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Lepchajagat: A Story of Change

Ab to zamana badal chuka hai,” says Pashang Tamang with a wry smile when over a cup of chai, I ask him if the kids these days prefer to pick their own partners. Times have changed but even in the last decade, the Lepchas were part of a close-knit community in which marriages were arranged strictly between families with the same surname i.e. within the same sub-caste. The formal consent of the families was the first impetus behind starting a conversation between a man and his wife-to-be but tourism has sunk deeper into the social fabric of the Lepchas than can be gleaned from a night at one of the numerous homestays in Lepchajagat. As the Lepcha teenagers of today text each other about their dreams and desires, Pashang still looks somewhat unsettled at the thought of a Tamang marrying a Gurung.

Pashang, the proprietor of Kanchankanya Homestay in Lepchajagat and our host for the next couple of days, is a busy man. While he is supervising the construction of a third floor over the existing structure and worrying about how to arrange regular hot water supply for the guests in the winter, his primary concern continues to be the increasing competition in the lucrative hospitality industry. Seven years back when the great Bengali adventure seekers and weekend travel enthusiasts were pinning Lepchajagat as the perfect place to drop into anonymity on the offbeat tourism map, Kanchankanya was one of the few homestays. Now, with each passing day more concrete structures are mushrooming on the hillside. Where there were the sprawling fronds of ferns, velvety clumps of moss, and rhododendrons, now stand rectangular structures obstructing views of the magnificent Kangchendzonga and its snowy neighbours.

Entering Lepchajagat

Entering Lepchajagat

Lepchajagat, or Lepcha Bustee as the locals say, started out as a settlement of around twenty Lepcha families on a stretch of motorable road between Ghoom and Sukhiyapokhri. In the 1800s, when the tea estates around Darjeeling began to flourish, members of the Lepcha community moved to Darjeeling and its surrounding areas to find work. Almost every family in Lepchajagat can trace their ancestry to someone who worked as a labourer in one of the many tea estates that the region is now famous for. The plantation owners wanted a local workforce who were willing to labour for low wages and were also conversant with these heavily wooded hills and their mysteries. The Lepchas fitted the bill perfectly. Eventually few of the Lepcha families chose this tract of pine and fir-covered hillside to build a community and that is how Lepchajagat, literally World of the Lepchas, came to be. But after Independence, the tea estates fell into throes of mismanagement. As trade dwindled, the growing community was left to figure out alternate livelihoods. Increased connectivity and the tourism explosion in Darjeeling pushed travellers to find untrodden destinations around Darjeeling. What had started out as a secret began to evolve into a weekend destination, then finally into an overrun weekend destination. With no notable points of tourist interest, Lepchajagat is where one can indulge in the magic that is slow living. Walking about the village, striking up conversations with locals over cups of chai, hiking in the mist-clad woods, bird watching, learning about the many species of orchids that grow here, gazing at the jewel-like adornments of Darjeeling after sunset… a weekend in Lepchajagat is the epitome of peaceful. Quite paradoxical how people looking for the simple life are in fact the catalysts behind turning this pristine hamlet into yet another commercialized tourist spot!

Calla Lillies line the road in Lepchajagat

Calla line the road in Lepchajagat

Over the years, the number of homestays has increased exponentially. More tourists translated to more demand and in an attempt to part ways with the back-breaking labour in the tea industry, the Lepchas waded into the hospitality business. Where there were only some twenty or twenty-five single storied huts before, there are possibly close to almost fifty permanent structures now. Properties are being evaluated for luxury resorts where tourists can unwind in spas and enjoy global fares in multicuisine restaurants. A few years back, you could partake of the authentic homestay experience where you could stay with a local family and share their culture and food but on this trip, we could find not a single traditional Lepcha dish in the heart of Lepchajagat. The typical Bengali menu: Dal, bhaat, alubhaja with double egg curry for lunch and roti with chicken curry has become the local cuisine de jour. There is no mention of gundruk, thenthuk, pork shyapta or any of the dishes we had tasted in a Lepcha community in Sikkim. And even finding a slice of solitude and quietness in Lepchajagat has become difficult with boisterous tourists who are, for the most part, totally disrespectful of the needs of fellow travellers. While we could ruminate over how the swarms of pot-bellied, bou-baccha wielding Bengali weekend travelling parties who hardly take any interest in the local culture and indigenous food is the primary cause to blame, there are other reasons.

