In search of Mayal Lyang: Harnessing the power of stories through community-led research to preserve Lepcha indigenous culture in India

Text and Photos by Vaishnavi Varadarajan

Mayalmit Lepcha standing next to the confluence of the Teesta and Rongyong rivers

Read the article in Lepcha.

“When I look at the Teesta River, I see it dancing as it flows. This beautiful river is sacred to us, no one should be allowed to restrict its flow,” says Mayalmit Lepcha standing next to the gushing, glacial, greenish-blue waters of the Teesta River, a river she has grown up around and has endless memories with. Mayalmit is an indigenous woman human rights defender from the Lepcha indigenous community in Northeast India. She is the president of the Sikkim Indigenous Lepcha Tribal Association (SILTA) and the General Secretary of Affected Citizens of Teesta (ACT). Mayalmit’s name in the Lepcha traditional language Rongring means a citizen of ‘Mayal Lyang’ which translates to ‘land blessed by the gods’ and is considered by Lepcha people to be a hidden paradise and the abode of the local deities in the foothills of Mount Kanchendzonga. It is believed that one’s soul can reach Mayal Lyang in their afterlife if they live their life by performing their duties towards nature and protecting their land.

Dzongu Valley is the sacred land of the indigenous Lepcha community and from where they originated. It is located in the northeastern region of India, in the northern part of Sikkim, a state sharing its borders with the countries of Tibet and Bhutan. It is surrounded by the third highest mountain range in the world, Mount Kanchendzonga, and by river Teesta and its tributaries. “We are the children of the Kanchendzonga; we were created by two pure snowballs of Kanchendzonga which we consider to be our sacred deity and when we die, our soul travels back through Rongyong (local name for a tributary of river Teesta in Rongring) to Pomzoo Lyang (soul resting place located at the foothills of Kanchenjunga),” says Mayalmit while narrating the origin story of the Lepcha people. “Our culture, our customs, and traditions are all interconnected with the rivers, mountains, and lakes of Dzongu.”

View of the majestic Mount Kanchendzonga from Lingthem village, Upper Dzongu

The Lepchas of Dzongu Valley have been tirelessly working to protect the last free-flowing stretch of the Teesta River and its tributaries, the lakes and mountains of Dzongu from the barrage of hydropower projects that have been continuously proposed in their territory over the past 30 years.

Resistance against hydropower projects in Dzongu Valley

Dzongu was legally recognized as a specially protected area through notification 3069 passed in 1958 via a royal decree when Sikkim was an independent Buddhist kingdom. This special status was upheld by Article 371(F) of the Indian constitution when the state of Sikkim acceded to India in 1975. According to this decree, land rights in Dzongu Valley are reserved for Lepchas from Dzongu, no non-Lepcha or Lepcha from outside of Dzongu can acquire land here. Until now, outsiders coming to Dzongu have to take a special permit to enter Dzongu from the district headquarters in Mangan. The Lepcha community is also constitutionally recognized as scheduled tribes. According to the Indian constitution, indigenous or ‘adivasi’ communities that have been termed as ‘scheduled tribes’ have special protections provided to them under the fifth and sixth schedules of the constitution. As scheduled tribes, the constitutionally recognized rights with regard to their land, cultural identity, and self-determination are applicable to Lepchas under the provisions of the fifth schedule. Despite these strong legal precedents, the Lepcha indigenous community of Dzongu have been adversely impacted by large hydropower and other infrastructure projects. The hydropower aggression in Dzongu and North Sikkim has been led by the largest state-owned hydropower organization in India known as ‘National Hydroelectric Power Corporation’ (or NHPC), infamous for disastrous hydropower projects in the state of Sikkim and all over India.

