Which Sikkim?

Sikkim: A Traveller's Guide

by Sujoy Das and Arundhati Ray

Permanent black, New Delhi, Pp. 159.

ISBN 81 7824 008 4

You can tell a book by its cover. Or so they say. This book is definitely a few miles beyond being a traveller's guide. I have not come across a more comprehensive work on all the important aspects of Sikkim— from flora to fauna to anthropology to history. And it says it both visually—by the profuse use of photographs— and with text that reflects detailed research.

The book is not only about general information on getting there and getting about—the local scenic spots, distances and modes of travel, and similar kinds of detail that are essential for the traveller. It is also about personal experiences through travel essays. This is what makes the book so much more interesting and enjoyable than the regular travel guide. These essays are vivid, sharp and evocative, and bring alive the wooded hills and mountain passes. The high-quality photographs accompanying each of the articles reinforces the imaginative appeal of the travelogue. The quality of production, binding and colour printing is what one can expect from international publishers, which indicate a good beginning in this genre by the start-up publisher from Delhi, Permanent Black.

The opening essay, "The Five Treasures of the Great Snows", is a fitting introduction to all that Sikkim has to offer to the outsider. The chapter "Brief History of Sikkim" is anything but brief, and provides a detailed account of the history of the Himalayan kingdom-turned-Indian state. But history is a contentious issue, and historical accounts, no matter how detailed they are, cannot please everyone. For instance, a glaring omission in this account is that some crucial facts relating to the historical connections among Sikkim, Bhutan and Tibet—especially, with regard to the relationships between the royal families and the nobilities of Tibet. But then, perhaps that exercise would have demanded another chapter altogether.

There are some other grounds on which this chapter will invite the criticism from those who know Sikkim. The author makes certain controversial statements that can be considered akin to entering an ethnic minefield. On page 28, for instance, the authors comment on the origin of the Nepali arrival in Sikkim. This has been a point of longstanding contention between Bhutia/ Lepcha and the Nepali-speaker, revolving essentially around the question of who came to Sikkim first. Bhutias say they entered from Tibet and the Nepalis counter that it was the Magars who carried them in. The colonisation of Sikkim is a matter of heated debate and the answers are not all in. The book seems to quote information supplied by the Kazis—the nobles of Bhutia/Lepcha origin who have always felt threatened by the overwhelming presence of the upcoming educated Sikkimese of Nepali origin. Notwithstanding the fact that this is a guide book written primarily for outsiders interested in Sikkim as tourists, projection of one side at the expense of the other will be a sore point for many.

Doubtless, it is the rich culture of the Bhutias/Lepchas and their art and architecture that blends so well with the backdrop of the mighty mountains that makes the place so attractive and colourful. But it is equally a fact that the Sikkim Nepalis too have a rich and varied culture and this has generally been ignored in this book. In fact mention of the Sikkim Nepalis and their culture is fleeting at best. Obviously, the camera's focus and the pen's concentration with Bhutia-Lepcha have to do with what is considered appealing to the tourist.

Indeed, it is worth considering how Sikkim's own tourism authorities should be 'selling' their state to the world? While there may be the natural propensity to highlight the Tibetan-Buddhist culture which finds great reception worldwide, the Lepcha culture obviously needs extra highlighting as it generally does not receive prominence anywhere. At the same time, is the culture of the Nepali-speaking ethnic and caste groups to be ignored just because they may also be. found in neighbouring Nepal or Darjeeling?

But in spite of these errors of omission and commission, the book is successful in illustrating Sikkim in all its majestic mountainous glory. The photographs of the mountains, especially of Kangchendzonga and the surrounding srlialler peaks are as good as any to be found in the illustrated books produced anywhere. Unfortunately, the most beautiful peak of Sikkim—Mount Siniolchu—considered by many mountaineers as the most majestic peak in the world, though written about in text, is missing from the plates.

Essentially, this book is useful because it has the combination of great photography and neatly-crafted text—the two have really come together in books on Sikkim.

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Himal Southasian