Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Khecheopalri lake and its legend

Lake Khecheopalri (27Ţ22′ 24” N and 88Ţ12′ 30” E) is situated 147 kilometers west of Gangtok, the state capital of the Sikkim Himalaya, in the West District at an altitude of 1700 meters amsl (above mean sea level).

The lake represents the original névé (that is, compact granular snow that eventually forms a glacier) region of an ancient hanging glacier, and the depression is formed by the scooping action of the glacier. A moraine ridge forms the southern bank of the Lethang valley (RAINA 1966). The lake has been estimated to be more than 3500 years old.

Khecheopalri Lake is surrounded by the forested Ramam watershed (named after Ramam Mountain) and covers an area of 12 square kilometers. It falls on the southern boundry of the Khangchendzonga Biosphere Reserve (Buffer Zone IV), limiting on the reserved forest boundaries of Khecheopalri Village. It has an open water surface area of 3.79 hectares with a mean water depth of 7.2 meters. The lake is well drained from the watershed with internal seepage μows from 2 perennial and 5 seasonal inlets and is drained out through a major perennial outlet. The lake drainage area constitutes of 91 hectares from the total area of the Ramam watershed. The morphometric data of the lake, bog, and its watershed are presented in TABLE
1. The lake is a halting place for Trans-Himalayan migratory birds. In addition to being a pilgrimage site, the lake provides recreational tourism opportunities. A large number of religious festivals are performed every year and these attract pilgrims (7,800 in 1998) from within the state as well as the nearby countries
of Nepal and Bhutan. About 8,000 national and 2,000 international tourists visit the lake annually. The uniqueness of the destination can also be attributed to its rich biodiversity.

Latitude (N) 27Ţ22′ 24”

Longitude (E) 88Ţ12′ 30”

Lake elevation (m) 1700

Lake watershed elevation range (m) 1700–2375
Open water area of the lake (m2) 37900
Maximum depth (m) 11.2
Minimum depth (m) 3.2
Mean depth (m) 7.2
Water volume (m3) 272880
Boggy area (m2) 70100

