When I was in the Sikkimese capital of Gangtok at the end of my first visit to the mountainous state in 2008, I had a head full of images and a camera full of pictures. But as I glided through the streets, delightedly taking in the sights, I suddenly came upon a large blue tarpaulin fluttering in the breeze. Underneath were three young men with feeding tubes in their noses. A group of Lepchas, an indigenous tribe of the Sikkim mountains, were on a hunger strike to protest plans to build dozens of hydroelectric dams that would threaten their lives, farms, and the natural elements they worship.
Their emaciated faces haunted me for the next three years. In 2011, I finally went back to Sikkim as one of the crew making a documentary about the problems the Lepchas face. As part of the research process, Gyatso Lepcha, a key member of the struggle, invited us to his homestay in the Dzongu region of north Sikkim so that we could see what was pushing his people to protest so vehemently.
With his jhola and unhurried attitude, the boyish Gyatso looks like an NGO worker. “Hand me your PAN cards,” he says, when we meet up with him in Mangan, 75km from our destination. Sikkim has very strict laws regarding foreigners and even other Indians entering their pristine territories. Permits are required, more for border security than the environment.
Gyatso’s aunt, Pemkit Lepcha, was one of the many people from the village of Passingdang who participated in the hunger strike to protect their environment and homes.
Holding on for dear life in Gyatso’s monster jeep, we rumble deeper and deeper, first into Lower and then Upper Dzongu, a region of northern Sikkm. The foliage is abundant and unfamiliar, and the silver blue River Teesta, is our constant companion. We see a couple of slogans painted on bus stops and tourist viewpoints, reminding us of the struggle that exists in this paradise.
Soon, we’re in the middle of the single street that comprises the village of Passingdang, our destination. The houses have a traditional air about them, with a few signs of modernity such as the lone electrical line and the occasional television screen flickering in the darkness. There is a provision store and one tiny eatery. All around are steep tree-covered slopes and the sounds of a gushing river. Following Gyatso down a stairway carved into the mountain, we arrive at his homestay, Mayal Lyang, which means “hidden home”. This charming little wooden bungalow that crouches on the hillside surrounded by farmlands has sweeping views of the valley and river. His parents Kunzang and Sherap, wife Samsay, infant son Adon, and the informally adopted children Suresh, Sangdup, and Gaymit greet us with affection. We’re ushered into a room with loud but welcoming decor—brightly coloured carpets from China, bric-a-brac from around the region, psychedelic upholstery.
The popular Lepcha snack, zero, is named after its shape and likened to a bird’s nest.
As we munch on fresh snacks like zero, which looks like a bird’s nest, and khabjey, a delicate lattice of fried dough in the shape of a bee hive, we learn more about the Lepcha people, the traditional dwellers of the Dzongu region for centuries. They worship nature in her many hues and have always served as guardians to the Dzongu’s flora and fauna. The Lepchas are also renowned for their knowledge of natural remedies, and their versatility with bamboo, which they use to make everything from musical instruments to water distribution networks. They are proud but shy, steely but gentle, hard working but relaxed.
After settling in, I accompany the effervescent Sangdup, all of eight, down to the river. I struggle to keep pace with him, as we jump from boulder to boulder to get to the water’s edge. Clean, white sand scrunches between my toes. I jauntily decide to dip them into the water, only to let out a loud shriek, much to Sangdup’s delight. It’s like sinking my foot into a bucket of ice. Seemingly to underscore my urban disconnection, Sangdup dunks his entire head into the water and emerges refreshed but nonetheless decides to let out a scream himself.
This is utopia, untouched, unspoiled. We cross the broad river on a bridge that is laden with prayer flags. This is my first visceral experience of the natural world that the Lepchas are trying to protect. The water, sand, rocks, all take the very abstract thoughts of protest and tribal rights and lend them solidity. How could anyone want to destroy this, even spoil it a little?
After we return, there’s a spectacular meal cooked by Samsay, ably abetted by Gaymit. They conjure up a variety of Lepcha dishes which are made with produce from their farm, fresh Himalayan trout from the river, and wild greens. Over the next couple of days, we’re served khoori (a buckwheat pancake stuffed with spinach and homemade cheese), pintok bee (wild ferns), wild mushrooms, and spinach along with local staples, bamboo shoots in various guises, and fermented soups of soy and spinach.
We meet the people of Passingdang village, all of them related to Gyatso in some way, and are invited into their homes. Most of them have participated in the hunger strike and make impassioned pleas, not for their land or livelihood but for the natural world that surrounds them. They make it clear that they wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for their environment. This isn’t a battle for individual gain, it is a community’s battle for nature.
The world of the Lepcha village revolves around the “mun” (female shaman) who is a healer, philosopher, counsellor, spiritual advisor, and much more.
