Lepchas - "Mother’s Loved Ones"

Lepcha Tribe - is an ancient tribe who are the aboriginal inhabitants of Sikkim and they are mostly settled in North Sikkim. Also found in western and southwestern Bhutan, Tibet, Darjeeling, Tripura, the Ilam District of eastern Nepal and in the hills of West Bengal, the Lepchas used to live an isolated life protected by the forests and the mountains. The word Lepcha means revine folk.

Lepcha is the oldest and the first tribe reported from Sikkim, India; majority of its population inhabiting in Dzongu valley, bordering Khangchendzonga Biosphere Reserve. The Lepchas of Dzongu valley, an isolated forest dweller, living harmoniously with nature over centuries, have accumulated a vast understanding on the use pattern of various wild products of the area. This suggests them as great traditional ethno-botanical practitioners.

Lepchas speak a Tibeto-Burman language also known as Lepcha language. Though the origin of the Lepcha is obscure, Lepchas believe that they did not migrate to the current location from anywhere and are indigenous to the region. Lepchas have their own script but most of their ancient literary works, called namthars, are found recorded in Tibetan script 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.

Most Lepchas are Tibetan Buddhist by religion, although a large number of Lepchas have adopted Christianity today. Many Lepchas, however, have not given up their shamanistic religion which is known as Mun.

The Lepchas were never keen on forming villages. They were hunters and gatherers and used to live complete nomadic lives. The community was dependent on nature keeping their faith in Mount Kenchenjungha as their mother. But with the increase in population and various invasions, they were compelled to start living in small hamlets in the valleys and forests. Today the Lepcha population is over 50,000 and they grow rice, maize, millet, wheat, buckwheat, pulses, and vegetables, and in some parts sugarcane and fruits, with animal husbandry as another important economic activity. The diet of Lepchas is supplemented with plants and mushrooms, tubers and rhizomes gathered from wild and produce grown in small kitchen garden such as ginger, chilies, beans, cucumber, garlic, sweet potatoes, yams and sugarcane.

Cloths of Lepcha tribe are very colourful. They wear traditional cloths like Thokro-Dum for men and Dumdyam or Dumvum for female. Lepchas are known for their craftsmanship in bamboo products and they produce a wide variety of aesthetically beautiful baskets and such other things that come handy in daily chores. 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.