The Lepcha inhabit the southern and eastern slopes of Mount Kanchenjunga in the Himalayas, a land located in the districts of Sikkim and Darjeeling, India, lying between 27° and 28° N and 88° and 89° E. Their population in 1987 was estimated at 65,000 by the United Bible Societies, with 23,706 in Sikkim (1982), 1,272 in Nepal (1961), and 24,200 in Bhutan (1987), and others in India. The name "Lepcha" was originally given them by their Nepali neighbors, meaning "nonsense talkers." Although the Lepcha have no tradition of migration it is believed they originally came from either Mongolia or Tibet; their language is classified in the Tibeto-Burman Family.
History and Cultural Relations
For over three centuries the Lepcha were a subjugated people, absorbing invasions from the Nepalis, Tibetans, and Bhutanese, with consequent effects on their language and culture, and therefore their distinct ethnic identity was largely suppressed. Today few Lepchas speak their own language, and most have adopted the language and ways of life of their local neighbors, the Nepalis. Intermarriage with Nepalis is also very common in areas of mixed population. Although there was a brief revival of the Lepcha script during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by Christian missionaries, the script was never widely used and has now fallen into obscurity.
The houses of a village are often scattered in isolated areas of the fields or the forests, and there are usually no more than three or four in a grouping. Thus it is possible to walk through a village without ever noticing it. Traditional Lepcha homes are rectangular buildings, raised 1 to 1.5 meters off the ground on stone piles, with the space underneath serving as shelter for farm animals; houses are often constructed of wood, plaster, and bamboo.
The principal crops raised by the Lepcha include wet rice, dry rice, buckwheat, maize, cardamom (their cash crop), and several varieties of millet. In the subtropical river valley, sugarcane and manioc are also grown. Fresh vegetables such as tomatoes and chili peppers are grown in backyard gardens and near the fields; wild vegetables and fruit are also collected. Hunting, once more common, is now seldom done, because of the time taken from working in the fields. The Lepchas have herds of cattle, which are generally kept for their dairy products and for plowing the fields; cattle are also occasionally slaughtered for meat. Goats are kept but never for their milk, only for their meat and for sacrifice. By far the most popular and numerous of the domesticated animals are pigs, kept for food and sacrifice.
The food of the Lepchas is not nearly as spicy as Indian or Nepali dishes. Rice is the most popular staple of the Lepcha diet; wheat, maize, and buckwheat are also eaten but are not nearly as popular. Millet is grown for fermenting as an alcoholic beverage; this grain is never eaten by people. The Lepcha diet is rounded out with fresh fruits and vegetables; fish is occasionally caught but not often.
The traditional spartan nature of Lepcha life does not lend itself to secular art or painting, which (except for specially trained lamas) are completely alien to them. They are, however, outstanding carpenters, and many do find employment in this trade; they are also noted for their weaving and spinning abilities. The Marwari, an Indian merchant caste, are chiefly responsible for setting up shops and acting as moneylenders to the Lepcha. The principle cash crop of the Lepcha is cardamom, their main export.
There is no rigid division of labor based on sex; women, however, are strictly forbidden to kill any animals. Groups of women and men work side by side in the fields, and although men generally weave the baskets and mats, and women spin yarn, if one of the sexes were to try one or the other activity, no stigma would be attached to it.
Kinship, Marriage, and Family
The Lepchas are divided into groups based on birth and marriage; these are the patrilineal clan and the immediate nuclear and extended family. The Lepchas count descent for nine generations on the father's side and a minimum of four on the mother's. They have a very small number of kinship terms and exclude the whole category of cousins; and, except for the mother's brothers, they make no distinction between the paternal and maternal lines. For people younger than the speaker, they do not make any distinction based on gender. Only children's spouses have different terms for son-in-law and daughter-in-law.
Any sexual connection with blood relations for nine generations on the father's side and four on the mother's side is considered incestuous. Lepcha traditionally marry very young, girls usually before age 14 and boys by age 16. There are two stages in Lepcha marriage: betrothal and bringing home the bride. The betrothal phase is a validating ceremony at which the family of the groom presents the bride's family with gifts, called "the price of the bride," and once these are accepted the marriage is completed and the groom may have full access to his bride.
Each Lepcha village is traditionally headed by a village leader, who is responsible for keeping order and collecting taxes. Crime is a very rare occurrence in a Lepcha village; murder is almost unheard of, although there have been accusations of poisoning. Theft is highly unusual because the Lepcha economy is founded on the belief that people do not steal, and when this does happen it is very disquieting. Any outbreak of a quarrel is handled immediately by neutral persons. The Lepcha attitude toward aggression is that it is not natural and that it is destructive to the community at large.
The Lepcha practice two mutually contradictory religions simultaneously, without any ambivalent feeling. The older Mun religion, named after the title of the priests, involves a special relationship with a family spirit. This spirit is appeased by animal sacrifices and by direct communication, as part of an effort to ward off evil spirits who cause illness and disaster. It is interesting to note that, among the many myths and legends of the Lepcha, there are many accounts of the Abominable Snowman (Yeti) in the glacial regions of the Himalayas, and he is worshiped as the god of the hunt, the owner of all mountain game, and the lord of all forest creatures. Tibetan Lamaism was introduced in the seventeenth century and is rooted in a priesthood and in sanctity gained by learning, not by inspiration; the sacrifice of animals is considered a terrible sin by members of this religion.
See also Sikkimese
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Hooker, Joseph D. (1891). Himalayan Journals. London: Ward, Lock, Bowden & Co. [Numerous earlier editions.]
Jest, Corneille (1960). "Religious Beliefs of the Lepchas in the Kalimpong District (West Bengal)." Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 1960:124-134.
Morris, John (1938). Living with Lepchas: A Book about the Sikkim Himalayas. London: William Heinemann.
Siiger, Halfdan, and Jørgen Rischei (1967). The Lepchas: Culture and Religion of a Himalayan People. Ethnographical Series 2. Copenhagen: National Museum of Denmark.
Tobias, Michael (1967). Mountain People. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. 2nd ed. 1986. New York: Basic Books.