Influence of Buddhism and its Consequences to Lepcha Culture and Identity

Charisma K. Lepcha, NEHU, Shillong, India

This paper focuses on Lepchas, the indigenous people of Sikkim and the acceptance of Buddhism that changed the religion, culture and identity of the people in due time.

Lepchas call themselves “Rong” (from the Lepcha words rongcup or rumkup meaning the children of the snowy peak/ children of God). Tradition has it that the creator God, created the first man and woman from the pure, virgin snow of Mt. Kanchenjunga. They believe that they have been living in the region since time immemorial, and there is no migration history owing to where they might have come from but the foothills of their guardian deity Kanchenjunga.

Buddhism was introduced to the Lepchas of Sikkim from sixteenth century onwards. It was a gradual imposition by the Tibetan migrant-rulers who translated many Buddhist texts into Lepcha language to bring the Lepchas there under the Buddhist fold. It is believed that the invention of the written language for the Lepcha community was motivated by the religious activities of the Buddhist missionaries. Lepchas gradually accepted Buddhism but also continued with their traditional religion simultaneously. There was no resistance to the newly introduced religion as they incorporated both practices while appeasing the gods. This acceptance and practice of a new religion along with the old is a phenomenon that has been noted by anthropologists like Gorer as early as 1938 and by Bentley as recent as 2008.

With the Tibetan Buddhist influence, Lepchas were quick to imitate the lifestyle of the newcomers. From copying the dress they wore to the food they ate, Lepchas were soaking in the new sights and sounds. The elite section of the society even changed names, pretending to be of the same stock as the new arrivals. They were forgetting their traditional ways of life and the traditional religion was taking a backseat. Soon, the marital alliance between Tibetans and Lepchas gave birth to a new breed of ethnicity -the Bhutias in Sikkim.

This paper is a result of fieldwork in a Lepcha village in North Sikkim as it examines the influence of Buddhism on Lepcha social institutions like family, marriage, kinship, language, food, dress etc. It also looks into the various socio-political factors like their insignificant numerical status and political voicelessness as the constitution of Sikkim has given them the “primitive” status along with a new hyphenated identity.

It is therefore an attempt to understand and analyze the reasons that led to accepting of Buddhism, cultural changes and the formation of a hyphenated identity today.