The next morning, we make our way up to Panang village which is a 3-4km, 90-minute steep uphill walk. The landscape along the way seems devoid of human habitation, but it throws up a sudden primal Lepcha shrine and some scattered homes with more cattle than people. There is a reason for this emptiness. Panang is celebrating Boomkor, the annual journey of Buddhist relics from village to village. Each Lepcha village has a bóngthíng (usually male) or a mun (usually female) who are healers, exorcists, nature guardians, and responsible for guiding the dead to the afterlife. In these festivals, they are joined by Buddhist monks, who preside over prayers. Most people in the Upper Dzongu region follow a hybrid of Lepcha and Buddhist beliefs and we get a glimpse of this in Panang. While the more spiritually inclined join the chanting, others use the occasion to get well and truly inebriated with chi (or chaang, a local millet beer) served in bamboo mugs. These are hardworking, happy people who rarely get a chance to let their hair down. I am quickly cast into the band of revellers and mug after mug of chi finds its way into my hands, despite my decreasingly staunch protests. The size of the bamboo mug gives an indication of the drinker’s experience. Luckily, I am plied with child-size mugs. This drink is quite a headful. Three of these and all you want is some quiet corner to curl up into a ball. Even the village chieftain has drifted off into dreamland by the first hour and a half. But I’m attentive enough to conduct an illuminating chat with the village shamans about the spiritual relevance of plants, animals, water bodies, and mountains, which fructifies my thoughts about how ancient cultures and tribes have always sought harmony with nature. Conservation and preservation have always been part of local practice.
After this heady initiation into wondrous little-known Lepcha customs and ideas, we will our unsteady feet to obey and start the walk down, this time with a monk named Likdem for company. Like our host, he’s deeply involved in the community. When Likdem isn’t involved in religious services, he’s busy providing free accommodation and learning to destitute or orphaned village boys.
The Lepcha heartland of Upper Dzongu, the mighty river Teesta (left), and the surrounding mountains and forests are worshipped as deities. The resident shaman of Panang village, Tashi Lepcha (right) explains timeless Lepcha philosophies on the environment.
Despite the Dzongu’s surfeit of natural riches, the most beautiful thing you will encounter in the region is the selfless attitude of its people. Though Dzongu is a slice of heaven now, in the near future it may see a hydroelectric project bore through the hill on which Panang sits and dam the river that the Lepchas of Passingdang consider their mother deity.
I might have started my journey with my head full of politics and human rights and expected to meet a lot of angry people. But a story about a hunger strike and greed-driven development became the story of a people whose ancient methods of conservation would make modern environmentalists gasp in admiration. I ended my trip with an imploring wish that many more people who truly love nature visit this astounding place and its Lepcha homes. I wished for them to experience the ever-smiling, simple hospitality, and the delicious food. I wished that homestays like Gyatso’s are always bustling with guests. I wished that Dzongu endures all that is cast its way to stay the way it has always been.
The Dzongu Lepcha Reserve is a region in North Sikkim, inhabited by the Lepchas, the aboriginal people of Sikkim. It is a largely untouched land covered by dense vegetation, bordered by the Kanchenjunga National Park to the west. Dzongu is around 70km northwest of Sikkim’s capital, Gangtok. Mangan, 4km away, is the closest major town.
Air and Rail The nearest airport to Dzongu is in Bagdogra in West Bengal (direct flights from Kolkata and Guwahati). The nearest railhead is New Jalpaiguri Railway Station, which is around 16km from Bagdogra airport. To reach Dzongu from the airport/railway station, take the Singtam road. The journey takes about 5 hours.
Road Dzongu is 70km from Gangtok along NH310. The 4hr-drive passes through some beautiful villages of North Sikkim and a couple of touristy waterfalls.
In the lower reaches of North Sikkim surrounding Mangan, summer days (April-June) are usually no warmer than 25-28°C with minimums close to 10°C. There is heavy rain during the monsoon months of July-September. October and November are particularly pleasant, with average daily temperatures around 15°C. Snowfall begins in late December and early January, with temperatures dropping below freezing, and the ice starts to melt by the middle of March.
Anyone visiting the Dzongu Lepcha Reserve must get an inland permit before entering. This can be obtained through tourist offices in Gangtok or in Mangan. It helps to ask your homestay for assistance. Ensure you have photocopies of identity documents (passport, PAN card, or driving license), and a few passport sized photographs. If you’re in Gangtok you can visit the tourist office at MG Marg for information.
An ancient Lepcha shrine in the village of Panang is dedicated to the surrounding elements that are integral to the Lepchas’ lives and livelihood.
Other than the Mayal Lyang homestay in Passingdang (Upper Dzongu), there are no hotels in this region so make sure you book your stay well in advance as the family needs time to prepare. The homestay is 30 minutes from Mangan Bazaar by taxi (09647872434; www.mayallyang.com; ₹1,800 per person per night; includes accommodation and all meals).
Lingthem is a short hike from Passingdang. On days with clear skies, it has spectacular views of Mount Kanchenjunga and the Dzongu valley.
Tholung Monastery is the oldest monastery in Dzongu, believed to have been built in 1789. It is 20km from Passingdang. Every three years in the month of April, stored relics from the old monastery are displayed to visiting pilgrims.
Keushong is a 3 or 4-day hike each way, and probably the most rewarding one from Passingdang. The pristine Keushong Lake has sparkling water and is surrounded by hills in bloom between March and April.
Lake Gurudongmar and Yumthang Valley are North Sikkim’s more popular tourist attractions. A longish jeep ride away but much closer than visiting them from Gangtok.
Appeared in the October 2013 issue as “Keepers of the Land”.
is an independent photojournalist and creative consultant. He has been working for the last 12 years in the areas of social justice, the study of cultures and communities, and music. He has also photographed hundreds of international and Indian music performances.
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