It has taken about a decade for Indians to cross over to the Tibetan plateau (Tibetan Autonomous Region) from Nathu La since the historic beginning of border trade on July 6, 2006. Politically, it is a milestone for the Sikkim’s SDF government. Chief Minister Pawan Chamling was around to witness under prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee the opening up of the border trade in 2003, a decision taken but executed under his successor, Manmohan Singh. Now under Prime Minister Narendra Modi the decision to open the Mansarovar pilgrimage route via Nathu La has been taken and its execution is being overseen by Chamling, presently into his fifth successive term.
The question that will inevitably come up is: Where do we go from here? What will be the next logical step or as writer and evolution specialist Steven Johnson asks: What would be the ‘adjacent next’?
Kailash Mansarovar Yatra is known for its religious and cultural significance, natural beauty and oceanic experience. Undertaken by thousands of pilgrims every year, Mount Kailash is of great import for Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and the followers of Bon religion, among others. Considered the abode of Lord Shiva, it is hugely sacred for Hindus. It is considered to be the place where Lord Buddha was conceived. As per the followers of Bon religion, Kailash-Mansarovar region is the seat of all Spiritual power. Truly, the start of major rivers flowing into South Asia plains emanates from Mount Kailash including the Brahmaputra, bringing life sustaining force.
On June 18, the first batch of 50 pilgrims will be flagged off. Thirteen days of trekking over rugged terrain at high altitudes will be obviated. The new route will ensure smooth motorised travel to Mount Kailash over the Tibetan Plateau from Nathu La.
Arrangements for the new route were made at a frenetic pace by the central and state governments. While the yatra through the old Lipulekh pass takes 22 days, the journey through Nathu La will be completed in 19 days. Significantly, against 13 days of trekking, the pilgrims through the new route will only need to walk for about three days – when they do the ‘parikrama’ of Mount Kailash.
The new route enables pilgrims to be driven all along, travelling first from Gangtok in Sikkim to Shigatse in Tibet from where they will take vans and buses on the existing road to Mount Kailash directly. The journey afforded by the new route will allow for the elderly and people with health issues to also travel in some comfort.
New route to herald new opportunities with the ‘adjacent next’ belief
The opening up of the new route could be the first step in using Nathu La for other purposes apart than just border trade. A concerted effort will be made to integrate trade through Nathu La with the movement of tourists across the border.
A great impetus for facilitating the development of the route as a Buddhist circuit is inevitable. There is now an opportunity to harmonise and connect the current Buddhist circuit with the important centres of Buddhism in Sikkim and Shigatse (Tibet). There has been a demand from the Sikkim government to make the state a part of the Sacred Circuit involving Sarnath-Gaya and Lumbini in Nepal.
For this, collaboration with China and Nepal has to be explored for implementing a shared vision for preservation and promotion of Asia’s cultural heritage. Another interesting combine will be to involve an academic institutions like the revived Nalanda University at Rajgir. Sikkim ought to have a representation on its board.
The development of new circuits must also be accompanied by strengthening of hospitality infrastructure and tourism amenities in Sikkim. Sustainable tourism has the potential to transform the region.
We are within sight of all these possibilities. What is important is how do the young Sikkimese prepare for this? Preparation, positioning and diligence to take advantage of all these possibilities is the real challenge. Government policy has not floundered. And so, the new realities that this pilgrimage heralds should inform all of us to leverage these opportunities to build the next version of a prosperous and happy Sikkim in this century.
Furthermore, the Sikkim government continues its discussions with Delhi to revise the list of tradable items at the Nathu La border. This will provide a fillip to the local economy.