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. 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.
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, more than 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 colourful, bustling cosmopolitan town, 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.