Landscape & History
One of the most stunning and unexplored regions of the Indian Himalayas, Sikkim is the ultimate playground for adventure buffs. Mt Kangchendzonga (8,586m), the world’s third highest peak, looms over the sacred land speckled with rugged mountains topping out at 6,000m to 7,500m. Hemmed in by Nepal in the west, Tibet in the north and Bhutan in the southeast, the tiny 7,096-sqkm-state is formerly one of the four Himalayan Kingdoms. Sikkim became the 22nd state of India in 1975.
Due to its turbulent political history, the state was off-limits to foreigners till the late 1970s. Today, foreigners entering Sikkim still need to apply for a 30-day Inner Line Permit. Many of Sikkim’s rugged terrains, plateaus and formidable mountain passes are relatively unexplored. Indian nationals and foreigners still require additional permits to visit Protected and Restricted Areas of North, East and West Sikkim.
Kangchendzonga National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, nestles in Sikkim’s backyard. The Park harbors a staggering diversity of flora and fauna that thrives in the tropical, temperate and alpine zone forests. You can amble across bucolic pastures and through rhododendron and magnolia forests and savour views of awe-inspiring peaks.
Sikkim’s glacier-fed lakes, from the sparkling turquoise Gurudongmar, the highest lake in the world at an altitude of 5,430m, to the spectacular Zemu glacier, the largest glacier of Eastern Himalayas, are mesmerizing sights to behold. After long treks, a dip in Sikkim's natural hot springs in Yumthang or Ralong is perfect for soothing sore muscles and to rejuvenate.
Serendipitous encounters in the wild may include sightings of bulbuls, eagles, whistling thrush and Blood pheasant - the state bird of Sikkim, amongst the 450 species of birds found in the region. Rare sightings of the red panda, the state animal of Sikkim, musk deer, blue sheep or bharal and Himalayan black bear are possible for the blessed adventurers.
Nature lovers who prefer a more laid-back trip can visit Sikkim’s various wildlife sanctuaries including the Fambong Lho Wildlife Sanctuary and Kyongnosla Alpine Sanctuary. Plant lovers can marvel at more than 40 species of rhododendrons at Shingba Rhododendron Sanctuary or Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary, or learn about medicinal plants’ healing properties at Maenam Wildlife Sanctuary.
On the cultural front, Sikkim’s centuries-old monasteries offer spiritual insights and a glimpse into age-old religions and customs, with numerous festivals held throughout the year. More than 200 monasteries dot the region, from the renowned Rumtek and Pemayangtse to the ornate Enchey Monastery in Gangtok.
The best seasons to enjoy Sikkim fall between March and June or September and December. With a generally temperate climate, the state has five distinct seasons - spring, summer, winter, monsoon and autumn.
In April and May, the weather is ideal for exploring the state’s natural treasures. Sunny days with average temperatures hovering below 20°C and gorgeous vistas of rhododendron-dappled mountain slopes greet visitors in spring. In summer, the temperature rarely climbs above 28°C (83 °F).
The months of June to early September mark the moonsoon season with torrential, prolonged rainfall. Autumn’s crisp, cool air and clear skies linger from September to November, heralding a perfect weather window before the frigid winter months set in from end December to February. Autumn is also the best time to experience area’s colourful and heritage-rich festivals. Sikkim is one of the few states in India that receives regular snowfall in winter, when temperatures dips to 0 °C (32 °F).
Visitors to Sikkim are usually struck by the warm and friendly locals. The people of Sikkim are made up of mainly three ethnic groups: Lepcha, Bhutia and Nepali.
Its earliest inhabitants, the Lepchas have no written record but their oral history dates back to 1400 AD and they still preserve their own language, culture and tradition. The Lepchas subsist on agriculture by planting rice, oranges and cardamom. Although the earliest Lepcha settlers worshipped the spirits of the natural world - mountains, forests, rivers and animals, some have adopted Buddhism and Christianity. For the Lepchas, Mount Kangchendzonga is the presiding deity who protects its people. Sikkim’s rivers and mountains adopt Lepcha names and play a vital role in Lepcha folklore. Skilled at archery, the Lepchas lead simple lives and their traditional dwellings are bamboo huts raised on stilts.
Descendants of Tibetan and Bhutanese settlers, the Bhutias descended on Sikkim in the 15th Century and settled mostly in the northern part of the state. Mainly farmers, the Bhutias breed yaks and cattle and grow apples. A Bhutia house is called ‘Khim’ and is usually a two-storey, wood and stone rectangular structure. Tibetan Buddhism pervades the Bhutia life and monasteries are the hubs for festivals, ceremonies and social events. Bhutia arts and crafts, from thangkhas to woven mats and blankets, are imbued with Buddhist spirituality.
Sikkim’s largest community, the Nepalese migrated from Nepal since early 18th century. Today, the Nepalese make up 70% of Sikkim’s population and Nepali is the dominant spoken language. Sikkimese (Bhutia) and Lepcha are still spoken in certain areas of Sikkim. The earliest Nepali settlers were sharecroppers who introduced terrace farming in the state. Made up of different ethnic groups like the Sherpas, Tamangs, Chettries and Gurungs, the Nepalese are mainly Hindus or Buddhists. In the 1950s, Sikkim also saw a steady influx of Tibetan refugees.
Sikkim’s motley of traditions, religions and ethnic groups lends the state its rich and vibrant culture, as reflected in its various festivals, practices and customs.
Getting to Sikkim
Sikkim can be reached by flight via Pakyong Airport, 35 km south of Gangtok, the state capital of Sikkim, or Bagdogra Airport in West Bengal state, 123 km from Gangtok. Flights from Bagdogra are linked to major Indian cities like Kolkata, New Delhi, Chennai, Mumbai, Bangalore and Guwahati.
From the Pakyong or Bagdogra airports, frequent pre-paid taxis or buses to Sikkim are available. By rail, the nearest railway stations are New Jalpaiguri station (125km) or Siliguri station (114km) in West Bengal. Pre-paid taxis or buses to Sikkim are available from New Jalpaiguri station.
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