India’s beauty is that each part of it is built on a foundation made up of ancient history, folklore legends, and diverse cultures. You can talk about each state in length, including Sikkim.
Sikkim is one of the few Himalayan Buddhist lands in the world. Historically, with the support of kings, monks, and lamas, Buddhism grew, expanded, and established itself from Afghanistan to South-East Asia. Over the years, the support and the appetite for the religion dwindled, leaving kingdoms, like Sikkim and a handful more Buddhist nations, to strive for the religion’s sustainability.
The book opens up with a shocking murder of a monk; a group of ruffians slit the throat of a monk who had given them food and a place to stay to steal some treasures from the temple they were at. By analysing each layer of the problem, it is safe to question if the ruffians had truly imbibed basic humanitarian principles, let alone Buddhism. The incident revealed the current plight of the religion; among the younger generation, greed and hatred took precedence in the space of peace and love. Like other religions, Buddhism began to lose its core meaning through generations and interpretations.
The focus on Sikkim
The word Sikkim is likely derived from the phrase Su-khyim which means “new palace”. It was also referred to as Bay-mul Deng Jong which means “The hidden valley of rice”. Rugged landscapes, snow-peak mountains, enormous glaciers, vast valleys, and rich biodiversity overlay Sikkim’s land.
Just like its landscape, Sikkim’s had a rugged history. Despite that, it remains a region where insurgency and terrorism are kept well away except rivalries between culturally and linguistically diverse groups of people. The indigenous people of this land are the Lepchas. Later came the Bhutias followed by migrants from Nepal, India, and Tibet to add more diversity.
The first turning point
Sikkim also sat astride the most accessible gateway to and from Tibet, and old trade route – the old silk road – from Lhasa to Darjeeling through the pass called Nathu La. The unique geographic position of Sikkim became a magnet for the neighbouring super-powers. The Nepali army (Gurkhas or Gorkhas) waged many wars to get control over Sikkim.
Unable to withstand the attack, Sikkim’s rulers wanted to seek help from someone who would have the resources. At the same time, the relation between China and Tibet worsened. With more and more incidents of China trying to suppress Buddhism in Tibet, Sikkim withdrew the option to reach out to China. The next option was to seek help from the East India Company, controlled by the British colonists. The Britains were incentivised to fight as they wanted to get a stronghold over the land themselves and fight against the Gurkhas.
So a treaty was signed on 28th March 1861 which made Sikkim a protectorate of the British Empire in India. This allowed the British Empire to have administrative power over Sikkim in exchange for protection against future invasions.
The second turning point
A similar sort of turn of events happened later after India’s independence in 1947. Sikkim continued to be ruled by Chogyal Palden Thondup Namgyal. They had their own world, happily living in a bubble. Political parties were formed to represent the people needs. However, the ruler forced his upper hand and tried being autocratic in making changes to the country. This deteriorated the people’s faith in the ruler, which led to a massive uprising against the chogyal. Once again, Sikkim was in need to seek out help to protect itself. It turned to India.
The state is landlocked between significant powers, especially India and China. Allowing Sikkim to remain free and vulnerable when the British left India in 1947 was tantamount to exposing a Himalayan Achilles’ heel. So India was happy to jump in and support.
So in 1975, an act of Parliament in New Delhi had made Sikkim an Indian state. Since then, Sikkim has shown tremendous growth and resilience. It is one of the few states in the country that attracts hoards of tourists and contributes to the national GDP.
The state strived to revive Buddhism continuously. Their culture and day-to-day activities, including the likes of calendars, are based on trees’ blossoming, the flight of birds, and animals’ activities. This demonstrates how deeply the patterns of life and livelihood are interwoven into the environment.
The MAK Tip
The author’s observation struck a chord with me. The reason for losing sight of Buddhism’s inner meaning is because we take only the things we can understand. E.g. It was pointed out in the book that westerns took only the meditation practices and left the legend, superstition, astrological interpretation, and the worship of natural phenomena away from Buddhism. So my MAK Tip is to take your time and understand the full picture.
This article focuses more on Sikkim’s journey and how a Himalayan Buddhist kingdom was annexed with India after an unexpected twist.
After reading So Close to Heaven, I continued exploring Sikkim through a documentary about it by Satyajit Roy, one of India’s most celebrated filmmakers. If you would like to have something on the background while you cook or clean your room, I recommend this video.
Further reading: Click here