Foggy Mornings in Lepchajagat

Foggy Mornings in Lepchajagat

Sitting on the rooftop and watching the clouds swaddle distant Darjeeling with their billowing orchid petals, I wonder why the Lepcha community in North Bengal is so malleable. Tourism appears to have penetrated so deep into the community that it has begun to dictate everyday culture and day-to-day lifestyle. But has it infiltrated the inner sanctum of beliefs and rituals? I do not know. And while there are positive sides to this mingling— take for an example, the young Lepcha members who feel empowered to decide who they want to spend their lives with and the general consensus towards more progressive values— they come at a price. With more money flowing in from the influx of tourism, members of the Lepcha community at Lepchajagat are stepping over the thresholds of poverty and physical labor and are now able to look towards a brighter future for the coming generations but in ways that, besides being inconsiderate to the environment, are also chipping away at their indigenous traditions and cultural heritage. Ask a young Lepcha and they might not be able to tell you about their traditional diet, folklore, and costumes. It is their willingness to change and adapt to the needs of the quintessential Bengali tourist that is eroding and altering the norms and habits of the community.

Another unfortunate aspect is how the politics of West Bengal has never been kind to the people of the hills. In the long history of India’s sovereignty post-Independence, neither any party nor any person has taken up the onus of speaking for the agenda of these people. Relegated somewhat to a secondary degree of citizenship, the Lepchas, along with members of other tribes were unable to establish a popular and proud culture of their own. The Lepcha people, whose country of origin might have been Myanmar, Tibet or even faraway Mongolia and who have traversed thousands of miles to find a livelihood, firmly believe that they are indigenous to the region. This “misbelief” regarding their own history and heritage might also be instrumental to this lack of a stronger sense of self-identity.

As evening settles over Lepchajagat, the nip in the air turns into a teeth-clattering cold. Pashang’s wife brings me another cup of Darjeeling tea. Looking at the sincerity in their eyes, their hospitality and the warmth that is evident each time they inquire if I need anything more to feel at home, I start to question what can we do for them, their community, and this serene, idyllic hamlet that is slowly falling prey to rampant commercialization. I wonder what can we as travellers do so that the history and habits of the places we travel to do not fall victim to our comforts and needs. As a traveller, we learn from the community we travel to and members of that community learn from us. It is an exchange, not only of money for accommodation and food but also, of culture and linguistics. Would it bother you immensely to not partake of your usual dinner and try what the locals eat? Are you not curious to learn about these people and their ways of life? You are probably wondering why of all things am I emphasizing food so much. It’s because food is a great ice-breaker and perhaps the easiest route to enter a conversation about someone’s cultural heritage. It is tangible; it appeals to all your senses and most importantly, you can return home with a recipe you can recreate in your kitchen.

Jungle Hike in Lepchajagat.JPG

In the street below, a small group of teenagers are playing a game of football in the receding purple light that is heavy with the essence of conifers and rhododendrons. Pashang promises that he will teach me to cook some Lepcha dishes the next time I visit. The tea has warmed my arteries. Between trading stories and discussing the politics of the country, I want to fold what remains of the magic of Lepchajagat into an envelope and share it only with my trusted friends, who I believe are capable of respecting the sanctity of the spirit of a place. The wind whistles down the forested slopes; the forecast for tomorrow is scattered showers. As we walk down the stairs, Pashang explains the meaning of the word Lepcha.

Lepchajagat_Story of Change

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56 thoughts on “Lepchajagat: A Story of Change

  1. As always, a wonderful write-up again. You have focused on some acute problem of increasing tourism, where tourist mostly tours such pristine places only for the sake of spending the vacation and adding another place to their long list of visited places to boast for, bothering least about the history, culture, tradition of the locals. With time the true essence of travelling is dwindling. Now travelling is synonymous to taking selfies, bragging and getting loud and demanding for the regular comforts of city life even in the remotest part of any place.

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    • It is sad, isn’t it? Because there is a larger crowd of loud, selfie-stick wielding crowd that is unaware of local culture, the community has begun to cater to their experiences. In Lepchajagat, authentic local dishes is almost impossible to come by because there is no demand. We can reverse these changes but the problem is there aren’t many who are willing to give up comfort and familiarity for an immersive experience. Thank you for stopping by, Sarmistha.

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  2. I read it like a novel. Seriously. So good! Alas, that is it with tourism. While on one hand it injects money into the community, it also destroys the community and cultural fabric because locals see a lucrative business and transform lush woods and grass to concrete structures for tourists. I hope they’ll be able to preserve some of their heritage as best as they can. Also, with smartphones, the world is small so teenagers also lose their culture from western material. I could write about this for days lol. It’s happening in Africa too. Smh.

