Lepchas are indigenous people of the Indian state of Sikkim and Nepal. There are around 80,000 Lepcha people. Many Lepcha can also be found in western and southwestern Bhutan, Tibet, Darjeeling, and other places. Most live in Eastern Nepal’s Province No. 1 and West Bengal’s hills.
Lepcha is an anglicized version of the Nepalese word Lepche, which means “vile speakers” or “inarticulate speech.” This was originally a derogatory nickname, but it is no longer considered so.
The origin of the Lepchas is unknown. They may have originated in Myanmar or Tibet. But the Lepcha people believe they are indigenous to the region and did not migrate there. Some anthropologists believe they migrated directly from Tibet to the north, Japan, or Eastern Mongolia.
The Lepcha speak their language. This native language is also known as Lepcha. It is a Tibeto-Burman language that belongs to the Bodish-Himalayish group.
Their language is a mixture of Nepali and Sikkim languages. It is very similar to Indo-Chinese. The Lepcha use their script, known as Róng or Lepcha script. It is derived from the Tibetan script.
The majority of Lepchas are Buddhist and Mun. Buddhism was introduced to them by the Bhutias from the north. Mun is a shamanistic religion, meaning they worship unknown gods. However, in the current time, most Lepchas have now converted to Christianity.
According to the 2001 Nepal Census, 88.80% of the 3,660 Lepcha in Nepal were Buddhists. 7.62% were Hindus. Most Lepchas in the Sikkim, Darjeeling, and Kalimpong Hills are Christians.
Some Lepchas continue to practice their shamanistic religion of Mun. In practice, some Lepchas practice both Mun and Buddhist rituals simultaneously. Ancestral mountain peaks, for example, are regularly honored in cú rumfát ceremonies.
Worshiping the Kanchenjunga mountain by Lepchas, especially in Sikkim, is a long-time tradition. Their faith in the mountain comes from a popular belief. As per this belief, their ancestors were created from the snow on the summit of Kanchenjunga.
Many ceremonies and rituals of the Lepchas involve indigenous species. In Sikkim, Lepchas consume over 370 animals, fungi, and plant species.
A significant proportion of Lepchas are farmers. They cultivate oranges, rice, cardamom, and other crops. They also make a living by raising many cattle and milch cows. The Lepchas are also popular for their exceptional weaving and basketry abilities.
‘Khoori,’ a buckwheat pancake with spinach, homemade cheese, and bamboo shoots, are all part of Lepcha cuisine. All of the ingredients are grown in and around the community. It ensures that they are always fresh and organic in the most natural sense. They also locally ferment alcohols. The local beverage is ‘chi,‘ a fermented millet beer.
The Lepcha are primarily endogamous people. They also follow patrilineal descendants. Their wedding rituals are quite fascinating.
The marriage in the community is negotiated between the bride’s and groom’s families. If the marriage contract is signed, they consult a lama. The Lama will determine the best date for the wedding based on the boy and girl’s horoscopes. The boy’s maternal uncle then approaches the girl’s maternal uncle. The boy’s maternal uncle offers a khanda, a ceremonial scarf, and one rupee. The girl’s maternal uncle accepts it to mark a formal consent.
The wedding takes place at noon on a lucky day. The groom and his family depart for the girl’s home, carrying money and other gifts for the bride’s maternal uncle. They perform the traditional Nyomchok ceremony when they arrive at their destination.
The ankle-length Dumbun is traditional clothing for Lepcha women (“female dress”). It is also known as dumdyám or gādā, a single large piece of smooth cotton or silk in a solid color. It is worn by folding it over one shoulder and pinning it on the other. You can hold it in place with a waistband or tago, over which excess material drapes. Underneath, a contrasting long-sleeved blouse can be worn. It resembles a lot with a traditional saree.
The dumprá is traditional Lepcha men’s clothing (“male dress”). It is a multicolored hand-woven cloth pinned at one shoulder and held in place by a waistband. It is typically worn over a white shirt and trousers.
Men also wear a thyáktuk. It is a flat round cap with stiff black velvet sides and a multicolored top topped by a knot.
Lepchas are also very rich in traditional dances, songs, and folktales. They have traditional musical instruments like Sanga, Yangjey, Cymbal, Yarka, Flute, and Tungbuk.
They also have folk dances like Zo-Mal-Lok, Chu-Faat, Tendong Lo Rum Faat and Kinchum-Chu-Bomsa.