ALTERNATE NAMES: Rong
LOCATION: Nepal; Bhutan (Mt. Kanchenjunga in the Eastern Himalayas)
POPULATION: 75,000 (estimate)
LANGUAGE: Lepcha; Nepali
RELIGION: Animism and Buddhism
Lepchas are the original inhabitants of Sikkim, formerly an independent kingdom situated in the Himalayas between Nepal and Bhutan. Lepcha is the name given to this group by their Nepali neighbors and is interpreted by some as a derogatory word meaning "nonsense talkers." The Lepchas call themselves Rong.
The Lepchas are of Mongoloid stock, and some anthropologists trace their origins to Mongolia or Tibet. However, the people themselves have no traditions of past migrations and place the home of their ancestors (Mayel) near Mt. Kanchenjunga. The early history of the Lepchas is obscure, their isolation no doubt limiting contacts with the outside world. The Bhutias began moving into the region from Tibet in the 14th century ad. Sometime before the beginning of the 17th century, Sikkim became subject to Tibet. Internal upheavals in Tibet early in the 17th century led to three "Red Hat" lamas (monks) fleeing to Sikkim, where they converted the population to Buddhism and created a Sikkimese Tibetan king. For the next three centuries, the Lepchas of Sikkim were dominated by the Bhutias, the Nepalese, and later the British. In 1950, although it remained independent under its ruling chogyal (king), Sikkim became a protectorate of India. Following a plebiscite in which Hindu immigrants from India made the difference in the voting, Sikkim became the twenty-second state of the Indian union in 1975.
LOCATION AND HOMELAND
Lepchas occupy the southern and eastern slopes of Mt. Kanchenjunga, in the eastern Himalayas, and parts of neighboring western Bhutan and of Nepal. Population estimates for the Lepcha vary wildly. Some sources claim a total Lepcha population of around 50,000, while others see 85,000 in western Bhutan alone. Given the fact that the Lepchas are known as the "Vanishing Tribe," 50,000 to 75,000 seems a reasonable estimate for the current Lepcha population. The region Lepchas inhabit varies in elevation from 230 m (750 ft) in the Sikkim basin to the summit of Kanchenjunga at 8,586 m (28,168 ft) above sea level. The land has been dissected by the River Tista (Tîsta) and its tributaries into a jumble of steep-sided valleys separated by precipitous hills that rise northwards to the majestic peaks of the Himalayas.
Most settlements and cultivated land lie between 1,070 m and 2,285 m (3,500-7,500 ft) above the hot, steamy river valleys. Above this zone, fields give way to forests and mountain pastures. Mean temperatures range from 4.4°c to 30°c (40°f- 86°f). Rain is almost continuous from June to September, with snow lying on the ground throughout the year above 2,440 m (8,000 ft).
The Lepcha language, known as Rongring to the Lepchas, is classified as a Tibeto-Burman tongue. It is placed by some in the Naga group of this language family. Rongring is written in an alphabet that was derived from a Tibetan script by King Chador of Sikkim sometime at the end of the 17th or beginning of the 18th centuries. The purpose of this was apparently to enable the Lepchas to read the Buddhist scriptures. Today, few Lepchas speak the language or are familiar with the Lepcha script. Most Lepchas, instead, speak and write Nepali.
The Lepcha myth of origin tells that Itbu-mu, the Mother-Creator, made the earth and the heavens and all that they contained. She shaped the mountains and the lakes and the animals that inhabit the earth. Last of all, she took pure snow from the top of Mt. Kanchenjunga, shaped it into a human form, and infused it with life. This first man was known as Fudong-thing. Perceiving his state of loneliness, the goddess took marrow from his bones and created a partner for him, a woman called Nuzong Nyu. The first two humans lived in Ne Mayel Kyong, the ancestral home of the Lepchas that supposedly lies in an inaccessible valley near Kanchenjunga. Though commanded by Itbu-mu to live as brother and sister, the two commenced having sexual relations. The offspring of this forbidden union were devils and evil spirits that plague the Lepchas even today. When the gods discovered the transgression, they punished the offenders by casting them out of their idyllic home and sending them down to the mundane world. There, Fudong-thing and Nuzong Nyu were blessed with children and became the ancestors of the Lepcha people.
