Friday, August 28, 2009

Hidden paradise

"Known as Bayul Demazong (Hidden paradise) to Sikkimese people, and Nye-mae-el (Heaven!) to the Lepchas, Sikkim is one of the most beautiful and peaceful state of Inida. It is regarded as a sacred and holy landscape. Diversity of culture, traditions, rich biodiversity, scenic beauty and a strong Buddhist culture have made Sikkim an attractive place for tourists, ecologists, pilgrims, nature lovers, zoologists and environmentalists alike."

Sikkim protects its cultural and natural ressources with an ecotourism policy, a step towards solving the problem of recent increase in tourism by guiding and driving environmentally friendly tourism in the state, particularly the Khangchendzonga National Park (KNP) area. Strict regulations are in place and the impact of tourism on the environment is monitored through constant observation and evaluation. The Khangchendzonga Conservation Comittee (KCC), a grass root, non-profit community based non governmental organization based in Yuksam, was created in 1997 to facilitate the implementation of such ecotourism policies, work for the conservation of biodiversity in the KNP and educate the local community as well as tourists. It also regularly conducts checks on the environmental conditions to evaluate the effectiveness of its policies.

Historically, tourism started in the region with the coming of foreign nationals in 1977, who came from Tashiding or Phamrong to settle in Yuksam and work in road construction. In 1980, the first tourist lodge, "Dzongrila", opened, and tourist started coming regularly from 1985 onwards. Also, stray dogs started multiplying. In 2002, telephone and Internet facilities were installed in Yuksam. Tourism is now a major source of revenue, which is, thanks to the Sikkimese government and the KCC, directed towards the local community and the pretection of biodiversity. The KNP attracts annually

The KCC trains local guides and porters to be made environmentally conscious, making them aware that if the natural flora and fauna are not preserved, the surrounding areas will lose its beauty, leading to a decrease in tourism. The KCC worked so well for the training of guides that they no longer need to hire them from neighbouring town (Gangtok, Darjeeling, Delhi or even Nepal). Instead, it is now the Yuksam guides, trained by the KCC, who are being hired from other parts of the region, leading to an increase in income from tourism.

The KNP covers a huge 1,784 km², occupying 25% of the total geographical area of Sikkim with an elevation range of 1,829 to 8,586 metres. The park was notified by the Sikkim government in August 1977 and was later expanded in May 1997. It extends from 29°19'13'' to 27°29'4'' north latitude and 88°9'18'' to 88°15' east longitude, from the lowland of Yuksam (1,780m) and Mt Khangchendzonga (8,586m). The cultural heritage of the region is rich and diverse, with some ten ethnic groups of traditional subsistence lifestyles, including Bhotia, Sherpa, Lepcha, Limbu, Gurung, Rai, Chettri-Brahmin, Newar, Kami and Damai. The entire landscape is considered sacred by the locals, and all the physical components such as lakes, streams, caves, snow-capped mountains etc. are treated as deities, an important sacred lake being the one of Khecheopalri. The form of Buddhism that is practiced in Sikkim, especially spread around the western part of the state where Buddhism is the main religion, is known as "Tibitian Lamasim", a form of Buddhism mixed with mysticism.

Sometimes in the seventh century, Lord Padma Sambhava was invited to Tibet by King Trisong Deutsen to introduce and establish Buddhism. On his way, he travelled through Sikkim where it is believed that he hid many treasures ("Ters", according to the book "Ney-Sol", the book that prophetised that Sikkim would one day become Buddhist). In the year 1642, three great monks, Lhabchen Chempo, Gnadak Sempa Chempo and Kathok Rikzin Chempo, came to Sikkim from Tibet via the northern, southern and western gates and met at Norbugang, now known as... Yuksam. In Lepcha, Yuksam translates as "the meeting place of the three learned ones". The three monks consecrated Phuntsok Nymgyal from the east as the first Dharma Raja. With the establishment of the first Buddhist monastery at Dubdi by Gyalwa Lhastun Namkha Jigme in the year 1701, Buddhism was introduced into Sikkim and became a state religion until Sikkim merged into India in 1975.

Sources: Yuksam, Travel Guidebook, published by KCC (2008) ; Khangchendzonga, the Sacred Mountain. A Biodiversity Handbook, published by KCC (2002).

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