The son of the soil, the Lepchas: A tale of fabled kingdom

Posted by Kaahon Desk On June 2, 2017

The name ‘Lepcha’ derives from Nepali lāpce or lāpcā, which originally was used to identify the tribe by the outer world as those who have ‘inarticulate speech’. Another view states that the British anglicized the word “Lapchey” and had started to call this tribe as “Lepcha”. Lepcha scholars though had vehemently protested against this connotation and were of the view that the Lepcha people do not use scurrilous speech, while the God, to directly converse with them, conferred their own mother tongue upon them. This brief introduction describes the ethnic vanity that the Lepchas, a small community believed and academically supported to be the original aborigines of the Sikkim and Darjeeling hills, posses regarding their identity.

Scholars though have differences of opinion regarding their anthropological origin. Some scholars are of the view that the origin of the Lepcha race has a connection to the European origin, as they might be the descendants of the three warriors who were left behind from the campaign of Alexander the Great. According to an ancient Lepcha myth, Rangeet and Teesta were two sacred lovers. Once upon a time, River Rangeet had lost a race to his lover Teesta. The infuriated lover had drowned all parts of the Sikkim hills and the land was almost demolished. Few Lepcha people had saved themselves upon God’s advice and had taken shelter in Mt. Tandong and had built a Kru (ark). As this myth has a biblical reference to the Noah’s boat, even as many Lepcha word has similarity with the names of the kings of the Old Testament, many scholars are of the view that Lepchas are the descendants of a missing tribe of Israel. Lepcha scholars though refuse to accept these theories of migration. They are of the view that if there had been any migration, then that was from Sikkim to the other parts of the world and not the other way around.

In the recent history, Lepchas at one point of time felt that they were the aliens in their own land. The majority of the population of Darjeeling and Sikkim hills had been migrants from Tibet; most of the hill people for the humorous mockery of history used to speak in Nepali and had formed a union for themselves based on this lingua franca. The Gorkhaland movement gained force, with a tripartite negotiation with the Gorkha Territorial Administration, the Government of West Bengal and the Government of India, while Lepchas were cornered just for the sake of their population. Lepchas felt that for the civil society, they didn’t exist, and for the Government it was difficult to fathom whether they existed or not. But Lepchas have proved that if a community is grounded in their own self-belief, then no great storms can actually vanish them into oblivion. Lepchas tamed the nature through their invocation, and then developed their own kingdom with strong knowledge, wisdom about their inner self, developed their own imagination through folktales and folklores, developed their own script, literature, art practice and could survive though decades, no man made politics can actually resist them. They have struggled enough to have their own cultural revival and are trying hard to preserve their cultural identity and get back their pride of being the son of the soil in the entire Darjeeling hills.

Lepchas call themselves ‘Mutanchi Rongkup’ meaning the eternal children of Mother Nature

Foreign philosophies infiltrated into the Lepcha culture, starting from religion. Buddhism was officially introduced into the Lepchas from Seventeenth century onwards. This process was gradual when many Tibetan Buddhist texts were translated into the Lepcha language to bring the Lepchas into the Buddhist control. When the hills of Darjeeling was been transferred to the British by the Sikkim rulers, the official document was written in Lepcha language along with English and other Hindustani languages. Like this, the British brought the Lepchas into their confidence, and with them came Christianity, which also penetrated, into the Lepcha life. But, religion though could change the practicing habits of the Lepchas, but could not affect their soul, which was deluged with their own philosophy and religious beliefs which became their cultural identity.

Not only religious culture, but also Lepchas can flaunt their distinctiveness with their own folk songs and dances. Divinity encircles their conception about music. This is the reason behind the confidence that they have regarding the immortality of their music. Lepchas are one of the most peace loving communities of the world. They lived in isolation and enjoyed their own being through hard work and spiritual dialogue with their eternity through their music. Even the joyous celebration of their primitive way of life was through music. Their music even attained the stage of the classical form, which went through stages of spiritual perfection by tunes of salvation, supported by the royal courts, or the chieftains of the Lepcha tribe. The Lepchas’ God of Music is ‘Nataok Rum’ and it is firmly believed by the Lepcha tribes that ‘Nataok Rum’ conferred songs, dances, music and musical instruments on them.

Lepchas put conscious efforts to revitalize their original music & dance that reflect their identity

Lepchas have strangely coexisted with other religions and culture without any sense of aggression. Out of everything, the only thing about the Lepchas which differentiates them from others is that they possess an inexorableness of a passion, which in their psyche is difficult to perform as they possess. This is one of the main weaknesses and the greatest strength of the Lepchas.

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