Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Khangchendzonga Bongthing

The Khangchendzonga Bongthing, Samdup Taso, at his home at Nung, Upper Dzonga, in the year 2005.
The Khangchendzonga Bongthing’s home - Rum Vik.
Samdup Taso passed away on 29 October, his death hastened by the series of tremors which coursed through the Lepcha reserve on the day. While every casualty is a big loss for Sikkim, in Samdup Taso’s passing away Sikkim could have lost the very lineage of the Khangchendzonga Bongthings of Dzongu. It is important that his significance to the worship of Sikkim’s Guardian Deity is remembered and recalled. Below is an extract from “Khangchendzonga: Sacred Summit” which details the story of Samdup Taso’s lineage among the Bongthings of Sikkim…

Dzongu is obviously not a reservation carved out on a whim. It must have been earmarked as a Lepcha reserve because it is in this valley that the oldest permanent settlement of Lepchas is recorded. Being hunter-gatherers and slash-and-burn agriculturists, Lepchas would rarely stay in one place longer than 3 to 4 years. The Tingvong cluster of villages in Upper Dzongu, many believe, is the oldest permanent Lepcha settlement, with reference being made to the village in documents recording events in the mid-13th century. The Lepchas, who know the land best, probably chose a valley that opened into the best views of Khangchendzonga when they decided it was time to strike more permanent roots. Dzongu, as mentioned earlier, is settled along the Talung valley which draws a near straight line from the base of the Khangchendzonga and offers a view of the mountain without any minor hills obstructing its full glory – the same view that so overawed Dr. Joseph Dalton Hooker.
Accepting that Tingvong is the oldest permanent settlement of the Lepchas, it only follows then that the most important worship of Khangchendzonga came to be instituted here. Tingvong is essentially a cluster of six villages – Tingvong itself, then Payel, Kesong, Namprik, Sangvo and Nung. At Nung is the permanent, open-air altar dedicated to Khangchendzonga and it used to be here that the most important offerings were made in a ritual, which experts have noted, did not only carry religious and cultural significance, but also incorporated aspects of nationalist pride and territorial integrity. Foning, who worked in Sikkim in the end 1940’s, introduces this prayer as the “all-important royal Chyu Rum Faat.” The Bongthing, Lepcha priest, of Nung who leads the prayers, is in fact known as the Khangchendzonga Bongthing. Even though the Lepcha Mun faith revolves around Khangchendzonga and all Bongthings offer prayers to the mountain, the recognition of the Nung priest as the ‘Khangchendzonga Bongthing’ underlines not only his significance, but also stresses the importance of the Nung rituals.
This prayer used to be a grand affair even till little over three decades ago, but is now a shriveled token of its original grandeur. Informed Lepcha youth of the area are however trying to restore the worship its pride of place, but we shall get to that later.
The worship is held in the Lepcha month of Kursong [corresponding with February-March], a time when the fields have been cleared and paddy sown in nurseries, the cardamom plantations weeded and maize planted in the fields. Following overnight prayers in the Khangchendzonga Priest’s home, the Bongthing would lead an entourage towards the open-air altar, Lha-tu, singing the processional song.
The processional song leading up to a special prayer to Khangchendzonga offers an interesting introduction to the worship of Khangchendzonga in general and its significance to Nung in particular. The song is all but lost and it is thanks to the intrepid theologist, Halfdan Siiger that a translation of this invocation survives. Siiger published a translation of the song in his seminal work, “The Lepchas: Culture and Religion of a Himalayan People [Part 1],” published by the National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, in 1956. The book is an account of anthropological fieldwork in Sikkim, Kalimpong and Git as part of the 3rd Danish Expedition to Central Asia sponsored by the Carlsberg Foundation. The study in Sikkim, conducted in 1947, was sponsored in turn by King Christian X and headed by Prince Peter of Greece and Denmark.
Siiger introduces the processional song as very “holy and secret.” In fact, it took him a long time to earn the trust of the Khangchendzonga Bongthing who eventually allowed him to sit through the rituals and get them recorded and translated.
The Lepchas of Nung believe the Processional Song to also be the original Song of Creation. This is why:
“It Mu created Kong Chen. He is the eldest son of It Mu. When he was created, he asked It Mu to make him the Chief God. But he did not like to become a god only of Tibet, or of Nepal, or of Bhutan; he wanted to be the God of all countries. In every country of the world, they now worship Kong Chen.”
