The Lepchas are the original inhabitants of Sikkim. The recorded knowledge of the social and domestic life of these shy and retiring Himalayan people is scanty. They are concentrated in the Dzongu Reserve of north-central Sikkim. Their age-old ethos of egalitarianism, good- citizenship and lack of aggressiveness combined with rich traditions and knowledge systems make them a fascinating subject of research.
This book is a portrayal of Lepcha society in transition as a result of modern influences. The present study analyses the impact of modernity on the traditional society of the Lepchas and the impending threat of loss of oral knowledge, of the socio-cultural patterns and traditional knowledge systems. Their traditional wealth of knowledge in medicine and weather forecasting, hitherto unrecorded, has also been documented. An attempt has been made to give greater voice to the Lepcha individual and to step away somewhat from the anthropological trend of studying societies where the individual is often ignored.
Anita Sharma has studied at Pondicherry, Delhi and Oxford Universities. She has conducted several years of ethnographic research on Himalayan communities including on the Bakkarwals of Jammu and Kashmir, the Sherthukpens of Arunachal Pradesh, the Hajong and Chakma refugees, the Lepchas of Dzongu, and the Limbus of Hee in Sikkim. She is currently working on a project on South Asian nomads for the Consortium for Research on Educational Access, Transitions and Equity, University of Sussex.
Tribal societies, located in the frontier regions, have not received adequate attention from scholars, perhaps due to their inaccessibility. The relatively few studies, although rich in material, are dated, having been undertaken much earlier. With growing accessibility the traditional mores, social organisation and traditional knowledge are fading away before the relentless advance of mainstream civilisation. Much, however, remains to be documented.
The Natural Heritage Division of INTACH has tried to address the knowledge gap and document the culture and social life of these tribes from an anthropological perspective by referring to the earlier studies and supplementing the same with fieldwork. The work has been ably carried out by the author, Ms. Anita Sharma, whose arduous efforts in the field and dedicated research have resulted in this serious contribution to the subject.
The work was supported by a modest grant from the Ministry of Culture, Government of India, during 2004-05. Rather than let the document crumble on some dusty shelf it was thought appropriate to put the material into the public domain.
Forces of modernity are fast transforming isolated societies. As the pace of change accelerates and draws them into the mainstream, there is need to understand and record their fast fading ways of life, traditions, culture, most of which are rooted in their deep relationship and understanding of their natural habitat.
The Lepchas are the original inhabitants of Sikkim, and recorded knowledge of the social and domestic life of these shy and retiring Himalayan people is scanty. The Lepchas of Sikkim, now in a minority, are concentrated in the Dzongu Reserve, north-central Sikkim, a region designated to protect their land and way of life. While they might appear insular to outsiders, studies reveal that their society is hardly stratified and amorphous within. Their age-old ethos of egalitarianism, good- citizenship and lack of aggressiveness combined with rich traditions and knowledge systems make them a fascinating subject for research.
Few scholars and travellers have attempted to map the Lepchas of Dzongu. Botanist ID. Hooker authored the Himalayan Journal in 1875. Mainwaring compiled a Lepcha-English dictionary and a book on grammar (1876, 1885), Waddell analysed and documented the permeation of Lamaism into the Lepcha religion in 1899. The Lepcha society was originally studied in depth by Geoffrey Corer in 1937. His exhaustive, if controversial, research has been of fundamental insight for almost every subsequent study done on the Lepchas, and this report is no exception. Arthur Foning, a Lepcha himself, also conducted a crucial study on his people in 1946. The National Museum of Denmark (Copenhagen, 1967) published anthropological studies conducted in Sikkim, Kalimpong and Cit by Halfden Silger, from the Third Danish Expedition to Central Asia. Later, in 1989, Veena Bhasin examined the Lepchas of Dzongu and the Bhutias of Lachen and Lachung.
The Dzongu reserve is characterised by great environmental richness, diversity and beauty, and its geographical position has accentuated its isolation. During the course of history, the Lepchas came in contact with different races and were influenced by them in a number of ways. Though still a reserved area, the barriers are gradually fading. Today, with greater connectivity, implementation of government schemes and an enhanced economic status, the Lepchas of Dzongu are merging with the mainstream faster than was conceivable some years ago.
This report has been carried out for the purpose of recording the Lepcha society in transition under modern influences. Working under several constraints (time, inclement weather, resources and a shy subject), the report has managed to analyse and gather significant study material and update on the Lepcha life. The report’s main value lies in analysing the impact of modernity upon their traditional society and the likely loss of oral knowledge in the areas of their socio-cultural patterns and knowledge systems. Their tradition in medicine and weather forecasting, hitherto unrecorded, have also been documented in the report. An attempt has been made to give greater voice to the Lepcha individual, who composes the larger society, and step away from the anthropological trend of studying societies where the individual is often ignored.
