Forty years ago, Sikkim was officially annexed by India. Since then, the former monarchy has struggled to hold onto its traditional character.
On April 9, 1975, the Indian Army attacked and overran the Sikkim Guards, a small force of soldiers belonging to the kingdom of around 200,000. It was the latest in a series of maneuvers, by New Delhi, starting in 1973, that sought to integrate the tiny Himalayan nation, sandwiched between India and Tibet, into the union. The Sikkim Guards were quickly defeated and disbanded and the Chogyal, or Sikkimese monarch, was put under house arrest. Roughly one month later, it became official: On May 16, Sikkim was declared India’s 22nd State.
The annexation of Sikkim was the culmination of decades of uncertainty for the kingdom, which survived as an independent state throughout the British Raj period but faced tensions with a newly independent India. Throughout, however, Sikkim maintained its traditional character: Sikkimese culture — which draws heavily from Tibetan Buddhist traditions — is wholly distinct from the cultures of the broader subcontinent.
Yet, in the past few decades, successive waves of immigration from Nepal and India have eroded traditional practices and reduced the indigenous inhabitants to a minority in their own homeland. Meanwhile, Sikkim functions administratively as a state of India — the present-day Chogyal, while still revered by many, is not formally recognized by New Delhi. Forty years after annexation, only traces remain of this forgotten kingdom’s unique history and culture.
The following images are a selection of previously unpublished photographs from the private archives of the royal family of Sikkim. The collection, which dates back to 1875, includes glass-plate negatives, medium format negatives, and color and black and white slides taken by professional photographers, as well as members of the royal family. Culled from personal scrapbooks, albums, and diaries, the photographs — from family portraits to quotidian moments of palace life — document the trajectory of Sikkim from autonomous Himalayan kingdom to Indian state.
Corrections: Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi walks with Chogyal Palden Thondup Namgyal on Lal Bazaar in Gangtok during a visit in 1968. An earlier version of this article stated that they were on MG Marg. Sikkim Guards exercise on the Guards’ Ground in 1970. An earlier version of this article stated that the photograph was taken in 1950.