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Conservation and Society
An interdisciplinary journal exploring linkages between society, environment and development
Conservation and Society
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Year : 2006  |  Volume : 4  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 55-83

The Forest of Symbols Embodied in the Tholung Sacred Landscape of North Sikkim, India

105 Nilgiri Apartments, Alaknanda, New Delhi 110 019, India

Correspondence Address:
Vibha Arora
105 Nilgiri Apartments, Alaknanda, New Delhi 110 019
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

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The paper explores the forest of symbols and the cultural politics embodied in the Tholung sacred landscape of North Sikkim, India. Represen­tations of the Lepchas as the guardians of the sacred grove are gaining ground in the contemporary context of their cultural revival and regional eth­nopolitics. To nuance these perspectives, this study furthers the socio­ecological debate on conservation, socio-religious fencing, and the mediating role of state. Sacred groves and landscapes are often perceived as an example of indigenous forest management practices and the antithesis of the sanctuary rationally managed by the forest department of the government. I emphasise that conservation is a latent consequence while the idea of a sacred site pre­serves the forest and keeps it inviolate. I argue that Tholung constitutes the nerve centre of Lepcha life, their identity, and embodies the nationalist prac­tices of the former Kingdom of Sikkim. As a sanctified site, Tholung legiti­mised the authority of the Namgyal dynasty that ruled Sikkim until its incorporation into India in 1975. I explain how rituals performed by the Lep­chas regenerate the human body, the land, the ancestral connections of the Lepchas, and their indigenous identity. The community, the forest and the state are conjoined in the locus of the sacred grove as it legitimises the power of the state and sustains the ethnic-nationalism of the Lepchas in the region.

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