Sunday, November 02, 2008

Thy name is Sikkim!

Fig 1: Delisle’s 1723 Carte d’Asie shows the first map of Sikkim then written as Bramson

Thy name is Sikkim!


I enjoy what Gerda Lerner, a renowned historian once quoted “What we do about history matters? The often repeated saying that those who forget the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them has a lot of truth in it. But what are 'the lessons of history'? The very attempt at definition furnishes ground for new conflicts. History is not a recipe book; past events are never replicated in the present in quite the same way. Historical events are infinitely variable and their interpretations are a constantly shifting process. There are no certainties to be found in the past. As a toddler we are here to comprehend the beauty of those immemorial days that has lived up to its days.”
Often repeated words that history should never be repeated but re-created, I personally believe we have come to that hour of need where we can have local writers brushing up with some history exemplar, pushing behind those gloomy days. There were times in my academic life when the approach on this subject was ridden off with yarn and skimp. History should never be looked upon simply as long-drawn-out pages of the times of yore. The beauty lies in exploring the drift world of historical impudence, though we are left with much work of uncertainties, yet more we uncover, most magnificence it further lays.

Taking the consideration of misinterpretation of words on many occasions completely change the context of the meaning of the words. I am interested in acquiring the knowledge of the yore days of early Sikkim, the biggest difficulties I had in it is the ever changing nomenclatures of the people and places and it is still going on. I live in Singtam, which was once known as Shingithang till late 1880s, now it is more adapted as Singtam but sometimes when I move my eyes across the signal tower in my mobile I find rather two different names; it’s Singtham and in other occasion it is Sintam. Even in one instance one of a popular private bank in the heart of the town has written Singtom on its sign board. I dare not to know what would be this place be called towards the end of this century. Like Singtam there are scores of places across Sikkim that has had gone many angelized forms.

Sikkim, the beautiful name of our state, I never knew what does it mean in modern day concept. Today Sikkim is looked upon with curiosity rather than the achievements it had accredited over the few decades. Talked more often as a thumb sized state or a stamp sized state, Sikkim over the last one decade has had achievements in different fields where the larger states in India envy.

Ever since this Himalayan region came into existence it had been known under different names depending upon the social order thriving in the regions such that Lepchas call it “Ney-Meyel-Renjyong-Lyang” while Tibetan named it “Denzong”. With the advent of groups of people from neighbouring Nepal and others we had “Sukhim” modernized to today’s Sikkim. It must be talked about that Sikkimese Bhutia finds the word Sikkim to be the corrupt form of Shing-khyim i.e. “wooden house” as all the Bhutia dwellings are made up of stone and wood. Similar wooden house like reference are also echoed by the Limbos from Nepal. Other often used name for Sikkim is “Bayul Demajong” i.e. Hidden Land of Sacred Treasures, the name given by Guru Padmashambhava. It is believed that Guru Padmashambhava had hid the sacred texts at different caves around Sikkim. As for the natives of Tibet since no rice is grown, when they first saw the plant of rice being overly grown in the land of Sikkim, they called it “Denjong” i.e. Valley of Rice. Some scholar’s refers this version of the myth related to the rice grains being introduced by Guru Padmashambhava at Chungthang.
The ethnic Lepcha call this region a place of pilgrimage or simply a paradise of perpetual youth as written by AR Foning in his “Lepcha- My Vanishing Tribe”.

Fig 2: Closer view of Bramson

“A Stranger’s Notes & Other Essays” edited by Sujit Chakraborty while answering about the then quiz competition held in ‘Weekend Review’ weekly newspaper from Gangtok put in plain words that the original name of Sikkim depends on which language one is referring to. In Sikkimese, it could be one thing, something different in Lepcha and something quite different, again in Limboo, etc. Another likely derivative comes from “Sirkhin”, a dictionary word from the explorer Sarat Chandra Das which means land of non-celibate monks.

HH Rishley in his ‘The Gazetter of Sikhim’ published in 1894 gives his explanation that the word ‘Sikhim’ is more of a Parbatiya name applied to the country after the invasion by the Gorkhas and a probable derivation from a Sanskrit ‘Sikhin’ which meant crested. The crested form finds a characteristic appeal to the country they called Sukhim from their (Nepal) side, explains Rishley.

However closer justification comes from Dr Waddell who adds the word Sukhim to had been derived from two Limbu dialect ‘Su’ and ‘Khim’ which meant new house or palace. Here I find myself woven in the magic of beautiful words, when Tensung Namgyal, the second Chogyal of Sikkim married daughter of a Limbu King Yo-Yo-Hang from Nepal, she must had been the first person to exclaim her new house or her new palace at Rubdenste as ‘Sukhim’. If we go by Dr. Waddell’s explanation of the etymology of Sukhim we are left to understand that Sukhim was more limited to Rabdenste rather than the whole country which is also supported from the text of the ‘The Gazetteer of Sikhim’ that mention of the old map by Hamilton had the name Sikhim in place of Rubdenste. The book also carries names of Kirkpatrick’s writing mentioning a name of a place as ‘a town and district of Sookhim’, and in another instance a name of a place as ‘Sikhem’ in the itinerary from Bijapore to Daling jurisdiction somewhere near the Rungeet. I would support the words of Rishley where he lastly writes “the name was originally given to a place and not a country.”