The Lepchas, in this report, have been addressed as both Lepchas and Rongs, or ‘the people of the valley’, as they like to call themselves. The fieldwork for this report was carried out from September to November in 2003, and the service of interpreters was often employed for the purpose of research. The primary source of data were the Lepchas of Upper Dzongu, and more specifically the inhabitants of the hamlets that comprise the Lingthem busti. Information was chiefly obtained by observation and interviews, and from secondary sources in the Teen Murti Library, New Delhi. This study would not have been possible without the unrelenting generosity and kindness of the Lepchas of Dzongu, and every member of Topden Lepcha’s divine joint family. Chukmoo azi and Chuki stand out in memory for their constant gracious and indulging presence. Namgyal, Mika, OT and Chophel, of MLAS, the local NGO in Dzongu, were a great source of guidance and support. The Lepchas are indeed legendary hosts.
The Lepcha Reserve of Dzongu in North-Central Sikkim has a population of 9,299 Lepchas, with 4,856 males and 4,452 females, in an area of 15,845.95 hectares. I However, the reserve also houses a shifting population of migratory Nepali labour who come here drawn to the lucrative cardamom trade.
The origin of the Lepchas is a topic of controversy among scholars. Historians and anthropologists are still debating whether the Lepchas originate from Naga tribes, or are associated with the Jimdars and the Mech in their eastward migration from somewhere in central Nepal. Some scholars have found similarities between the Lepchas and the tribes in Arunanchal Pradesh. Others believe that they are related to the Khasis of Meghalaya. The Lepchas, however, are content with the mythological explanation which traces them back to the kingdom of Mayal in an obscure valley around Khangchendzonga. However, there is evidence to show that the Lepchas have lived in this region from very early times. Most of the mountains, rivers and other prominent locales in Sikkim have Lepcha names, which also find prominence in the Lepcha folklore.
The Lepchas extend from Panakha in mid-Bhutan on the east into central Nepal on the west. They are divided into the Rong and Kambha tribes. The Lepchas call themselves Rong or the ‘people of the valley’. This name was perhaps given to them by the Tibetans who addressed the people living on the mountain slopes as Rongpa. Rongs are known to be shy and mild-mannered and perhaps, therefore, began to be called Lapchas after a submissive Nepali fish. This was subsequently modified into the English pronunciation of Lepchas. There is a proverb in Sikkim that a Lepcha is like a brass pot which can be used by all households. According to another version, the word Lepcha, derived from the Nepali language, can be translated as ‘vile speaker’ (Lap=speech, cha=unintelligible).
Local legend of the Lepchas has it that these people came from a mythological valley called Mayel that lies beyond the imposing peak of Khangchendzonga. It is believed that the Lepchas lived in their Mayel or paradise in a society that remained without stratification till the establishment of the monarchy by the migrated Tibetans in 1642, who later came to be known as the Bhutias.
AR. Foning, a Lepcha, writes,
The setup of our society is such that ranking and gradation is completely out of place; and it could be said with emphasis that there never has been any acknowledgement of authority save those of the seniors in our tribe. It can be asserted with equal emphasis that we Lepchas never had any king amongst us. Whatever kings we had and know of, were the Namgyal kings of the later evolved country of Renjyong or Sikkim carved out within our ‘sanctum sanctorum’, nay Mayel Lyang. The ancestors of these kings were installed in 1642 at Yoksam with our consent. This too was done because a few generations earlier, patriarch Tekung Tek, who was a Bonthing (priest of the indigenous religion of the Lepchas) but never a chief, as has been made out, was coaxed into ceremoniously swearing eternal friendship of brotherhood with the Tibetans who were gradually infiltering into our land.
The person responsible for this vital task was Khye-Bumsa, the far-sighted and brilliant ancestor of the later kings. Eventually, as a result of this friendship pact, we agreed innocently to accept kings among us and we as a tribe have upheld them ever since.
Before the planting of cardamom, there were no shops in Mangan and the Lepchas had to travel long distances in search of salt and other necessary goods. They used to barter minor forest produce and surplus crop, at the Tibetan border and established institutional friendship with Tibetans to convenience trading on the hazardous journeys. Later, the Lepcha-Bhutia alliance became prominent due to a common threat they perceived in the wake of the large-scale Nepalese immigration from the twentieth century onwards. Today, the Nepalese are the majority population in the state while Bhutias and Lepchas are a minority and have been granted tribal status by the government.
The district of Dzongu is a triangular, densely forested mountainous area with steep hill slopes. The area is fringed by the river Tista on the southeast and river Talung on the northeast. The mountains south of Khangchendzonga border the region on the third side. The land used for habitation and farming by the Lepchas of Dzongu is located on a relatively narrow strip above the two rivers, between 1,000 and 2,300 m above sea level. Above the farms lies the grazing land and forests, followed by the rhododendron woodland, after which begins the snowline. A prominent hilltop chorten stands opposite the junction of the Tista and Talung rivers from which narrow paths lead west and south to the different revenue blocks.