Mayalmit’s sketch of the completed and proposed hydropower projects on river Teesta and Rongyong

Since the 1990s, there has been strong and sustained resistance among the Lepcha indigenous community of Dzongu against the multiple hydropower projects in the region of Dzongu Valley and North Sikkim. This culminated in the formation of ‘Affected Citizens of Teesta’(ACT) as a volunteer group in 2004. Members of ACT with the support of Sangha of Dzongu and Concerned Lepcha of Sikkim (CLOS) came together to protest against the hydropower projects proposed at the time. In 2007, they organized a historic hunger strike calling for the 6 proposed projects in Dzongu Valley to be pulled out. They were successful in doing so as within 3 years of the strike being announced, four of the hydropower projects within Dzongu, i.e Ringpi (70 MW), Rukeil (33 MW), Rangyong (141 MW), and Lingza (120 MW) were scrapped, along with four other projects in North Sikkim.

Protest against Teesta Stage IV hydropower project (photo credit: Soumik Datta)

However, the hydropower projects that went on to be constructed within the region of Dzongu and around such as 510 MW Teesta Stage V and 1200 MW Teesta Stage III have caused immense destruction to the fragile and eco-sensitive topography of Sikkim. This has been witnessed by the massive landslides and flash floods in the region which have become a frequent occurrence. There have also been visible cracks on the roads, houses, and other building structures in the Lower Dzongu region.

Resistance is ongoing in Dzongu against the 520 MW Teesta Stage IV hydropower project which was proposed by the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation Limited (NHPC) in 2006. This is planned to be built on the last free-flowing stretches of the Teesta River between the already commissioned stage V and stage III projects. This project is considered to be particularly risky as it will lead to duel tunneling which could be disastrous for the young fold mountains of the Himalayan ranges and since this region is also a seismic zone.

Crack on road in Lingdong Barfok Gram Panchayat after a recent landslide in 2021

According to the Environment Impact Assessment conducted, only 256 families will be affected and no one will be displaced but based on the scale and location of the project, it is estimated that more than 4500 families from three Gram Panchayats Units (wards) of Hee Gyathang, Lingdong Barfok, and Lum Gor Sangtok in Dzongu will be directly affected by the Teesta stage IV project. The public hearing held for the project was boycotted by the villagers of the affected Gram Panchayat Units (GPUs).

On 9th January 2014, the project was granted Environment Clearance by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change. Members of ACT challenged the environmental clearance provided to the project by filing a case in the National Green Tribunal on the grounds that the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report failed to consider the socio-cultural aspects of the indigenous Lepcha community and Dzongu’s cultural landscape. A petition was also filed in the Sikkim high court by ACT in 2016 regarding the invalidity of the social impact assessment conducted for the Teesta stage IV project. The forest clearance for the project is still pending as the gram sabhas (village councils) of the affected GPUs in Dzongu have firmly rejected the project since 2016. According to Forest Rights Act 2006, for a project to be cleared, the approval or consent of gram sabhas is necessary. Recently in October 2022, the state government called for another meeting of the gram sabha of Lum Gor Sangtok GPU to reconsider the proposal and they rejected it again.

The Affected Citizens of Teesta (ACT) have been reasserting to the Sikkim state government to protect the biodiversity of Dzongu especially after Kanchendzonga National Park was declared by UNESCO as India’s first mixed world heritage site in 2016. They have also recently demanded that the last free-flowing stretch of Teesta be declared a river sanctuary. Due to the sustained on-ground resistance and advocacy against the Teesta Stage IV project in Dzongu, the project remains on hold.

Documenting oral histories and stories of Dzongu through community-led research

To continue and strengthen the Lepcha community’s efforts towards preserving and nurturing their cultural knowledge and the pristine ecology of Dzongu, Mayalmit got interested in joining the Global Advocacy Team (GAT). As a part of the Global Advocacy Team, Mayalmit has been working on community-led research to gather the local perspectives, opinions, and demands of the Lepcha indigenous community with regard to the recently proposed hydropower projects, specifically the Teesta Stage IV project (520 MW). Also, they seek to document the oral narratives, stories, cultural beliefs, and rituals of the Lepcha people and their linkage to the ecology of Dzongu. “These stories are very important for us to tell the world our perspective and how we see things. For us, the river Rongyong (a tributary of river Teesta) and Rongit are not just rivers, they have a history. We see the two rivers as female and male and we believe that they are lovers who always stay together.” According to Mayalmit, the maximum research in their community has been done by foreigners and outsiders, she believes that it is time that the youth and elders of their community conduct research on their own and write in their local language and grassroots perspective.