I would be unfinished if I failed to mention the word “Sikhim”, the most popular word known to the western world then, made more popular from the memoirs of John Claude White, the first Political Officer of Sikkim. White publishes his book “Sikhim and Bhutan, Twenty-One years on the North-East Frontiers 1887-1908” in 1909, one of the complete book on Sikkim history. Lastly not to forget is “Sikim” found along the corrupt lines every now and then.

It was a great excitement for me at least, surfing around the web pages on cartography or commonly called mapmaking of Asian countries, I came upon a page “David Rumsey Map Collection”, a house of rare and classic maps of the ancient continents. I believe I had discovered something that had never been published in any pages related to Sikkim history before. I was looking at the first map of Sikkim region, then mentioned as “Bramason”. The map of Bramason was published in the third decade of the 18th century as Delisle’s 1723 Carte d’Asie. Guillaume Delisle was a French cartographer and a great traveler, to be specific of his artistic work Delisle must have had gathered the information originating from the Jesuit and Capuchin missionaries who had in the meanwhile taken up residence in Tibet.

About Delisle’s 1723 Carte d’Asie, Romolo Gandolfo in his article “Bhutan and Tibet in European Cartography (1597-1800)” writes “Delisle introduces much new information: he indicates the correct course of the Tsanpo, the great river of Tibet which crosses the Himalayas and flows into the Bengal Gulf; he replaces Tache Linbou with the more important nearby town of Gegace [Shigatse]; and identifies several new ‘countries,’ such as the kingdom of Tacpo, east of Lhasa, and those of Bramson [Sikkim] and Pary [Phari] to the south.”

“Bramson” after all was an interesting name to me atleast, the name that drifted my attention from my actual study for some moments. The purpose of my study on Sikkim etymology was slowly melting away where I had a little time to find that Bramson was nothing but a corrupt name of ‘Denjong’. I re-opened the pages of ‘The Gazetter of Sikhim’, mother of all books on Sikkim, in one of its pages Rishley had written “The Tibetan names for Sikkim are pronounced Denjong, Demojong and Demoshong though actually spelt hBras-IJongs, hBras-ma-IJongs and hBras-gShongs and mean valley of rice” Similarly some of the western travelers who traveled in this region in early 18th century might had gone with its actual pronunciation as such the western world knew about this small Himalayan region as Bramson, Bregion and Bramashon. 
Here i would like to leave a small link for further study, i have heard about a word 'Barahimizong', a festival celebrated by the Mangar community around and beyond Sikkim. Does the word Bramson, Bregion and Bramashon points fingers at Mangar community for its origin?

fig 3: van Putte's sketch drawn between 1730-1745

Romolo Gandolfo in his article also uncovers a wonderful sketch map of Sikkim drawn by Samuel van Putte between 1730-1745. Van Putte depicts the kingdom as Bramascjon (well...another name for Sikkim along the lines of Bramson, Bregion, etc.). This map today finds its mention only on “George Bogle’s Mission to Tibet” published in 1876. The original sketch kept at the museum of Middleburg (Netherland) was destroyed during the Second World War. The sketch shows the kingdom of Bramascjon being surrounded by the Brukpa, now Bhutan in the east, Nepal in the west, Great Thibbet now Tibet (China) towards the north and Indostan now Hindustan or India at its southern boundary. The sketch had some inputs in Italian. Another note full feature of the sketch is the presence of a mountain in the middle signifying Mt. Kanchenjunga perhaps. Horace della Penna, another celebrated explorer to this region too had used this name for Sikkim.

To this date we are not able to take up the true meaning on the subject of the origin of the original name of Sikkim. As history is often breached along its wary way, it’s we to blame for not keeping enough accounts of our past!


  1. real eye opener.Its surely a new area that many,including myself, never thought about.The reasearch work involved surely demands praise. The nomencalture of this erstwhile kingdom had eluded many and almost all scholars as well as laypeople surely contended themselves with what was handed down by the western researchers (SIKKIM).But this article has opened new dimensions to the accepted versions of the name.This landlocked region has been adopted as home by many from the west,north, south or east and every community has their own names for the region.Keep up the good work

  2. Thanks Jeffry, i am happy you liked the article. Sometimes i find it very hard when i do not get comments for the article. We all are in a learning process and if i get views and comments on what i write i believe it will bring a big boast for what i am doing.

    Sometime i might be wrong, sometime i might be missing few so all comments i have are valuable source for my further research. I am sorry to say but the history of Sikkim is incomplete, we need to re-write it, we together have to work towards it.

    If there is anyone who feels can help me in our quest mail me at But please do visit my blog regularly i have many more surprises yet to be read.

  3. It was wonderful reading about the history of the name of Sikkim. Keep up the good work!

  4. Thanks Sushobhan for dropping to my blog.


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