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Sikkim - People

As per Census of India (2001) the total population of Sikkim stood at 0.54 million which accounts for barely 0.05 percent of the total population of the country. 70% of population is rural and is thriving on livelihoods linked to natural resources such as agriculture and forest products that are climate sensitive. Culturally it is a multi-ethnic state. It comprises of four districts East, West, North and South with a total population of 5, 40,851. The literacy rate is one of the highest in India.

High levels of expenditure that have to be incurred in traditional marriage ceremonies have helped to give sanction to bhagaune pratha. At the heart of early marriage in Sikkim, is the system of socially sanctioned elopement (bhagaune pratha). This system probably evolved because of the strict caste system prevailing in Nepali society. Under this system, caste exogamy was strictly prohibited for both the higher and lower castes. Faced with the threat of social ostracization and sometimes severe punishments for inter-caste marriage, bhagaune pratha evolved as a mechanism for social acceptance.

Bhagaune pratha allows a boy and a girl from different castes and social backgrounds to elope. After three days of living together, the boys family goes to the house of the girl to inform them of the whereabouts and well being of the girl. Some amount of money, alcohol and milk are paid to the girls parents, and the marriage is formalized. Though parents may not be happy, they are forced to accept the marriage on account of both social and moral pressure. This continues to be a major mode of marriage between castes and to a certain extent between communities.

The decadal population growth rate of Sikkim, according to the Census data, has been inconsistent as compared to that of the country as a whole. The highest growth rate was recorded between 1901 and 1911, while a decline (of 6,199 persons) was recorded in the following decade (191121). This decline has been partly attributed to deaths resulting from the great influenza epidemic of 1917 and partly to the death of Gurkha soldiers from Sikkim in the Great War. Since then, for half a century (from 1921 to 1971), population growth was steady but low. Between 197181, there was a substantial increase (at a rate of 5.07 percent per annum), especially in the urban areas. This could be attributed to the merger of Sikkim with the Indian Union and the subsequent in-migration triggered off by large-scale development activities in the State. In the following decade (198191), population continued to grow although at a much lower rate (an average of 2.85 percent per annum), whereas in 19912001, the rate of growth was higher, at 3.29 percent.

According to The Gazetteer of Sikhim (1891), Nepalis with 56 percent (including Murmi) constituted a majority of the population followed by the Lepchas (19 percent) and Bhutias (16 percent). There were other constituents like the Khambus and slaves. More than a hundred years later, the share of Lepcha population has gone down to 14 per cent whereas that of the Nepalis climbed to almost 70 percent with the Bhutias constituting more or less the same proportion. All these three ethnic groups have their own language, culture and social practices, and have a strong socio-cultural bond among themselves.

The Scheduled Tribe (ST) population (Lepcha and Bhutia including Chumbipa, Dopthapa, Dukpa, Kagatey, Sherpa, Tibetan, Tromopa and Yolmo) constitutes over 22 percent of the population, whereas Scheduled Caste (SC) population (Kami, Damai, Lobar, Sarki and Majhi) constitutes only 5.93 percent . Following the trend of all States in India, except Kerala and Uttar Pradesh, the proportion of SC population increased between 1981 and 1991. In contrast, the pattern of change for ST population, which varied widely across the country, was one of decline. The backward castes (Tamang, Gurung, Rai, Limbu, Sunwar) also constitute a significant section of the population.

In terms of religious beliefs, the population of Sikkim is predominantly Hindu (68 per cent). Buddhists are quite a large community (27 per cent), and Christians represent 3 per cent of the total population. The divine status of the Khangchendzonga mountain, sanctified by legend, has been made enduring by the widespread worship of Khangchendzonga by all the people of Sikkim - Lepchas, Bhutias and Nepalese alike. The God is depicted as being red of colour, armed and mounted on a white snow lion; offerings are made to this majestic presence, ceremonies are held in his name and dances consecrated to him. Pang Lhabsol is one of the famous festivals of Sikkim which is a thanks giving celebration in honor of Sikkim's presiding deity, Khangchendzonga. Dancers portray the guardian deity, its supreme commander Yabdu and the God Mahakala. It is a warrior dance and the dancers are chosen for their physical strength, quick reflexes and skill swordsmanship.

