Home to many ethnic groups who have settled down in this tiny Himalayan state for centuries, the culture of Sikkim is a homogenous mixture of the identities of these groups. On one hand, each group maintains its individual identity through religious beliefs, dress and food, art, musical performances, etc. On the other hand, Sikkim overall has evolved into a modern Indian state. Founded in the mid-17th century, Sikkim was an independent monarchy till it joined India in May 1975.
The three main ethnic groups which largely constitute the population of Sikkim are the Lepcha (the original inhabitants), the Bhutia (Tibetans) and the Nepali people. It was the signing of the treaty of blood brotherhood between the Lepcha Chief Thekong Tek and the Tibetan Prince Khye Bumsa at Kabi Lungchok in north Sikkim in the 13th century which helped both communities to live in amity. It was Guru Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche) who introduced Buddhism to the region in the eighth century. According to historians, ethnic Nepali groups had settled in Sikkim during various periods and now form a significant part of the population.
The capital, Gangtok, is one of the best places to observe how the old and the new, the traditional and the modern merge seamlessly to make Sikkim what it is today. Do not be surprised to find a red robed lama and a stylishly dressed young person sharing the same table at a roadside café. On one hand, you will find people congregating at the monasteries during festivals and enjoying the masked dances. On the other hand, you will find them flocking to movie halls and nightclubs for modern entertainment. While people, mostly in urban areas, have adopted typical Indian wear or Western wear, traditional wear is worn during religious and social festivals. Wondering what to do when in Gangtok? Check our comprehensive guides here and here.
The Fairs and Festivals
From the daunting snow peaks to lakes, people revere nature in many forms. Mt Kanchendzonga is the guardian deity of the state. While most people practice Hinduism or Buddhism, there are Christians, Muslims, Jains and Sikhs too. One of the best times to enjoy the cultural extravaganza of the state is during the traditional festivals of the various ethnic groups. Buddhist monasteries celebrate most festivals with a dedicated masked dance (or Chaam), a hard to beat colourful presentation.
Monks dressed in elaborate symbolic masks and colourful costumes, and accompanied by traditional instruments, enact skits based on themes of good winning over evil, the life of Buddha and other divinities, etc. Kagyad Chaam, Singi Chaam, Pangtoed Chaam are known for their elaborate presentations. The harvest festivals of the various communities are also known for their dance performances.
The Lepchas are the biggest lovers of nature on the face of this earth and their festivals are also connected to nature and its greenery. The Zikding Rum Faat festival, held during February-March period every year, reinforces the Lepcha belief that a balanced ecology and environment is integral for the survival of the human race. More about this festival here.
The Art and Architecture
The monasteries of Sikkim are repositories of Buddhist art and architecture. Many of the old monasteries still bear traces of carved wooden architecture. You may study the evolution of Sikkimese art through the murals found on the interior and exterior walls of monasteries. From painted thangkas (scrolls) to decorative masks to the sculpted Torma (offerings), there is artistry in everything you see in a monastery. Do not miss the wooden replica of Guru Padmasmbhava’s heavenly abode with its miniature figures, a work of art by the late Dungzin Rinpoche, located on the top floor of Pemayangste Monastery. Today, many of the ritualistic objects, such as thangkas, and mementoes representing the holy symbols, are sold as souvenirs for travellers. The finely crafted ‘choktse’ or wooden table is also an example of Sikkimese wood craft.
Check here for info on places where you can buy some of these beautiful handicrafts of Sikkim.
The Literature and Music
Monasteries have preserved manuscripts of religious books. The Namgyal Institute of Tibetology library holds one of the largest collections of Tibetan works in the world outside Tibet. It has over 60,000 titles consisting of Tibetan translations of canonical and non-canonical texts written in Sanskrit or Pali, as well as tantric texts belonging to the four sects of Tibetan Buddhism.
Apart from the Nepali literature, you will also find a slew of authors writing in English, such as Prajwal Parajuly, Guru T Ladakhi, Tashi Chophel, and others. Check out Rachna Books, a culturally vibrant bookstore in Gangtok, which is also into publishing now.
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Music in Sikkim has been largely associated with religion. But the various ethnic groups have a rich repertoire of folk music with lyrics related to thanksgiving and other events in the life of the hill folks.
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Apart from modern music in local languages, young people are also embracing Western music. The progressive rock metal band Nightmares is creating waves in competitions and concerts outside the state. You may catch up on some contemporary music at several cafes in Gangtok, such as Cafe Live and Loud or Gangtok Groove.