Dorjee Tshering Lepcha sits on his floor cross-legged every morning and chants, asking the spirits to forgive him for any intrusions he might make that day against nature. He plays a tune on his flute to welcome the day and to add to the sincerity of his plea in advance for forgiveness. The room where he performs his daily ritual is spare, with only an altar, garlanded with leaves, fruits, and flowers, a small stool where he puts the manuscript for his daily prayers, and a cushion on which he sits.
Kerry Little, in a recent journal article, includes this description of the traditional animist faith of the Lepchas and their storytelling. The thrust of his article is to describe how the recent threat to build hydropower dams in the Dzongu region of Sikkim, an area that is especially sacred to the Lepcha people, galvanized some of them into forming an effective opposition.
The author, who is a PhD candidate at the University of Technology Sydney, traveled to Sikkim a couple times to gather materials for his study. He does not understand spoken Lepcha, but he traveled with translators who helped him gather his materials. His article is a good overview of the cultural values of the Lepcha people and their struggle to preserve the Dzongu from being destroyed by the dam builders.
He begins his story at a meeting which he attended at the Bhutia-Lepcha House, a building in Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim, on December 12, 2006. He was invited by Affected Citizens of Teesta (ACT), the group which was trying to build support for opposition to the proposed dams.
The mood in the hall was optimistic as the hundreds of Lepchas attending expressed “hope, strength, respect and a touch of militancy (p.234).” Little continues, “They are known for their shy, quiet persona but that day 500 or more Lepchas, from the remote North of Sikkim, where they may encounter just a handful or less people each day, discover their loud voices and they holler and clap and laugh and yell their support for the group who will lead them in this fight for their ancestral land and culture (p.234).”
Even though he didn’t understand the speeches and comments, enough was translated for the author that he caught the threads of humor, drama, ideas, warnings, and combativeness that permeated the gathering. When they paused for a break, the organizers visited government offices and spoke with the Chief Minister of Sikkim, who agreed that the state would review the Dzongu hydropower projects. The Chief Minister told them that he had “deep concern” for the Lepchas of North Sikkim. A year later, the promised review had not happened.
Little mentions the official reasons for the hydropower projects, but his sympathies clearly lie with the people who are trying to preserve their land. He doesn’t minimize the fact that some of the Lepchas had already sold out their property rights to the developers, and that the approaches of ACT were not supported by everyone.
He makes it clear that ACT is not against development; it is simply opposed to the massive developments that were proposed for the sacred Dzongu area. Sherap Lepcha, one of the activists, tells him that they have no problem with micro-development—just mega-development works. “Our idea is—whatever comes—local people should be given first preference and local people should get benefits (p.237).”
One of the strengths of Little’s article is the way he emphasizes the importance to the Lepcha of human relationships with nature. Their prayers include all creatures, every blade of grass, every leaf, and all the waters from the lakes, from the rivers, and even from heaven. “Lepchas lived there peacefully, their habitat protected from strangers who found the peaks that wove their way along the ridges of Mayel Lyang [the Dzongu region] an impassable cloak of protection (p.238),” the author writes evocatively.
The natural environment, the mountainous Dzongu, and religion are closely intertwined in Lepcha thinking, linked together by their folklore. Little refers to and quotes other scholars that have made similar observations about the ways the Lepchas view their land as holy. One scholar wrote, “Here is a sacred landscape where the people are truly integrated within the landscape unit itself, in a socio-economic sense (p.245).” For more than 10 years the state government has supported, at least in general terms, the sanctity of the Dzongu.
The Lepcha sense of belonging to a sacred place explains at least part of the reason for the impressive campaign of the ACT group, and for its ultimate success, as reported in the news in June—well after Little wrote his paper. The ACT activists see the issue as the survival of the Lepcha as a distinct society. “If we have our land we can flourish as a race, as a community. Our ancient practices, our cultural heritage can be preserved for future generations. With our land gone, we will be finished as well. We will die but we will not give our land (p.250),” one said.
The author explains that one of the most important outcomes of the ACT campaign is the way the young activists have gained understanding of their own culture from their work. Because of the movement, they have assimilated the knowledge of their elders, learned stories that were in danger of being forgotten. The young people gained an appreciation for their language and culture that they did not have before. They had, of course, thought of Dzongu as a holy place, but the anti-dam campaign fostered a deeper understanding for their culture.
Little concludes the article by citing his conversation with Dawa Lepcha, one of the ACT members who had endured a lengthy fast to help save the Dzongu. “I was walking up here, looking at these mountains, the trees, the land—our land—and I thought; they can’t take this. They can’t do this thing to our land (p. 253).”
Little, Kerry. 2008 [pdf]. Lepcha Narratives of their Threatened Sacred Landscapes.” Transforming Cultures eJournal 3(1) February: 227-255