“This research has taught me that there is so much knowledge in our community and it needs to be documented so it can be preserved and continued,” says Mayalmit about her experience of conducting the community-led research. For the community-led research, Mayalmit met with different groups within the Lepcha community- the mun and bongthing (traditional indigenous priests or shamans), buddhist monks, women from self-help groups, youth leaders, homestay owners, small grain farmers, senior activists from the Affected Citizens of Teesta (ACT) movement, and other experts from the community.

Focused group discussion with Sangha of Dzongu in Hee Gyathang GPU (photo credit: Mayalmit Lepcha)

The traditional mun religion of the Lepchas is practiced side by side with Tibetan Buddhist Lamaism which was introduced in Dzongu in the 7th century. The traditional priests or shamans of the mun religion are known as Mun and Bongthing. Muns are known to become shamans by being possessed by spirits and they can be male or female. Bongthings are only male and they have to learn and practice the rituals. Mun and Bongthing along with the Buddhist Lamas occupy a special place in the social and cultural practices of the Lepcha community. Since the religion in Dzongu is well-connected to the environment, they have also been at the forefront of the resistance against the hydropower projects. Until today, any protest or community meeting is inaugurated by rituals performed by them.

Kunzang is a young mun priest from Hee Gyathang Village in Lower Dzongu

Kunzang is a 17-year-old mun who belongs to a family of muns and inherited the spiritual knowledge of his ancestors. He explains that the muns and bongthings are the mediators between the local people of Dzongu and the guardian deities and spirits which reside in the forests, mountains, and rivers. “When there is a landslide or any kind of disaster, we have to communicate and appease the spirits.” He further shares that the hydropower projects have been a threat to the muns and bongthings as they are dependent on the mountain and rivers for their rituals and medicines. “For any ritual we perform, we require moochi (dried fish) and fochi (dried bird) to send a message to our deities and ancestors. The dried fish used for the rituals is a small fish only found in the waters of the Teesta river.”

The Buddhism followed in Dzongu is very rooted in the animist local traditions and culture of Dzongu and the monks also worship the local deities of Dzongu especially the Kanchendzonga. A very important ritual that is conducted by the monks is called ney-sol for which they make statues representing the mountains, rivers, and lakes of Dzongu out of wheat flour and place them on the altar at the monastery and ask the local guardian deities for protection and peace in Dzongu.

Altar at the house of Ren Likden Rongkup

Ren Likden Rongkup from Lingthem Village, Upper Dzongu is the head monk of the Passingdang Monastery and the president of the Sangha of Dzongu, a collective of monks who came together to organize and resist the hydropower projects proposed in Dzongu.In 2008, he also got arrested among other monks, youth, and ACT leaders who were a part of the anti-dam protests and hunger strike. The Sangha of Dzongu continues to be active today and recently, their membership increased to 80 monks. He proudly shares, “we have been fighting for a long time and we will continue fighting until the government scraps all the destructive projects!”

Buddhist monk Ren Likdem Rongkup praying at the Passingdang monastery in Upper Dzongu. (Photo credit: Nikhil Roshan, source: Vikalp Sangam)

Mayalmit has also been working towards bringing together different clans in the Lepcha community to share and document their creation stories. “Each Lepcha clan has its own creation story and every clan has their own chu (mountain), dao (lake), and lep (sacred path through which their soul travels back to Kanchendzonga)” says Mayalmit. One such creation story is that of the Hee Gyathang clan who are known to have originated from the sacred lake of Tungkyong Dho. Tungkyong Dho was recently declared a biodiversity heritage site by the Government of Sikkim. In January 2023, Mayalmit along with Minket Lepcha, a storyteller from Darjeeling, West Bengal, and comic artist Amrit from Bodoland territory in Assam organized a grassroots comic workshop for youth leaders and mun bongthing from the Hee Gyathang clan to document the clan stories in the form of comics and sketches.

