Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Turning back the clock of Singtam Town


I wanted to be an archaeologist but destiny had other thoughts over me. Regardless of impediment it was my obsession towards historical findings in and around Sikkim I had over the years collected few interesting and intriguing narratives. Being brought up at the small town of Singtam it was comprehensible that I could come up with its early history someday. The only major instance the place of Singtam finds its name in the golden page of Sikkim history was during the pre-merger movement in the early 70s when the gathered crowd in Singtam blocked the road near Bhanu Park and stopped on the run Crown Prince in his motor vehicle forcing him back to Gangtok. During that instant the pro-merger activists were caught, made captive and kept at Thakurbari mandir! The town of Singtam also find mention in world postal airmail history when in 1935 a series of eight Rocketmail firing was conducted over the Singtam River.

To its geographical reach the town of Singtam is located at 27.15° N 88.38° E and has an average elevation of 1396 metres (4580 feet). When I recall my childhood I still have fresh memories of bullock carts visiting this town till late 80s. Most of the playgrounds that I have had enjoyed playing crickets are now shopping complexes. Once a popular centre of oranges that would come from far place including Sang, Tshallamthang and others but to this date it seems more of a fable.

Singtam has grown from a small inns bazaar to a business town, but the few things that remain frozen in time are the old British period Iron Bridge and the only motarable tunnel at Toppakhani. When I look at the age old mango trees grown along the road side leading to Singtam Bazaar from the old Iron Bridge it makes me feel nostalgic. I could feel the thoughts of the people who had planted it. We were taught in schools if you want to be remembered for a long time sow a tree, true to its word, those people who first sowed the mango seed were the first to have thought to beautify this then small time river-side inhabitants. These trees are no doubt heritage trees. Reason for giving added emphasis on these trees in this topic is to bring forth my personal views that there are/were talks that all those trees around Singtam Bazaar would be cut down to spread out the size of town and help beautify the town. These heritage trees are part of Singtam history and had make out many ups and downs to its present existence. Destroying those trees means juddering up the past existence of most happening town of the state.

Let’s work out more to our main topic about the early years in the making of Singtam. Prior to the present U-turning around Bhanu Park the original direct route was from the now left little short-cut leading through the narrow stairways of the King George Academy that would meet at the road below PWD office. The road then was very stiff much similar to the one leading the Denzong Cinema Hall to the M.G Marg. Much like the taut road at Gangtok that was in latter years converted to long stairs; the road at Singtam was stretched with a U-turning along the Bhanu Park.

I have often found people of Singtam get surprised by the hill of sands that are found below the forest office next to Goskhan dara. It clearly point forward that the present day Singtam River that flows from Ranipool had its earliest route from the main market road! I was once told, the entrance gate of the then Malaria Hospital at old Hospital Colony (now Shantinagar) was inaugurated by the Chogyal Tashi Namgyal in mid 50s. More than fifty years later now there rest only the dilapidated gate racing with the pace of time. Often I had heard people discussing to break down the gate because their trucks and other vehicles could not pass through it. I would say how many such structures are their inside Sikkim that are associated with the Chogyal dynasty?

I had been looking for the stories of the early days in Singtam when one fine evening I happen to come across a tale that was interesting and more fascinating. To my dismay I had hardly found any reference of significance of Singtam in any volume of books written and released on Sikkim prior to 1975 when Sikkim became the part of Indian Union, which restricted my thoughts to a certain boundary. The earliest mention of the name of Singtam is found in 1888 Lepcha-Bhutia Grammar book where the town of Singtam was among the ten popular places in Sikkim. A travel book published in early 1940s mention Singtam to be a small river-side town with a Post Office. What was more fascinating was the fact that it was not the present business capital of Singtam that was sought-after marketplace more than half a decades ago but a little heard of Sirubari now angelized Sirwani that was more popular than Singtam and people far across the remote corner of the state would walk down to Sirubari to buy or say exchange “siru” with their belongings.

Singtam at the moment is the busiest town among the four districts and its Friday haat one of the most popular in the entire state. But eight decades back the story wasn’t the same as these days. Those days it was the small siru bazaar of Sirubari (Sirwani) that was well known. People would never mind walking all three days to reach to this place to collect siru. This was the period when bazaar at Singtam was little heard off. But all of a sudden under mysterious circumstances the then popular Siru bazaar came to a halt and today stands an isolated Sirwani that helplessly gape up at vehicles passing by!

Jay Dhamala in his book “Sikkim koh Ithihas” speaks about of a place called Sinchuthang that was visible from the Bermoik Kazi kothi. The name Sinchuthang is present day Singtam, marked the writer. It is familiar that on a clear weather Bermoik Kazi kothi is noticed from this town but it must also be mentioned that the other little known bazaar of Manglay (now also called Sainotar) some 14 km from Singtam towards Timi Tarku is also called Sinchuthang. Tracing back the meaning of the name Singtam; it is believed to be a Lepcha word which means “collection of logs”. Singtam’s Lal Bazaar the present haat ghar was more of a sand depository and wild bears moving freely across the river banks had been witnessed by many folks. The river Teesta would carry out logs and deposit at the river banks. The logs were collected in huge extent such that it was sold to other place of necessity. Thus came the name Singtam i.e. collection of logs. “Kanchenjunga” magazine published from Gangtok in the early 1960s in one of its issue carried an article on Taksaari Chandrabir Pradhan, the same man behind the introduction of Sikkim’s coin system. It said it was Taksaari Chandrabir Pradhan who got the royal order from the Chogyal to cut down the jungles and set up a dweller at Singtam. He further went up to establish Rangpo and Pakyong too.

It is due to lack of recorded documents in the past we know little about how the bazaar at Singtam started up. But there are few fascinating stories about this town which might appeal to the readers. On one such tale of this town though never acknowledged in the pages of the book it is said that during the first day of the construction of the Toppakhani tunnel in the late 1920s the labourers working at the site had killed a snake most probably a cobra. Call it a mere coincidence that from the very next day the small inn bazaar of Singtam was surrounded with the mysterious disease still remembered by the old folks as “kalo zoro”. Even to this day when those old folks recall that period they say Singtam was a desolated town and a popular phrase related to that endemic was the talk of the state, they would say “even the crows would not stay at Singtam”.

(To be continued)