This makes it amply clear that “Kong Chen” is the supreme deity for the Lepchas. In fact, when Siiger and his colleagues of the anthropological fieldwork team arrived in Dzongu and expressed an interest in studying the Lepcha worship of Khangchendzonga, the Lepchas at first could not understand why Western researchers were interested in their life-style. They figured out an explanation soon; they deduced that their Kong Chen’s fame had spread to even “remote” countries and that the Westerners had come to pay homage to Kong Chen. Time was to bear out that their simplistic deduction was actually quite prophetic. Eight years later, when Khangchendzonga was ‘conquered’ for the first time, the climbers, in respect to Sikkimese sentiments, stopped short of the summit. Khangchendzonga remains the only 8000er in the world to enjoy the honor of being the untrodden peak. Kong Chen’s request to Itbu Mu to have him worshipped all over the world was granted.
Unfortunately, the special association that the Lepchas have with the mountain has not been as resilient. The Lepchas, because they lived off the land had instituted intricate rituals to propitiate the complex pantheon of gods and deities they had developed to watch over them. Over the past century and a half, the Lepcha lifestyle has gone through a sea change and the changed priorities of modern living and new life-styles have led to the phasing out of many rituals and practices. While this interpretation holds good for the abandoning of most Lepcha rituals associated with hunting and dry paddy cultivation which are no longer practiced, factors which diluted their worship of Khangchendzonga are much more complex.
To begin with, the mountain has been appropriated as the abode of dZonga, the Guardian Deity of Sikkim, by the Buddhists and as more and more Lepchas move towards Buddhism and Christianity, special rituals unique to the original Lepcha Mun faith have been discontinued and the Lepcha stories and legends of Khangchendzonga lost. The Khangchendzonga Worship at Nung survived this influence for close to three centuries under new rulers before slipping into near anonymity in a slide that started in the early 1970’s. But before we get to what this once “all-important Royal Chyu Rum Faat” has become, a brief narrative is perhaps required on what makes it special.
The processional song mentioned earlier puts the Nung prayers in perspective and goes on to record its genesis. The song speaks of how Kong Chen, being the Itbu Mu’s first creation, was very lonely and how Itbu Mu then created Payelbu, a mythical serpent, which coiled itself at Kong Chen’s base to give him company. Payelbu surfaces often in other Lepcha myths as the medium Kong Chen uses to express displeasure. The Processional Song then skirts the Lepcha story of origin and comes around to a sister and her six brothers who lived in a place called Sangnok Patam, a location now identified in Upper Dzongu at the base of huge rock outcrop along the Talung river. The brothers would go on long hunting trips while the sister worked on the fields. Once, however, the brothers did not return for a long time and when they did, it was to bid their sister a final farewell – they had become Khangchendzonga’s soldiers and would henceforth stand by his side as mountains themselves. This, they told her, they were doing because Kong Chen was the eldest brother of all Lepchas and had to be served. Realizing the import of what she had been told, the sister, while informing them that even she would move to another place now that her brothers would not be around her anymore, assured them that when she bore children, she would ensure that even they worshiped Kong Chen and his soldiers, her brothers. She moved to the village of Laven, opposite Tingvong, got married and soon bore a son who stammered.
She, however, forgot to make her son worship Kong Chen and one day, Kong Chen dispatched Payelbu to remind the Lepchas of their need to worship him. Payelbu snaked down Talung river and blocked it. The rising waters spread panic and the people “studied books” and deduced that the stammering son had to offer prayers and placate Kong Chen. The son did so and made the first sacrifice to Kong Chen. The waters started receding immediately and ever since then, his descendents have been offering special prayers to Kong Chen as the Khangchendzonga Bongthings. Some generations down the line, the Bongthing at Laven, already of an advanced age and without a son, adopted a relative’s son from Nung and so the ceremonial worship of Kong Chen crossed Talung and settled in Nung.
Although some rituals still survive, there are few who understand their significance and fewer still who can carry the stories forward. The fact that hardly any Lepcha outside Dzongu knows where Nung is, or about the special annual worship of Khangchendzonga that used to be performed there, says a lot about how things are on the verge of extinction. The Bongthing himself, who used to at one time be feted by the King of Sikkim and feared by the locals, is now largely ignored and cut off from the daily lives of the people.