The sacred Tungkyong Dho lake in Hee Gyeethang GPU, Lower Dzongu

Community-led tourism as an alternative to destructive development

Many families in Dzongu have successfully started sustainable community-led tourism initiatives with homestays and guided tours. Through these initiatives, they are spreading cultural awareness and knowledge among tourists, who along with appreciating the natural beauty of Dzongu, are also able to understand the history, culture, food, and way of life of the Lepcha community. As tourism here is owned and led by the community, they are also able to exercise restraint on how many tourists come in at one time and ensure that the tourists are respectful of the culture and natural environment of Dzongu.

Mayalmit’s homestay in Hee Gyathang village, Lower Dzongu.

Inspired by other leaders of Affected Citizens of Teesta (ACT), Mayalmit also started her own homestay called ‘Leemoo Lee Homestay’. She shares how the model of community-led tourism in Dzongu is such that it benefits the entire community as everyone works together and supports each other. “When tourists come to my homestay, they stay in our house with our family and eat the food grown on our farm. We make all the arrangements for them within our community itself — I buy milk and eggs from one of my neighbors, I pay my cousin’s grandfather to take the tourists for hiking and I call someone from my village for a local taxi.”

Along with homestays, the traditional festivals of Lepcha are also being promoted for tourism. A famous festival in Dzongu is the Namprikdang Namsoong festival which is the Lepcha new year festival that is celebrated on the Namprikdang grounds, located on the confluence of the Teesta and Rongyong rivers. This festival is a 15-day-long celebration of Lepcha culture with traditional games being played, music concerts by local Lepcha bands and artists, and various stalls selling indigenous traditional handicrafts and food items. Other festivals that are celebrated are the dzotim (paddy) festival during the harvest of the paddy and the Chalum Damroo Orange Festival when oranges are harvested.

Posters of Namprikdang Namsoong Festival and Chalum Damroo Festival, designed by Crinchen Lepcha (Source: Namprikdang Namsoong Festival Facebook page and Chalum Damroo Festival Facebook page)

Mayamit believes that community-led tourism could be a powerful way to revive the local economy in Dzongu and prove to be a sustainable alternative to hydropower and other infrastructure projects. “We have to be an example that we can still earn revenue and promote sustainable development without mega-dams coming.”

Over the next few months, Mayalmit is looking forward to bringing together different groups in the community to collectively draft a community-led development plan. “Through this research and the community-led development plan, we hope to pass on our rich cultural heritage and knowledge to the younger generations. We believe that the knowledge of the Lepcha indigenous community, our elders, and our ancestors who have been preserving our land and natural resources for generations, have existing solutions to address the ongoing climate crises. This knowledge is our evidence that we do not need the destructive development being pushed by the government on our land and rivers!”

For more information and updates on the local campaign against Teesta Stage IV project in Dzongu, please follow the Save Teesta Facebook and Instagram pages run by the youth leaders of Affected Citizens of Teesta.

This article is part of a series that features stories from the 8 community organizers from 8 countries who are part of IAP’s Global Advocacy Team. The Global Advocacy Team initiative brings together incredible community organizers from around the world to conduct community-led research and mobilize their communities to change how development is designed, funded, and implemented. Learn more about the Global Advocacy Team focused on community-led development planning.

IAP’s training materials on community-led research are available in 13 languages.

Vaishnavi Varadarajan is the Community Organizer for South Asia in the International Accountability Project. She is based in India.

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International Accountability Project (IAP)

IAP is a human and environmental rights organization that works with communities, civil society and social movements to change how today’s development is done.