The various ethnic groups have their own nomenclature. As far as the Lepcha and the Bhutia names are concerned, Waddel has it that, " the Lepchas call it Nelyang or 'The place of caves'. Lepchas also call it Myel Lyang, which means "the land of hidden paradise or the delightful region or abode". While the Bhutias call it Beyul Demazong or "the hidden valley of rice." Another version says that Tensung Namgyal married three wives, a Tibetan, a Bhutanese and a Limbu girl. The Limbu girl, daughter of Limbu Chief Yo- Yo- Hang, brought seven maidens with her. These maidens were married into leading families of Sikkim. These Limbu maidens who had come to Sikkim for the marries' called the place 'Sukhim' or "bride's new house", comfortable home. The Nepalis who came to Sikkim could not relate to Limbu pronouncement and thus corrupted the name to Sukkhim which underwent further distortion under the British.

Sikkim's famous mask dances are simply spectacular. Chaams are performed on ceremonial and festive occasions. Though these dances differ from one another in style and theme, but they all deal with the triumph of good over evil. Their origin lies in a dancing cult for exorcising malignant demons and human enemies. The Chaams performed during the new year ceremony expel evil from the land, while closing the old year and ushering in benevolence and good luck for the new. The dancers wear fearful dragon, animal and bird masks, dress in richly brocaded costumes and tread the measure to the sound of cymbals and trumpets.

The commencement of Chaam is announced from within the gompa by the steady drone of the kangling, an instrument like a trumpet. These notes are reciprocated by the deep muted thunder of the radong, long copper horns, blown from outside the gompa. Cymbals clash, and ceremonial drums and gongs sound in rhythmic unison and mark the start of the dance. Richly attired dancers file into the monastery courtyard and as they swirl in rich colour, incense bearers circulate among the audience, purifying the atmosphere. All this heralds the actual drama, whose principal figure is Mahakala, and it is his presence that invokes other protective deities. Elaborate costumes and masks are the hallmarks of the Dance of the Masquerades---Sha-Yak and Nam-Ding---where the dancers assume animal faces. Here, the masks of the stag, the yak, the tiger, the lion, the mythical winged garuda, walk in slow and measured steps, to the clash of cymbals and the sound of the trumpets, the dancers act out the destruction of apostasy symbolized by an effigy which is chopped to pieces and scattered. The scattered remains are not merely the annihilation of the diabolical forces, but they also constitute an offering, signifying the tantric union of wisdom, preaching and action and consecrated to the five Dhyani Buddhas.

A Thangka is an elaborately hand painted religious scroll in brilliant coloursCulture2 drawn on fabric. It is not a mere decorative piece but a powerful aid to tantric meditation, a visual depiction to steady the mind and aid its focus. The themes of the thangkas relate to the Buddha and his life, as well as the lives of the Bodhisattvas, the Taras, the great saints and Buddhist masters. They also depict mystical concepts like the Wheel of Life, The Mandalas and the Tashi Taggye, the eight auspicious signs of Vajrayana which includes the lotus, the conch shell and the Dharmachakra. The colours used have great symbolic power. The two primary colours, red and yellow, suggest the difference between fire and life, material and immaterial, emotional and intellectual; orange, which unites red and yellow, symbolizes knowledge of the highest spirituality. The complimentary colour of blue with its passivity is of very positive nature and is associated with depth, purity and infinity. Green represents the vegetable aspects. The violet combines the most active red with the most passive blue. Thangkas are carried out in elaborate processions during festivals like the Saga Dawa and Lossar.



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