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Sikkim’s Heaven-Nathula Pass

Written by Sudhir Kumar

About Nathula

Nathula56 km from Gangtok is the Nathula Pass at an altitude of 14450 ft, bordering between India and China in the Tibetan Plateau. It is one of the highest motorable roads and is richly covered by many varieties of alpine flora and fauna. It is most tranquil place to visit. At present domestic tourist are given permit to visit Nathula 4 days a week (Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday & Sunday) and only 30 vehicles are allowed each day.

Nathula Pass used to be a main gateway for Sikkim -Tibet Trade (also known as SILK ROUTE) until it was called off in 1961. Shortly later China and India fought a bitter war and trade never resumed. Till then, China had a trade office in Kalimpong, a People’s Bank of China in Kolkata and also a consulate there.

Thanks to the Prime Minister’s China Visit, the announcement of Resumption of Indo-Tibet trade through Nathula was made official on 23rd June 2003. With declaration of trade, tourism will not be far behind.

A Pilgrimage tour to Tibet via Sikkim will be one of the most fulfilling experiences whether it is Lhasa (Roof of the world) or Manasarover Lake (Spiritual freedom).


Nathu La is located on the 563 km (350 mi) Old Silk Route, an offshoot of the historic Silk Road. The Old Silk Route connects Lhasa in Tibet to the plains of Bengal to the south. In 1815, trade volumes increased after the British annexed territories belonging to the Sikkimese, Nepalese, and Bhutanese. The potential of Nathu La was realised in 1873, after the Darjeeling Deputy Commissioner published a report on the strategic importance of mountain passes between Sikkim and Tibet. In December 1893, the Sikkimese monarchy and Tibetan rulers signed an agreement to increase trade between the two nations. The agreement culminated in 1894 when the trade pass was opened.

Nathu La played a key role in the 1903–1904 British expedition to Tibet, which sought to prevent the Russian Empire from interfering in Tibetan affairs and thus gaining a foothold in the region. In 1904, Major Francis Younghusband, serving as the British Commissioner to Tibet, led a successful mission through Nathu La to capture Lhasa. This led to the setting up of trading posts at Gyantse and Gartok in Tibet, and gave control of the surrounding Chumbi Valley to the British. The following November, China and Great Britain ratified an agreement approving trade between Sikkim and Tibet.

In 1947 and 1948, a popular vote for Sikkim to join newly independent India failed and Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru agreed to a special protectorate status for Sikkim. Sikkim agreed to be a protectorate nation and Indian troops were allowed to man its borders, including Nathu La. During this period, more than 1,000 mules and 700 people were involved in cross-border trade through Nathu La.In 1949, when the Tibetan government expelled the Chinese living there, most of the displaced Chinese returned home through the Nathu La–Sikkim–Kolkata route.

With the absence of air or rail facilities in the region in the 1950s, Nathu La was used by several dignitaries to cross the international boundary between Tibet and Sikkim. The current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, used this pass to travel to India for the 2,500th birthday celebration of Gautama Buddha, which was held between November 1956 and February 1957.Later, on 1 September 1958, Nehru, his daughter Indira Gandhi, and Palden Thondup Namgyal (son of—and internal affairs adviser to—Tashi Namgyal, the Chogyal of Sikkim) used this pass to travel to nearby Bhutan.

After the People’s Republic of China took control of Tibet in 1950 and suppressed a Tibetan uprising in 1959, the passes into Sikkim became a conduit for refugees from Tibet. During the 1962 Sino-Indian War, Nathu La witnessed skirmishes between soldiers of the two countries. Shortly thereafter, the passage was sealed and remained closed for more than four decades. Between 7 and 13 September 1967, China’s People’s Liberation Army and theIndian Army had six-day “border skirmishes”, including the exchange of heavy artillery fire. In 1975, Sikkim acceded to India and Nathu La became part of Indian territory. China, however, refused to acknowledge the accession at that time.

Flora and fauna

Because of the steep elevation increase around the pass, the vegetation graduates from sub-tropical forest at its base, to a temperate region, to a wet and dry alpine climate, and finally to cold tundra desert devoid of vegetation. Around Nathu La and the Tibetan side, the region has little vegetation besides scattered shrubs. Major species found in the region include dwarf rhododendrons (Rhododendron anthopogon, R. setosum) and junipers. The meadows include the genera Poa, Meconopsis, Pedicularis, Primula, and Aconitum. The region has a four-month growing season during which grasses, sedges and medicinal herbs grow abundantly and support a host of insects, wild and domestic herbivores, larks, and finches. The nearby Kyongnosla Alpine Sanctuary has rare, endangered ground orchida and rhododendrons interspersed among tall junipers and silver firs.

About the author

Sudhir Kumar

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