide.

 

Sikkim emerges in modern historical records in 1642 with the establishment of a Tibetan Buddhist monarchy or Chogyal. Over the following centuries, the area saw invasions and retreats from Nepal and Bhutan. The British took a strong interest in the region in the early 19th century, as Sikkim provided a trade route to Tibet. When the entire state eventually came under British rule, many Nepalese were brought here to develop agriculture and mining.

 

When India gained independence in 1947, Sikkim chose not to join India, instead retaining the Chogyal monarchy. It was granted protectorate status, with India controlling its external defense. The 1962 border war between India and China involved skirmishes at Nathu La Pass, which was then shut down for decades. Anti-monarch sentiment rose in the state and, with increasing security concerns, the Sikkimese voted overwhelmingly in 1975 to abolish the Chogyal and become India’s 22nd state.

Nepalis have continued to migrate to Sikkim, today constituting 63% of the population. The original Lepchas are 6.5% and the Tibetan-origin Bhutias 7.6%. Other ethnic groups here include Limbus, Sherpas, Tamangs and migrants from elsewhere in India. Religious affiliation falls generally along these ethnic lines, with the 58% Hindus being mostly Nepalese and the 27% Buddhists being Bhutias and Lepchas. Christians, mostly from the Lepcha community, comprise 10% of the population, a consequence of 19th-century missionary efforts. Intermarriage between communities is increasingly common.

Sikkim is home to ancient Hindu and Buddhist sacred places. The Kirateshwar Mahadev Temple, for instance, is mentioned in the Mahabharata. Of the 75 existing Buddhist monasteries, the earliest was built in the 1700s. Many Hindu temples were built in the late 20th century; a few of these are run by the Indian army. We were told Sikkim has about 200 priests employed in temples and 500 working independently.

The Sikkim government has been building new temples in order to project the state as a religious tourism destination, taking advantage of its pleasant climate, spectacular scenery and absence of significant communal strife. The government’s amply-funded Ecclesiastical Affairs Department finances and promotes temple-building projects and improvements to Buddhist monasteries. It also oversees the general external affairs of all the state’s religious institutions. Its next big project is a complex based on the events of the Ramayana.

Kangchenjunga

At 28,169 feet, Kangchenjunga is the third highest mountain in the world. The name means “Five Treasures of the Great Snow,” a reference to its five peaks. Local people of all communities, especially the Buddhists, hold the mountain in reverence as the abode of their guardian Deity, Dzo-nga, whose benign watchfulness and protection has long ensured peace and prosperity for the people of the land. In fact, Mount Kangchenjunga is considered so sacred that the early mountaineering expeditions to it went only up to a few metres below the peak, leaving the summit untouched so as to not violate its sanctity.

The American author Mark Twain wrote about the mountain when he visited Darjeeling, a hundred miles south of Gangtok, in 1896. In Following the Equator, he humorously recollected, “I was told by a resident that the summit of Kinchinjunga is often hidden in the clouds, and that sometimes a tourist has waited twenty-two days and then been obliged to go away without a sight of it. And yet went not disappointed; for when he got his hotel bill he recognized that he was now seeing the highest thing in the Himalayas.”

 

Saraswati Dolma, founded in 1985, is one of Gangtok’s more unusual temples. Housing both the Hindu Goddess Saraswati and the Buddhist Deity Jetsun Dolma, or Tara, it is popular with Hindus and Buddhists. Students especially flock here to worship Saraswati, Goddess of Learning, before exams.

It was unfortunate to see that the Thakurbari Temple, dedicated to Lord Rama, Lakshman and Sita, has fallen on difficult times. It was established in 1935 by the then king of Sikkim, but recently a major renovation project stalled and the worship is being done in a makeshift shrine.

The well-equipped buildings of the Sikkim Government Sanskrit College sit impressively on a large plot of land in Samdong, about 19 miles west of Gangtok. Students and faculty wear Western-style dress; I was told that wearing typical Indian dress would be taken as a sign of backwardness by the locals, and is off-putting to potential students. The college enrols all castes, offering nearly free education. Past graduates have included many girls, though currently no girls are enrolled. In fact, we soon learned that enrolment is so low that this prestigious institution is on the brink of closure. Though the college has facilities for 350 to 400 students, only a tenth that many are enrolled. Due to the uncertain career opportunities for Sanskrit scholars, parents in Sikkim do not want to send their children here.

Dr. Yugal Prasad Nepali, head of the college, has surveyed a dozen smaller Sanskrit pathasalas or schools in Sikkim and found the situation similar at each: a lack of interest in Sanskrit studies. While the government continues to support the college, there is obvious concern that they could one day face closure.

Dr. Nepali hopes our coverage in HINDUISM TODAY will help the institute survive, both by encouraging parents to send their children here and by pressing the central and local governments to fund more jobs in the field of Sanskrit. Everyone here loves the Sanskrit language and the Indian cultural heritage, and they are working together to make the school a success.

