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By Chandra B Khanduri

Having selected the date of my travel into Sikkim on December 3rd, I, inadvertently seemed to have chosen a date that clocked with an historically important event. It was on December 3rd, 1903 that Colonel Younghusband crossed Jelep La and entered the Chumbi Valley with intention, as he announced at the beginning of campaign, to settle once and for all, the problem of boundary and consolidate the British power over Tibet.

 And as China maintained its suzerainty over the country, this was fortuitously the most appropriate time. The memories of the British invasion of China in 1901 were still fresh and China was already shaky after the British campaign where it lost Hongkong.

Following the 1962 India China War, I had served in Sikkim in 1962-64 as part of the troops who were deployed in this tiny but strategically important Himalayan kingdom. As if in extension of this historic assay, I was here four decades later on December 3rd 2003. The mission this time was to relive my days and see for myself, how this once somnolent state had woken up. I was naturally to be witness to a major part of history that has travel -led through these 40 years.

Sikkim was then a kingdom, the status of which we all jocularly equated with ‘three hills’ and ‘three women’. The ‘three women’ signified Hope Cooke, the American wife of Chogyal, the Gyalmo; Elisa Maria, the Belgian wife of Kazi Lhendup Dorzi; and Mrs. Indira Gandhi, the Indian Prime Minister. Then the ‘’three hills’ obtained their importance, as in Gangtok, the houses on top of them were occupied by the three most important people, viz, the Chogyal, the Kazi and the Political Officer of the Indian Government. The tenuous, if not precarious relationship between the Indian Protectorate of Sikkim and India was then guided by the December 5,1950 India-Sikkim Peace Treaty that replaced the earlier treaties and conventions (though the ‘Convention between Great Britain and China of 1906’ delineating the border in accord with the ‘Anglo-Chinese Convention of 1890’ remained valid.)

In these fateful years, Sikkim has seen history traverse through a monarchial Sikkim to the emergence of this state as the 22nd state of India from mid 1975. It has acquired a defence profile of ‘adequate deterrence’ after the 1967 artillery duels at Cho La and Natu La. It has subsequently marched towards prosperity. Now I see its march from a backward monarchial state, medieval in outlok, to a leading state comparable with, say, Mizoram and Himachal.

One more heartening factor of Sikkim is its continued respect for its great historical past and its culture. In fact, it is deftly building on its veritable history of traditions, keeping history and culture as its spring-boards to the current march to modernisation.

The present day Gangtok is an example. Its township burrows deep into its hill- side but it has a planned growth. Its houses still follow the Sikkimese pattern of architecture. Along with its expansion, there are small monasteries and schools. There is a healthy social interaction among the three large tribes or communities comprising Lepchas, Bhotias and the Nepalese settlers. All three appear to be determinedly marching ahead.

An average Sikkimese is aware of and gratuitously acknowledges, that Sikkim’s progress has been attributed to three factors: the growth of strategic communications under the control of the Border Roads Organisation since the 1962 India China War; the constructive role the army has played in improving its economy and awareness; and the impetus received by the process of democratisation, free enterprise which is moving these vigorous and self dignified people since mid 1970s.

“Could not the merger have been earlier?” Some of the Sikkimese ask and say, rather cautiously that the ‘merger’ in 1975 with India need not have destripped the Chogyal of his powers. It is remarked that though the democratisation was preferred to Chogyal, he should have been allowed to stay to lend respectability to this Himalayan Kingdom.

Well, that is a past story but what pleases everyone is that despite the ‘cartographic war’ by China, the hot war never crossed the threshold of the border passes and that the watershed- based border established by the earlier Convention and strategic requirements, remain in firm control of the troops deployed thereon.

In early 1960, Gangtok, the capital was connected by a class 9 road; the road to North Sikkim was more or less non-existent. Now, the far-flung places are connected by all weather class 18 to class 40 roads. These have been extended to North Sikkim and on the Nepal and Bhutan borders. Army piquets and posts have road artery to their unit bases, gun areas and forward logistics bases. New road axes are continuing to spread and even tourists are being allowed to visit the historic places as far as Lachen, Natu La. Because of these roads and the tranquil ambience of the state, there is growth and progress.

