At least 99 monks at two Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in the northeastern India state of Sikkim have tested positive for COVID-19, local media reports indicated yesterday. According to local officials, 37 monks at Rumtek Monastery, the seat of His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, had tested positive for the virus on Sunday, while 62 monks at the nearby Gonjang Monastery had tested positive on Saturday.
The Assam Tribune newspaper reported that local officials were closely monitoring all Buddhist monasteries in the state and that a range of precautionary measures and healthcare facilities had been provided for the infected monks.
Monks infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus have been moved to Saramsa Garden, a public garden some 14 kilometers east of the state capital Gangtok, where a COVID-19 care and isolation center has been set up.
“[Gonjang] monastery has been declared as containment zone that would restrict any movement,” said Gangtok sub-divisional magistrate Robin Sewa. “The other monks of the monastery and those who have come in contact with them are also being traced and tested.” (NDTV)
Rumtek Monastery, also known as Rumtek Dharma Chakra Centre, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site about 30 kilometers from Gangtok. Originally constructed in the mid-18th century, it was restored and inaugurated in 1966 by the 16th Karmapa.
Rumtek Monastery and Gonjang Monastery, established in 1981 by Tingkye Gonjang Rinpoche some eight kilometers from Gangtok, are both popular destinations for tourists and Buddhist pilgrims under normal circumstances, in part due to their majestic setting amid the mountains of the eastern Himalaya. Sikkim borders Tibet to the north and northeast, Bhutan in the east, Nepal in the west, and West Bengal to the south.
India is in the midst of its second and most deadly wave yet of COVID-19, which emerged rapidly in February. The World Health Organization (WHO) has reported that the highly transmissible SARS-CoV-2 variant B.1.617.2, first detected in India, has been spreading across the country and around the world. Although the current wave of infections in India is now believed to be peaking, daily deaths remain well above 4,000, according to government data.
At the time of writing on 25 May, India had reported a total of 26.95 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 307,231 related deaths, and has administered 195.39 million vaccine doses.* India’s pandemic death toll is currently the third-highest reported in the world after the US and Brazil.
However, experts have expressed concern that a dearth of test kits in many parts of India, particularly in rural areas, means that large numbers of deaths and infections have not been accounted for in official data, and that the actual situation on the ground is almost certainly much worse. India, the world’s largest vaccine producer, is also running desperately short of vaccine doses in the face of massive demand, with less than 3 per cent of its population of some 1.35 billion people fully vaccinated, according to government data.
In Sikkim, the authorities have recorded 13,233 COVID-19 infections and 232 related deaths.* As infections continue to rise, local media reported that the state government had extended the ongoing lockdown for an additional week. Sikkim, which has a population of more than 610,000 people, reportedly had 3,317 active cases as of 24 May, with 96 deaths recorded since 22 April, including 84 so far in May.
Some experts have attributed the rapid rise in infections among Buddhist monks in the state to the traditional rituals that have been practiced following other COVID-19-related deaths.
Vajrayana Buddhism is the second most widely practiced religion in Sikkim after Hinduism, and is practiced by more than 27 per cent of the population. The state has 75 Buddhist monasteries, with the oldest among them dating to the 18th century.
99 Buddhist monks test Covid positive in Sikkim (The Assam Tribune)
Sikkim: Over 100 monks test positive for COVID-19 (Nagaland Post)
Nearly 100 Monks Test Positive For COVID-19 In Sikkim (NDTV)
Sikkim extends Covid-19 lockdown by another week till May 31 (India Today)
Why are so many monks testing COVID positive in Sikkim? (EastMojo)
COVID-19: Sikkim records 8 deaths, 101 new cases (EastMojo)