• Non-ICIMOD publication


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Cultures and indigenous conservation practices of Lepcha community in Khangchendzonga Landscape, India

  • Geetamani Chhetri
  • Kailash S. Gaira
  • Aseesh Pandey
  • Rajesh Joshi
  • Sheila Sinham
  • Ugen P. Lepcha
  • Nakul Chettri
  • Summary

The Lepchas are the aboriginal inhabitants of the foothills of Mount Khangchendzonga. Their indigenous knowledge of the natural world is a valuable repository of nature-based and nature-derived solutions. Traditionally, the Lepcha people are nature worshippers with a rich folk life built around the spirit world, where both good and evil spirits dwell. Boongthings (priests) and muns (priestesses) are regarded as custodians of the indigenous culture, and they officiate at various tribal rituals. With modernization and globalization in full force, language, culture, and customs of the Lepcha community is also changing. Traditional knowledge systems - of medicine, weather forecasting, arts and crafts, and agricultural practices - are rapidly being lost as their traditional practitioners (including boongthings, muns, and artisans) are getting older, and those from the younger generations are not picking up where their predecessors left off. It is essential to document, conserve, and promote traditional cultural practices. Such practices have excellent significance not just for cultural conservation but also for biodiversity conservation. Traditional Lepcha culture is intrinsically attached to nature as a core of their indigenous practices that need to be carried forward. In this view, promoting Lepcha traditional arts and crafts for livelihood security is vital. The culture includes greater recognition and support for conventional healers like boongthings, muns and maondaok. Moreover, identification of the tribe's cultural practices, their documentation, and scaling and strengthening of those practices that are easily transferable to modern ways of life can improve communities throughout the KL and support the wellbeing of the Lepcha people. A complete documentation of the Lepcha tribe - their origin, history, culture, and customs, including their indigenous religion and belief systems; traditional attire; hand looms and handicrafts; food habits; and other traditional practices intrinsically linked with nature conservation - is necessary because their nature-based culture and customs are on the verge of extinction. With this in mind, this book has attempted comprehensive documentation.

The work was carried out through field surveys in different locations with dominant Lepcha populations: Sikkim (Dzongu) and the West Bengal hills (Kalimpong and Darjeeling districts). The research team conducted household surveys with the help of structured questionnaires, formal and informal interviews, and group discussions with tribe elders with rich knowledge of indigenous ways and customs and other knowledgeable persons, including Lepcha boongthings, muns, and maondaoks. Efforts were also made to gather information on the use of local plants in preparing traditional dishes; preparation details were documented with the help of elders' women with the most excellent knowledge of these processes. Moreover, attempts were made to attend traditional rituals and festivals to document the event details. The gathered data thus were verified by consulting available literature on the Lepcha tribe from the Khangchendzonga Landscape (KL) and crosschecked among the different surveyed villages to examine whether practices diverged amongst communities. Furthermore, an online "workshop for the promotion of cultural practices of Lepcha community for conservation and livelihood security''. was organised to validate the information collected from primary and secondary sources.

This book has been organised into eight chapters.

Chapter 1 serves as a background, covering the tribe's origins, history, population status, and geographical distribution throughout the KL. It also glances at their distinctive features and language (including the influence of religion and population admixture on the Lepcha language). It also covers the methodology—the approaches adopted in gathering primary data from the field and the secondary sources consulted in preparing this document—and the Khangchendzonga Landscape (KL). 

Chapter 2 looks at the culture and customs of the tribe, including religion and belief systems, traditional attire, folk songs, folk dances, and festivals. This chapter highlights the crucial aspect of nature worship in Lepcha culture and explores how this is reflected in their songs, dances, and festivals. Again, it becomes evident that all cultural practices have nature at the centre, with respect for natural entities and sustainable utilisation of natural resources at the core of the tribe's traditional philosophy and way of life. 

Chapter 3 sheds light on the traditional foods and food habits of the Lepcha community by providing details on the preparation of some important dishes. It highlights the cultural importance of the traditional drink (chi), prepared from finger millet. This chapter also emphasises the promotion of these delicious and nutritious dishes through ecotourism for the economic benefit of the community. 
Chapter 4 explores traditional Lepcha handlooms and handicrafts. It emphasises the tribe's traditional knowledge of bamboo crafts and nettle fibre extraction, as well as their handloom weaving skills and its potential to be promoted as one of the best livelihood options for the community. Furthermore, the chapter highlights initiatives taken by NIHE under KLCDl-lndia to translate such community-specific knowledge into a viable livelihood opportunity involving a local partner, Mutanchi Lorn Aal Shezum (MLAS), Dzongu, to strengthen and extend bamboo crafts- and nettle fibre-based traditional knowledge to engage underprivileged youth. 

Chapter 5 covers bioresource utilisation by the Lepcha community in their day-to-day lives. It describes agricultural and horticultural crops commonly grown by the community and highlights cash crop cultivation. It also covers the various wild resources used as food and medicine. Furthermore, the chapter presents previously published work on using plant resources such as medicine, food, beverages, spices, and construction materials. Likewise, Chapter 6 deals with traditional conservation practices of nature and natural entities. It reflects on the cultural aspects of the conservation of natural resources. It covers preserving water bodies, rocks, forests, and forest patches as abodes of deities and mentions related legends and folklore. Moreover, it cites the sustainable agricultural practices of the Lepchas and their unique agroforestry systems for the conservation of soil, water, and diverse plant and animal species. 
The final chapter, Chapter 7, presents the concluding remarks and recommendations. Most importantly, it identifies the gaps that need to be filled and worked on in the future. The chapter also highlights the urgent need to raise awareness among the Lepcha youth to promote and safeguard their traditional culture and heritage. While the world is heading towards modernization and globalisation, it is necessary to ensure that traditional knowledge systems are granted the unique space they need to contribute to sustainable development. The chapter also advocates for interventions and support from government and non-government bodies, leveraging resources, training, and capacity-building programmes. A particular focus on underprivileged youth towards employment generation through the utilisation of traditional skills is needed. This can play a significant role in promoting and conserving the indigenous knowledge of the Lepchas, helping safeguard the rich cultural heritage of the community across the KL. 

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  • Publisher Name:
    G.B. Pant National Institute of Himalayan Environment (NIHE)
  • Publisher Place:
    Almora, Uttarakhand, India