by Staff Writers
New Delhi (AFP) Sept 20, 2011
Nestling in the Himalayas between Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan, Sikkim is a region of mountain myths, Buddhist monasteries and scattered communities far outside the mainstream of Indian life.
The former kingdom, which only became part of India in 1975, has no airports or railway stations and foreign tourists must obtain special permits before visiting.
Now the scene of a major rescue and relief operation after Sunday's destructive 6.9-magnitude earthquake, Sikkim is renowned for its pristine scenery of plunging valleys and abundant wildlife.
The state's biggest draw is Kanchenjunga, the world's third-highest peak at 8,598 metres (28,200 feet), which soars above the western border with Nepal.
The mountain's guardian spirit is worshipped at spectacular festivals, and tourists from India and around the world arrive to admire its distant peaks from viewpoints and hotel balconies.
Sikkim was controlled by "chogkals" (kings) until 1975, when India intervened after an uprising against the monarchy by the majority-Nepali population who migrated into the region in the 19th century.
Today, it attracts an increasing number of trekkers as well as domestic tourists from India's hot cities seeking peace and tranquility in one of the last Himalayan "Shangri-Las".
While tourism is booming, many young locals leave Sikkim to find work in New Delhi or Mumbai -- raising concerns among native families but strengthening ties to the rest of India.
"In a physical sense, Sikkim is cut off," Amit Patro, editor of the English-language Sikkim Express newspaper, told AFP from the state capital Gangtok, where buildings were cracked by the quake tremors.
"There is only one road that connects to India and even that isn't always accessible," he said. "But younger people do feel connected, they feel like they are a part of India."
Unlike Indian states further to the east, tiny Sikkim -- population 500,000 -- is not beset by any violent separatist movement as seen in Manipur or Assam.
"The local government here has a good relationship with New Delhi," Patro said.
"It's a very peaceful state. The last king belonged to the minority Bhutia community, whereas the majority Nepalis wanted to merge more with India."
But Sikkim does have a sizeable military presence due to its northern border with Chinese Tibet, and the Indian army has been leading emergency efforts after the quake, which killed at least 50 people in the state.
The scale of damage or further fatalities near the epicentre 60 kilometres northwest of Gangtok has been slow to emerge as roads have been blocked by landslides and communications are patchy.
With the tourist season due to open in the next few weeks, the short-term impact of the disaster looks significant.
"We don't expect many tourists to visit this year," Sikkim tourism official Sam Ten told AFP. "Over 60 percent of the locals here earn their livelihood through tourism. Their business will be severely affected."
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At least 19 killed as 6.9 quake rocks India, Nepal
Guwahati, India (AFP) Sept 18, 2011
A strong 6.9-magnitude earthquake hit northeastern India on Sunday, killing at least 19 people, including three caught in a wall collapse at the British embassy in neighbouring Nepal. The quake was felt across a wide region after it struck the small, landlocked Himalayan state of Sikkim - which borders Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet - at about 6:10 pm (1240 GMT), according to the US Geological Su ... read more
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