We met with C.P. Dhakal, president of the local branch of the Chinmaya Mission, at his home in Gangtok. He is the government’s special secretary in the tourism and civil aviation department. Dhakal is locally famous for helping Sikkim win an award presented by Prime Minister Modi in 2015 for Gangtok as the Cleanest Hill Station and Sikkim itself as India’s Cleanest State. He said the award came after a sustained campaign by students, police, business people and the general population. “Due to this award,” he said, “we received worldwide exposure and the tourist flow to Sikkim improved substantially.” Dhakal is also responsible for the Kailash Mansarover Yatra, organized by the Indian government, which goes through Nathu La Pass. That pilgrimage route is presently closed due to heightened tensions with China.

 

“We started this local chapter of Chinmaya Mission in 1995,” Dhakal explains. “Our brahamachari Smaran Chaitanya and I conduct classes in Bhagavad Gita. We have several hundred students, and in this way we propagate Sanatana Dharma. We’ve been allocated land for a meditation center and hope to build that in time to come.”

 

With regard to the Sanskrit College, he pointed out that this year there has been a five percent decrease in enrolment in all schools in Sikkim, a result of families having fewer children. He noted in passing that if a youth from Sikkim is admitted to a prestigious university in the West, the government will pay for the entire education.

Dhakal expressed concern about the conversion of Hindus to Christianity. He blames this on a failure to properly understand Hinduism. He is not too worried, however: “The British ruled us for 300 years and could not convert all of us. Today there are Hindu temples being built in Britain costing millions of dollars. So it is some sort of cycle which keeps on moving, and our Sanatana Dharma by and large remains unruffled by all this.”

Sixteen Pilgrimages at Once

Siddheshvara Dham is the government’s flagship religious tourism project. It is popularly known as Char Dham because of its replicas of four of India’s most famous temples. Located near Namchi, 50 miles southwest of Gangtok, it is a slow and rough drive over poor roads—and very cold if travelling after dark. Only in its last few miles, from the helipad—where the VIPs arrive in Namchi—to the temple, is the road in good shape.

Approaching Namchi, one first encounters the world’s largest statue of Guru Rinpoche—118 feet - completed in 2004. It joined other important Buddhist pilgrimage destinations in the town, such as the Namchi and Ralang monasteries. A little farther on, the seven-acre Char Dham sits atop Solophok hill, overlooked by a 108-foot statue of Lord Siva. It is believed this place was known in ancient times as Indrakil mountain, mentioned in the Mahabharata as the place where Arjuna got the blessings of Lord Siva to obtain the divine weapon Pashupatastra, which Arjuna alone could wield and which was needed for winning the Mahabharata war. Prior to the creation of the present project there was a small Siva temple on the property.

 

Siddheshvara Dham’s 19 temples include replicas of the Char (four) Dham: Badrinath in north India, Jagannath on the east coast, Dwarka on the west and Rameshwaram next to Sri Lanka, along with replicas of the twelve Jyotirlingam temples, which are likewise spread across India. Pilgrimage to all these destinations is thought to help one attain moksha, liberation from rebirth. Whether that’s true for these replicas is as yet undetermined. But each was built according to Vastu Shastra and consecrated in its own right as a temple, and each of the Char Dham replicas is overseen by priests appropriate to the original temple’s tradition. The twelve Jyotirlingam temples are identical from the outside, as it was not feasible to copy the temples themselves, but inside each the Sivalingam shrine is a faithful replica of the original.

 

The Siddheshvara Dham project was conceived by Sikkim’s chief minister, Pawan Chamling (whose home town is Namchi) as part of the larger program to promote religious tourism in the state. On its completion in 2011, the project won an award from the Centre’s Ministry of Tourism for Most Innovative/Unique Tourism Project. It has proven quite popular; during the tourist season it attracts up to 2,000 visitors a day.

Overview of the Complex

We were fortunate during our visit to be spotted by the elegantly dressed Pandit Mohan Timsina, coordinator and priest of the Siddheshvara Dham project, who proceeded to give us a grand tour. He took us first to the Kirateshwar Temple replica, which is independent of the Char Dham and Lingam temples. It enshrines an imposing 18-foot statue of Lord Kirateshwar, a popular local Deity regarded as an incarnation of Lord Siva. Thapa Singh, 65, of the Nepalese Rai community is the priest here. Very popular with devotees, he exudes a distinct divinity and conducts the pujas according to his traditions of Kirat worship.

The four largest temples reasonably match the originals in design, though of course on a much smaller scale. Rameshwaram alone, for example, is a huge temple enclosing 15 acres, twice the size of this entire Char Dham complex. The interior shrines do faithfully follow those of the original temples, and the priests conduct puja in the same manner. Twenty-five priests serve here, all employed by the government of Sikkim. They begin their day with a group meditation together, something we had not heard of at other temples in India.

