Lepcha Museum, Kalimpong
“Just as the stars cannot fall to earth, the Lepcha people cannot disappear.”
Kalimpong is a town perched in the Northern Indian side of the Himalayas close to the border of Nepal. A vast cloud sits heavy over the town and each day as evening approaches it releases fat raindrops cleansing the town of the daily smog. It was in this town that I discovered the history of the Lepcha people — an almost forgotten people indigenous to these lands who had a kingdom at a time before Buddhism had reached these parts.
Tucked away in the back streets of Kalimpong past the metal workers and car repair garages there is a small museum which has been created by Sonam Lepcha, photographed above. A hand-painted sign above the door gives his home and cellphone number for visitors to call if he is not there.
Sonam is an 88-year old man who has dedicated his life to reviving the Lepcha culture in Kalimpong and Sikim. We sat in the darkened wooden museum surrounded by relics and recorded his music. He played on handmade instruments songs that he had written about Lepcha creation myths, stories of great floods, the love between the sun and the mountains and the Lepcha National Anthem which he composed in 1996. He had a toothless smile that he would break into at the end of each song.
Sonam’s granddaughter, who called him Bhaji, translated for us as he explained how he had found and written down ancient mantras of the Lepcha people traditionally sung by the Bongthing (priests) to heal the sick. The Lepcha believed that these sacred mantras were written into their bones. The practice of the Bongthing was not taught but was passed through their bones from one generation to the next. It was of great importance to bury their dead because if the bones were burned then the sacred mantras would be lost. When Buddhism reached this area and with it the practice of cremation the Bongthing legacy received a great set back as this line was broken. Sonam had traveled through Northern India searching for the people who still knew the mantras and had written them down so they would not be lost forever.
This is the only Lepcha museum in India — a personal collection that he has found over his life time. He had made models of the ceremonies, celebrations, festivals and houses and brought these traditions to life again in Northern India. Due to his work the Lepcha people are now recognised again in India and their ceremonies honoured and celebrated each year. He said, “Just as the stars cannot fall to earth, the Lepcha people cannot disappear.”
If you are visiting this part of India, I couldn’t recommend more highly a visit to this museum to meet Sonam and learn about the Lepcha people. You can find it at:
Lepcha Museum, HLD Road, Lower Bong Busty, Kalimpong
Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this, you can find more here: https://medium.com/for-all-i-see