From the Archives: A Brief Sketch of the Lapchas of Sikkim

An eye-opening research paper from 1934 describes the society, customs, traditions and rituals of the Lapcha tribe of Sikkim.
From the Archives: A Brief Sketch of the Lapchas of Sikkim

Preface

‘NORTHEAST’ AS A TERM ITSELF is a cruel anomaly when viewed from the perspective of Bharatavarsha’s unbroken civilizational heritage and spiritual history. Would you refer to Maharashtra or Gujarat as the “west?” You refer to them by naming their names. The same applies to say “Kerala,” which among others, is derived from the royal dynasty, “Chera.”

This cruelty on what is known as “northeast” was inflicted after independence by the befuddled experiments of, who else, Nawab Nehru, who virtually gifted away the region to the Christian missionary and paedophile, Verrier Elwin. That’s roughly about ten percent of India’s total landmass.

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The long-term consequence of Nehru’s irresponsibility has worked at the level of the psyche. Or to put it bluntly, a Government-enforced alienation of a sizeable population of our own brothers and sisters. Which other country uses the term “mainland India” as separate from the “northeast” in scholarly papers, editorials, columns, and on TV? California, Texas, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming, Kansas, and Oklahoma were all once part of Mexico and then incorporated into the United States at various points in the nineteenth century. Who in mainstream America still associates these states with Mexico today? When we regard the issue in this light, I believe greater clarity ensues.

In fact, this is a canyon-sized contrast. At no point in the civilizational history of Bharatavarsha were these regions regarded as separate or isolated from the rest of this sacred geography. More fundamentally, in the annals of Sanatana literature of any genre, these regions are not painted in any negative or derogatory shade. This separatist damage first occurred with the colonial British anthropologists who began “studying” all “races” of India as though they were laboratory rats. The most infamous example of the wholesale British criminalisation of an entire class of people were the thuggee (also known as thag, thug), which today is a 100% synonymn for “criminal” or “goon.”

But the Nehru-sponsored staycation of Verrier Elwin transformed this racial profiling to a monumental disaster in the Northeast. Four generations later, large swathes of the population of this region have completely been cut off from their ancient Sanatana roots thanks to Christianity. This has happened before our own eyes. Enough said.

But just ten of fifteen years before independence, researchers on the history and tradition of this region unanimously agreed on the fact that apart from facial features and physical appearance, the inhabitants of the northeast followed customs, traditions, worship and practices that were entirely Sanatana in character.

In this essay, we present as a sample, a research paper by Dr. P.C. Biswas on the Lapchas of Sikkim (the spelling in those days was ‘Sikhim’), written in 1934.

Note: Some editorial modifications have been made in the interest of readability.

The Lapchas of Sikhim

According to the traditions of the Lapchas, they were on the mount Everest, from where they came to Sikhim. They say, they have borrowed the language of the Sikhimite.

The Imperial Gazetteer contains more complete information on this subject than any other work, and this is what it says:

The Lapchas claim to be the autochthones of Sikhim proper. Their physical characteristics stamp them as being members of the Mongolian race, while certain peculiarities of language and religion render it probable that the tribe is a very ancient colony from southern Tibet. The language they speak belongs to the Tibeto-Burman family. To this also belong the languages of Bhotia, Eimbu, Murmi, Mangar, Khambu, and Newar.

The Lapchas are divided into eight clans, which are as follows:

(i) Adenbhutso

(ii) Ghartok

(iii) Sampabhutso

(iv) Nyinshabhutso

(v) Masangbhutso

(vi) Afibhutso

(vii) Samdongbhutso

(viii) Sherokbhutso

The above clans are all endogamous. A Adenbhutso male marries a Adenbhutso female but not a female of any other clans.

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To marry a blood relation is strictly prohibited by the Lapchas. Anyone who violates this rule, is severely punished. The Lapchas have a belief that the mother's relations are much nearer than the father’s. They have an idea that the father transmits [his] bone to his offspring and from the mother they get flesh and blood.

There is no age limit in the Lapcha marriage. Those who are rich give their son’s and daughter’s marriage earlier, but they prefer adult marriage. Sexual freedom before marriage exists in them tremendously. There is also freedom of choice on the part of the person marrying. The bride’s maternal uncle and bridegroom’s paternal uncle are those who negotiate the marriage. There is no ceremony of betrothal. The marriage cannot be performed without the permission of the bride’s maternal uncle. The parties for marriage fix a certain date on which the hand of the girl is grasped by the bridegroom. The marriage generally takes place after six months of the settlement (i.e., engagement).

During courtship, the man gives the girl of his choice some handkerchiefs and a few pieces of soap. A refusal of marriage is considered unlucky for him. As a bride-price (reverse-dowry, if you will) the boy has to give a cow with a calf, and has to pay one hundred and forty rupees. Over and above this, a cloth is to be given to the mother of the bride. This varies according to the monetary condition of the bridegroom and the bridegroom’s parents.