The complex, designed to be wheelchair accessible, includes a vegetarian restaurant, guest house and huge parking area. There is also a covered yagna shala for fire worship, where a marriage was taking place during our visit. In addition to marriages, the temple trust organizes sacred thread ceremonies, preaching of the Bhagavat Purana and community feedings. All major Hindu festivals are celebrated here. Maha Sivaratri, the most popular, is attended by thousands of people from all the local communities.

The pilgrims we spoke with were deeply affected by the temple complex and its stunning setting. They all spoke of how peaceful and calming it was for them. Thomas and I were impressed and left this place with a sense of immense gratitude and satisfaction.

Kirateshwar Temple

From Char Dham we took the rough two-hour drive to the last major temple we would visit: the original Kirateshwar temple located alongside the Rangeet river 25 miles northeast of Namchi. This temple, one of Sikkim’s most ancient, exemplifies the communal harmony reigning here: the grounds include a small Buddhist temple that attracts a large number of local Buddhists. As with nearly every temple we encountered in Sikkim, the scenic beauty of the surroundings is breathtaking.

The main object of worship here is an unusual Sivalingam located in a cave area of the temple, with a kind of water spout with which one can pour water over it. The Lingam is believed to have been placed here before the time of the Mahabharata. The temple’s young priest, Nandu Sharma, 28, of the Kashyap brahmin lineage, relates the story that at one point Buddhists wanted to possess the powers of this Sivalingam and took it far away to a Buddhist monastery. Miraculously, the Sivalingam returned on its own to this temple. It was taken a few more times and mysteriously returned again each time until the Buddhists gave up. Unlike the priest of Char Dham’s Kirateshwar Temple, Sharma is not of the local Kirat community.

On normal days, this temple does not receive many visitors. But at festivals, not only Hindus but Buddhists too—understandably appreciative of the Sivalingam’s power—come in large numbers. This is known as a wish-fulfilling temple. Sharma tells us it is popular with young lovers who want to marry against their parent’s wishes.

Conclusion

Hinduism and Buddhism here in Sikkim coexist harmoniously, with devotees enthusiastically visiting the holy places and celebrating the festivals of both religions. I was struck by the happy, smiling faces and open-heartedness of Sikkim’s people. Almost everyone I met gave the impression of being in a state of meditation or just coming out of one. There is something in the Himalayan air of this erstwhile kingdom that infuses a kind of contentment and blissfulness. Perhaps the reverence for Lord Siva and the Buddha have deeply influenced not only the flora and fauna but all human beings who reside here. The state government is on the right track to promote Sikkim as a land of religious pilgrimage, for all who visit here can take back home with them an experience of true communal harmony—Sikkim’s premier export.

Sikkim's Buddhist World 

Sikkim has been associated with TIBETAN Buddhism for well over a millennium, and its importance in this religious tradition has increased greatly since the Chinese takeover of Tibet. Sikkim has 60 Tibetan Buddhist monasteries as well as schools and research institutes. Of those in the Gangtok area, Rumtek Monastery is the largest and finest architecturally.

Rumtek is surrounded by lush green countryside, with mountains and a river. To reach the monastery, one takes a footpath for several hundred yards. Posted alongside the path are pointed messages, such as this from the Buddha: “If you can’t be positive, then at least be quiet.” When we visited, many visitors were being taken around by local guides. We saw many monks, especially the young ones who are brought by their families, some from as far as Thailand, to be educated at the monastery. The young monks seemed to enjoy getting their pictures taken with visitors.

Originally built in the 17th century, Rumtek Monastery had fallen into ruin by the time Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, the 16th Karmapa, fled Tibet in 1959. Sikkim’s royal family and the locals helped him rebuild it. Successorship is a matter of heated dispute, and is presently before the Indian courts; the 17th Karmapa, like his predecessors, will become the owner of the monastery and its valuable contents.

On their way to or from Rumtek, tourists and devotees alike stop at the Dro-dul Chorten Stupa. Accommodating up to 700 monks and encompassing the Sikkim Institute of Higher Nyingma Studies, this was built in 1945 by Trulshik Rinpoche, head of the Nyingma school of Buddhism. We witnessed a rush of monks and devotees seeking to meet several senior lamas who were visiting.

 

In Gangtok itself is the Namgyal Institue of Tibetology, a museum and research institute established by the Dalai Lama in 1958, which documents the history of Sikkim’s Tibetan Buddhist monasteries. The director, Tashi Densapa, explained that the institute preserves important scriptures belonging to all four schools of Tibetan Buddhism. He and research coordinator Anna Denjongpa emphasized that a harmony exists among the various religious communities in Sikkim, in part because Buddhism is a liberal, all-embracing religion.

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