5th December, 2003
NORTH-EAST


THE ETHNIC PEOPLE OF SIKKIM

C.K. Dorjee*


Tugged in the lap of the Himalayas, Sikkim is one of the most beautiful States of India. Much of the 7300 sq.km of Sikkm is interlaced with jungle-clad ridges and deep ravines created by the mountain rivers, emerald valleys and dense forests.

The waterfalls, rivulets, lakes and the abundance of orchids and rhododendrons make this Himalayan State, what the original Lepcha inhabitants call it Myel Lyang – "the land of hidden paraduse". To the Bhutias, it is Beyul Demojong – the hidden valley of rice and the Limbus call it Su khim, which means ‘the new house’. The landscape of this tiny State is dominated by the world’s highest mountain peaks. Dominating them all is Kangchendzonga, the third highest mountain on earth.

Strange as it may sound, Mt. Kangchendzonga has played a major unifying role among the three ethnic communities of Sikkim. One strong evidence of this is the absorption of Mt. Kangchendzonga into the Buddhist ceremonies. This mountain has been worshipped by the Lepchas from very early times. Yet today, it is equally revered by the Bhutias and Nepalese. Pang Lhabsol is an annual festival celebrated to commemorate the consecration of Mt. Kangchendzonga as the guardian deity of Sikkim.

Sikkim was ruled by the Namgyal dynasty till 1975. In April 1975, the erstwhile Himalayan kingdom became the 22nd State of India by the thirty-eighth Amendment Act of the Constitution. Sikkim thus merged with the Indian Union bringing to an end more than 300 years of monarchy. Chogyal Palden Thondup Namgyal was the last ruler of the Namgyal dynastry.

The population of Sikkim is 5 lakh 40 thousand, mainly consisting of the Nepalese, the Lepchas and the Bhutias. Of these, the Nepalese are the largest in number followed by the Bhutia and Lepcha communities. A small number of people from other parts of the country have also settled in Sikkim. Despite such an ethnic diversity, a remarkable feature of Sikkimese society is the tolerance and acceptance of different cultures and their harmonious co-existence.

The Lepchas

The Lepchas are the earliest settlers of Sikkim. They call themselves – "Rongkup", meaning the children of Rong. Regarding their origin, the anthropologists and historians are still debating whether the Lepchas belong to one of the Naga tribes or are associated with the Jimdars and Mech in their eastward migration from Nepal. Some scholars have found a similarity between the Lepachas and the tribes in Arunachal Pradesh. Yet some others contend they are related to the Khasis in Meghalaya. The Lepchas themselves are convinced that their home has always been the legendary kingdom of Mayel in the vicinity of Mt. Kangchendzonga. In fact, most Lepcha clans claim to have mythical connections with particular mountain peaks which they worship as their deity. Thus the mountains Simvo, Siniolchu and Kanchenjua find prominence in the Lepcha culture.

The Lepchas have their own language and script. The Lepcha language is one of the eleven official languages recognized by the Sikkim government and is taught up to the high school level. The Lepcha dances, songs and folk tales reflect a wonderful synthesis between men and nature.

The Bhutias

The Bhutias are mainly descendants of the early settlers in Sikkim from Tibet and Bhutan who accompanied the ancestors of the first Chogyal, Phuntsok Namgyal. The members of the former Namgyal dynasty belong to this ethnic group. The early Bhutias had three distinctive social classes-the aristocracy, the quasi aristocracy – those belonging to the leading Bhutia families who were land holders and were called Kazis- and the commoners. When the monarchy was abolished, these social distinctions also lost their relevance.

Tibetan Budhism played a special role in shaping the Bhutia society. The monasteries and the monks are the pivot around whom their daily lives revolve. Every household ritual, marriage, birth, death ceremonies and agricultural rites are conducted by the monks from the Gompas which are prominent in all the Bhutia and Lepcha villages. The faith generated by Buddhism is total and the devotion of the laity to the monastery is absolute.

Like the Lepchas and the Nepalese, the Bhutias are fond of their "chang", the local brew. This preparation from fermented millet is served in bamboo containers. It has become an indispensable part of every Sikkimese ceremony, whether religious or secular.

The Bhutias are famous for their weaving, wood carving and theThanka painting. The hand-woven rugs, carpets and blankets and the exquisite Thankas displayed in the State Handicraft Centre at Gangtok are proof of this skill.

The important festivals observed by the Bhutia community include Losoong, Pang Lhabsol, Kagyat dance and Saga Dawa.

The Nepalese

The Nepalese community of Sikkim is itself a conglomeration of diverse ethnic groups, some speaking their own vernacular. Nepali is the lingua franca of all the Sikkimese people. These ethnic groups can be roughtly divided between the Magars, Murmis, Tamangs, Gurungs, Rais, Limbus, Damis, Kamis, Bahuns and the Chhetris.

Most Nepalese are Hindus or Buddhists. Some of them have also adopted Christianity. The Hindu Nepali populace of Sikkim follows the ethos which governs its counterparts elsewhere in the country.

The Rais, Limbus, Magars, Murmis, Tamangs and Gurungs have somewhat similar physical characteristics inasmuch as they are all Mongoloid. But each group has its own distinctive culture. These ethnic groups have been known for their bravery and a large number of them have served as soldiers in the British and Indian armies. The major festivals of the Hindu Nepalese in Sikkim are Dasain, Teohar, Makar Sankranti and Baisakhi.

Sikkim is one of the most peaceful States in the country and the ethnic groups with their different languages, dialects, cultural backgrounds live in total harmony, symbolizing the essence of unity in diversity. Like the rainbow with its beautiful multicolored shades, the people in this small Himalayan State have set an example as to how different ethnic groups can coexist and mingle with each other in total peace and tranquility. (PIB Features)

*News Editor, AIR, Gangtok

 

 
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