Sikkim - Background
If once the charms of the State were limited to mists, mountains and colorful butterflies, they are now complimented by tangible development and progress. With its unique culture and natural landscape, Sikkim is a picture of perfection and pristine purity. Nestled in the Himalayas and endowed with exceptional natural resources, Sikkim is a hotspot of biodiversity and development. Though small in size, yet Sikkim has been identified world over as an important repository of germ plasmas of unknown dimensions. Perhaps, there is no part of the world, which offers a spectacular scene with every turn of the road as Sikkim. Though land-locked, Sikkim is one of the most beautiful and strategically important states of the Indian Union.
Completely landlocked and criss-crossed by green valleys, high peaks, and rippling rivers, decorated by a spectacular array of the most exotic and colourful orchids, Sikkim is referred to as nye-ma-el (heaven) by the Lepchas, which means ‘new palace’ in Nepali, and denzong (land of rice) by the Bhutias. It lies in the north-eastern Himalayas, between 27°04'46'' to 28°07'48'' North latitude and 80°00'58'' to 88°55'25'' East longitude. It is bound on the north by China (Tibet plateau), on the east by Chumbi Valley of Tibet and Bhutan, on the west by Nepal and on the south by Darjeeling district of West Bengal.
The State, being part of the Inner Himalayan mountain ranges, has elevations ranging from 300 to 7000 metres above Mean Sea Level (MSL). Nearly two-thirds of its territory consists of very high mountains, which are perpetually covered with snow from which glaciers like Talung and Zemu descend. These mountains, including the third highest mountain in the world—Kanchenjunga (8,598 m)—are located in northwest Sikkim.
The green cover of the State is critical for sustaining livelihoods in agriculture, animal husbandry, and tourism. Forest resources have catered to the requirements of local communities and tourism. Therefore, investment in the forestry sector is quite crucial, particularly when this provides sustainability to the general physical environment. The geographical and climatic characteristics of the State have deeply influenced its economic and social development. Human settlements and economic activities have been built around local ecology and terrain. The impact of climatic change due to global warming and other factors has to be considered. This is also relevant in the context of natural disasters that are occurring with increasing frequency in recent years.
‘Sikkimese are very fond of alcohol’ is the general impression of people in the rest of the country — just as most people are convinced that all hill people in the hills drink a lot of alcohol. There are social stigmas attached to drinking, but no celebration or occasion can be complete without alcohol, mostly indigenous but increasingly foreign. Hill people themselves subscribe to the notion that alcohol is essential for their climatic conditions. Moreover, alcohol is easily available in all the districts of Sikkim. The indigenously manufactured brews like rakshi, chhang and tongba are also relatively much cheaper than anywhere else. Sikkim breweries are known for their products in the Eastern Himalayas.
The magnitude and consequences of unrecorded alcohol consumption, defined as home brewed or clandestinely produced illicit liquor or surrogate alcoholic beverage has been little investigated in India. A significant portion of all alcohol consumed globally is unrecorded, therefore these consumers constitute a significant population. Although consumption of unrecorded alcohol is traditional in Sikkim, it has emerged as an important public health problem, with alarmingly high rates of problematic consumption.
In Sikkim, especially in the rural areas where there is no supply of treated water for drinking and other domestic uses, natural surface water is the only source. The water quality of the natural sources indicated that the water is poor-quality and not totally safe for human consumption, and that it needs treatment before consumption.
Sikkim is the land of faith healers. You name a disease and there is a medicine indigenously developed, based on local resources and imbued with a strong spiritual element. There are a large number of traditional healers—Dhami, Jhankri, Phendongba and Bonbo in the Nepali community Pow and Nejum in the Bhutia community and Bumthing in the Lepcha community. For these powerful faith healers, ‘jhar phuk’ is the key word and the first step in an interestingly complicated but inexpensive course of treatment.
Ancient medical systems are still prevalent in Sikkim, popularly nurtured by Buddhist groups using the traditional Tibetan pharmacopoeia overlapping with Ayurvedic medicine. The three ethnic groups of Sikkim, the Lepcha, Bhutia, and Nepalis, have long practiced their traditional systems of medicine and have a strong belief in herbs. 490 medicinal plants find their habitat in Sikkim due to its large variations in altitude and climate.
Ancient medical systems abound in Sikkim, and are still popular, nurtured by Buddhist groups for their traditional Tibetan Pharmacopoeia. The tribals of Sikkim have immense faith in herbal medicine based on trial and error experience gained continuously from generation to generation. The various traditional healers across the globe have diverse beliefs and practices, but the common aim of all is to cure ailments and maintain human health.
Any medical system operates in society according to the prevailing environment of the region and cultural manifestations operating within it. In Sikkim Himalaya, geographical factors have not only contributed to this, but also prevented close contact with other developed indigenous systems of medicine. Human societies living in high-altitude areas remain isolated due to poor accessibility and harsh climate. Their geographical conditions stimulate them to develop a unique health culture. In Sikkim, this is a mixture of Lepcha, Bhutia, and Nepali practices for the prevention of disease, promotion of health, and treatment of disease. These unique practices are undocumented and passed on from one generation to next by word of mouth.
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