Sikkim, in India's eastern Himalayan region is a land of deep gorges amid some of the highest mountains on earth.In olden days it was called Basyul, meaning "Hidden Land".

To the southwest, along the main range, is the pride of the Sikkim Himalaya "Kanchendzonga". A Dzong is a fortress, and even a look from afar at Kanchendzonga's butresses and icy pinnacles, confirms it as an apt name for this redoubtable mountain, standing tall at a lofty 8585 meters. Kanchendzonga's lower slopes are girdled by glaciers, whereas it's north-south orientation creates an east-west watershed.

Sikkim occupies a unique position in the Himalaya due to it's incredible biodiversity, and this is itself the result of what has to be one of the terrestrial world's steepest altitude gradients.From the plains of north Bengal to the top of Kanchendzonga, a leap of some 8,000 metres, is a distance of a mere 80 kms as the crow flies. In between we find flora and fauna ranging from the tropical to the palearctic. Sikkim is like a green house, Over 4,000 species of everyday and exotic plants including 454 known species of Orchid alone. A large number of these were identified by one of the greatest explorers that Sikkim saw - Sir Joseph Hooker who later collaborated with Charles Darwin on the Origin of Species. Hooker identified a large number of Sikkim's bountiful flora and these are chronicled in his Himalayan Journals published in the middle of the last century. The story of course doesn't stop at Orchids. Sikkim's Rhododendrons are a class apart. 30 species including the gigantic R.grande, a tree 30 - 40 feet in height and with girths upto 5 feet. Actually, for the botanist, the story goes on and on. Sikkemese Primulas are enough to send anybody into raptures.
The steep altitude gradient also makes Sikkim's main river, the Teesta, one of the wildest and most turbulent of all Himalayan rivers.
Flowing on a north-south axis through Sikkim, at Manang the Teesta meets up with a major tributary from Mt. Siniolchu, Sikkim's other great mountain, immediately due east of Kanchendzonga. From here, the Teesta cuts south, through the southern foothills, to the old bazaar town of Kalimpong.


The Teesta valley recieves intense rainfall, even for the eastern Himalaya, which in any case averages far more rain than the western Himalaya. This is due to Sikkim's positioning viz-viz the plains of Bengal. There is a height diffrential of 2800 metres between Siliguri and Darjeeling, in a short distance of just 30 kms. Consequently, the south-east monsoon hits the lesser Himalaya around Darjeeling with the same intensity as at Cherrapunji on the Shillong plateau, one of the world's rainiest places.

Landslides are thus common all over the Teesta valley. The Teesta and it's major tributaries like the Rangit bring down what is probably the highest sediment yield of all the Himalayan rivers and in turn impart to Sikkim what is probably the highest denudation rate in the entire Himalayas.
Over the last 200 years Sikkim suffered extensive deforestation thus exarbating the destabilizing effect of heavy rainfall. In addition the rocks in the region are comparativly fragile, the strata consisting of sandstone, shales and quartzite.
What remains of the forests is home to some of the most rampant biodiversity observable anywhere on earth - A Himalayan Galapagos.

The source of the Teesta is to be found, like all major Himalayan rivers, on the north side of the great range, in the Transhimalayan barrenness of the Chorten Nyima range. Here lies the magnificient Gurudogmar lake at a breathtaking altitude of 17,200 feet above sea level.Gurudogmar is the largest lake in Sikkim and certainly the highest lake of any consequence in the entire Himalayas.While the lake itself is aways covered over with ice, one corner never freezes,(foreground of picture) probably due to the presence of a subtarranean acquifer carrying heated water.
After it's plunge through Sikkim, the Teesta meets up with the Rangit. Also originating in the south eastern glaciers of Kanchendzonga, the Rangit has carved out the valley overlooked by the colonial hill station of Darjeeling.

The Teesta has always been a wild and unpredictable river. Till 1787, the Teesta flowed into the Ganga, when, after extremely destructive flooding, it switched course and joined up with the Brahmaputra!
The original inhabitants were the Lepchas. The Lepchas call themselves Rong-pa meaning 'ravine folk' and are thought to have migrated from the hills of Assam in the 13th century. They were followed by the Bhutias from Tibet, in the 17th century. The last three decades have seen a population boom in the state mainly due to large scale migrations from eastern Nepal. The Lepchas now constitute a mere 10% of the population and the majority community today are the Nepalese.

In todays world of increasing environmental concerns, the Lepchas make model citizens. A culture and lifestyle traditionally close to nature, originally animists and now, Mahayana Buddhists, an extraordinarily rich zoological and botanical vocabulary, make the Lepcha a natural 'naturalist'!
A Lepcha legend is very revealing .... "long ago, the laughter of the Lepchas wafted into the sky, where it froze into the shimmering stars."



Sikkimese Budddhism

Buddhism came to Sikkim as a result of factional strife amongst the Tibetan Buddhists in the 15th and 16th centuries.
The great schism in the Tibetan church, between the red hats and the yellow hats, was naturally, a result of far more, than a dispute over the colours of the hat. At the root was the reformation in Tibetan Buddhism introduced by Dipankar Srijana or "Atisha", an Indian Buddhist monk who visited Tibet in the 10th century. Atisha preached celibacy and moral abstinence and weighed against the tantric arts.
The Gelugpa, or the reformed order, headed by the Dalai Lamas dates back to this period. The unreformed residue, the Nying-ma-pa or the old order, continued to draw inspiration from the great mystic yogis of the time Resisting the influence of the 'reformed' Gelugpa school, the Nyingmapa continued to adhere to older tantric practices frowned upon by the Gelugpa. In fact the Nyingmapa trace their roots to the great yogi Milarepa.

The divide between the followers of the two sects deepened over the centuries and as the Gelugpa sect headed by the Dalai Lama gained ascendency in Tibet, the Nyingmapa sect sought refuge in Sikkim. Consequently Sikkim is the site of some of Himlayan Buddhism's most important monasteries.


Wildlife

From the rarest of the rare Red Panda, to the equally rare Clouded leopard and the Snow leopard, the diversity in the floral realm is more than matched by a similiar variety in the animal kingdom. Of the 1400 butterfly species recorded from the Indian subcontinent, nearly 50% are from Sikkim. Birds, fish, reptiles ... are equally prolific, and remember, all this in the tiny area of just 7299 sq kms!
Unfortunately very little is known of the current status of the large mammals, though over a hundred species were recorded by the early naturalists. The Red Panda for example, a rather small member of the bear family, is arboreal, living mostly on tree tops between 6 and 12 thousand feet. Little information is available as far as it's current status in the wilds of Sikkim goes.



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