Total boggy and lake water area (m2) 108000

Lake watershed area (km2) 12


Many legends and beliefs are associated with the formation, existence, and sacredness of Khecheopalri Lake. The lake is part of the sacred landscape of “Demazong,” a valley of rice that is often referred to as a land of hidden treasures (the local communities believe that the rice produced from this area can
fulłll the food requirements of the people). During PRA (Participatory Rural Appraisal—a participatory program conducted in the village whereby information is collected from knowledgeable people within the community) exercises with the local communities at Khecheopalri and Yuksam held in February 1997, senior citizens narrated to the authors the following story of Guru Padmasambhava. Padmasambhava, who is known as the savior of Buddhism in Tibet, came to Sikkim and subdued many evil spirits, blessed the land, and sanctiłed it. He is highly revered and worshipped by Sikkimese Buddhists. He concealed innumerable scriptures (chos), wealth (nor), and sacred objects (wangten) in the holy land of Beyul Demajong (Hidden Valley of Rice). At one time, Padmasambhava was seen in a place called “Hungri” on the tenth day of the full moon of a lunar eclipse. It is believed that he blessed the entire area.
The sacred landscape Demazong has four religious sites, which are considered to be the four plexuses of the human body. They are Khecheopalri (lake and religious site), Yuksam (lake and religious site),
Tashiding (religious site), and Pemangstey (religious site). Khecheopalri symbolizes the thorax of the body (Khecheo=μying yoginis or Taras [female manifestations in Tibet of Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion]; palri=palace). Of the other three places, Tashiding symbolizes the head plexus (tashi=holy sky; ding=island); Yuksam symbolizes the third eye (meeting place of three lamas) and a place of meditation, and Pemangstey the heart plexus (pema=lotus; ngstey=center) of the body.
As the lake water is considered sacred, it is only used for rites and rituals. The locals strictly prohibit łshing and boating in the lake. The indigenous Lepcha communities dominate the area. One story holds that the Lepchas and the Limboos are descendants of two brothers: the Limboos settled in Nepal and established a Limboo Kingdom while the Lepchas settled in Sikkim. Another story is that the Lepchas originated from Mayel Lyang, a mythical land at the foothills of Mount Khangchendzonga in Sikkim itself.
They followed “Bon” or “Mune” religion and performed animal sacriłces (animism) to placate the various deities of forests, rivers, and winds (GOWLOOG 1998). Presently they follow Buddhism and animal sacriłces are not common. However, their belief in the sacredness of Khecheopalri Lake shows that they maintain a strong relationship with the natural surroundings.
The lake was originally named Kha-Chot-Palri, meaning the heaven of Padmasambhava. He is said to have preached to sixty-four yoginis there. According to Buddhists, the lake is a dwelling place for the Goddess Tara Jestum Dolma, who is the mother of Lord Buddha. Lake Khecheopalri is considered to be her footprints, as the shape of lake indicates. The people also worshipped the lake as the Goddess Chho Pema. It has a number of religious sites located all around the lake, including holy caves named
Dupukney, Yukumney, and Chubukney, where lamas incarnated and rimpoches (an honoriłc reserved for recognized reincarnated Mahayana Buddhist high lamas) meditated. The footprints of Macha Zemu
Rimpoche can also be seen on a stone near the chorten (stupa). There are two monasteries in the Khecheopalri area where pilgrims and the local communities offer prayers. Hindus believe that Lord Shiva meditated in Dupukney Cave, which located just above Khecheopalri Lake. Lord Shiva is worshipped during “Nag Panchmi,” which generally falls between July and September (nag=snake; Panchmi=fifth day of Bhadua month, a special month in the Hindu calendar; the snake symbolizes Lord Shiva).
According to popular legend, there were two sister lakes in the north-western part of the Himalayas. The elder lake is still there but the younger lake, which is called Labding Pokhari, moved to the western part of Sikkim to a place called Yuksam. The people in Yuksam (thefirst capital of Sikkim) did not respect Labding Pokhari and deposited waste into her waters. The goddess got dismayed and μew the lake first to a place called Chhojo. It could not fit into the area so the goddess then shifted the lake to Khecheopalri. Apart from the marshy land with terrestrial vegetation, the dead Chhojo Lake, located at the bottom of the hill, has no open water surface.
The other legend holds that the lake is called “Chho,” and that many years ago some Bhutia communities had settled around Khecheopalri Lake.
They had herds of cattle that grazed in the dense forests around the lake. The lake was called Chholang (chho=lake, lang=ox) and was sent by the lake goddess. One day a white holy ox emerged from the lake
and started to graze around the lake. It finally mingled with the herd of cattle that belonged to the Bhutias. When the Bhutia owner noticed the foreign animal in his herd, he tried unsuccessfully to locate its owner. He then slaughtered the animal for its meat and was surprised to notice that a milky discharge oozed out instead of blood. He washed the discharge, cooked the meat, and had a great feast with his friends. After that he began to notice that all his cattle and those belonging to the Bhutia community in the locality
started to vanish one by one due to strange ailments. It is believed that in this way the entire Bhutia community vanished from Khecheopalri Village. These days, mostly Lepcha settlements are found around Khecheopalri Lake and only a few Bhutias who married Lepchas are believed to have survived the dreadful curse.
The other story holds that the Lepcha girl Nenjo Asha Lham was blessed by the lake goddess and was given a precious gem, which was unfortunately lost by her mother. Even today local people believe that the gem is stored inside the lake and that the lake water can cure many human diseases. This is why the local people keep the lake sacred and do not allow the water to be used for any purpose other than rites and rituals. Strong belief persists with the local and pilgrims visiting the lake. Khecheopalri Lake is therefore famous as a “wish fulłlling lake” or its shorter name “wishing lake.” The local people believe that the lake water has healing properties as well.

Thick and luxuriant forest growth around Khecheopalri Lake. Click to Zoom.


