Fuelling the escalating tension along the Sino-Indian border, the Communist Party of China’s English language mouthpiece Global Times ran an editorial on Wednesday demanding independence for Sikkim. “After independence, New Delhi inherited the brutal colonial policies of Britain and pursues regional hegemony at the sacrifice of tiny Himalayan nations,” the piece read.
Satyajit Ray’s documentary Sikkim (1971) reveals what the place used to be like before it was annexed by India in 1975. Sikkim was commissioned by Hope Cook, the American wife of the Chogyal of Sikkim, Palden Thondhup Namgyal. The documentary faced censorship on two fronts after it was completed. The Chogyal wasn’t pleased with the inclusion of poverty in what was supposed to be a promotional film. After the annexation, India made sure that Sikkim was banned from circulation. The documentary resurfaced only in 2010.
Sikkim explores the hilly state’s people and their way of life through spectacular camerawork. The film never fails to capture Sikkim’s splendour, but it also provides a discreet commentary on the socio-political atmosphere at the time.
Young Buddhist monks are seen playing Dungchen, the traditional Tibetan horn, as the camera gives us a bird’s eye view of the Himalayan snow peaks. Starting with a narration about the state’s natural elements (the mountain ranges, flora and fauna), the film moves to the villages, towns, the royal palace and the people. Speaking of the diversity of the state, the voiceover explains, “The original inhabitants of Sikkim were a hill tribe called the Lepchas...The Lepchas, the Nepalis, the Tibetans, the Bhutias are all components of the present day Sikkimese.”
The state’s evident wealth disparity is also on display. In a sequence documenting Sikkim’s New Year celebrations, the film cuts synchronously between shots of the royal guests indulging themselves and poor locals enjoying feasts of rice and pork on the streets.