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Adaptation and Transformations in Sikkim

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Studies of Newar diaspora inevitably give rise to comparisons between such communities as exemplified by the Newars of Sikkim -- the focus of Bal Gopal Shrestha’s monograph being reviewed here -- and Newar settlements in the Nepali hinterland. Newar internal migrations out of the heartland of Kathmandu valley in the first century and a half of the Shah period were characterized by a number of peculiarities.

In every new settlement, the Newars attempted to provide for themselves a sense of cultural security through, among others, the construction of urban space modeled on or approximating to the Newar town, and the commencement of fetes and rituals similar to those in the heartland. The Newars who crossed into Sikkim and India's north-eastern region probably felt a greater sense of alienation because they found themselves in a land that did not share a continuous history with their ancestral region.

Shrestha’s research on the Newars of Sikkim provides evidence that the diasporic community there underwent socio-cultural transformations similar to those experienced by settlers inside Nepal. The significance of this work does not lie in this fact as there is ample literature on social change in Newar migrant populations. This work’s importance rests in its analysis of the distinct nature of the socio-cultural transformation in Sikkim.

The book begins with a short history of Newar and Nepali migrations into Sikkim. The tale of the first Newar -- and Nepali -- migrant in Sikkim makes for as interesting a myth as that of the first pre-historic Newar settlers in Kathmandu valley. Eventually, Laksmidas's attempts to ensure his own survival in Sikkim occurs at a time when certain local chiefs oppose both British influence and the growing Nepali in-migration. With continued Nepali complaints of discrimination by the local Lepchas and Bhotias and the annexation of Sikkim by India in 1975, the Nepali diaspora is condemned to perennial blame for Sikkim's loss of independence.

Chapters three to seven study the absence or remains of the traditional Newar practices. The Newar caste system, notorious for its rigidity and intricacy in the heartland, has weathered away as have the numerous Newar guthis. Many of the Newars have forgotten their caste roots, language and traditional customs. The only remaining guthi has evolved into a much wider association, fulfilling the needs of not just one clan or caste but the entire community. Due to a shortage of Newar priests, the local population has had to take the services of Parbatiyas who are ignorant of Newar life cycle rituals.

In many instances, the Newars are compelled by local socio-political circumstances to co-opt other communities into their religious space. The heterodoxical structure of the Swayambhu Bhimakali temple appears to be such a cultural innovation, incorporating aspects of different religions in a Newar religious space. Even more innovative is the annual fire sacrifice in which religious prayers from all major religions are invited. Such attempts can be seen as harmonizing strategies employed by a diasporic minority to minimize the crystallization of ethnic fault lines amidst growing insecurity and distrust. The Newar situation is apparently all the more precarious given a decrease in the group’s participation in the state’s civil service with most of their lost seats going to the Bhutia and Lepcha communities. With the shifting power dynamics, an ethnic group that once thrived under the patronage of the political elite appears to be veering towards a gradual marginalization.

However, Newar influence in Sikkimese society continues in a different form. A striking parallel with the Newars in Kathmandu Valley is evident from the symbolic-ritual role played by certain Newars. Politically weak groups that remain ritually important draw capital from their traditional corpus of accrued cultural knowledge and practices. The decline of power in the political arena does not necessarily lead to a similar decline in other domains. Just as the Newars in Kathmandu valley are today relegated to positions of ritual power in the form of cultural agents complementary to the politically dominant Gorkhalis, so the Newar priest in his officiating role at the Swayambhu Bhimakali temple functions as a pivotal agent in religious rituals enacted for social harmony and cohesion in Sikkim. Such an exertion of symbolic power implies the Newari influence has not diminished despite weakening strangleholds in politics and the economy. More significantly, it suggests attempts to, if not recoup some amount of political influence, at least ensure one’s continued presence in the political field through the institutionalization of the religious-political ritual.

Just how successful have the Newars in Sikkim been in reviving their language and culture? The Newar case is interesting because even in the heartland, culture and language are fast disappearing. Many of the festivals and life cycle rituals mentioned by Shrestha have decreased in importance in many urban areas of the Kathmandu valley, and in some places, the younger generation may not even be aware of them. The Newar language has been classified by UNESCO as “definitely endangered” and has a low retention rate in comparison to other dominant Nepali languages. In this context, how do we judge the success of the cultural revival in Sikkim? Is the current state of Newar language and culture in Nepal’s capital region a good standard for comparison? Culture retention in the Newar heartland cannot be assumed and needs to be rigorously researched across the entire cross-section of an uneven social topography before any comparisons can be made with diasporic populations. The tables and descriptions of fetes and rituals detailed in the fifth chapter should be taken as ideal-typical rather than representative of actual practice. I shall suggest that a comparison with the heartland requires a much more nuanced analysis, one that examines variations in the latter just as meticulously as in the diaspora.

I recommend that, for future editions, the publisher provide the researcher better editorial support in order that the many grammatical, typographical and citation errors are ironed out. This is an important addition to South Asian studies and I hope it leads to more research that link Northeast India with Nepal and the central Himalayas.

Ajaya N. Mali, Syracuse University (anmali@syr.edu)

Citation: Mali, A.N. 2016. A review of Shrestha, B.G. The Newars of Sikkim: Reinventing Language, Culture, and Identity in the Diaspora, posted to newbooks.asia on 18 April 2016, http://newbooks.asia/review/adaptation-sikkim

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