Animism survives today side-by-side with Buddhism in Lepcha society. The older Mun religion, named after the mun or male priest, focuses on appeasing or warding off evil spirits (moong) who bring sickness and misfortune upon people. The spirits are appeased by the sacrifice of animals, or by the direct intervention of the priest or one of the lesser religious practitioners among the Lepchas. The Lepchas acknowledge the existence of various deities and benevolent spirits, but rarely make regular offerings to them.
Overlying the beliefs and practices of Mun are the formal structures of lamaistic Buddhism. It is said that Buddhism was introduced to the region from Tibet around 1641, with the first monasteries founded towards the end of the 17th century. While the Lepchas have accepted certain aspects of Tibetan Buddhism (e.g., the ritual, the mythology, and the hierarchy of lamas), concepts such as asceticism and individual responsibility for one's spiritual welfare are totally alien to them. For the common person, the mun is of far greater importance in daily religious life than is the lama. (Lama is a Tibetan word; the Lepcha term for a lama is yook-mun, literally, "honored Mun.") However, the ceremonies of the two religions are usually performed simultaneously. Some writers have gone so far as to describe the Lepcha religion as "animistic Buddhism."
A small number of Lepchas have converted to Christianity.
Most Mun ceremonies are performed for the benefit of individuals or households, although some important events are communal celebrations. The Cherim ceremony is held twice a year to keep the Lepchas free of illness. Both muns and lamas perform various rituals, which include offerings to the devils and the gods, and animal sacrifice. Buddhist lamas have to visit the monastery twice a month for festivals held in honor of Guru Rimpoche (the monk Padmasambhava who introduced Buddhism into Tibet) and the god Kanchenjunga. The feasts accompanying these celebrations may last up to 36 hours. The lamas also observe regular calendrical festivals such as the exorcism of the quarrel demon or the three-day Boom koor.
RITES OF PASSAGE
During the later months of pregnancy, Lepchas take certain ritual precautions for the safe delivery of the baby. This includes various taboos as well as sacrificing chickens to appease Sor moong, the demon who causes miscarriages. The Lepchas believe that on the third day after its birth, a baby is visited by a fairy who writes out its future on its forehead. At this time an animal, preferably an ox, but failing that, a pig or a goat, is sacrificed to mark the birth of a male, though not a female. A horoscope is cast by a mun (male priest) or bonthing (female priest), and the child is given a temporary name, often the day of the week on which it was born. The "sacred name" of the infant is recorded in the horoscope but never used. Names are unimportant to the Lepchas, and one may grow up with a variety of nicknames or pet names that are liable to change from time to time.
Until a child is old enough to walk, it is carried in a cloth tied to the back of the mother or another adult. Children are treated as "little adults" and expected to behave accordingly. At the age of about four, a child is given a plate, a cup, a set of clothes, and a small haversack to carry objects just like an adult. Life is somewhat difficult and dull for adolescents. Boys farm or hunt with their fathers, while girls share the household chores with their mothers.
For the Lepchas, death is terrifying. All funeral rituals are performed to get rid of the dead and to ensure that they do not return as evil spirits. At the time of death, a lama is consulted to determine what spirits caused the death, how they should be appeased, and what means of disposal of the body should be followed. Ordinary women and men are usually buried, lamas and nuns are cremated, and children are placed in a river. Animal sacrifice and purification ceremonies are performed as deemed necessary. Both muns and lamas are called on to conduct the funeral rites, the former usually outside the house and the latter in the house. The body is then taken to the burial ground where it is placed in a grave, invariably facing north. Following the disposal of the corpse, the sanglion ritual or "speeding of the soul" is performed. This is an expensive ceremony involving a feast, distribution of gifts, animal sacrifice, and reading from the scriptures.
