By Taylor Irvine
Sitting in the dark trunk of a shared Jeep— nearly being thrown out the back with every sharp turn— I held onto a metal bar to steady my body and sanity as it swiftly wove through one big windy road up a dusty mountain. While, inside, I wondered, “what on earth am I doing in Sikkim?”
Conducting research was not something I expected myself to be doing during my university career. At a young age I dreamed of travelling the world and immersing myself in different landscapes and cultures, however my shyness and cold feet stopped me from pursuing these dreams until I attended the University of Toronto. The amazing opportunities to go abroad, offered by the University, motivated me to put some faith in myself and pursue my dream. I approached my religion professor, Frances Garrett, whose classes sparked my interest in Buddhism and Himalayan religions. She encouraged me to seek religious research in different parts of the world and to apply for awards to get me across the globe and to find faith in extraordinary places. With the help of Professor Garrett, I worked tirelessly to apply for the Undergraduate Research Fund and the University of Toronto Excellence Awards. To my surprise, I received both of these awards! Receiving these awards was an astonishing achievement for me but the work had just begun.
I landed in Sikkim with an initial plan to conduct research, however, at first sight of the daunting mountains, I quickly realized the textbooks and pictures I had studied could not have prepared me for the journey that was about to unfold. Sikkim is a state of India, wedged in between Tibet, Bhutan, and Nepal in the Himalayan region. Its diverse climate and altitude ranges from sub-tropical, at 280 m above sea level in the southern region, to mountainous tundra, at altitudes over 8,000 m in the northern region, making it a habitat for a broad range of plant and animal species. A wide range of people, cultures, and, most importantly, religions inhabit Sikkim’s mountain landscape. Religion resonates loudly in the cities and farmlands with bells, prayers, horns, drums, and chanting that challenge the volume of mountains surrounding them. Overwhelmed by the spirituality of the landscape, I threw myself into the winding roads to investigate the churches, mosques, temples, shrines, monasteries, and homes of the people who inhabit these sacred lands. I talked to many different religious leaders and practitioners to try to understand the religious diversity of the Himalayan landscape and how the multitude of religions in Sikkim coexists so peacefully. I studied deeper into the history of Sikkim to uncover how each and every religion came to be in this place.
Sikkim was once an independent kingdom inhabited by three distinct tribes known as Lepcha, Bhutia, and Limboo. Lepchas were original inhabitants of Sikkim while Bhutias and Limboos were of Tibetan ancestry, whose ancestors climbed over the mountains from Tibet to seek refuge. The tribes developed their own animistic spiritualties until Buddhism proliferated through Sikkim in the 1600s and influenced these spiritualties. However, Guru Padmasambhava planted the seeds of Buddhism (terma texts of Buddhist teachings) in Sikkim, in the 8th century, before Buddhism became a prominent component of Sikkim’s culture. In 1975, Sikkim was absorbed by India, and its doors were opened to Indian tourists looking for an exotic, mountainous region to explore. Today, Sikkim is a religiously diverse place in which all religions coexist peacefully. However, Buddhism, a religion deeply engrained in Sikkim’s culture and history, is rendered a tourist attraction by tour agencies from other parts of India. Countless buses of tourists arrive at Buddhist temples and monasteries every day to observe a religion foreign and “exotic” to the rest of India.
The misrepresentation of Buddhism by tour agencies overshadows the beautiful peace between all religions in Sikkim, and creates an economic disparity between religious establishments. Tourism generates ample amounts of revenue for Buddhist monasteries and temples while leaving other established religions with none. A mosque I visited in Namchi, the main city of South Sikkim, was located inside a building abandoned in the middle of construction with only the cement frame built, the rebar still exposed, and with temporary metal sheets for walls— a completely unconventional place, for such a sacred space. Inside, the concrete is cold and unforgiving to your bare feet, rays of light shined in through gaps in the metal sheets onto the individual prayer rugs, which were arranged diagonally to face the direction of Mecca. I asked the imam of the mosque, “why is this unfinished building the location for this mosque?” He explained that this property was donated to them and is the only location they were provided. In 1997, the government of India issued a law that restricted non-indigenous people from owning land in Sikkim; since, most Muslims living in Sikkim have immigrated there, it is hard for them to find good land for mosques or homes to live in. Some religious establishments are forced to carve out sacred spaces in slums, where most of their followers live, due to the property restrictions. In Sikkim, mosques are not tourist attractions like Buddhist monasteries are, and do not acquire a lot of tourist revenue to erect big and elaborate temples to match the monasteries. Hindu temples are in a similar predicament, which became evident to me when I found a Hindu temple, in Gangtok, hidden behind a construction site that made it invisible to tourists. The unfinished temple was locked and abandoned due to lack of funding during construction since 2008. Without a temple Hindus have to compromise with shrines that exist mostly in poverty-stricken areas near the bottom of the mountains. Economic disparities are visible through the location of these Hindu shrines and mosques around poverty stricken communities near the bottom of the mountains, while Buddhist monasteries in more affluent communities are at the top. The opening of Sikkim to Indian tourists wrongly depicts Buddhism as an exotic object, overshadowing the beauty and peace between the many different religions in Sikkim, and has created a financial disparity between religious establishments through an uneven distribution of tourist revenue.
Going to Sikkim with a purpose to learn and understand its religions was the opportunity of a lifetime. The opportunity to learn about the religious dynamics of Sikkim, make lasting connections with people from around the globe, and discover Sikkim’s breathtaking landscape was made possible by the generous awards I received from the University of Toronto and the inspiration I received from Professor Garrett. In Sikkim, I found a purpose for myself through my research. This opportunity has given me confidence in myself as a future scholar of religion. Going to Sikkim is an experience I will keep with me for the rest of my life, and for this I owe my thanks to my professor, my department, and the awards that got me there.
Taylor Irvine is a fourth-year undergraduate in Buddhist Studies.