The binding portion of the ceremony is the marriage feast. The Lamas (Purohita) and the village headman drink to the health of the bride and bridegroom, and take an active part in the ceremony. The fathers of the bridegroom and bride do not see each other on the actual marriage day. That night the guests sing and dance till the day breaks. There is only sorrow and copious amounts of weeping when the bride leaves her parent’s house. Should she have some children before marriage, they are taken over by the husband.

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They also practice polyandry. The Lapchas have a custom that the husband cohabits with the younger sisters of his wife during the lifetime of his wife even when they are married. Levirate (where a man is obliged to marry his brother’s widow) and Sororate (where a man is obliged to marry his deceased wife’s sister) are also present among them.

A man can marry two women at a time. All the household property is under the management of the senior wife. Widow remarriage occurs among them but in this case no ceremony takes place.

If a woman commits adultery in her own community, she is condoned. If on the other hand she commits adultery with an outsider or with one below her status she is outcast. If a husband commits adultery, the wife takes away the property and goes to her parents. Barrenness, misconduct, and sickliness are grounds for divorce. The divorced party is at liberty to remarry.

The Lapchas have no puberty ceremony. The woman in her menstrual period has to observe certain taboos. For four or five days she will be regarded as untouchable. When the woman says that she is alright, then after bathing outside from a spring or a river, she enters the rooms of her house.

There is also no ceremony at childbirth. The villagers and relatives gather and rejoice and have a good feast. The Lama, or the maternal uncle of the mother of the child names the child on the third day. The new-born babe receives its name after the day of the week it is born. After the birth of the child, the woman remains confined for three days, on the fourth day the Lama comes and sprinkles water to all the members of her house and she becomes pure.

Originally, the Lapchas practiced the burial system but now, both burial and burning systems are in vogue. For three days, the spirit is believed to remain with the body in the grave. During this period, a Lama reads many prayers, rendering the spirit conscious. This happens till the spirit realizes that the body is dead, and then the spirit leaves. A festival is given soon after death, a cow is killed and chi (a kind of intoxicated drink) is made and drunk. The feast lasts for several days during which time the mourners sit and talk. The Lapchas have an idea that some Supreme being snatches away the soul from the body. Formerly, they had no ceremony for the disposal of the dead, but they now follow the Buddhist form of ceremony.

The present religion of the Lapchas is Buddhism. The Tibetan Lamaism was introduced into them about three centuries ago (i.e., sixteenth or seventeenth century) and is now regarded as the official religion. It is difficult to determine the extent of the Buddhist influence on Lapcha psychology, but it is clear that the pre-Buddhist religion is not entirely dead.

The conception of God was in vogue before the adoption of Buddhism. They had an idea of a Supreme being whom they called Tikung-tek and the Lapchas believed that He was the creator of human, animal and plant kingdoms. They had also five original deities, viz.,

(i) Itmo (female)

(ii) Nazongngya (female)

(iii) Pa-saudi (male)

(iv) Takbo-thing (male)

(v) Tashey-thing (male).

According to modern belief Tikung-tek has no father and mother, and rises like all gods from a flower. His idol is made of brass or copper, in the form of a man having a big body and holding a stick in his left hand, his right hand being uplifted. He has a moustache and wears a pointed cap. The Lapchas believe that He is now flying over the snow mountains.

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The religious duty was only in the form of sacrifices. They had no idea of a temple. Like other tribes and sects of India, the Lapchas possess an inexhaustible stock of demons, monsters, evil spirits, witches, etc.

There was a strong belief amongst the Lapchas that disease was mainly caused by the intrusion of malevolent spirits. There is a story in the Lapcha folklore that there was the Evil Spirit of Smallpox (Rum-du-mung and Rurndu), the Evil Spirit of Leprosy (Dom-mung), etc. Another story mentions the idea of a Spirit-doctor who was known as Bong-thing, the son of a goddess who was sent to relieve human being from the tortures of demons, evil spirits, etc.

Postscript

Barring few exceptions, the marriage customs and prohibitions described in the aforementioned account are pretty much akin to what is being practiced even today by large sections of the Sanatana society. For example, the primacy of the bride’s maternal uncle is still a living reality. The strict matrilineal form of society of the Lapchas still exists in the Hindu society of Kerala. Likewise, the existence of multiple deities (Devatas), both male and female, as well as the existence of demons, unambiguously proves that the Lapchas were Sanatanis in every sense.

As the timeless sloka alludes,

ākāśāt patitaṃ toyaṃ yathā gacchati sāgaram |
sarvadevanamaskāraḥ keśavaṃ prati gacchati ||

Just as how all the waters from the sky join the ocean
So do our prayers to various Deities reach Keshava or Vishnu

In this context, no matter what we call our brothers and sisters of the northeast: animists, shamanists, nature-worshippers, Buddhists or pagans, no matter their unique customs and ways of worship, all of them have emerged from the Sanatana-Sagara.

The task before us is to clean the accumulated Christian muck of more than a century.

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