The road before me is covered in mist and ensconced by pine trees. The air is cool and filled with the symphony of cicadas—loud, intense, with a zippy tempo comparable to trance music. I soak it all in as my taxi makes its way up a hill in Namchi, Sikkim, going past dense forest and valleys, until we stop at a stone cottage with colourful flowers. This is the home of Prava Rai, the founder of the Sikkim Project, a digital journal aimed at creating awareness around Sikkimese culture, identity and socio-ecological issues.
Like many mountain communities, living in Sikkim is complicated. On the one hand, it is a region rich in natural history and culture, which is an inviting prospect for tourists. But these prospects also bring the perils of unplanned development to the region, both on the habitat and its people. Rai’s intention with this endeavour is to reveal the unseen realities of Sikkim and to tell stories that go beyond just pretty pictures.
Scroll through the Sikkim Project’s websiteand you’ll see articles on a range of topics, from shamans and folk music to farming and the challenges faced by women in the retail sector. There’s a story titled ‘Tibetan Calligraphy: A Spiritual Journey’,which explores the beauty of the artfrom through the lens of Tibetan philosophy, a huge influence on the cultural history of Sikkim. Another piece, titled ‘Suicide and Suicidal Behaviour in Sikkim: An Overview’, shines a light on mental health in Sikkimese society—something that’s not often talked about. The writers are residents of Sikkim, stories are submitted on a volunteer basis and the entire operation runs on donations.
Over tea and fried snacks, I learn that the Sikkim Project was initially conceived in collaboration with the Culture Department of the Sikkim government. The department commissioned Rai to write a coffee table book on Sikkim, but a few months in, the project was cancelled due to a change in government post elections. Disappointed but determined, Rai turned her research material into a website, with the help of photographer Praveen Chettri and businessman Salil Chaturvedi, a writer friend. ‘We finally decided to go digital,’ she says, ‘and here we are, nine months after the launch of the website, opening it up to a wider community of writers.’
Before she founded the Sikkim Project, Rai spent many years teaching and writing in different parts of the country. At one point, she was the geography teacher at Kodaikanal International School; she also lived in Goa for over two decades, working as a researcher and editor. Eventually, she returned to her ancestral land in Sikkim, to reconnect with the community and the land.
This community-spirited approach is at the heart of the Sikkim Project and the reason that the journal is published in English and Nepali, two of the state’s official languages. ‘An online bilingual journal that devotes itself to the state is needed to explore our history, our culture and the developments within Sikkim,’ Rai says. ‘I think a journal like this sensitises the people to local issues and provokes questions, curiosity and concern.’
The Trials of Development
Like many mountain ecosystems, Sikkim faces issues on the environmental and sociopolitical fronts. Tourist inflow is increasing every year, which means higher incomes for some members of the Sikkimese community, but the parallel growth in infrastructure like roadways, water and construction impacts the well-being of the ecosystem. Dawa Yangi Sherpa raises some of these issues in her piece titled ‘Environmental Injustice: Hydropower Dams in Sikkim’, which documents the status of hydropower projects along the river Teesta, as well as grassroots-level resistance movements against these developments.
There are other ecological concerns too: Sikkim is vulnerable to earthquakes and faces a torrential monsoon every year, which often leads to landslides. ‘It is a reality we cannot look away from,’ Rai says. Like many matters of conservation, the reality is complicated. The closer one examines an issue, the more nebulous it becomes.
Reading for Joy
In addition to maintaining the journal, Rai also started the Reading Room in 2019: a community library programme to promote reading and a space where the community can read together, joyfully. It was initiated when Rai realised that though she was publishing stories about Sikkim, so many youngsters in her village could not even read.
After finishing our tea, we take a short stroll to the Reading Room, a beautiful library made of wood and glass, that stands adjacent to her house. I notice the long wall stacked with books to my left, and to the right is a bulletin board full of children’s drawings. Five young girls aged between six and ten sit with two teachers, rehearsing their dance performances and recitals for an upcoming celebration with the parents.
says, ‘to work with children who Rai says that one of the great learnings from the Reading Room was ‘how ill-equipped we are to teach and motivate children to read’. This understanding led to an unanticipated journey, she visit the library, as well as teachers in nearby schools.’ The result is an outreach programme called Reading for Joy, a collaborative initiative with government schools around Assangthang and Salghari in South Sikkim that is focussed on inculcating a love for books in children. It aims to improve children’s reading and writing skills. ‘Children fear books altogether because they struggle to read and write,’ says Kursongkit Lepcha, a teacher at the Reading Room. ‘The first challenge is to normalise this alternative education system and the idea of reading for pleasure.’ In 2022, the Reading Room worked with over 160 primary and middle school children.
At first glance, the Sikkim Project and the Reading Room do not appear to have much in common. However, they both actively listen for the pulse of evolving Sikkimese culture—an example of how community-spirited enterprises can actively participate in the development and well-being of a region.
To learn more about this initiatives visit www.sikkimproject.org