Lepchas and their Tradition


The Lepchas are the aboriginal inhabitants of Sikkim and they are mostly settled in North Sikkim. They are mostly Buddhist but many of them have now adopted Christianity. The lepcha folklores are melodious and contain lots of interesting folk stories. The origins and tradition of lepchas is better described in the following write-up.


This is the Lepcha’s won biblical account of the sacred process of creation. Since they believe that they were lovingly created out of mother nature, they proudly call themselves Mutanchi Rongkup- Mother’s Loved Ones ! Myths and legends of Sikkim, Renjyong of the Lepchas, go no further into time than the story of creation cited above.

            The Lepchas, who have carried their ancient tribal social culture over to present age, have a rich repertoire of romantic folklore. A cozy rendezvous with these ancient tales opens up a door that leads us to the Lepchas’ ever simple life fashioned by their unpretentious outlook and uncomplicated philosophies. But apart from their legion of fabulous folklore, authentic information on their historical back ground is still a rarity.

            However, trudging through an inexhaustible treasure of Lepcha folklore, we come across a people whose roots, in context to Sikkim and adjoining regions, are far more ancient than almost all other tribes. This is simply borne by the fact that the oldest surviving names of various mountains, hills, gorges, rivers, lakes and caves in the region are Lepcha in origin. These plentiful name suggest that in the distant days, now shrouded by  the mist of centuries, it was hegemony that was paramount in the region. Chunakh-Aakhen, an old Lepcha book on their history, mentions that a Lepcha king Pohartak Panu sent his army to Takshashila to help emperor Chandra Gupta fight the invader Alexander the Great, Chandra Gupta is Chandra Gop Panu in Chunakh-Aakhen.

            The Lepcha folklore mentions of a man of extraordinary resilience, courage and vision who is credited with organizing Lepchas into a powerful tribal organization. His name is Turve. When Khizar Khan and his successors were ruling over Delhi (1414-1451 AD), Turve was busy carrying out a Sikkim with its political boundary. To achieve this he had created a powerful regiment of able bodied youths. They were fully trained in the art of guerilla warfare and raided enemy camps in lightening speed. This force, guided by Turve’s acute sense of strategy and a vision for grandeur, was able to forge a lasting unification between the Lepcha and the Limbu confederations. Result was the establishment of a nascent kingdom which was to be known as the kingdom of Sikkim in the later centuries. Turve’s achievements were considered so great that he was decorated with the title of Punu, meaning “King”, and was elevated as one.

            Tradition puts Turve’s capital somewhere near the present day Kurseong in the Darjeeling district of West Bengal

            Like many other tribes in the Sub-Himalayan region, Lepchas belong to the Mongolian racial stock. There are quite a few conjectures that, before migrating into the eastern Himalayan foothills, Lepchas might have been residing in the south-eastern region of China. From here they moved into Thailand and Burma. Restless people as they were, the Lepchas kept moving towards north-west of Burma. Negotiating turbulent Irrawady and Chindwin rivers, as also crossing the mighty Patkai range, Lepchas entered into what was an ancient India. Still moving westwards they finally reached the land of Kanchenjunga. It was the land of their quest, an Utopia. A chunk of blissful heaven on earth they aptly called their own Nye Mayel Lyang, or a land “as pure as heaven”.

            Conjectures apart, it is interesting to note that there exists  wide ranging similarities of culture and customs between the Lepchas and some tribes of north-east India like Nishi, Adi, Apa-Tani, Miri and Mismi. To give one striking example we have this Lepcha word for salutation- Kham-ri. In Meiti, one of the ethnic languages of manipur, it is Khurum-jari ! Perhaps all these tribes are genetically linked and were partners in their explorations of new lands in the dim and distant past.

            Nevertheless, anthropologically Lepchas are an autochthonous people whose roots lie much deeper that the history of Sikkim. The bulk of the Lepchas practice tantric form of Mahayana Buddhism, and a considerable section follows Christian faith.

            Lepchas refer to their language as ‘Rong-aring’ or ‘Rongring’ and falls under the Tibeto-Burman family of languages. There are quite a few amazing aspects about the Lepcha language. Words associated with obscenity are part of everyday vocabulary. It is not considered taboo to utter these words which, in any other language, one might hesitate or never utter in public.

            The other interesting thing about the Lepcha language is that the Lepcha wiseman seem to have sat together to give names of various animate and inanimate objects. Hence, almost all the names of animals start with the letter ‘Sa’, and the names of different types of snakes and various bamboo products start with the letters ‘Ta’ and ‘Pa’ respectively. Hence Surya, Suthong, su-chyak, suna, suko, sangi, sattim, sahu are the names of tiger, leopard, bear, dear, lion, procupine and monkey respectively. Panu-bu, Pamol-bu, Panul-bu, Palong-bu, are some of the names of various kinds of snakes. Similarly, Ta-zyang, Tangar, Tangjung, Tafu, Takchim, Talyung are the names of different bamboo products. Such communal consensus on matters of importance seems an enduring aspect of the Lepcha life which effectively curtailed protracted and unfructuous confrontations.

            Like all other languages belonging to Sino-Tibetan family, Lepcha language reflects ample monosyllabic traits. As is peculiar with this family of speeches,  constraints in the range of vocabulary have helped musical elements in the Lepcha speech. Their language is not ‘vile’ as some hackneyed tradition suggests. Instead, the Lepcha speech, besides being soft in itself, is quite euphonic too.