The district headquarters of Dzongu is Mangan, on the North Sikkim highway, which is subject to frequent landslides.
For this reason, till some years back the highway used to be open only a few months in the year. However, this had little impact on the lives of the locals who made the long and arduous journey to Mangan on foot. But today the situation has changed as the road is kept open throughout the year and the inhabitants of Dzongu no longer walk the distance to Mangan but use the daily morning jeep service to get to the district headquarters. Then again, it would be incorrect to assume that this odyssey has become a simple exercise. It is important to note that much of Dzongu continues to remain cut off from roads and the inhabitants of these areas have to walk for hours on end to reach the nearest road head to avail of the jeep service. The jeepable roads too are in a state of disrepair with long distances still uncarpeted, rendering them highly risky and difficult to manoeuvre at best. The maintenance of roads was given little impetus and the project has only picked up recently after 1983, a lag of about 20 years.
The locals segregate the reserve into Upper and Lower Dzongu. This separation is not so much the result of the altitude of the habitations, but the location of the sections situated on either bank of a tributary of the Tista that flows through the area. The section up to Barfok forms the boundary of Upper Dzongu while Lower Dzongu starts from Hee-gyathang.
The revenue blocks are further divided into a number of settlements or hustles, with only one or two houses forming a busti, at times. The busties are scattered on the hill slopes, with houses often at considerable distances from each other interspersed with expanses of farms. Only a few locations have a cluster of a few houses. The hustles of Lingthem and Hee- gyathang have the largest gompas or monasteries in the area and, more or less, act a focal point in the region. Smaller monasteries also exist in Samdong, Barfok, Pakyong, Leek and Sangtok. Small prayer wheels, or maney, can also be found in a number of busties of Dzongu.
Agricultural land is divided into different fields at varying altitudes. The house garden, or sing, stands in front of the house; the wet paddy fields are situated at a lower altitude and temporary dry fields at a higher elevation. There is a shared land around the busties for grazing, pasturing and the collection of minor forest produce. The cardamom fields fall under tall shady trees The burial and cremation grounds used by the Lepchas of Dzongu, lie at a considerable altitude from the bushes.
The Dzongu region does not have any industry and the Lepchas, since long, depended upon the forest as their chief reservoir for survival against odds. The people here possessed a profound knowledge of the flora and fauna of the region, and believe that there can never be a shortage of food and resources for as long as the forests exist. Today, however, the Lepchas are mainly agriculturalists and more than 90% of the Lepcha households are engaged in cultivation. Cardamom has played a vital role in enhancing the economic status of the Lepchas of Dzongu and the presence of money, today, forms the fundamental economic basis in the lives of the Rongs Lepchas are also increasingly earning their living through none traditional methods like teaching, running shops and working in organisations and offices in Mangan. However, cardamom plantation predominates as the chief source of income for the Rongs of Dzongu.
The Lepcha society shows a strong patrilineal bias and is divided into different exogamous patrilineal putso, roughly translated as clans. The Lepchas continue to exist without a system of stratification and all putso are granted equal status. With the amalgam of Sikkim in the Indian Union, the Lepchas of Dzongu have adopted the popularly elected Gram Panchayat system that, to some extent, bears a resemblance to their indigenous one of Lyang-gambu or village elders. The shift to the Panchayat system is not a rupture of the indigenous governing traditions of the Lepchas, as the democratic village elder council has long been a characteristic of the Lepcha socio-political system.
The Lepchas speak the Rota, or Lepcha dialect and refer to their language as Rong-aring or Rongring. It is believed that before the coming of Lamaism, the Lepchas had a remarkable literary tradition of their own, but only a little of it seems to have survived the passage of time. Most of their ancient literary works, known as Namthars, however are now recorded in Tibetan script.
In ancient times, the Lepchas were nomadic and subsisted mainly on the collection of fruits, roots, tubers, leaves, fishing and hunting. They also practised primitive shifting cultivation aided by poor and simple technology. Today, the locals have moved on to a settled form of agricultural practice, only partially enhanced by gathering. Change was gradual, resulting in an interesting mix of influences both ancient and modern. Originally, the Lepchas were semi-animists and worshipped the spirits of the mountains, forests and rivers; perhaps a direct and natural outcome of their surroundings, later they integrated their indigenous religion with Lamaism. Today, however, they are under an increasing influence of the Nepali majority in the state, and a growing adoption of Western culture and mainstream Indian popular culture absorbed via glitzy popular media can be perceived. It is not uncommon today to come across young Lepchas in Dzongu, humming the latest Bollywood chart toppers. Some shifts may certainly be deciphered in the Lepcha psyche and society today. Even so, broadly, the Lepchas of Dzongu seem to have retained much of their fundamental ethos of simplicity, equality and joyful abandon.
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