Lepchas are identified by many who have had dealings with them as a gentle, unselfish people, who are extremely shy in their dealings with strangers. They are peaceful in nature, and every effort is made to prevent or stop personal quarrels, which are seen as unsocial behavior. Casual visitors to a Lepcha house are always presented with refreshment. Gift-giving forms an important part of daily life. A guest attending a feast takes a gift with her or him, and also departs with a gift (usually un-cooked meat). Any visitor takes a gift for the host, and in turn is given a gift when he or she leaves. Children are taught from an early age that it is good manners when receiving a gift from an elder to accept it with joined hands.
Lepcha villages consist of up to 15 or 20 houses, scattered across a hillside or in a forest. One writer notes that it is possible to walk through a village without ever knowing it is there. A Lepcha dwelling (li) is rectangular in plan, with a circular or rectangular roof made from straw. The floor is made of wood, raised 1 m or so (3 or 4 ft) above the ground, with the space underneath used to keep domestic animals. Walls are built of thatch covered by clay. The entire structure is built without nails or screws. A house typically contains three rooms: a bedroom, guest room, and kitchen/store room. Furnishings may include low wooden stools, or built-in wooden benches padded for comfort. Water is drawn from streams, waterfalls, or natural reservoirs.
Most villages have a gompa or place for Buddhist worship, and Buddhist prayer flags fluttering in the mountain breezes are a common sight in villages throughout the region. Villages are linked by mountain tracks, rather than roads, and the people are adept at crossing the hills and carrying loads over tracks that are often too steep even for mules.
Lepchas are divided into patrilineal clans known as ptso. There is no ban on marriage within the same clan, although the rules of incest clearly define the closeness of the blood relationship acceptable between spouses. Uncles play an important role in matchmaking and the negotiations preceding a wedding. Marriages are arranged by the parents, and usually occur when the boy is around 16 and the girl 14 years of age. Following the betrothal ceremony, the boy is allowed to remain in the girl's house and little attention is paid if she conceives during this period. The actual wedding takes place anytime from a few days to several months later, on an auspicious day of the month. Both muns and lamas are required to officiate at the marriage ceremony, which is accompanied by the presenting of gifts to the bride's family, feasting, and other rituals. The bride returns to live with her husband's family. Divorce or separation is very rare and when it occurs is usually for incompatibility or the refusal of the wife to work properly.
The original dress of both Lepcha men and women consists of knee-length drawers and an undershirt or bodice, over which a long piece of striped material is worn like a cloak. This coarse, homewoven outer garment is fastened at the shoulder by a brooch and is belted at the waist by a sash. The sash of ordinary people is usually red or purple, while that of lamas is yellow. The Lepcha hat (thaktop) is loaf-shaped and made of leaves attached to a bamboo frame and decorated with a feather. Men traditionally always carried a long knife slung from the belt in a bamboo scabbard.
Women adorn themselves with a variety of ornaments—silver hoops or rings in the ears; necklaces made from gold, silver, semiprecious stones, or even silver coins; and charm boxes and small idols. Today, many Lepchas, especially women, have given up their indigenous dress in favor of Tibetan-style clothes.
The Lepcha day begins at dawn with a substantial meal of cold rice and any leftover meat or other food from the previous evening's meal. This is taken with Tibetan-style tea (served with salt and butter). Popped corn or cold rice may be carried to the fields for snacks during the day, but the next full meal is taken in the evening when the family returns to the house. The evening meal is invariably accompanied by chi, beer made from millet or other grains. Rice is the staple food, though wheat or maize may be eaten if rice is not available. Buckwheat is ground into flour and baked into cakes. Lepchas, despite their Buddhist religion, are nonvegetarians and eat the meat of both domesticated and wild animals. They supplement their diet with vegetables and a variety of forest produce such as wild yams. Lepcha dishes are less spicy than Nepali or Indian food.
