Indigenous peoples of Sikkim

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The indigenous peoples of Sikkim include the Lepcha and Bhutia.


The Lepcha is the earliest ethnic group settled Sikkim. The word Sikkim was derived from Sukhim in Limbu/Subba language meaning new palace. The believe they are the autochthones while others considered that they were settled by the thirteenth century, coming from the hills before the arrival of the Tibetan Bhutias.[1] The Bhutia who immigrated to Sikkim claimed descent from a common ancestor, a Khampa prince or chief named Khye-bum-sar, and were divided into fourteen main families.[2] Relations between the Lepcha and Tibetan peoples began in the thirteenth century with the signing of a blood brotherhood by the Lepcha Chief Thekong Tek and the Tibetan Prince Khye Bumsa at Kabi Lungchok in north Sikkim. The Bhutias introduced Buddhism to the region.[2]

In 1642, the Bhutia established a monarchy headed by the Chogyal (Tibetan: ཆོས་རྒྱལ་Wylie: chos rgyal; divine king), and opened relations with Tibet.[1] By the founding of the Bhutia monarchy, Tibetan sources considered Tibetans (Bhutia), Lepchas, and Limbu to be the "original races of the kingdom."[2]

Around 1819, the Lepchas were still the most numerous population, comprising roughly half of all Sikkimese, followed by Bhutias (30%) and Limbus (20%); sources disagree on whether the Bhutias outnumbered the Limbu or vice versa, but in any event, the Limbu frequently intermarried with the Lepcha.[2] At this time there was apparently no appreciable Nepali population present.

Throughout the nineteenth century, further groups of Tibetans known as Rui-chhung ("little families") migrated to Sikkim under British rule.[2]

Between the 1890s and the early 1900s, the large scale immigration of Nepalis began, encouraged by colonial landlords in order to raise rents in otherwise densely forested Sikkim.[3][4] Indigenous groups pressed the British Empire to stop such settlement on Lepcha and Bhutia lands, however by the turn of the century, the Nepalese population constituted a majority, and indigenous populations amalgamated into a composite Lepcha-Bhutia socio-ethnic group.[4] Discrimination between the heterogeneous Nepalese and other groups became a pressing social issue,[4] however the government of the Chogyal in its later years strove to treat all subjects equally as citizens, and allowed democratic changes to move forward.[3] These democratic and demographic changes culminated in a plebiscite in 1974, resulting in union with India as a State.[3] Since joining India, indigenous groups have expressed anxiety over losing land, resources and power to those they view as non-Sikkimese "far above [them] in terms of political consciousness, resource position, education and manipulative qualities."[4]:79

Indigenous cultures[edit]

Lepcha (Róng) manuscript.

The indigenous Sikkimese show wide cultural variation.

The Lepcha speak Lepcha and use Lepcha script And Limbu speak Limbu language and use Limbu script Both the scripts are descended from the Tibetan script.[5] Traditionally, Lepcha men wear gadas and tie a patang, a kind of weapon, on their waist and don a bamboo cap; women wear distinctive dresses and ornaments.[6] Among Lepchas, there is a tradition of nuclear family structure and of monogamous marriage; though divorce is relatively rare, widowed persons customarily remarry.[2]

Traditionally, the Lepcha practice a religion centered on shamans called mun, who officiate ceremonies and festivals, and bóngthíng, who are healers and are often female.[7] The Lepcha converted to Buddhism in the eighteenth century, though their beliefs are largely syncretic.[7]

Bhutias speak Sikkimese, which is also referred to as Dranjongke, written in the Tibetan script, proper. Men and women wear bakhus, while for women only this is accompanied by a hongu (blouse) around which they tie a woolen cloth around their waist called pangden if they are married.[6][8] On special occasions they wear a scarf called a khada, which has become common feature in the Sikkimese society and culture even among the Nepalese of Sikkim.[6] Historically, the Bhutia practiced polyandry before the nineteenth century; during the nineteenth century, wife-sharing among male siblings was also practiced, however neither tradition survives today.[2]:30 Marriage rituals are traditionally elaborate and festive, officiated by a village chief as opposed to a Buddhist lamas; late marriage and divorce are not uncommon practices among the Bhutia.[2]:30

Most Lepcha, and Bhutia today practice local forms of Buddhism, incorporating aspects of Bön religion and animism, in contrast to the Hindu Nepalese majority.[2] Followers of Buddhism in Sikkim are largely either Kagyudpa or Nyingma, though a small section of Bhutias claim to adhere to Bön in particular. Since the arrival of the Nepalese and Western missionaries, few Lepchas have converted to Christianity.[2]

Contemporary issues[edit]

The Lepcha reservation in Dzongu valley of north Sikkim[9][10] is threatened by dam construction.[11]

The Sikkim Bhutia Lepcha Apex Committee (SIBLAC), founded in 1999 is a campaigning organisation that promotes the socio-politico-economic rights of the Bhutia and Lepcha people as detailed in Article 371F of the Indian Constitution.[12][13]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Goshi, H.G. (2004). "Chapter 3: History of Sikkim: A Himalayan Kingdom". Sikkim: Past and Present. Mittal Publications. p. 60. ISBN 81-7099-932-4. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Choudhury, Maitreyee (2006). Sikkim: Geographical Perspectives. Mittal Publications. pp. 25–28. ISBN 81-8324-158-1. 
  3. ^ a b c Menon, N. R. Madhava; Banerjea; West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences, D. (2005). Sikkim. Criminal Justice India Series. 18. Allied Publishers. pp. 5–13. 
  4. ^ a b c d Lama, Mahendra P. (1994). Sikkim: Society, Polity, Economy, Environment. Indus Publishing. pp. 72–75. ISBN 81-7387-013-6. 
  5. ^ Daniels, Peter T.; Bright, William (1996). The World's Writing Systems. New York: Oxford University Press. 
  6. ^ a b c Bijaya Bantawa (ed.) (2010-12-07). "The Ethnic People of Sikkim: Their Lifestyles and Their Cultures". Snowline News online. Retrieved 2011-02-17. 
  7. ^ a b Heleen Plaisier (2010-11-13). "The Lepcha religion". Information on Lepcha Language and Culture. Retrieved 2011-01-17. 
  8. ^ "Bhutia Tribes". Indian Mirror online. 2010-12-14. Retrieved 2011-02-17. 
  9. ^ "Royal stamp on Lepcha reserve". The Telegraph online. Gangtok. 2010-12-28. 
  10. ^ Awasty, Indira (1978). Between Sikkim and Bhutan - The Lepchas and Bhutias of Pedong. Delhi: B.R. Publishing Corporation. OCLC 6485607. 
  11. ^ Heffa Schücking (2010). "India's Ugliest Dam Builder". Sikkim Times online. MizoramExpress. Retrieved 2011-02-19. 
  12. ^ Sikkim Bhutia Lecha Apex Committee. "About us". Retrieved 16 August 2015. 
  13. ^ Mehra, Ajay K (2013). Emerging Trends in Indian Politics: The Fifteenth General Election. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-136-19854-0. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]