Gangtok: 125 years as a capital city

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Introduction

How do you write the history of a city? Why is Gangtok what it is now? How do you feel the heartbeat and the pulse of this small and beautiful hill town? What does this city mean to us or to all the previous generations who have lived here and have seen it develop over the years? This year is the 125th anniversary of Gangtok as a capital town. Our own little space in this Shangrila of peace and prosperity. Let us know a little about this city and celebrate the existence of this city which had almost no relevance prior to it being declared as the Capital of Sikkim and it was on that warm sunny day in 1894 that the British decided to change the Capital from Tumlong to Gangtok. The Chogyal had nothing much to say on this matter but considering his stay at the stone palace in Gangtok, he agreed to do so. Hence a new capital was finally born.

A historical context: Gangtok as a Strategic Town

Sikkim was fragile, politically, with the erstwhile Chogyal Thutob Namgyal ruling over the state. Thutob Namgyal was more a British pick. The territorial boundaries were being threatened by Tibet. Though the Chinese had no hand in it, but they were surreptitiously trying to work out an agreement. Kalimpong had British soldiers positioned to oversee the trade through the Silk route. However, when a band of Tibetans tried to take over some parts in the Jelep route, They were pushed back from Lingtu and then later from the boundary of Ganthang (Near the Dokalam Heights). In the autumn of 1888, when this team of victorious soldiers marched back to Gangtok from the Gnathang, the Chogyal was taken by surprise and fled to the Chumbi Valley just to be taken up as a hostage by the British. Thereafter the residency was established and the British had a permanent presence in Gangtok.

The partial administration of Sikkim by the British was run from Darjeeling till 1889. The British decided to have a different administrative set up for Sikkim in 1889 and appointed Jean Claude White as the first political officer of Sikkim. He was asked to be stationed at Gangtok. Gangtok was a small hill at around 5500ft with just a few scattered houses and a stone building of a Chogyal then. They needed a house and as such, the Residency Building (present-day Raj Bhawan) was constructed in 1890 to house the Political Officer. The house was an opulent, English styled bungalow with lawn, much different from what the people of Sikkim had seen. This part of the hill was the highest in the so-called town area. The choice was seen as both a strategic location and also a social positioning and fed the arrogance of looking down on the rest of the inhabitants of Gangtok. Consequently, some smaller houses were built to station the other lower-ranking officers who would now be taking an active part in running the state of Sikkim. This changed both the political quagmire and bureaucratic set up in the state with Gangtok slowly developing as the hub of activities for all administrative purposes. The Chogyal being a more monastic oriented person had humble stone dwelling, however, when the palace was damaged by an earthquake in 1897, the new palace was built with British influence in the structural design.

The presence of British and affirmation of their position in taking up the administrative control of the state led to the Anglo-Chinese conventions and treaties of 1890 and 1893. The British saw Gangtok as a strategic and at the same time, lucrative position for business through the Nathula Route rather than the old Silk Route. The route through Nathula was shorter, easier and cheaper. Gangtok thus gained prominence.


Gangtok: As it stands

Though the capital city was borne more due to the coaxing of the British, however, we all have lived this city. Gangtok is mesmerizing as a hill town and has a distinct nature from the other remaining hill stations of India, be it Darjeeling, Shillong, Shimla or any of the other British hill station.

We know we all feel the pinch of living in this overcrowded, traffic harassed capital city, but if we see Gangtok vis-à-vis other hill stations, it has a hypnotic charm in itself. It is a much more livable as the roads have now connected almost every part of the habitation. Electricity and water are amply supplied and the beautiful refurbished M. G. Marg stands as one of the modern-day wonders of street transformation in India (perhaps being the most beautiful M G Marg/Road in India). The people of Gangtok have always been affable and being a tourism hub, the city is slowly acquiring a cosmopolitan character, at the same time retaining the original values, traditions and customs.

Even though Gangtok was a hub for the political activity of the British, we do not see any large British structures like the other hill towns of India. The notable ones are the Raj Bhawan and The White Memorial Hall. However, after the initial set up of the road networks from Gangtok to Rangpo and Gangtok to Nathula, together with Younghusband’s Tibet expedition, the British started concentrating more on the development of the capital city. They worked closely with the Chogyal and his team in first shifting the Bazaar from the Ridge to the present-day New Market area (perhaps that is how it gets its name). The British, however, kept much of the ridge area for their English officers. This was similar to what the British had done while establishing Darjeeling town where much of the present-day Chowrasta, Jawahar Parbaat to the Rink Cinema was reserved for the British officers.

The sanitation and piped water lines came up together with the establishment of the Bazaar committee (on the lines of a Municipality) in 1918, establishment of modern school education system, establishment of hospitals and administrative mechanisms slowly started taking shape over the next 30 odd years bringing about a radical change and converting a small hamlet into a sprawling Hilltown.

Lets’ all Celebrate:

Gangtok achieving the age of 125 Years as the Capital of Sikkim is itself a huge milestone This also gives us reasons to rejoice, think and talk about our city. Have discussion and deliberations, have cultural festivals and photo exhibitions to attract tourists and most important to educate our upcoming generations about the city, the cultural ethos and the history of the state. Let us all proudly conserve the sanctity of this place, love this place and proudly say “I AM GANGTOK”.

By Satyadeep S Chettri. The writer is a regular columnist and can be contacted at satyazworld@gmail.com )

NB: Views/Opinions expressed in the article or write up is purely of the author or writer. For any queries or contradictions, the author can be contacted in his/her email id.

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