Indigenous peoples of Sikkim

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The indigenous peoples of Sikkim include the Lepchas and Bhutias, in contrast to the dominant, heterogeneous Nepali population of Sikkim.


Main article: History of Sikkim

The Lepcha is the earliest ethnic group settled Sikkim. The Sikkim was named by Limboo/Subba.The believe they are the autochthones while others considered that they were settled by the thirteenth century, coming from the Assam 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 Limbus 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. Both the Lepcha and Limbu 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 around 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 Karmapa 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]

Lepchas are suffering from a feeling of inferiority, some denying they are Lepchas, while Nepalis who seek to integrate them label Lepchas as Bhutias.[9]:95 The Lepcha language is hardly spoken except by older generations.[9]:30 The Lepcha reservation in Dzongu valley of north Sikkim[10] is threatened by dam construction.[11]

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. ^ a b Awasty, Indira (1978). Between Sikkim and Bhutan - The Lepchas and Bhutias of Pedong. Delhi: B.R. Publishing Corporation. OCLC 6485607. 
  10. ^ "Royal stamp on Lepcha reserve". The Telegraph online. Gangtok. 2010-12-28. 
  11. ^ Heffa Schücking (2010). "India's Ugliest Dam Builder". Sikkim Times online. MizoramExpress. Retrieved 2011-02-19. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]