Deepak Roy, producer of a well-received film earlier this year about the Lepchas, “Children of Kanchenjunga,” has written a feature article on the society last week (July 22) in the online publication HardNews Magazine, India.
He opens the article by explaining that the word “Lepcha” is a misnomer, the mispronunciation of a term used for them by recent migrants to Sikkim from Nepal. They call themselves “Rongpas” (“Ravine Dwellers”) or Mutanchi Rongkup (“Mother’s Loved Ones”). Their animist beliefs, called Bon, predate the introduction of Buddhism. To some extent they continue their nature worship and belief in spirits.
Roy explains that the Long Chok, the upright stones used by the Lepchas in their religious activities, symbolize the huge bulk of Mt. Kanchenjunga, the world’s third-highest peak located in northern Sikkim. The massive, awesome mountain is eternally white and pure, an inexplicable but tangible presence that represents their conception of god. They use the Long Chok to invoke the gods, appease the spirits, and sanctify everyday activities.
The Lepcha shamans have traditionally preserved their ritualized knowledge of the cycle of life. High priests and priestesses, emissaries of the Mother Creator, used to be present for all of the Lepcha rituals. They made offerings to appease the demons and spirits, and they kept alive the sacred Lepcha knowledge and culture. But the gradual disappearance of the shamans has lessened the remaining sense of identity in the society.
Roy also discusses the traditional patriarchal family structure of the Lepchas. All of the property belongs to the male head of the family, though the women are entitled to keep gifts and assets that they have acquired themselves, such as ornaments, livestock, and even land. The women are free to make their own marital arrangements.
The Lepchas face different administrative situations in the three countries in which they live— India, Bhutan, and Nepal—and they are, themselves, divided by the different religious faiths they have adopted. Their language, “Rong,” has its own script which is preserved in old manuscripts. The script is kept alive because many books, magazines, and newspapers are published in it. Although their original language is recognized and taught in Sikkim (though not in Bhutan, Nepal, or the West Bengal state of India), most of the Lepchas no longer speak their native tongue.
To judge by the article, one can hope the film “Children of Kanchenjunga” will become available in North America. It appears from this article as if it may be quite worthwhile.