Beside folklores, there are a number of religious festivals associated with the lake. The rites and rituals of individuals are performed according to their own wishes but community rituals are performed on days of the full moon and the new moon. The two main festivals associated with the lake are Chho-Tsho, which generally falls in the month of October, and Bhumchu, which occurs around February/March (this falls on the fourteenth day of Losar, the New Year’s month in the Tibetan calendar). The rites and rituals
are performed by communities and pilgrims aided by Buddhist monks or a Hindu priest.
Chho-Tsho, which occurs after the cardamom harvest, is a festival offering thanks for providing the people with food. The villagers gather together and collect money from each household, perform rituals on the lake, and enjoy the feast together. In the Bhumchu Festival the lake goddess is worshipped in order to maintain peace and harmony in the village for the forthcoming year. Colorful idols of gods made up of μour and butter are seen arranged beautifully with lit lamps and offerings. The monks and the local communities perform rites and rituals for three days. Pilgrims generally place prayer μags, which are attached to bamboo poles or small trees (Symplocos thaefolia and Eurya acuminata), around the lake. The inscriptions are prayers for the sake of dead relatives, sick people, for the fulłllment of wishes, or for maintaining peace in the family. There are between 11 to 108 flags. These numbers are considered holy in Buddhism and Hinduism: in Buddhist temples there are between 11 to 108 praying wheels and in Hindu rituals the goddess is symbolized by 108 lotus-flower petals. According to the senior citizens of the area, rituals around the lake have been performed traditionally since time immemorial. This festival is a major attraction for the pilgrims of Sikkim and Darjeeling and also from adjoining countries like Bhutan and Nepal. The local community also organizes fętes where games are played and various stalls selling food, clothing, and other
items are opened. Large numbers of holy books, prayer flags, rosaries, and photographs of various gods and goddesses are also sold to generate income for the local community. Thus the festival serves both religious and recreational purposes.

The folklores of the lake are deeply rooted within the surrounding communities. It is still acknowledged as a “wish fulłlling lake” and is considered sacred. Despite the fact that its unrivalled scenic beauty, rich biodiversity, and pristine surroundings make it a major tourist destination, there are no modern tourist amenities for activities such as fishing, boating, and swimming. Although the local communities and pilgrims have maintained strong beliefs about the lake’s effacacious properties, its sacredness is limited only to the water. The agricultural practices and the exploitation in the watershed, including the extraction of trees for łrewood and timber, the use of non-timber forest products, fodder collection, and free livestock grazing, have led to changes in the forest structure and composition, which has resulted in the exposition of soils. During the rainy season a huge quantity of soil and nutrients is washed away from the surrounding watershed and deposited into the lake thus affecting its longevity.
Furthermore, the offerings made by pilgrims and tourists in the lake also have some negative impact on the water quality in that they affect the aquatic biodiversity (Jain et al. 1999).
The major findings of intensive research conducted by Alka Jain between 1997 to 2000 regarding factors that pose a threat to Khecheopalri Lake are as follows:

1. A land-use/cover change study revealed that the once dense forest has decreased tremendously with increase of degraded forests, settlements, and cropped areas. The open water surface area, which was 7.4
ha in 1963, had decreased to 3.8 ha by 1997, and peatland increased from 3.4 ha to 7 ha over a period of four-and-a-half decades.

2. The local people extract 28 percent of the woody biomass productivity (the wood mass of trees increased per annum) of the surrounding watershed forest while livestock grazing removed 47 percent of the
herbaceous annual primary productivity (ground vegetation biomass increased per annum).

3. Annual deposition from the surrounding watershed to the lake accounts to 141 Mg of sediment, 1.42 Mg of total nitrogen, 0.31 Mg of total phosphorus, and 6.88 Mg of organic carbon.

4. Radiocarbon dating of the samples revealed that the lake is about 3500 years old.

5. Around 3000 kg of solid waste, which is categorized as 81 percent biodegradable and 19 percent non-biodegradable waste, is deposited annually in the watershed area through tourism.

The accelerated growth of human population, recent environmental and cultural changes, and the environment development in the area all pose a threat to natural resources in the Sikkim (SINGH
et al. 2002, 309). Economic development associated with forest and biodiversity conservation in the form of ecotourism is perhaps the best option that will both promote sustainability and satisfy the needs of nature lovers.