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May 08, 2012, 11.59 AM IST
Nondescript Namchi in southern Sikkim is being rebirthed as a tourist-magnet. Sumana Roy traces the evolution of an artificial pilgrimage
The statue is only six years old when we, Chamling’s “Sentient Beings” visit it. On our way back, I notice ‘Government Orders’ framed inside wall notice boards. They are all from the Ecclesiastical Affairs Department, Government of Sikkim.
There is another thing that is to be noted in Chamling’s investment in superlatives in Namchi: The statues here have to be the “biggest” or “highest”, summing up the flamboyance of an artificial architectural tourism.
In spite of a riot-free present tense, questions slither into the consciousness. What would be the dress code for this ‘pilgrimage to Namchi’? Would these tourists be ‘pilgrims’ at all? Or, would it, in keeping with the spirit of play, be a fancy dress or dress-as-you-like?
The appropriate time for visiting the original Char Dhams is between May and October. I wonder what could be an appropriate pilgrimage time in Namchi. Shouldn’t it coincide with the ‘tourist season’ which is, unsurprisingly, around the same time?
Going forward, it will be interesting to see how pilgrimage sites without the association of myth or history grow. Who is the target here? The tourism infrastructure - there are no four or five star hotels yet - suggests that it is the budget Hindu tourist that Chamling wants to woo, someone who wants a six-in-one package, the Char Dham, the Buddha, along with the pleasure of the mountains, a grand surplus.
What is also extraordinary, in spite of commerce not being a religious faithful, is how a town such as Namchi is playing poker with the Indian idea of the secular. When I leave Char Dham, looking back through my car window to take it in last time - the way a modernist critic perhaps does at the gaudiness of a pre-Raphaelite painting - the shining new paint of the temple towers is blinding. And far away, the driver, a Christian, points out St Peter the Apostle Church to me. I cannot help thinking that after the Buddhist, Hindu and Christian religious sites, an ostentatious mosque could not be too far away. That would complete the parallelogram of the Indian constitutional secular perfectly, making Namchi a toy “union” territory.
Postscript: A few months after my visit, Namchi was hit by an earthquake on September 18. On my way there after the debris had been cleared, I heard stories about how this was nature’s way of “getting back” at us. “It is significant that the earthquake happened on the day of Biswakarma puja (the day Eastern Indians worship the god of engineering and architecture): It was nature’s challenge to the god who had created the world,” said a co-passenger in the taxi that took me to Namchi.
His words came back to me when I stood in front of the “damaged” statue of Shiva at Solophok Char Dham: the trishul was broken, so was a finger holding the damaru, and there were several cracks on the body. I wondered whether my father had actually been right in his prediction. This earthquake, the half-broken trishul and the cracks on the statue of Shiva, he had said, would be left as “ruins” of that September day when two villages in Sikkim disappeared forever, many died, even more lost homes. It would all go to enhance the myth of the upstart pilgrimage centre that was Namchi.
Perhaps or perhaps not, but there’s another, of course: The Prime Minister of India, the people of Namchi still hope, will someday inaugurate the Char Dham. Which Prime Minister, in our history, has ever had that honour?
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