Levels of literacy among the Lepchas vary according to location, but generally are low. Few speak, let alone read, Rongring. Demands that the language be introduced into the curriculum have been met with deaf ears by the government of Sikkim. As a consequence, the Lepcha language has all but disappeared. Children are taught Nepali in the schools, and this is the language in which both children and adults conduct their daily affairs. Lepchas favor formal education for both boys and girls, with literacy rates in the Indian state of Sikkim standing at c. 65% (2001), though again, women, with rates of 58.6%, lag far behind men, of whom over 72% are literate. In Sikkim, almost three-quarter of children between the ages of five and fourteen attend school (72.8%), but the discrepancy between male and female becomes very clear at the level of higher education. By contrast, in Nepal literacy varies between 44% for men and 34% for women (2001). Although specific data as regards literacy is not available for Bhutan, one suspects that, with an overall literacy rate of 44% for women in Bhutan, literacy for Lepcha women in Bhutan is closer to the value for Nepal than for Sikkim.
Music and dance, as well as oral traditions of myth, legend, and folk songs, form an integral part of Lepcha culture. Instruments such as drums, bamboo flutes, and various stringed instruments are used to accompany songs (vam) and dances at various social and ceremonial occasions. Love songs are popular, while other songs focus on themes such as marriage, agriculture, and war. Lepcha dances (lok) fall into six categories: nature dances, war dances, agricultural dances, dances on historical themes, the mystic yaba dances, and dances presenting incidents from Lepcha mythology.
Though originally hunters and gatherers, Lepchas are now primarily engaged in farming and rearing livestock. Their principal food crop is rice, with other cereals and vegetables also grown for consumption. Millet is cultivated for making beer, not for eating. Cardamom is the most important cash crop and an important export of the region. Cattle, goats, pigs, and chickens are raised, as much for ritual sacrifice as for their food value.
Lepcha children have no toys and do not participate in any organized games. Older boys amuse themselves by snaring small birds and imitating bird calls, or by making and playing bamboo flutes. Adults usually do not engage in organized or spectator sports, although in towns like Darjiling they have access to sports facilities.
ENTERTAINMENT AND RECREATION
Although festivals and folk traditions remain a major source of entertainment for the Lepchas, radio, television, and the movies have all had their impact on Lepcha life. It is not uncommon to find the walls of Lepcha houses decorated with photographs of Hindi and Western movie stars, with Bruce Lee being among the most popular.
FOLK ART, CRAFTS, AND HOBBIES
Although Lepchas are skilled in activities such as basketry, weaving, spinning, and carpentry, there are no distinctive arts or crafts that can be identified specifically with the Lepcha community.
Lepchas are classed as a Scheduled Tribe under the Indian constitution. However, largely as a result of their small numbers and the cultural dominance of the Bhutias and Nepalese, they are clearly in danger of losing their cultural identity. The Lepchas' position as an ethnic minority would become even more tenuous should Nepalese demands for a "Gurkhaland" in the region of Darjiling ever succeed. Some Lepchas see conversions to Christianity as a threat to the traditional character of the community. It is, however, the loss of the Lepcha language—combined with intermarriage and assimilation with the local Nepalese population—that is the most serious threat to the continued survival of traditional Lepcha culture in the eastern Himalayas.
