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Marauding The Ancient Lepcha Tribe in Sikkim

Marauding The Ancient Lepcha Tribe in Sikkim

Alleged illegal contracts for hydel projects deep inside a protected land for the vulnerable Lepcha tribe will cause incalculable heritage loss, human as well as biodiversity

That was a day when I was sitting with the Sikkim Director General of Police, Dr RK Handa in his office in the Police Headquarters, Gangtok.

His secretary called to announce one Sonam Lepcha, who has just passed the test for recruitment in the state police.

When the diminutive person entered, Dr. Handa wished him in Nepali and asked him to sit down, and then congratulated him for having secured his entrée into Sikkim Police.

But the man was very embarrassed.

He said in his faltering voice: “But Sir, I am sorry, I did not pass the exam.”

DrHanda was suitably perplexed: “But your name is there in the list!”

“No Sir, that is another Sonam Lepcha. From a different village. I did not even sit for the exam, Sir, but the appointment letter came to my village. So I have come to return the appointment letter, so Sir please send it to him, Sir. He passed the exam, Sir, not me, Sir!”

Two Sonam Lepchas from different villages? From Dzongu, hidden inside the deep folds of Himalaya, amidst astoundingly lush, rich flora, with the River Teesta flowing by?

Mind you, this is not the stray story of just one honest individual Lepcha. They are like that, barring, of course a few dishonest ones here and there.

They are the Rong Kup, the autochton of Sikkim, the original people born in the lap of Mount Khang Chen-dze-nga, the third highest peak in the world.

And they live in Dzongu, which the erstwhile kings of Sikkim had marked out as a Lepcha Reserve, to protect the vulnerable people and the fragile but ethereally beautiful land.

Here in Dzongu, you can find, if you have the skills and stamina to trek, a certain place where there are 800 varieties of medicinal herbs and plants.

Most of them are endemic, that is, native to this place. And the only people who know of which plant cures what malaise are the Boonthings, or Lepcha priests.

Lepcha Priest
Lepcha Boonthing or priest offering prayers to save their land from devastation

Scientists would say we need to define the ‘active’ principle of each of these plants.

Not ‘educated’ in such modern scientific parlance, the vastly knowledgeable Boonthings, however, have that deep traditional insight into these medical wonders.

The Boonthings are sometimes referred to as Lepcha shamans and have been living with their flock in Dzongu since time immemorial.


Magical Land

Dzongu is a peculiar land. The Lepchas have been living in the most pristine environment, which is why the erstwhile Kings of Sikkim had declared this entire areaas a Lepcha Reserve.

The kings of Sikkim were deeply humanistic and environmentally highly motivated and learned.

They knew that having lived for thousands of years in the lap of pure and unspoilt nature, the immune system of the Lapcha was extremely vulnerable.

This is why even today, any outsider, no matter if s/he is a Sikkimese, cannot enter the region without a very special reason and only with a valid pass.

Like, I have been at the starting point of Dzongu once, but only because the then Director General of Police decided that he and his force must build a trust-base with this ancient tribe.

He had gone with a team of his officers to attend a Lepcha festival, Namsoong, the Lepcha New Year, and had taken me along to this unforgettable place called Namprikdang.

This is the “Sacred Hidden Land” or Mayal Liang, the abode of the Lepcha.

To give an idea of how close to nature the Lepchas are, there is the story of their origin, which has an almost eerie resemblance with the Christian story of origin humans.

God created man and woman from the pristine snows of Mount Khang Chen-dzenga. But that made them brother and sister, and they were barred, God ordained, from any earthly pleasure.

However, they could barely restrain themselves, and hence children were born, which fact they hid from God. But he found out, and thus banished them and thus were born the RongKup.

And it is this land of the Lepcha that is being ravaged today by various hydel projects on the Teesta, all of them products of alleged illegal deals between the erstwhile Pawan Chamling government and private hydel power companies.


Environmental Wisdom

Amazingly, along with the deep environmental knowledge, including knowledge of medicinal plants and herbs, the Lepchas originally had a fantastic knowledge of their terrain.

For instance, they know that every mountain peak has a lake at its base area, like the one at the base of Mount Khang Chen-dze-nga.

Interestingly, like Indians have gotra, each family of the Lepchas identify with one such particular lake.

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And just like Indians do not allow marriages within the same gotra, a Lepcha man and woman cannot marry if they share the same lake as family identity.

Dzongu is also the home to Tholung Gonpa, one of most sacred Buddhist monasteries, which had been set up by Chogyal (Dharma Raja) PhuntsogNamgyal in the 18th century.

Among the most sacred relics preserved in that monastery is the priceless ashes of Sikkim’s incarnate Lama Lhatsun Chenpo, who founded the Namgyal Dynasty in 1641 and set up the Dharma Raja (Chogyal) system.

The real threat is, just like the Polynesians were completely wiped out because of the intrusions by Christian missionaries, who came with the baggage of their own diseases, the Lepcha could be wiped out too due to such large number of outside people working on the ‘illegal’ Teesta projects!

And though giving any example would mean nothing to our non-Lepcha readers, it is a fact that the Lepcha language is highly scientifically laid out.

For instance, every similar kind of body part would have the same root-word. And so much so, that the Lepcha have a variations of distinct words and usage patterns for talking to children!

It was in this secluded and truly heavenly land that the Lepcha had been living in before the hydel projects started.

Dzongu is in the heart of the Mount Khang Chen-dzenga Biosphere Reserve, which is a declared UNESCO World Heritage. It has an extremely nimble ecosystem and an even more fragile mountains.

This is why when there was a major earthquake in Sikkim a few years ago, the mountains, weekend by massive constructions of the Teesta Stage IV and Stage V hydel projects, came crashing down.

The Rong Kup do not want these dams and hydel projects. They had been protesting for more than a decade.


Biodiversity Loot

The real threat is, just like the Polynesians were completely wiped out because of the intrusions by Christian missionaries, who came with the baggage of their own diseases, the Lepcha could be wiped out too due to such large numbers of outside people working on the projects!

And then will start perhaps the most massive loot of biodiversity for the medicinal herbs, which are part of India’s exclusive property.

Remember, the Pitcher Plant, endemic to Meghalay, was taken and all its anti-cancer properties patented as medicines in the West. This is bound to happen in Sikkim as well.

And in this approaching biodiversity loot, surprise, surprise, complicit will be the national Green Tribunal, which is allowing all these projects to go on.

Pictures by Gyatso Lepcha

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