Mother’s loved ones
The Lepchas are an endangered indigenous peoples whose identity is under threat from the dominant religions and peoples
Deepak Roy Delhi
The Lepcha are the aboriginal inhabitants of Sikkim wedged between the kingdoms of Nepal and Bhutan but they have become a minority in their own tribal homelands. These people were described in old British sources as forest dwelling "fairy worshippers", and remain a fascination for anthropologists.
The term Lepcha is a mispronunciation of Lap-chea name given to them by Nepali migrants. The Lepchas, however refer to themselves as Rongpas, ravine-dwellers in their own tongue and also as Mutanchi Rongkup, or " Mother's loved ones". The Lepchas are said to be original inhabitants of Sikkim. They existed much before the Bhutias and Nepalis who migrated to the state. Before adopting Buddhism or Christianity they are known as the believers in the bone faith or mune faith. This faith was basically based on spirits, good and bad.
Li or a traditional house of the Lepchas is built on a raised platform with a height of four-five feet on multiple wooden pillars. These pillars are just kept on stones over the ground without masonry work. The upper part is dovetailed with wooden bars. In the past, the builders of Lepcha houses devised this engineering feat to make their shelters earthquake-resistant. It is said that the last indigenous hut of the Lepchas was built two hundreds ago. The Lepchas are like magicians when work with bamboo and cane. This craftsmanship is at the verge of extinction
The cane bridges hanging over quick-flowing streams also testify to the superb craftsmanship of the Lepchas. Swaying precariously over roaring white waters, cane bridges, are often the only means of moving from one place to another. To erect such a bridge over the fast flowing waters needs engineering knowledge of high order.
Lepcha households follow a patriarchal family system, with the adult male as the head of the household. Among Lepchas, all property, either moveable or immovable, belongs to the male head of household. Women have no legal right to family property. However, women and girls are given gifts and assets including livestock, utensils, ornaments, land if the household is wealthy and other goods, which they may take with them after marriage. Lepchas are polygamous. They are free to choose their partners. The families and clans bind themselves in obligation to supply mutual nuptial requirements for those who are already bound, as well as for those who are still unattached.
Anthropologically, Lepchas are an aboriginal people whose roots lie much deeper than the history of Sikkim. The majority of the Lepchas practise the tantric form of Mahayana Buddhism that became popular in the 16th century. Tibetans began to settle in Sikkim. Lepchas who were natives of Sikkim were probably converted to Buddhism by Tibetan lamas. The Tibetan migration in early 17th century led the Rongs to shift their habitats so as to avoid conflict. Meanwhile the struggle and conflicts among the followers of the "Yellow Hats" and the "Red Hats" in Tibet forced the latter to seek refuge in Sikkim, where they attained the status of aristocrats. Being aggressive they occupied lands, which were not registered by the Lepchas.
These Tibetan migrants are the Bhutias as they came to be known who were followers of the sect of “Red Hats” now tried to convert these Sikkimese "worshippers of nature" to Buddhism. They succeeded to some extent, though the Lepchas tried to keep themselves aloof as far as possible. In order to avoid any possible opposition from the Lepchas, these immigrants now chose a venerable person, Phuntsok Namgyal, as the temporal and spiritual leader of Sikkim.
In the early 19th century, the British wanted to gain access to Tibet. Sikkim supported them and in return regained the Nepali-occupied territories. By 1817, Sikkim became a de facto protectorate of Britain. In the year 1835 the British East India Company obtained Darjeeling from Sikkim. Subsequently the military defeat of Sikkim resulted in the Anglo-Sikkimese Treaty of 1861, which established Sikkim as a princely state under the British paramount. The British were given rights of free trade and to build roads through Sikkim to Tibet. During this time only Christian missionaries started to work among the tribes in Sikkim. These missionaries converted a considerable numbers of Lepcha families in to Christianity.
To understand the true significance of the Lepchas’ nature worship, one has to know the divinity of the “Long Chok” or the upright stones that the Lepchas use in every act of venerating, worshipping, and invoking the gods, in appeasing the devils and demons, and in sanctifying worldly acts. It has emanated from the original “Big Stone”, the Mount Kanchenjunga, the eternally pure white, awe-inspiring, inexplicable structure that they see constantly standing before them. It provides them with a tangible shape for the conception of god.
According to the Lepcha sacred beliefs the high priests and priestess, Bongthings and Muns are emissaries of the Mother Creator on the earth. In the past they needed to be present in all the rituals of the Lepchas. Their prime function is to appease the gods and demons through earthly offerings. Among the Lepchas, knowledge is sacred, secret and the prerogative of a select group. The shamans were the keepers and custodians of Lepcha culture and knowledge. The contemporary disappearance of the shaman has become the metaphorical expression of their loss of identity.
Life of the Lepchas is based on tradition, which has its taproot in localised knowledge, which is zealously guarded and kept alive because it is embodied in the ritualistic life cycle of the Lepchas.
About 65,000 Lepchas live in Sikkim. Some also live in neighboring Bhutan and Nepal and also in adjoining state of West Bengal.
In recent times, the Lepchas have become a minority in their own homeland. They are gradually being assimilated into the dominant Nepali culture prevailing in Sikkim Himalaya. It is unfortunate that in spite of the fact that the Lepchas have an evolved linguistic system, most Lepchas cannot speak in their mother tongue. Their indigenous knowledge base is in peril.
The Lepchas are divided by political boundaries belonging to minority tribes in three different countries and being governed by different administrative system. Therefore Lepchas’ social and cultural progress is guided by separate set of rules and regulations. The Lepchas have formed associations to raise local issues and vent the grievances of their people. One such organisation is the self-financed Darjeeling Lepchas Association at Kalimpong, West Bengal.
Recently, the state government of Sikkim has accorded the status of primitive tribe to the Lepchas residing in Sikkim in response to a demand made by Sikkim Lepcha Association and its allies.
Unlike other tribal languages of the Himalayas, the Lepcha have their own indigenous "Róng" or Lepcha script. The world's largest collection of old Lepcha manuscripts is kept at the library of University of Leiden, the Netherlands, with over 180 valuable Lepcha manuscripts.
While the Lepcha language is recognised as one of the eleventh state languages in Sikkim and it is taught in the schools and colleges in Sikkim, it is not officially included in the school curriculum in Bhutan, Nepal and West Bengal Today the Lepcha script is used in newspapers, magazines, textbooks, collections of poetry, prose and plays. But many important aspects of the Lepcha language and culture still remain to be discovered.
The Lepcha community is divided internally due to their differing religious affiliations. The attempt by the Lepcha community to rediscover their roots and the emergence of the shaman as the symbol of their revivalist movement has wider implications.
The author is a well-known filmmaker