But that is not how things always used to be. The Khangchendzonga Bongthing used to be held in high esteem and people would make way for him when he approached. His house, now a dilapidated shell of a cottage, used to be known as Rum Vik, the Teeth of God, [Vik means both soldier and teeth in Lepcha], a name perhaps earned because of the presence of an elephant tusk – a gift from the Chogyal - that enjoyed pride of place in his altar. Alternately, Rum Vik could also mean the Soldier of God. The Bongthing’s ancestors were after all the first Lepchas to enlist as Khangchendzonga’s soldiers.
As for the tusk, even Siiger confirms its existence. But it is no longer there. Ask the 80 year old Samdup Taso, perhaps the last in the line of Khangchendzonga Bongthings, about the tusk and he just shrugs and says, “It’s lost.” One look at the dust laden altar which does not appear to have seen a prayer in a long time and one is forced to suspect that the tusk was probably sold off to tide over hard times.
The locals however have a different story to tell.
The older folk remember the time when the tusk was reported missing “many years ago.” Samdup flew into a fit of rage and conducted special prayers to put a curse on the person who had stolen it. When he finished the prayers, he is reported to have told the people that “bad things” would befall the thief before the sun rose the next morning. The next morning, the village woke up to the news that Samdup’s son, who was given to drinking, had passed out in his sleep with his foot stuck in the kitchen fire. They still point out to his mangled feet and whisper that this was the punishment for having stolen from the Khangchendzonga Priest’s altar. Samdup prefers to ignore this episode.
All said, the unfortunate fact remains that Samdup’s son is not training to become a Bongthing. When Siiger was in Nung, he had interacted with Samdup’s father, Junggi Yangkyap. Samdup, who remembers the visit of the Danish anthropologists, was a ‘bright youth’ in training under his father at the time. When a meeting was arranged with Samdup recently, the locals advised that the interview be held early since Samdup had taken to drinking and it would be impossible to find him coherent any time after breakfast.
Samdup did not know what the meeting was about, but his eyes lit up when he learnt that the interest was in the prayers he conducted as the Khangchendzonga Bongthing. This Bongthing is not allowed by tradition to leave his village too often. Bongthings, the Lepchas believe, draw their powers from the many hostile spirits, Mung, that they subjugate under them. These Mungs follow the Bongthing wherever he goes. The Khangchendzonga Bongthing was among the more powerful Bongthings of Sikkim and since Mungs can be very territorial and get irritable when forced to follow the Bongthings to unfamiliar places, Samdup and his ancestors mostly kept to Nung. The only times they ventured out were to perform prayers at Laven, the very rare visit to the nearby town of Mangan and the annual trek to Gangtok; this was the most special of all outings and an integral part of the Khangchendzonga prayers at Nung.
Accompanied by twenty-odd youth from Nung, the Khangchendzonga Bongthing would walk to Gangtok. There, the entourage would be treated as guests of the King and taken to Tsuklakhang, the monastery on the palace grounds which also houses the royal chapel. Here, the Bongthing would offers prayers to Khangchendzonga till late into the night in an interesting coexistence of the Lepcha Mun faith and Nyingmapa Buddhism, the State religion of Sikkim then…
After the prayers, the entourage from Tingvong would return with gifts for the people and offerings for Kong Chen. An important part of the royal offering used to be a full grown Yak bull to be offered as sacrifice at the Khangchendzonga altar at Nung.
The Khangchendzonga Bongthing was specially feted. Apart from the offerings for the prayers, the Bongthing was provided ration for the year, a new set of clothes, money and gifts. The tusk has already been mentioned and Samdup also proudly pulled out an old, rusted, dusty musket loader rifle that he said the Chogyal had gifted his father.
In the days when the importance of the prayers was recognized, the entourage from Nung would stop at several places along the way to offer prayers at special locations on the return journey. They would take four days to reach Nung, where it normally took just a day and half. With their return would begin the Khangchendzonga prayers.
The altar, about fifteen minutes walk from Nung, would be spruced up, the permanent stones there aligned properly and the whole community present in excited attendance. The largest stone at the open-air altar was of Kong Chen, flanked by his two wives and then his soldiers. A secondary arrangement represented the other peaks of the range.
After the overnight prayers, the entourage would be at the altar and the Bongthing invoked Khangchendzonga with a special prayer. The invocation says a lot about what the prayers were meant for and what their significance was. Siiger offers the translation thus:

“King Kong Chen
King Kong Lo!
For the Maharaja (Chogyal), the King
The evil breath of the Man ti yang [evil spirit]
The evil breath of ma yum [evil spirit]
Bad things will come.
