People of Sikkim: Lepchas

Lepchas are said to be one of the original inhabitants of Sikkim. It has not yet been established from where the Lepchas originally came to Sikkim. There are some theories which indicate that the Lepchas came from the border of Assam and Burma. Otherpelepman1 theories speak of the Lepchas having migrated to Sikkim from Southern Tibet. No matter from where they have original roots, the fact that is clearly established is that they are of Mongoloid dlepcha priest in North Sikkime­scent. The Lepchas are now predominantly Buddhists but many of them are also Christians having been converted to this faith by the missionaries.

Before adopting Buddhism or Christianity as their religion, the earliest Lepcha settlers were believers in the Bon faith or Mune faith. This faith was basically based on spirits, good and bad. Witchcraftry and exorcism were very common. They worshipped spirits of mountains, rivers and forests which was but natural for a tribe that co-existed so harmoniously with the rich natural surroundings. The well-known deities of the Lepchas are Itbumoo, Rom, ItbuDebu Rom, KongchenKonglo and Tamsang Thing, who is also said to have invented the Lepcha script. One major festival of the Lepchas is the Namsoong which marks the beginning of the New Year. A highlight of this festival is the week long mela or fair held at Namprikdam at the confluence of Tista and Tolung-chu near Mangan in North Sikkim. The Lepcha priests are known as Bomthing and they perform intricate ceremonies to invoke the blessings of the spirits.

The Lepcha (Dzongu) folklore is rich with stories. One of the very popular storLepcha Bongthing in Dzongu, North Sikkimy has a parallel with the legend of the Tower of Babel. It describes that the Rongs or Lepchas once attempted to ascend to Rum or Heaven by building a tower of earthern pots. When Rum was about to be reached, God thought he must put an end to this venture. He made them speak in different tongues with the intention of creating confusion. The man at the top of the tLepcha Hatower shouted “Kok vim yang tale” (Pass the pole with the hook) but the men at the bottom heard the words “Chektala” (cut it down). The tower was hacked down and its remains are still found in Daramdin  in West Sikkim.

The Lepcha population is concentrated in the central part of Sikkim.  This  encompasses the confluence of Lachen and Lachung rivers and Dickchu. The terrain here is rugged and Lepcha dwellings are perched precariously on the steep hillsides. No wonder the word Lepcha means the Ravine folk. They mostly live on agriculture of paddy, cardamom and oranges.

Life in a Lepcha dwelling is very simple. In a Lepcha hut which is usually made of bamboo and is raised about five feet above the ground on stilts, there are usually just a couple of rooms.

Lepchas is very rich in vocabulary related to the flora and fauna of Sikkim.

Lepchas are very good at archery. Archery competition are held very frequently by the Lepchas. Hunting of wild animals using bows and arrows and fishing are favourite pastimes of the Lepchas.The male Lepcha wears a dress called a Pagi made of cotton which is striped. The dress comes down to the knees. It is fastened on the shoulder by a pin and a belt is worn round the waist. Lepcha men keep the hair in the form of a plaited pigtail. The Lepcha women wear two piece dress. The upper garment or the blouse is called the Tago whereas the lower part which resembles a petticoat is called Domdyan.

The polyandry marriages are permitted amongst the Lepchas although this is now becoming very rare. The nuptial customs are quite intriguing. After both the parties have evinced interest in establishing marital relations, the boy’s maternal uncle approaches the parents of the girl with some bottles of liquor, scarf and some money. The marriage can easily be ended but the husband has to pay some money to the girl’s parents.