Sacred no more?

MHA disregards State Govt ban and opens Khangchendzonga for mountaineering

Gangtok, 21 Aug:

In a poorly timed announcement, the Ministry of Home Affairs, at a time when Sikkimese youth at different places are signing up to learn the warrior dance performed in the worship of Dzonga, Sikkim’s guardian deity who is believed to reside on Khangchendzonga, has announced the opening of the sacred peak for mountaineering. While the opening of Khangchendzonga would have been received with spontaneous and vehement condemnations, reactions have been much more tempered this time.

What is clear though is that Sikkim is not thrilled with this unilateral decision of the Home Ministry. MHA, in a letter marked to the Indian Mountaineering Foundation and Home Secretaries of all the States and Union Territories, informs that 137 more mountain peaks in the Himalayas have been opened for mountaineering. Among the 137, 24 are in Sikkim, and while this relaxation in itself might have been welcome, the MHA, in a clearly unilateral move, has also opened Khangchendzonga for mountaineering.

Khangchendzonga is considered sacred by the Sikkimese and mountaineering expeditions on it have traditionally been discouraged. The last expedition attempted on the sacred peak from the Sikkim side was in the year 2000 when an Austrian team managed to secure permission from MHA, a process from which Sikkim was kept in the dark.

Sikkim had protested at that time and the State Government had dodged accountability by explaining that it was not involved in the permission granting process and that the expedition was allowed through “not to embarrass New Delhi.”As an immediate damage control exercise at the time, the Cabinet asked the Austrian team to stop 10 metres short of the summit should the expedition succeed.

The expedition failed after it was beset by inclement weather. Eventually, given the public backlash against the permission, the State Government announced that it was banning expeditions from Khangchendzonga and eight other sacred peaks.An official notification to this effect was reportedly issued in 2001.

Evidently, Delhi either remains unaware or disinterested because it has now cleared Khangchendzonga for mountaineering without having sought any feedback from Sikkim. Of course, when it comes to matters in which both the State and the Central government have jurisdiction, the Centre has primacy.

It is another matter that MHA does not even spell the mountain right [“Kangchenzunga” which might be phonetically close to how locals pronounce the name but is neither the accepted international spelling nor the spelling preferred by Sikkim], but what has rankled is the clear lack of sensitivity towards Sikkim’s sentiments.

And reactions in Sikkim, even though they are tempered and controlled, are unanimous in thumbing down the move.

Activist and filmmaker, Dawa T Lepcha, when contacted for comment, said: “The erstwhile monarchs of Sikkim held Khangchendzonga sacred and held it in the highest hierarchy of the guardian deities and the protector of the then kingdom. The sacred festival of Panglhabsol is dedicated to it. The reverence to the mountain was such that Western mountaineers were not allowed to step on the peak. And they too kept their promise by not stepping on the peak. The Lepcha take it as the eldest brother in their myth about creation and worship it. It would be wonderful to keep this tradition and continue to respect the majestic mountain and the unique respect and honor that was accorded to it. It would be respecting the third highest peak in the world with a unique respect unlike all other peaks that have been trampled upon, defiled and desecrated.”

Similarly, Tseten Tashi Bhutia, convenor, Sikkim Bhutia Lepcha Apex Committee [SIBLAC], said that the State government should take immediate action on this notification. He said that the concerned Ministry should have consulted the State government before taking out such a notification. He has suggested that a meeting of all concerned stakeholders be called immediately to discuss the development and then arrive at a consensus on how to proceed next.

He added that Khangchendzonga is notified under the Places of Worship [Special Provisions] Act 1991 as a sacred mountain which cannot be climbed or scaled and this needs to be respected.

The publicity secretary of Pang Lhabsol Celebration Committee, Rabong, Bhawani Gurung, points out that the people of Sikkim have been worshipping the mountain as their guardian deity through history and observed that it would be best not to touch Khangchendzonga as it would hurt the sentiments of the people. Mr Gurung, who is also the chairperson of the recently formed Environment Conservation Society of India, adds that mountaineering to so many peaks would definitely increase tourism in the State but at the same it would have adverse effect on the environment. He added that the PLCC will also write about it to the Ministry of Home Affairs very shortly.

Sikkim Mountaineering Association president Kunzang Gyatso expressed that the sentiments of the people of Sikkim have to be respected. He stated that the association was in support of the State government notification which bans climbing on Khangchendzonga.He stressed that SMA was the nodal association in the State so the concerned ministry should have consulted the association before taking this decision.

Mr Gyatso said that it was very surprising that the notification was taken out without consulting anyone in the State. He mentioned that SMA has submitted a list of 121 peaks to the State government to be opened for climbing so the concerned ministry can take peaks from this list instead.