In the year 1592, when men in power were still God fearing and honored their word, a sacred covenant between the Lepchas - the indigenous people of Sikkim and the Tibetan Bhutias was solemnized. This historical event took place near Gangtok, the present capital of Sikkim. A bull was sacrificed to the Gods and an oath was sworn over its blood that the Lepchas and Bhutias would never fight and live as blood brothers in peace and harmony. Whoever broke the sacred oath would be cursed along with his descendents. From then on, on the 15th of every ninth month of the Tibetan calendar, the people of this region would make an offering of food and drink to their God to celebrate this sacred covenant. However the Tibetan rulers of the Sikkim could not keep their word for long and broke the sacred oath, inviting the wrath of the curse on themselves. The Namgyal dynasty that ruled over Sikkim from 1642-1975, came to an end on 16th May 1975 and Sikkim became the 22nd State of India. However during my recent trip to the eastern Himalays I realized that while the rulers of this region broke the sacred oath of peace, the people of this region continue to follow the sacred covenant.
Kalimpong was my first experience of the eastern Himalayas. We arrived by road from Bagdogra at night, occasionally stopping on the way for tea at some roadside dhaba. It was a different world – the silence, the hills and the trees breathing refreshingly moist cold air, the narrow winding roads fading into a foggy corners, the simple rural folk. The place seemed so romantically remote and far away from the everyday absurdities of city life.
The next day, a local Bhutia driver took us around Kalimpong, telling us a little bit about all the major land marks. He was a gentle and friendly man and would greet every third person on the road as we drove around the town. When I commented on his popularity among the locals, his response was simple – “Since we do not know how long we are going to live, we might as well live with friendship and love while we are still alive !”
Kalimpong, as well as the rest of the region of eastern Himalayas, is home to people of different tribes and faiths. There are Nepali Hindus, Lepchas and Bhutias who are mostly Buddhist and a small Christian and a Tibetan Muslim population. The Lepchas, meaning ‘ravine folk’ are believed to be the original inhabitants of Sikkim. They are the people who lived with and worshipped nature – they venerated the spirits of rivers and mountains before adopting Buddhism or Christianity. Their closeness to nature is reflected in their language, which though not well developed, is rich in vocabulary related to the plants and animals of this region. The Bhutias are of Tibetan origin who migrated from Tibet to Sikkim, Himalayan West Bengal and Bhutan after the 15th century. They follow Nyingmapa and Kagyupa school of Tibetan Buddhism. Majority of Nepalis here are Hindus, except the Sherpas and Tamangs, who are Buddhist.
Few outsiders are aware of the fact Tibet had, and perhaps still has pockets of Muslims entrenched within its borders. Tibetan Muslims trace their origin to immigrants from China, Kashmir, Ladakh and Nepal. Islamic influence in Tibet also came from Persia and Turkestan.
After 1959, during the Chinese aggression, quite a few Tibetan Muslims managed to escape from Tibet into the border towns of Gangtok, Kalimpong and Darjeeling. A large number of them moved to Kashmir. However, according to one report, about 50 Tibetan Muslim families still reside in the Kalimpong-Darjeeling region. Tibetan Muslims in Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Nepal have a joint Tibetan Muslim Welfare Association based in Kalimpong. I met some of them outside the Jame Masjid in Kalimpong. When I asked one of them if there was any friction among the different communities, he seemed to be taken by surprise, ‘What is there to fight about?’ he wondered. ‘We are simple folks, and our only concern is to earn a living and save for our children’s future’ he added. At that moment, all the petty politics of hate and communalization over the Jamia Nagar encounter and Malegaon blast came to my mind and I felt a bit ashamed of myself. The rest of India has long broken its sacred covenant of brotherhood, and God knows how many of our future generations will face the wrath of the curse.
It was in Kalimpong where a Buddhist taxi driver and a pious namaazi taught me the refreshingly simple philosophy of peaceful co-existence. It was in Kalimpong too, that I got my first glimpse of eastern Himalayas and Kanchendzonga, the highest mountain peak of India. The serene landscape of hills rolling into the far horizon with the mighty Kanchendzonga rising far above the clouds reminded me of what Pir Inayat Khan, the great musician and sufi, once wrote - the spiritual centre of a region lies at its highest point.