Indigenous peoples of Sikkim

Indigenous peoples of Sikkim

Indigenous peoples of Sikkim include the Limbu, Lepchas and Bhutia peoples who are now Scheduled Tribes, in contrast to the dominant heterogeneous Nepali population of Sikkim.



Sikkim and neighboring countries. Indigenous Sikkimese groups – Limbu, Lepcha, and Bhutia – and their close relatives – Kiranti and Tibetans – also live in surrounding Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan, and neighboring States of India.

The Lepcha is the earliest ethnic group settled Sikkim. 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][2] 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.[3] 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.[3]

In 1642, the Bhutia established a monarchy headed by the Chogyal (Tibetan: ཆོས་རྒྱལ་Wylie: chos rgyal; divine king), and opened relations with Tibet.[2][1] By the founding of the Bhutia monarchy, Tibetan sources considered Tibetans (Bhutia), Lepchas, and Limbus to be the "original races of the kingdom."[3]

The Limbu people (also known as Tsong, Tshong, Subba, and Yakthungba) are a Kiranti people, and are also an indigenous group to populate Sikkim.[3]

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.[3] 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.[3]

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.[4][5] 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.[5] Discrimination between the heterogeneous Nepalese and other groups became a pressing social issue,[5] 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.[4] These democratic and demographic changes culminated in a plebiscite in 1974, resulting in union with India as a State.[4] 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."[5]:79

Indigenous cultures

Lepcha (Róng) manuscript.
Limbu man and woman in traditional attire. (1868)

The indigenous Sikkimese show wide cultural variation. Limbu society is traditionally defined by norms, rituals, rites, and chumlung, social groups that convene to express views.[3]:29, 33 During rituals, dancing is a common element, and Limbu priests, called phedangma, recite oral narratives called mundhum.[3]:33 Traditionally, the Limbu practice chastity before marriage, and do not cohabitate before marrying.[3]:29 They tend to live in extended family groups, remaining at home after marriage; marriages are strictly exogamous, meaning intra-clan marriage is prohibited.[3]:29 They therefore frequently adopt members of entirely different groups, encouraging religious marital conversion in the process.[3]:29 The Limbu use the Limbu script to write their language, which is related to that of the Lepcha.

The Lepcha speak Lepcha and use Lepcha script. Both the Lepcha and Limbu scripts are descended from the Tibetan script.[6] 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.[7] Among Lepchas, there is a tradition of nuclear family structure and of monogamous marriage; though divorce is relatively rare, widowed persons customarily remarry.[3]

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.[8] The Lepcha converted to Buddhism in the eighteenth century, though their beliefs are largely syncretic.[8]

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.[7][9] 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.[7] 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.[3]: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.[3]:30

Most Limbu, Lepcha, and Bhutia today practice local forms of Buddhism, incorporating aspects of Bön religion and animism, in contrast to the Hindu Nepalese majority.[3] 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, many Limbu have adopted Hinduism, and a few Lepchas have converted to Christianity.[3]

Contemporary issues

Lepchas are suffering from a feeling of inferiority, some denying they are Lepchas, while Nepalis who seek to integrate them label Lepchas as Bhutias.[10]:95 The Lepcha language is hardly spoken except by older generations.[10]:30 The Lepcha reservation in Dzongu valley of north Sikkim[11] is threatened by dam construction.[12]

See also


  1. ^ a b Goshi, H.G. (2004). "Chapter 3: History of Sikkim: A Himalayan Kingdom". Sikkim: Past and Present. Mittal Publications. p. 60. ISBN 8170999324. 
  2. ^ a b Raatan, T. (2006). "Chapter 8: Sikkim". History, Religion and Culture of North East India. Gyan Books. p. 254. ISBN 8182051789. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p Choudhury, Maitreyee (2006). Sikkim: Geographical Perspectives. Mittal Publications. pp. 25–28. ISBN 8183241581. 
  4. ^ a b c Menon, N. R. Madhava; Banerjea; West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences, D. (2005). Sikkim. 18. Allied Publishers. pp. 5–13. 
  5. ^ a b c d Lama, Mahendra P. (1994). Sikkim: Society, Polity, Economy, Environment. Indus Publishing. pp. 72–75. ISBN 8173870136. 
  6. ^ Bright, Peter T. (1996). The World's Writing Systems. New York: Oxford University Press. 
  7. ^ 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. 
  8. ^ a b Heleen Plaisier (2010-11-13). "The Lepcha religion". Information on Lepcha Language and Culture. Retrieved 2011-01-17. 
  9. ^ "Bhutia Tribes". Indian Mirror online. 2010-12-14. Retrieved 2011-02-17. 
  10. ^ a b Awasty, Indira (1978). Between Sikkim and Bhutan - The Lepchas and Bhutias of Pedong. Delhi: B.R. Publishing Corporation. OCLC 6485607. 
  11. ^ "Royal stamp on Lepcha reserve". The Telegraph online. Gangtok. 2010-12-28. 
  12. ^ Heffa Schücking (2010). "India's Ugliest Dam Builder". Sikkim Times online. MizoramExpress. Retrieved 2011-02-19. 

Further reading

External links

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