            Lepchas have their own script but most of their ancient literary works, called namthars, are found recorded in Tibetan script. Gazetteer of Sikkim mentions that it was the third Chogyal, Chador Namgyal who invented the Lepcha script. But the Lepchas believe that their script existed even before the reign of Chador Namgyal. Some tradition mentions the name of one Thikung Men Salong as being the originator of Lepcha script. But Men Salong is also surrounded by considerable controversies, making him a contemporary of Chador Namgyal by some, and an able minister of the much earlier Turve Punu by others. In this respect, a consensus of sort is yet to be arrived at among Lepchalogists. Till then different views will continue to fuel the speculations.

            Like all other ancient tribes, besides being skilled hunters, Lepchas could have been painstaking food gatherers once. Our first knowledge of this ancient people comes across when they were already practicing shifting or jhoom cultivation. Clearing new forest lands every few years the Lepchas cultivated two types of dry-land paddy called ‘Dumbra’ and ‘Ongrey-Zo’, ‘Mongbree’, a kind of millet, and ‘Kunchung’, or maize eaten in different forms, were other main agricultural products. ‘Zo-Mal’ or rice was meant only for important occasions like wedding, house warming and celebrating the ‘Nambun’, Lepcha New Year.

            Lepchas are like magicians in bamboo crafts and produce a wide variety of aesthetically beautiful baskets and such other things that come handy in daily chores. Their knowledge of poisonous and non-poisonous plants, snakes and information on other flora and fauna are phenomenal. But, with modernity making steady inroads into the Lepcha way of life such age-old wisdom are increasingly cruising away into the sphere of myths and legends.

            The traditional cloths of the Lepchas are woven in exquisite colour combinations. Men’s dress is called Thokro-Dum and the female’s dress is called Dumdyam or Dumvum. There is an obvious contradiction between Thokro-Dum and Dumvum. One essential man’s wear making a complete Thokro-Dum is a white pyjama that reaches only upto the calf and resembles a karate player’s outfit. The short pyjama suggests that the Lepchas might have originated or lived long in a marshy land. However, the female attire negates this suggestion. Dumvum is a an ankle length flowing dress suggesting dry land inhabitants. The male dress is almost always coarse, sturdy and durable fitting to the rigours of life in the open field and forest. The female dress is made of softer material and worn in the manner that is petitely graceful.

            Once an agricultural community, the modern day Lepchas have versified their interests into many other vocations. Now, scheduled as an ancient tribe, Lepchas are fast learning to cope with the hurly-burly of cyber age civilization.

            But, howevermuch a Lepcha may become modern in his outward bearings, his innermost essentials remain the same – shy, simple and sincere. Always carrying that chunk of blissful Nye Mayel Lyang in each of their unsullied heart.




             KINGTSOOM ZAONGBOO CHOO: This is the Lepcha original name of Mt. Kanchenjunga. The Lepcha meaning of Kingtsoom Zaongboo Choo is the bright auspicious forehead peak, because the stately pinnacle of Mt. Kanchanjunga’s snow is wonderously tipped with red and gold under the first rays of the rising sun and the last rays of the setting sun. Also the cord of birth binds the Lepchas to this holy mountain peak and as such the Lepchas worship this Kingtsoom Zaongboo Choo as their guardian deity, for the Lepcha tradition says that their first proginators Fodongthing and Nazaongnyoo were created by God from pure, virgin snows of Kingtsoom Zaongboo Choo’s pinnacle. Early in the morning at sunrise and late in the evening at sunset, if you are care to look at Kingtsoom Zaongboo Choo, Mayel Molook Lyang’s highest peak, you will be enthralled by the exalted splendour, grandeur and brilliant and gorgeous appearance and colouring. You will feel as if you have seen God for the first time—you find him so nonchalantly solemn. The most adorable name ever conferred by the Lepchas of old Kingtsoom Zaongboo Choo, their place of very creation or birth.

            Later, when Tibetans entered into Lepcha Land, they named this peak as Kangchen Zongnga, meaning the mighty snowy peak . The Sikkimese Bhotias worship this peak as Kuvera, God of wealth. The Indians call this peak as Kanchanjunga, meaning the purest of pure and later when the British came they mispronounced it as Kanchanjunga.


            KABI LAONG TSAOK: this is Lepcha name of a historical place of great importance near Gangtok, the capital of sikkim, where the Lepcha-Bhotia covenant was solemnized in around 1592 between Thikoongtek, the High Priest of the Lepchas and Jokheboo-Boomsar, the first Tibetan intruder into Sikkim, where nine stones were erected to mark the place and held their sacred covenant –Laong Tsaok, meaning the erected standing stone. Lepcha tradition says that a bull was decapitated and a solemn oath was sworn over the blood that the Lepchas and the Tibetan would never fight but live as blood brothers an peace and harmony and if any of the two do not keep this sacred covenant, curse will befall upon him and his descendants. On the 15th day of the ninth month by the Tibetan Calendar, the Lepchas worship Kabi Laong Tsaok, offer Chi, the national drink, Zo (rice, Tafa (parched rice) Ngoo (fish), Fo (bird) and Rip (flower) in memory of this sacred covenant but later the Tibetan Kings of Sikkim never cared to keep this oath and the Lepchas believed that by not keeping the sacred oath, the Tibetan Kings of Sikkim could not bear the weight of the oath and thus the prophecy of the ancient curse is fulfilled by the downfall of the Namgyal dynasty that ruled over Sikkim from 1642-1975, came to an end on the 16th may 1975 and Sikkim became the 22nd State of India. The Lepchas believed that Thikoongtek and Nyikongngal, the High Priest and the High Priestess of the Lepchas who solemnized the sacred covenant at Kabi Laong Tsaok are said to be still living in the Yahom Valley which lies under the slopes of Kongchen Choo(Mt.Kongchen), meaning the crooked shaped mountain. They also believed that when everything is destroyed by another flood or calamity, these two would again visit Sikkim in order to create all in the world.