The results are here to see. Gangtok has extended toward south to Ranipul; it is extending to Mangan and Karponang in the west and east; Sikkim’s other towns such as Rangpo on the West Bengal border are growing with the speed comparable with that of Siliguri.

One was pleasantly surprised to see a small market on the Chhangu or the Tsongpo lake at 12,400 ft enroute to Natu La .At Chhangu itself tourist complex has been built up; there is a boat available to row (or glide over during wintry frozen crust of the lake) over the one km long,15 metre deep sacred lake.

The defences on the border provide a great spectacle by themselves. In most of the places they are in close proximity. But the best example is at Natu La or the Nathula pass, as the locals call it.

At this 14,200 ft cold and windy Natu La, a small one barbed wire strand separates the Indian and the Chinese positions on the watershed. So one can stretch one’s foot across to claim to be ‘China returned’! This is also the place that shows the visit to it probably by Mao Zedong on the Chinese side and Nehru on our side in early 1950s. Alongside is the war memorial for the officers and men who lost their lives during the September 1967 artillery duels at Cho La and Natu La. The Chinese side of the obelisk faces the Yatung valley and has perhaps a saying or two from Mao. And then there is the double storey cosy Conference building where periodic meetings are held between the Indian and the Chinese military commanders to discuss issues of disputes- or assurances of prevalence of the ‘peace and tranquillity’- by both the sides.

During my visit, the officer in charge was at pains to say that the meetings are there to freely talk to each other in perfectly desirable conditions of good cuisines and drinks. And for the past four years, having had no agenda points, it has the portents of the old ‘Hindi-Chini Bhai-Bhai’! The Army, it is hoped, will not be charmed by the PLA’s disengaging smiles and utterances of ‘We have no agenda other than peace and tranquillity’!

It was this continued atmosphere of good feeling that the Chinese took the initiative to invite an Indian military delegation to visit Beijing, Lhasa and Chengdu this November. Some ten officers commanding troops mostly deployed on the Chinese border, had been picked up as members under the leadership of Lieut General Mohinder Singh, commanding a corps, to visit the Chinese military establishments including the Defense university, and other military units and headquarters. The visit was evidently orchestrated with a view to provide a semblance of goodwill and, indeed, must have been an exercise for mutual confidence building. In a week- long visit by these officers, they were able to gauge several aspects of the changing society, its military establishments and, indeed, its sweeping transformations in Tibet. This seems to be reinvigorating the old cycle of mutual visits of 1950s, beginning with the Indian Navy recently calling on the PLA Navy at Shanghai.

 Reverting back to the scene in Sikkim.Tourism industry is indicative of the potential it has for Sikkim. Making use of the defence roads, the Sikkim government has established bureaus and facilities in far- flung places. It has awarded generous loans to the entrepreneurs to establish touring infrastructures all over. The towns of Lachen and Chungthang, for example have a number of hotels and shops. For the tourists who come with thirsting knowledge of the great vestiges of the Buddhism in Sikkim, some three dozen monasteries provide them answer to many queries they have.

The Chief Minister, Chamlong is a hard- nosed Sikkimese and he is determined to bring Sikkim on the atlas of world as a leading Indian state. Entrepreneurship is in evidence everywhere from industry to agriculture. I saw electric power stations coming up all over Sikkim; bridges are being built up and his tourist industry minister seem to be working overtime to improve facilities and nice tourist bungalows right up to the border.

If tourism is picking up, education has shown progress and modernisation. Every village has a primary school; high schools are in a group of villages and colleges are available in large towns. Science and technology has its role and are being taught. Several students are said to be undergoing education in foreign universities.

What is pleasing is to see the children in their uniforms appear to be comparable with the better dressed children of Delhi. And when Chamlong claims to achieve 100 percent literacy standard, he may be forgiven for the political ploy but he would have achieved substantially in not too distant a future.

