Fragments of Sikkim: Preserving and presenting the palace archives of a Himalayan Kingdom, 1875-1975 (EAP880)

Aims and objectives

This project seeks to preserve, digitise and make available to academic enquiry the hitherto neglected royal archives of the former Himalayan Buddhist kingdom of Sikkim, which merged with India in 1975. There is a dearth of local historical documentation concerning the Sikkim’s history, and Indian government records concerning the state are closed. The royal archives are currently at risk of decay and require conservation, while through digitisation of the records this project will ensure their survival and make available to scholars a unique resource for future enquiry into the history and culture of Sikkim in the 1875-1975 period. Discussions concerning historical aspects of Sikkim since the early British colonial period (1880s) suffer from a paucity of sources. As a result its academic study is restricted, Sikkim history is not taught in any school and there is not a single museum there. The royal archives contain material which will entirely transform this situation, enabling academic research—anthropological, historical, economic, social, and political—and fostering at all educational levels the spread of knowledge concerning Sikkim’s history. The archive contains material of considerable interest to scholars not only of Sikkim but also colonial South and Central Asian history, culture and politics. No national or state institution has responsibility for archiving Sikkimese history and records are neglected, lost, stolen, or damaged by weather and time. This particular unexplored archive remains at great risk of further deterioration despite its significance. Stored in filing cabinets without climate control or care by skilled/dedicated personnel, it remains vulnerable to monsoons, mould, insects, theft, and earthquakes. The climate of Sikkim poses a particular threat to the preservation of these archives. While winter temperatures may fall below zero and summer temperatures reach into the high ‘30s, it is particularly problematic that Sikkim has one of the highest rainfalls in the world. The hot humid wet season (June-August) encourages mould and insects, as well as having a generally deleterious effect on paper manuscripts.

The collection is comprised of the Palace records of Sikkim, a former Himalayan kingdom, covering the period from 1875-1975. The material is from the office of the royal secretary and includes documentation of events and processes—both state and private—from the pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial periods down to the merger with India. The documents are associated with topics such as history, political affairs, law and legal codes, international relations, border disputes, taxation, and domestic affairs. They include personal, family, and official correspondence on all sorts of matters; records of disputes, discussions on policy, legal developments; State Council meeting minutes; and quotidian accounts as well as state revenue, land-holding and taxation ledgers. Among the material there are handwritten letters from the Viceroys of India to the Sikkim Chogyal (King); personal correspondence between, for instance, the Chogyal and his daughter (who had married in Tibet and relates details of life in aristocratic Lhasa); agendas and bulletins of the Chogyals’ meetings with the British Political Officers in Gangtok (who were responsible for British-Indian relations with Sikkim, as well as Bhutan and Tibet), and notes to and from the Indian prime ministers Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. The vast majority of the material relates to a historical period in which Sikkim was a traditional Buddhist kingdom, albeit that its foreign relations were under the control of British India. The introduction of the processes of modernisation can be said to have begun only in the second decade of the 20th century and was deliberately gradual (and centralised around the court in Gangtok, with very little impact in rural areas). Only from the 1950s, under Indian influence, did industrialisation, democratisation, and bureaucratisation processes associated with modernity begin to seriously impact on Sikkim. The great majority of the material is therefore, from the pre-industrial period in a “traditional” Himalayan Buddhist kingdom.

The main focus of this project will be the digital reproduction of the Palace archives. By preserving this archive for future generations, compiling an annotated catalogue of the material, and producing digital reproductions that will enable copies of the archive to be preserved in three locations in the UK and in the Indian state of Sikkim, proper historical and other analysis of this region in the 1875-1975 period will be enabled. The project’s digitised material will—for the first time—make historical documents easily accessible to Sikkimese, allowing them as well as the broader research community, to finally understand how local taxation, land holdings, political movements, social rituals, and religious milestones were enacted; and how social, cultural economic, and political developments of the region were perceived in Sikkim. This collection will provide both the details expected from a local archive and an overview of late-19th and 20th century Sikkim, introducing the characters and events that shaped the development of the kingdom and its complex history.

Outcomes

Our primary preservation goals were the digitisation of the collection and the rehousing of the original collection. We have digitised 1,055 folders of documents from the Sikkim Palace Archive, which has produced at least 89,321 digital images.

The collection dates from 1892 to 1986.

  • 75% of the collection is in English;
  • 21% of the collection is in Devanagari script.
  • Of this, 20.8% is in Nepali language;
  • And only 0.3% (or 302 documents) are in the Hindi language.
  • 4.4% of the collection is in Tibetan script;
  • And 10 documents are in the Lepcha script.

Our oldest material are records and minutes from some 1892 Council Meetings.

Our most recent documents are some correspondence papers between Palden Thondup Namgyal (Chogyal r.1965-1982) and Government of India officials. These papers were included as they were found in a file that begins in 1975 and continues through to 1980. These years were in the direct aftermath of Sikkim’s controversial integration into India, and have the potential to fill the historical vacuum surrounding this poignant era of Sikkim’s history.

Additionally, there are two other files – one on the election results and proceedings of the Executive Council, and the other on the introduction of sheep rearing in Dzongri (west Sikkim) – which begin pre-1970 but contain a few documents from the 1980s.

The endangered archival material is now housed in a secure room in Gangtok, Sikkim (India). The original folders have been rehoused in archival card folders – buffered, acid-free, and ph-balanced – with four edge folding flaps to prevent further deterioration of the edges of the documents (an area we had particular difficulty with during digitisation). Copies of the material have been deposited at The Namgyal Institute of Tibetology, and at the Project Denjong office, both in Gangtok, Sikkim (India).

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