This is further threatened by development projects such as the Tista Valley hydroelectric project Stage V at Dzonghu. All three 170-megawatt power stations involved were commissioned in early 2008, but numerous concerns were expressed during the planning and development stage of the project. Not only have local Lepcha communities lost agricultural land that has been submerged, though one argument put forward for the project was that it was designed to use only 67.75 hectares of land, the project also brought along with it a large number of laborers who were seen to have the potential for an irreversible negative impact on the Lepcha communities residing in the area. It was feared that the influx of large number of laborers would affect the culture and way of life of the community, and cause a "sense of deprivation and loss of ethnic identity" resulting in "dilution of [Lepcha] social customs and practices" and affect the availability of labor for work on the Lepchas' remaining fields. The presence of a large number of people in an area that was earlier sparsely populated, it was also feared, might also result in health problems and outbreak of diseases, including those that may not have occurred in the past within the community. However, the environmental clearance letter that allowed the project to move forward stipulates that the labor camps should be located outside the Lepcha settlements and that when the project is completed, the labor force must not be allowed to settle anywhere in Sikkim. The conditions laid down are easier to put on paper than enforce and may not go very far in protecting local tribal communities from the influx of a large population of migrant workers for a several years. Problems that have occurred in the area since the project commenced include a considerable increase in STDs among the local population as well as the creation of illegal housing on forest lands. Local Lepchas, members of ACT (Affected Citizens of Teesta) went on a hunger strike to protest the Tista Project, which, when complete, envisages 26 dams along the Tista River in Sikkim and is part of a broader government development plan that affects the entire north-east.
This problem is not unique to the Lepchas, but is faced by tribals all across the subcontinent—development projects that threaten to damage what is, in many cases, a fragile ecosystem and disrupt a traditional way of life. It is of special significance, however, in the case of the Lepchas because of the relative small numbers of the community, whose way of life is already under threat. Once traditional Lepcha society is destroyed, it is gone forever and will never be revived. Most Lepchas in Sikkim see an uncaring central government in Delhi that places its own developmental needs ahead of the needs and desires of its citizens.
In Bhutan, the threat to Lepchas comes from a different quarter. After centuries of protecting local cultures by limiting contact with the outside world, the Bhutanese government has allowed satellite television to enter the country, and is also trying to encourage tourism, thus exposing its people to Western influences. Experience has shown that wherever the Western way of life comes into contact with more "primitive" cultures, the latter soon lose their character and adopt Western ways.
As minority groups in all three countries in which they live, the Lepcha lack any serious political representation. In Sikkim, they do share 12 seats in the state assembly with the Bhutia, but in general they lack any political voice—this seems to be the fate of minority ethnic groups everywhere. The recent political changes in Nepal and the dominance of the Bhutias in Bhutan, combined with the Lepchas relatively small numbers, leave them out in the political cold.
Even though Lepcha society is patriarchal and patrilineal, women are accorded a degree of respect that is the hallmark of tribal societies in the sub-continent. Marriages are arranged by families and marriage customs are strongly influenced by Tibetan practices, but divorce is very rare. This is possibly because Lepchas are highly tolerant of one another's sexual activities, and they feel very little jealousy toward each other. When disputes arise because of an extra-marital liaison to which one partner objects, the causes are blamed on the uncontrollable temperaments of individuals. However, when adultery occurs discretely, the aggrieved spouse will generally not pay attention; only if it is practiced openly and flagrantly will the other spouse appeal to the elected leader of the village.
Lepcha agricultural tasks are not sexually segregated, fathers play an important role in the care of children, the Lepcha give great emphasis to the role of the female in their conceptions of origin, and female deities occupy center stage in Lepcha mythology.
Yet, poverty, involvement in traditional economic activities (i.e. subsistence agriculture), and lack of access to education remain issues facing Lepcha women, who follow a way of life that is disappearing rapidly under the pressures of contact with the outside world.
Bhasin, Veena. Ecology, Culture, and Change: Tribals of Sikkim Himalayas. New Delhi: Inter-India Publications, 1989.
Chattopadhyay. Tapan. Lepchas and Their Heritage. Delhi: B. R. Publishing Corporation, 1990.
Gorer, Geoffrey. Himalayan Village: An Account of the Lepchas of Sikkim. 2nd ed. New York: Basic Books, 1967.
Roy, D. C. Dynamics of Social Formation among the Lepchas. New Delhi: Akansha Publishing House, 2005.
Schwerzel, Jeffrey. The Lapcha of Nepal. Kathmandu: Udaya Books, 2000.
Thakur, R. N. Himalayan Lepchas. New Delhi: Archives Publishers, Distributors, 1988.
—by D. O. Lodrick