Both the Buddhism and the Hinduism being the perennial source of each, have integrated well into a cohesive whole. That has brought about unity, cohesiveness and spiritual contentment seldom seen elsewhere. I saw more Bhutias and Lepchas join the Nepalese in their ‘Maghe Sankrati’ as majority of Nepalese Sikkimese join the ‘Losar’ festival of the Buddhist Bhotias and Lepchas.

Religious tolerance has been the hallmark of Sikkim and that is what one sees while visiting Chungthang in North Sikkim. A Gurudwara has come up at this place that is said to have been associated with the Lhasa bound pilgrimage of Guru Nanak Devji. So it is said, he stayed in the Giagong Plateau where efforts are being made to have a kind of memorial. One was surprised to see a local Lama act as a ‘Granthi’ here!

But there is no place that has added more to the strange mysticism that exists in this state, than what has come to be known as the ‘Baba Harbhajan Memorial’ on road between Natu La and Kupup in the east. Harbhajan, a Sikh soldier of the Punjab Regiment, is believed to have disappeared from the area as he slipped into a gorge. This happened some 15 years back. Since then stories, fables and myths have created a ‘Baba’. A visit to his memorial is said to be boon giving, blissful and spiritually rewarding. In 15 years, his fame as a blessing soul has spread far and wide. So it draws large congregations on Wednesdays and Saturdays that also adds to a large sum of donations.

 Sikkim seems to serve as a nodal point of old spiritualism, a seat of learning of the Buddhism that is epitomized not only by the monasteries but the role the Namgyal institute of Tibetology plays. With the decline and inevitable decay (if not demise) of Buddhism in Tibet, Sikkim serves an alternate house to it.

If Sikkim moves ahead in its progress, its environment seems to have begun to suffer owing to the world- wide effect of the ‘green house’ gases. Progress has its irony and even a price. While roads have added to the overall prosperity, they have triggered the worst kind of land- slides and land slips that refuse to be stabilised. Then regularity and volume of snowfall seems to be decreasing. It was normal to have 4 to 6 ft of snowfall in Sikkim by mid November. This time I saw only very slight snowfall thus far; and too was peppered over peaks above 15,000 ft. That it will affect the volume of water that Teesta and Rungeet rivers flow into Bengal is a foregone conlusion.

Perhaps it is not the doing of the Sikkimese.For, besides the erratic snowfall, Sikkim continues to be an ideal example of flora and fauna. Its jungles are lush green; its lakes are full; its rivers flow down through many waterfalls, with their pure transparent and emerald green water; and one still has a glimpse of Pandas and ibexes at North and East Sikkim. In the lower altitudes, rhododendrons in their four odd dozen varieties and innumerable shape and colours of orchids still bloom. Its jungles are covered with precious wood and its slopes with gardens of tea bushes and cardamoms.

This land of mystic splendour has now begun to demystify its great potential that the nature has endowed it with. It has awakened its masses. Could it then be a hyperbole if one equated it with three of its human forces: Chamlong, the CM, Danny, the actor and Bhutia, the footballer.

The author, Brig Khanduri is well known author of several books of biography, military, history and travels. He has been regularly writing for the newpapers, magazines and journals.

Source : Meena Khanduri
E-mail : meenakhanduri@yahoo.co.in
Courtesy: Ami Kothari and Rajneesh Agnihotri
Presentation by www.uttarachal.ws

Books by Chandra B Khanduri
1. A re-discovered history of Gorkhas
By: Chandra B Khanduri
Catalog: Book Publisher: Gyan Sagar Publications
Released: 1997

2. Generals and Strategists
By: Chandra B. Khanduri
Catalog: Book Publisher: South Asia Books
Released: 01 May, 1993

3. Field Marshal KM Cariappa: A biographical sketch
By: Chandra B Khanduri
Catalog: Book Publisher: Dev Publications
Released: 2000