In the middle of dar [place of evil]
In the middle of som rang [place of evil]
In the rainbow
The cloud will come
The tiger will come
The Bhutanese king will come
The Bhutanese queen will come
The Nepalese will come
The Limbus will come
The king kim will come
That these will not come
King Kong Chen
You yourself give help.”
The invocation has obvious nationalist import. Kong Chen was not only being invoked for protection from natural calamities and to grant bountiful harvests, but was also being supplicated to keep the borders of Sikkim safe. Even the offerings made were symbolic of the prayer’s nationalistic undertones. At the Khangchendzonga Shrine was a natural bamboo platform on which the Lepchas would line up their offerings. These would comprise of whatever the part hunter-gatherers, part cultivators could muster - from forest produce to vegetables and even a stalk of cardamom which the Lepchas started growing about a century ago. Sikkim’s territories were represented in the prayers in the form of offerings - there would be fish brought up from the confluence of Dikchu Khola and Teesta at Dzongu’s southeastern border, water from lakes on the western and eastern extremities and earth from further north. There used to be a time when even the bark of a particular tree in Kalimpong used to be included. Kalimpong, now a part of Darjeeling district in neighboring West Bengal, stopped getting represented in the prayers ever since it was taken over by the Bhutanese in the early 18th century. Next to the platform which held Lepcha offerings, would be two poles struck in the ground to tie the Yak bull – the gift from the King of Sikkim. The Yak is not indigenous to Gangtok [the capital of Sikkim since 1894] or even the previous capitals of Tumlong [in north Sikkim near Dzongu] and Rabdentse [in West Sikkim]. The animal is comfortable only in heights above 3,200 metres [10,500 feet]. Gangtok stands at a lowly 5,800 ft and Tumlong and Rabdentse differ only slightly in altitude. The Yak for the sacrifice must have been specially brought down from the Chogyal’s holdings in extreme north Sikkim or remote West Sikkim, at least a week’s march away either way. Going to such lengths to make a Yak available, suggests that its role was more significant than just providing meat for the festivity. The Bhutias are believed to have come to Sikkim as nomadic herders and the Yak has traditionally been identified with them. By offering a Yak, the king was obviously making a symbolic offering representative of the entire ruling class, a part of himself so to speak - a tribute seeking Khangchendzonga’s continued protection and as acceptance of Kong Chen’s suzerainty.
This practice of offering a Yak was, however, stopped in 1973. Palden Tsering Lepcha, who was a panchayat representative at the time and used to accompany the Nung delegation to Gangtok, recollects that the Chogyal decided that supporting animal sacrifice was against Buddhism and discontinued the traditional offering from that year onwards; he gave them cash instead.
Samdup believes that the most important contribution to the prayers was the Yak from the Chogyal. “Ever since the Chogyal stopped offering the Yak, the prayer has not been held properly and even the times stopped being good for Sikkim,” he says. He does not understand the Gregorian Calendar too well and cannot confirm the exact year. All he remembers is that the sacrifice was discontinued in “bad times” and how LD Kazi [the first Chief Minister of Sikkim, from 1974 to 1979] did not appreciate the importance of the prayers enough to extend state patronage to it after the king had been overthrown.
When Samdup speaks of “bad times,” his obvious reference is to the unrest that gripped Sikkim in 1973 and culminated with the sweeping out of the monarchy in 1975 and Sikkim becoming the twenty-second state of India. Some Lepchas of Dzongu remain convinced that the discontinuation of the traditional offering to Khangchendzonga by the king displeased Kong Chen and with it started the end of the 300 year old Namgyal dynasty. Here, one might add that only oral recollections of the year when the practice was discontinued could be sourced and no written documents could be traced. Priorities changed with the Merger in 1975 and after some failed attempts to rekindle patronage for the prayers, the people too moved on and the Khangchendzonga Bongthing withdrew into a shell. After some running around the corridors of power, funds were eventually set aside for the prayers at Nung, but these were too minimal and did not cover the kind of expenses required to conduct the prayers on their traditional scale.
The prayers, although grand in significance, were known primarily to the people of Tingvong and the Palace. It hardly finds mention in other places with only Siiger having documented it in detail and Foning making a brief mention of it. It was perhaps for this reason that the moment royal patronage was scaled down and then the monarchy itself abolished, the ritual was severely compromised.

[Extracted from the chapter, “The Original Big Stone: Eldest Brother to the Lepchas” from the book, “Khangchendzonga: Sacred Summit” by Pema Wangchuk and Mita Zulca]

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