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    • Thank you, Kemi! If travellers are willing to partake of the local culture and know more about the lifestyles of their homestay hosts, Lepchajagat would certainly become one of the best places to visit in the Darjeeling Himalayas.

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  3. Lepchajagat has always been close to heart, being a Bengali. From all the hustle and bustle of Darjeeling, it calls for a peaceful retreat everytime you visit it. It’s a great travelgoue, sending me back to my days there.

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  4. I love the design of your blog it really feels like reading National Geographic and the article itself is great – I’ve never heard of that tribe and that part of India so thanks for sharing, I will browse more now 🙂 It makes me sad when I think that sooner or later tribes like the Lepchas will probably disappear – I’ve seen that before, abandoned village around the world.. I need to rush now to visit Lepchajagat!

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    • Thanks, Anna! The Darjeeling Himalayas are peppered with these little-known places, some of which are still off the tourist maps. Visit them as soon as you can if you want an authentic, immersive experience.

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  5. This was so interesting. I knew this place was an old secret destination to stay in Bengal, but I had no idea that tourism and ultimately consumerism are creeping into their nature and culture. I hope it remains unspoilt for a few decades yet! Great post!

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    • We hope so too. There are few other destinations in the Darjeeling Himalayas that are still off the tourist maps but to find out about them, you have to talk to the locals. Thank you for stopping by!

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    • Thank you, Jen! I do not mind the number of tourists. Considering the population growth, increase in income and exposure to the outside world, more and more people are travelling and that is wonderful. What bothers me is their lack of sensitivity to the local cultures and their lack of interest in learning more about a place. Of course, there are some tourists who are interested in a more immersive experience but that number is so low.

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  6. Aww… well, I don’t think the Lepcha population are malleable in a negative way, they probably love to work and to grow and tourism has given a chance, the strict traditions maybe will loosen more slowly. I understand your melancholy in seeing all this change around your places, I’ve got the same here, 10000 km far, we’re getting older 🙂

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    • I think it is good to be flexible and capable of moving ahead with the progression in time but I do not know if the change should come at the cost of your lifestyle and dietary habits. In Lepchajagat, the food and culture of Bengali tourists have eclipsed that of the Lepchas. In an overwhelming bid to offer comforts of Calcutta, they are reluctant to offer to the visitors a slice of their own culture. But more problematic is the fact that these visitors do not want to know the local culture. They want to recreate the way they live and eat in the plains in this hamlet instead of learning something new.

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  7. Wow, you sure do have a knack for writing and I was reading I felt like I was there. This is a conflicting situation, on one side you want the people to improve their lives and those of their children but on the other hand you want them to keep their culture and traditions intact.

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  8. You’re very talented at story-telling! Thanks for bringing me on a virtual journey with you to Lepchajagat. I learned a lot of interesting history. You’ve now made me crave a cup of chai…Great post!

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  9. I never heard about Lepchajagat before reading your well writing post. I’m really so sad hearing that so many tourists do not will to partake of the local culture and know more about the lifestyles of their homestay hosts. You have to try new experiences on your travel. There’s something so special about visiting a place that you can still feel the authenticity of the culture permeating the air.

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  10. Wow, this is an interesting blog and very well written too! I will have to admit I have started feeling hungry after reading the bengali menu highlights specially the Dal, Bhaat, alubhaja and chicken curry 😀 Thanks for this beautifully written piece!

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  11. hayley says:

    I love the way you write. I was right there with you among the push and shove and brashness of disrespectful tourists and sitting with a hot drink watching the evening activities of the local people. I also learned something new about a community of people I never really knew existed, so thanks for sharing.

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    • Thank you, Rasha! It’s disheartening sometimes. With more and more people becoming mobile, the only way to travel is to travel sustainably. Otherwise the negative impacts of tourism will cancel out all the benefits.

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  12. I so agree that food is the best icebreaker and also a view into the lives and cultures of another society. Eating local is the only real way to travel. Lepchajagat looks and sounds so amazing, like a place to go and reconnect with all things important. Thanks for sharing such a wonderful story.

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    • Thank you, Heidi! The best part for us was sitting on the terrace of our homestay after sundown and watching the lights of Darjeeling shimmering like an open casket in the dark. It was quiet except for the calls of some nocturnal birds.

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  13. Ananya Sarkar says:

    Every time your writings make me eager to go on a solo travel and experience all those things.Local culture, local foods always fascinate me. I am not much of a traveller but I will make it to Lepchajagat. Thank you for introducing this place to me.

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