Hard News, an Indian monthly magazine, posted an interesting, in-depth story on its website last Friday about the culture and society of the Lepchas of Sikkim. It is printed in the August issue of the magazine.
The author, Deepak Roy Delhi, a film-maker, provides an effective background for understanding the Lepchas and their culture. He makes it clear that they were the indigenous people of Sikkim long before the state was annexed to India. They were, and many still are, nature worshippers who especially venerated Mt. Kanchenjunga, the world’s third highest peak, located on the western side of Sikkim, on the border with Nepal.
Their “Long Chok,” upright stones that play an important role in their nature worship, appease devils and demons, help invoke the gods, and are part of their veneration ceremonies. They signify the original “Big Stone,” Mt. Kanchenjunga, “the eternally pure white, awe-inspiring, inexplicable structure that they see constantly standing before them,” in the words of the author. The mountain is a tangible representation, to the Lepchas, of their concept of god.
The priests and priestesses of their faith, referred to as “Bon” or “Bone,” are representatives on earth of the Mother Creator. These Bongthings, as they are called, used to be present at all Lepcha rituals to appease the demons and gods and make proper offerings. Shamans retained all the sacred knowledge of the people, and they served as the keepers of Lepcha culture and tradition. The disappearance of the shamans in recent times is one of the major factors that is causing the abandonment of their localized knowledge and ritualized life, which is weakening their society and culture.
Their history over the past several hundred years has been one of retreat and accommodation to invading peoples. Nearly 500 years ago, Tibetans began moving south into what is now Sikkim, bringing their version of Buddhism with them, and many of the Lepchas converted to the new faith. The author writes that when faced with the Tibetan invaders, the Lepchas began “to shift their habitats so as to avoid conflict.” The Red Hat monks, the leaders of the Tibetan immigrants, established an aristocratic order above the local Lepchas. The Buddhist invaders, followers of the Red Hats, became know as Bhutias.
In the nineteenth century, the British East India Company obtained a portion of Sikkim, which became a territory of Britain; then, in 1861, it became a princely state in the British realm. Christian missionaries began proselytizing and a number of families converted to Christianity. In the 20th century, Hindu Nepalese migrants moved into Sikkim and became the majority population.
The article includes much other interesting information about traditional Lepcha culture. For instance, their houses were built on raised platforms, which were held up by wooden pillars that just rest on stones, without masonry—an ingenious method for coping with the frequent earthquakes that shake the region. This method of construction has been moribund for several hundred years, however. Their time-tested approach to building bridges out of cane over the many fast-flowing rivers in their mountainous country also shows the ingenuity of their engineering skills.
The traditional Lepcha households were polygamous, with women and men free to choose their marital partners. Their families are patriarchal, with the adult males acting as the heads of the households. Property belongs to the males in the home, and women do not have rights to it. But women retain their rights to their own property, including land, livestock, food, and utensils, and they may take their property with them if the marriage fails.
The 65,000 surviving Lepchas, some of whom live in other neighboring states of India and Nepal, are clearly a small minority in Sikkim. Known to themselves as Rongpas (ravine dwellers), many of them have lost the ability to speak their own language, which imperils the basis of their indigenous knowledge and culture. Their Rong, or Lepcha, script, is well preserved in a large collection of manuscripts in the university library at the University of Leiden.
The Lepcha language is recognized as one of 11 official languages of Sikkim and is taught in the schools of the state, though not in India’s West Bengal State or in Nepal where they also live. It is used in various publications such as textbooks, magazines, newspapers, and collections of plays, poetry, and prose.
Along with these divisions and problems, the Lepchas are internally divided because of their differing religious affiliations. People who are attempting to preserve the Lepcha culture are focusing on their common roots, the possibilities of preserving roles for their shamans, and building a revivalist cultural movement. As much as the media has concentrated in recent years on the Teesta River dam projects that threaten their society, the focus by a major Indian magazine on equally important cultural issues is welcome.