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Sikkimese

Sikkimese

ETHNONYMS: none


Orientation

The Sikkimese live in the Himalayan kingdom of Sikkim, with a population of 316,385 in 1981. Tibet, Nepal, India, and Bhutan all touch the borders of this kingdom. The Sikkimese live in villages of wooden buildings that hug the Himalayan slopes. The Sikkimese easily traverse passes that give access to the Tibetan Chumbi Valley. The country occupies a commanding position over the historic Kalimpong-Lhasa trade route. India and Tibet have frequently intervened in Sikkim's internal affairs. The British Indian government particularly put pressure upon the Sikkimese for access to central Asia. Sikkim is the political core of the larger former Kingdom, and more recently the Sikkimese feel very strongly about keeping the Lhasa route between India and China under their control. Sikkim's location favors a dynamic role in international relations between the two great powers of Asia, India and China.

The mountainous environment of Sikkim is generally inhospitable. There are adverse surface features that seriously impede human development over large areas; cultivated land amounts to only a small proportion of the total area of the kingdom. The harsh climate damages economic development. The Sikkimese live in an enclosed basin nearly 65 kilometers wide, placed between two deeply dissected northsouth transverse ridges stretching for 125 kilometers. A huge mountain mass some 19 kilometers south of the main chain of the Himalayas called the Kanchenjunga range constitutes a distinctive physical unit of Sikkim. The range receives heavy discharges from the monsoon, and it is covered with snow and ice as much as a hundred or more meters thick. These masses of snow and ice move downward slowly in the form of glaciers and great avalanches. The avalanches are an ever-present source of danger in northern Sikkim. The continuous creaking and groaning of the moving ice and the roar of avalanches combine to create a sense of instability and apprehension. The Sikkimese tribes regard Kanchenjunga as the seat of an all-powerful god. The outstanding feature of the physical landscape in the Sikkim Himalayas is the variety of temperature zones and vegetation. On the lowest level, less than 300 meters above sea level, tropical growth flourishes. From the bottom valleys, one moves north to the subtropical zone that finally leads to the alpine region.

The official language is English, though comparatively few speak it; Sikkimese and Gurkhali are the primary Languages. Existing language divisions do not affect the overall political stability of Sikkim because the people are bonded Together by what they call "a feeling of kinship."



Settlements

Nearly 50,000 people are concentrated near the kingdom's principal urban center and capital, Gangtok. The capital is important commercially as well as administratively. Gangtok is the center point of the state's political and economic core.



Economy

Agriculture has traditionally been the major feature of Sikkim's economy. Farming has been influenced by the nature of the terrain and by the diversity of climatic conditions. In Sikkimese agriculture attention is divided among staple cereal crops, commercial specialty crops, animals, and animal Products. Rice and corn lead in hectares planted, but cardamom, citrus fruits, apples, and pineapples enter trade channels and so are better known. Potatoes are the major cash crop. Sheep, goats, cattle, yaks, and mules are abundant. The animals support the population in the high mountain valleys. The pastoral industries furnish wool, skins, hides, and surplus commodities.

About one-third of Sikkim's 7,096 square kilometers of mountainous territory is forested. Forests are considered one of the kingdom's greatest assets. There are valuable plantations of sal (Shorea robusta, a common timber tree that is a source of inexpensive building materials), sisal (a source of cordage), and bamboo. Since the 1960s Sikkim's mining corporation has been instrumental in sponsoring systematic mineral development. Copper, lead, and zinc are mined in large quantities. In Sikkim's forests there are raw materials for manufacture of paper pulp, matches, furniture, packing boxes, and tea chests. Sikkim's development has been severely slowed down by the lack of power supplies.

A major strategic road was built by the Indian army engineers and India's Border Road Development Board. This road is 240 kilometers long and is called the North Sikkim Highway. The highway that connects Gangtok with the northern border areas was completed in 1962 by India. Construction work on the road started in 1958, but several factors slowed the project. Besides the engineering problems, one of the main difficulties was supplying food for such a large labor force: there were about 6,000 workers during peak periods.

Sociopolitical Organization

The presence of culturally diverse groups within Sikkim hinders the kingdom's cohesiveness. The term "Sikkimese" indicates a resident of Sikkim, but it has no linguistic or ethnological implications. The citizens of modem Sikkim trace their ancestry to a variety of Asian people: Lepchas, Indians, and Nepalis. The native Lepchas comprise only 21 percent of the kingdom's population. Nepali settlers make up 60 percent of the present Sikkimese population. In about 1890 the British began to encourage immigration from neighboring Nepal. Until recently the Nepalese settler did not have the status of a citizen, but the Sikkim Subjects' Regulation legislation of 1961 gave citizenship to these inhabitants of Nepalese Descent. Conflict between the Tibetan Bhutias and the Lepchas has led to considerable disturbances in Sikkim's past. The Lepchas have been pushed into the forests and lower valleys below 1,200 meters by Bhutias who have settled at higher elevations. Despite these distinctions of ethnicity, the religious factors and a common feeling of national consciousness have resulted in a certain degree of historic and cultural unity.

The two political aspects of Sikkim that merit special attention are: (1) the internal political problem of self-government and the country's ties to India; and (2) the broader problem of the relationship between India, China, and Sikkim. In theory, the maharaja of Sikkim controls the state's internal affairs. In 1963 he was 70 years old. At that time he was already delegating most of his power to his 39-year-old son, Prince Palden Thondup Namgyal. The Sikkimese prince was married to a 22-year-old American woman, Hope Cook of New York City. Their engagement was preceded by six months of negotiation between the governments of Sikkim and India because of the religious and political implications. Their marriage was the first between a member of the Sikkim royal family and any foreigner other than a Tibetan. In November 1961, the state elders met in Gangtok to give their formal approval to the match. In 1975, Sikkim became an Indian state, and the office of Chogyal (king) was abolished.



Religion

Tibetan Buddhism is the state religion and is followed by 28 percent of the population. Another 60 percent of the people are Hindu.

See also Lepcha

Bibliography

Karan, Pradyumna, and William M. Jenkins (1963). The Himalayan Kingdoms: Bhutan, Sikkim, and Nepal. Princeton: D. Van Nostrand.

BRENDA AMENSON-HILL

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