Folk Religion and Contemporary Belief in Sikkim

  • It is Sikkim new year today (21.02)

What are we looking at?

  • What is Sikkim?
  • Recent history
  • A quick glimpse of religious beliefs and meaning in everyday life

Geographically Sikkim is situated in between Bhutan, Nepal and China, in the Himalayas, small territory. Used to be Himalayan Kingdom. 

First British colonisers had to go through Sikkim to reach Tibet, which was in deep connection with Tibet, many kings from Tibet were from Sikkim – culturally connected. British never took Sikkim over, they took them under protection, never was a “colony”.

In history very welcoming to the West, helped the British reach Tibet. Tibet drifted away from Sikkim, because they weren’t happy about British influence in Sikkim. Sikkim got stuck in the middle between an old friend and a powerful empire. 

  • When the British left and India gained independence, Sikkim was conquered and became a part of India. Sikkim became one of the princetys? In 1975, when it was annexed into India.

In the 17th century Namgyal dynasty established the state of Sikkim on the Silk Road. It was captured by the British in 1890. Of all the states in the Himalayas, Sikkim has the highest literacy rate and the highest per capita income rate.

The formation of Sikkim has strong roots in religion, not uniting because of other factors. Three main religious aspects and prohecies which were included in uniting the 

  1. Prophecy – 8th century, there was in Tibert a king, who wanted to introduce Buddhism to the people as a whole. He wanted to build a monastery. He told his people to build a monastery, one member of each family pull-up to the function. They gathered rock, sand, soil, bamboo. They gathered in a place and worked the whole day, but the next day everything they had gathered was gone. They work again for the whole day, but next morning it was gone again. It keeps repeating every day. They told about this to the king, who invited the smartest ritual specialist to find out what was going on. He was possessed by spirits and talked about the problem, there is a spirit who is pissed about their building and doesn’t allow the building to take place, they didn’t ask for their permission. 

They had to invite a witch of black magic from present day India who could chill out with the spirit. They guys go to the south and find the witch, it was a long journey, down from the Himalayas. They met a Guru Rinpoche. who helped establish Tibetan Buddhism. They found the esoteric Guru, who was known to be a trickster. He was mad that the king didn’t pull up himself, why did he send some servants? They went back to the king and he was pissed off. But he did go himself, and the Guru was pleased. They went back to Tibet and Guru promised to be there. He made it back faster than the King, because he was flying across the Himalayas. 

He arrived to the building site and started to meditate. He interacted with the spirit through a war in his mind, somehow the Guru won. The Guru offered him a deal, in any place in the Himalayas, if they want to build a monastery, they need your approval, but you need to protect this monastery, then the monastery will be built all fine. 

The trip is vital to the history of Sikkim, because he was flying to Tibet and Bhutan, fell in love with a spirit in Bhutan, then went to Sikkim and so on. Until he arrived in Tibet. 

The text intermingles in different cultures, having him be in different places at the same time. Him being omnipotent. 

When he was passing to Tibet, he discovered Sikkim, because it was hidden then. He saw so much prosperity, nature and beauty. So he opened this land for refuge to every Buddhist, who needed a safe place. Guru found Sikkim, opened it for people. When the nature was inhabited by different spirits which were not happy about people going to live there. He subjugated the spirits to Buddhism, also killed some. 

  1. 13th century – Guru prophesied (8th century) that Sikkim will be at one time opened and fully fledged for people to join. 

There was another king in Tibet, who couldnt have a child as an heir. When he consulted doctors and ritual specialists he found out, that there is a place in south, with a specialist who can put a spell on him  to have a child. At that time people who lived in Sikkim were believed to possess skills with which people could be given luck and stuff. At Sikkim the specialists gave him x of prodigy. When he was thanking the specialists in Sikkim, he was prophesied that Sikkim would become more rich and be ruled by the child of the new king.

  1. The descendants of the original king had spread across the Himalayas, 3 brothers gathered in Sikkim and wanted to decide, who could become the king. They found a 4th person, descendant of the 13th century king, who was milking a cow in the jungle. 

Some stuff happened and they chose a king.

17th century Sikkim was established as a state.

Q and A for a break

  • Influence of neighbors?

Very strong in Sikkim because of the situation geographically, it is very multicultural today too. Demographics. Many immigrants went there in the beginning of 21th century. There is no one place which is only inhabited by Sikkim people. Literacy rate is 69.98%, while India as a whole is 65.38%. Indians settled there to increase their community. 

Bhutias/Lepachas/Bhalis – 3 cultures intertwined

Used to be one of the strongest Buddhist Kingdoms. But hinduist refugees have mixed the culture and left the old buddhism in minority. Sikkim in relation to Buddhism. The Guru killed a ton of spirits and monsters, which have been transformed into different natural landmarks in Sikkim today. Different narratives follow Guru Rinpoche in relation to nature and Sikkim culture. 

  • Studying these spirits in folklore is Kikee’s PhD’s topic

Was Guru Rinpoche a real histori character?

  • There are some scriptures, but not 100% certified, most likely not. But in Sikkim it is not a question, because it is such a big part of the culture. Everything is related to Guru Rinpoche. When entering Sikkim, every site is connected to the life of Guru, which makes it impossible to deny the existence of the Guru.

There are numerous deities inhabiting Sikkim, who help or punish people for their acts. There are believed to be more than there are people in Sikkim. Deities are in many categories, guardian and so on…Some help people recover from sickness. 

  • Guardian deities are put into 2 categories – enlightened gods (don’t mess with sickness) and unenlightened gods (give sicknesses)

If you don’t act accordingly, they can make you suffer and sick.

How to become a ritual specialist?

  • To become, the authenticity is not questioned, it can’t be chosen, because it is also a suffering for the specialist. The real specialists don’t do it for the money. Difficult to tell them apart. It is not a market, they are born into the family usually.  In depth process. 

How modern is Sikkim? 

  • Globalism has helped with modernizing, Ukrainian war has helped gather national integrity and culture for the future generations. There is still a gap in modernizing, in cities people live almost the same life as people in Europe. The cultural value in family is much more valued in Sikkim.