Magical words like these take form in magical places. Dzongu, a buffer area to the Khangchendzonga National Park in Sikkim, is one such magical place. When you wake up shivering at 5 am, the sight that can warm your soul is there — right in front of you. The golden rays of the sun fall on the Khangchendzonga peak and other peaks in the range, and it seems as if the glaciers are not made of snow, but of lucid gold!
As morning progresses into day, the golden hue fades away and in its place stand the mighty Himalayan peaks as we are used to seeing them — noble, staunch and beautiful. By this time the birds have started their busy lives and the butterflies have started to flutter. And let’s not leave the people of this place out of the picture — as they are very much a part of it — the Lepchas.
In this article, I want to tell you how intricately nature has been woven into the culture of the Lepcha tribes of Sikkim and about the stories of the Ila-Yul-Pho and the Tendong-Lho-Rumfat!
The Lepchas are nature worshippers, and why not? They believe that they were born out of the Khangchendzonga and that is why it is their main god. That makes them the original inhabitants of Sikkim — older than the Bhotiya tribe. After Sikkim merged with India in 1975 an area was cordoned off for safeguarding the Lepcha culture which is now called Dzongu — a Lepcha Reserve. Many Lepchas have gone outside and settled in Mangan, Simthang and Gangtok, but every year they come back to Dzongu on the eighth day of August to celebrate their auspicious day — the Tendong-Lho-Rumfat. The story goes that the rivers Teesta and Rangit — partners, with Teesta being the female and Rangit the male — decided to move towards the sea in order to unite. Teesta followed a snake whereas Rangit decided to follow a bird. While the snake took Teesta towards her coveted destination quickly, Rangit was delayed in his journey because the bird decided to rest and search here and there for food. When Rangit finally reached, he saw Teesta waiting for him and it hurt his ego to see a woman so much ahead of him. In blind anger, Rangit started to go back towards Sikkim and towards Dzongu drowning entire fields and houses. People were fleeing helter-skelter and so were animals, till, at a place called Tendong-Lho-Rhumfat, Teesta caught up with him and managed to persuade him to give up his ego and come back with her towards the ocean.
Ever since, this place has been considered sacred, such that even today anybody who treks to this place cannot urinate or defecate here.
The other interesting thing to notice is how bamboo is so very neatly present in the daily lives of the Lepchas. To begin with, the 21 species of bamboos present there have different functions. Some are used as sheaths between cement in wall thatches, still others are used to make bows and arrows or to be eaten as bamboo shoot.
With the coming of the Bhotiyas Buddhism was imposed on the Lepchas but they did not let go of their nature worship. Even today, before any rituals in a monastery, they stick four bamboo sticks into the earth in the form of a square and worship it before performing Buddhist rituals.
Now let’s talk about the Ila-Yul-Pho. It is a sky-blue flycatcher with a black band around its eyes and is called the Verditer Flycatcher. The myth goes that when Lepchas die and their souls travel towards heaven, the Ila-Yul-Pho follows the soul in its journey to erase the soul’s footprints. This is to save the soul from the devil who would otherwise catch up with it and possess it.
Hence, this bird is revered among Lepchas and even children with catapults avoid hurting it.
There are other stories as well which engrossed us during the evenings at Dzongu but maybe I should save them for later articles. For now, only one more thing has to be said in order to make this article complete.
Recently, the government planned to construct 47 dams on the Teesta river to supply electricity to the rest of India. These dams would have destroyed the fragile mountain ecosystems, and the Lepchas fought for their sacred land. The government, after being met with vehement resistance, decided to construct just one dam in the area.
The culture of the nature worshipping Lepchas is a big lesson in how culture has an immense bearing on the way in which people act and influences how nature is affec-ted consequently.