Thursday, January 12, 2012

First impressions of Sikkim

Gangtok, capital of the once independent kingdom of Sikkim, makes for a fascinating contrast with nearby Darjeeling. The drive up yesterday - almost four and a half bumpy hours, rarely at faster than 30km/hour - was steep mountains followed by landslide-rutted roads along a cold green river and finally back up into gentler hills etched with rice terraces past huge power stations, institutes and factories, all freshly painted. The road along the Teesta River is the only road in. After the mountain vertigo and the barren wilds of the first two hours a landscape so prosperous it was reminding me of Japan or Switzerland and then, when we arrived in the bright lights of Gangtok proper in the late afternoon, Dubai or, considering the verticality of it all, something out of Miyazaki Hayao, perhaps Laputa. (The prosperity is the result of Indian government support of its newest state.) Darjeeling's got three times the population, but seemed three times smaller and poorer: a country town, not a city. [Correction: I learn that in the past decade Gangtok, too, has tripled in population, reaching one lakh, 100,000.]

And where Darjeeling's history is quite recent, Sikkim's is a bit older. The dozen people who came to our discussion of everyday religion at Sikkim's one literary bookstore were all aware that an originally animist tradition had Buddhist and later Hindu and Christian frameworks grafted on to it in ways outside and more recently arrived forms of "world religions" can't abide let alone appreciate. I know I shouldn't draw any conclusions from a comparison of two small events organized in the off-season in quite different contexts (community activist non-profit, bookstore), but I was struck that the Darjeeling discussion seemed haunted by the loss of traditions, practiced ironically and honored humanistically in others, while the Gangtok discussion conveyed a sense of vibrant practices abandoned at one's peril and led to a trading of stories of family traditions and angry spirits appeased by shamanistic rituals. My unrepresentative little Darjeeling group spoke of religion as love, ethics, family tradition, while the unrepresentative little Gangtok society was all about rituals and the occult realities that demand them.

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