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Lepchas, the ‘original’ Sikkimese, migrated here from Assam or Myanmar (Burma) in the 13th century, followed by Bhutias (Khambas) who fled from religious strife in Tibet during the 15th century. The Nyingmapa form of Mahayana Buddhism arrived with three refugee Tibetan lamas who bumped into each other at the site of modern-day Yuksom. Here in 1641 they crowned Phuntsog Namgyal as first chogyal (king) of Sikkim. The capital later moved to Rabdentse (near Pelling), then to Tumlong (now hidden ruins behind Phodong) before finally settling in Gangtok.

At their most powerful the chogyals’ rule encompassed eastern Nepal, upper Bengal and Darjeeling. However, much territory was later lost during wars with Bhutan and Nepal, and throughout the 19th century large numbers of Hindu Nepali migrants arrived, eventually coming to form a majority of Sikkim’s population.

In 1835 the British bribed Sikkim’s chogyal to cede Darjeeling to the East India Company. Tibet, which regarded Sikkim as a vassal state, raised strong objections. In 1849, amid rising tensions, the British annexed the entire area between the present Sikkim border and the Ganges plains, repulsing a counterinvasion by Tibet in 1886. In 1903-04, Britain’s real-life James Bond character Francis Younghusband twice trekked up to the Sikkim–Tibet border. There, armed with little more than derring-do, he deliberately set about inciting a fracas that would ‘justify’ his astonishing single-handed invasion of Tibet.

Sikkim’s last chogyal ruled from 1963 to 1975, when he was deposed by the Indian government after a revolt by Sikkim’s Nepali population. China has never officially recognised India’s claim to Sikkim, so to bolster pro-Delhi sentiment the Indian government has made Sikkim a tax-free zone, pouring crores of rupees into road building, electricity, water supplies and local industry – including liquor production. As a result Sikkim is surprisingly affluent by Himalayan standards – and rates of alcoholism are the highest in the country. Meanwhile the Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF) state government has earned a reputation as the most environmentally aware in India, banning plastic bags and fining people who pollute streams.