The Divine Right of Kings

After Rumtek and our reunion with Raj (to say nothing of a change of clothes) we set off to explore West Sikkim. Yes, this postage stamp sized state boasts four subdivisions and, although almost equally hilly, the West has a distinctly different flavour. There are cultivated terraces and better roads for a start but we also began to notice a sprinkling of Westerners: we were entering trekking country. By the time we reached the town of Pelling we were seeing “lonely planet recommended” signs and the odd billboard offering guided excursions but, fortunately, nothing that resembled the “backpackers’ playgrounds” of Peru.

Sikkim has only 374 years of properly recorded history. A few sparse inhabitants had arrived earlier from Central Asia and developed a distinctive culture called the Lepcha, of which little but a few government sponsored handicraft styles seem to remain but in the year 1642 everything changed. The story goes that three wandering Buddhist monks met here by chance and felt compelled to appoint a Chogyal, a sort of cross between a king and a priest. Divinely inspired, they chose the first of these rulers from the Royal line of neighbouring Bhutan and, as prophesy conveniently dictated, brought Buddhism and a growing number of Tibetan immigrants into the newly formed Kingdom.

We travelled to the first capital at Yuksum and visited the Norbugang Chorten where, it is claimed, the remains of the coronation throne are to be found but, besides the modern looking stupa, there is nothing to be seen but a few engraved stone fragments set into a modern re-construction. Nonetheless, the gardens were pretty and the surrounding tall trees impressive. Repeated invasions by the Nepalese meant that the capital had to be shifted several times and the royal palace of Rabdentse was part of the second one. Without the intervention of the Archaeological Survey of India, there would be little left but a few crumbling stone walls but future visitors will have the benefit of the large bird sanctuary due to be completed later this year.

Of course there are plenty of monasteries of varying claims to importance along this historical route and we visited several, of which Pemyangste, founded in 1705, is one of the oldest and most splendid*. This may not seem particularly old compared to some of the places that I’ve visited over the last few years but, given the destruction of so much of the Buddhist heritage of China, its fine woodcarving and darkly sinister wall paintings felt much older. As an interesting aside, though, we discovered that only “pure” monks (that is full blooded Tibetan) were allowed to practice there. And if that wasn’t enough to assert their superiority over any remaining indigenous people, they had to be unblemished physical specimens as well.

This divine remit doesn’t seem to have done the Royal line much good in the end, though. They dodged their more powerful neighbours until the middle of the nineteenth century when they came to the attention of the British Raj which summarily made the kingdom into a protectorate. I’m sure that a lot of high sounding words and diplomatic gifts were exchanged but there probably really wasn’t much choice in the matter. After independence Sikkim remained independent of India until 1975 but, with its Royal family spreading its increasingly opulent lifestyle between Gangtok and the USA, the end was in sight.

Yellowing photographs of the Royal family adorned the walls of some of the hotels that we stayed in but any enquiries I made about loyalty felt by modern Sikkimese to their former monarch’s descendants were met with polite incomprehension. A faded picture showing a demonstration taking place outside the Gangtok Palace in the 1970’s turned out to be against the ruler rather than in support of him. He died in a Boston hospital a few years later.

The 22nd state of India has made enormous strides in literacy and public health in recent years and the protection of its quite amazing biodiversity is high on the agenda. It is a tiny region of enormous strategic importance and no one seems to be looking to oust the Indian government and reinstate a Chogyal any time soon.

(* not the one in the photograph)

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