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Sikkim

Population:   0.5 million
Languages:  Nepali, Lepcha, Bhutia, Limbu
Capitol:          Gangtok

Indian's tallest mountain, and the third highest mountain in the world, Kanchenjunga (8586m) is in Sikkim, visible on a clear day from its capitol, Gangtok.  This tiny state is about the size of Goa, with deep valleys plunging between the mountains to a few hundred metres above sea level.  Over seventy per cent of the population is Nepali, many of whose ancestors came to the area in the early 1900s to work on the British tea plantations.  A further eighteen per cent are Lepchas, an animist tribal group originally from Assam which until recently lived primarily on food gathered from the forest as well as carrying on limited cultivation.  A small percentage of the population is of Tibetan origin, having migrated to the area in the 13th century bringing with them Red Hat, or Nyingma-pa Buddhism, which became and remained the official religion of the state.  Sikkim has more than two hundred monasteries which bring many visitors to the state every year.

The lower slopes of the mountains are lush with apple and orange trees, rice paddies and cardamom, as well as more than four hundred and fifty varieties of orchids.  Higher up, thick forests provide a home for snow leopards, tahr, sheep and the red panda (an endangered species).

The state is considered a sensitive border area, requiring visitors to have a special permit to enter.  A further permit must be acquired for the western area of the state, while the eastern part is completely out of bounds.

History

Four hundred years after Buddhism came to Sikkim consultations within the Red Hat community of Buddhists resulted in the appointment of the first "chogyal", or king, of an area that at that point included modern day Sikkim as well as parts of Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan and reaching as far south as the edge of the Gangetic plain in India.  Territory was again lost in the course of war with the Bhutanese, an invasion by Gurkhas from Nepal and treaties with the British East India Company.  The British gained control of all of Sikkim which provoked Tibet to invade in 1886, a confrontation in which the British triumphed and which led to the further expansion of their control in the area.

Nepalese migration into the state in the 1800s resulted in them soon outnumbering the original population.  After Independence Sikkim continued for a time as a kingdom led by the Chogyal, with some special privileges for the non Nepali minority.  Finally, growing revolt against this system forced Tashi Namgyal, the eleventh chogyal, to relinquish administration of the state to India.  In 1975 the population voted almost unanimously to join India.  The twelfth chogyal, Palden Thondup, whose American wife Hope Cook reigned as queen, became a figurehead only and remained so until his death in 1981.

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