Tuesday 18 December 2018

The Secret Life of the Shamans in Dzongu

My homestay in Lingthem, Dzongu
I arrived one late evening in Dzongu at my homestay. I had travelled from Gangtok where it was cold and I had assumed it would be much colder in Dzongu, so I had worn thermals. But to my surprise, as soon as I landed at my home stay I had to go excuse myself and take off the thermals.
"It’s pretty warm here. Doesn’t it get cold?” I asked my host. “Well, it does get cold when it rains. Now that there is a wedding in the village, the Shaman has requested the Rain spirits to hold on until after the wedding”, she replied casually. And this answer did not raise my eyebrows either. I was here to meet the Shamans, the bearers of the Nature worship rituals of the Lepchas.
It may have been around three years ago that I had read somewhere that the Lepchas, the indigenous tribe of Sikkim, still worship Nature and have maintained their Nature worship rituals, and that is what sparked a thirst and eagerness to meet them and know about these rituals.

Shamans are the spiritual leaders in Animist communities. And before the existence of organized religions, I guess we were all animists. Shamans have the ability to enter altered states of consciousness and communicate with everything around-trees, animals, and spirits of both humans and non-humans. It was in the 1970’s that Buddhism spread to Dzongu, the reservation for the Lepchas, a closed community which had fended off external influences until a few decades ago, and though most of the Lepchas in Dzongu are Buddhists (of the Ningmappa set of Buddhism), they still maintain their animist traditions. So, even though there are Shamans in Dzongu who are Buddhists, they practice their Nature worship rituals.

I thought this was remarkable as well as important considering how unique traditions have been obliterated in the wake of organized religion.
The Lepchas have a total of 108 clans and each clan has a Shaman. So, if there is a birth, death, wedding, house warming ceremony, or the family ‘puja’, the Shaman of one’s clan is called to perform the rituals. But since the young generation has adopted a more general way of life and many people have moved out of Dzongu,  the Shamans of other clans are called, too, these days for rituals. The dominant clan in Lingthem village, where my home-stay was, is Chortholing Puso. However, my host belongs to the clan called Ateam Pocho on his father’s side, but lives in his Mother’s village-Lingthem.
Kachyo Lepcha, my host, who teaches Lepcha culture at Sikkim University
The Shaman is called ‘Bomthing’ in the Lepcha language. Currently there are two Bomthings in Dzongu. One is elderly around 80 yrs of age and the other in his 50’s. When I had contacted my host, Kachyo Lepcha, I had told him that I would like to meet the Shamans and he said that he will arrange for it. But when I landed in Lingthem at his home-stay, I got to know from his wife Premit that Kachyo lives in Gangtok, where he teaches Lepcha culture at the Sikkim Univesity and visits Lingthem only on weekends. So I had to wait till the weekend to meet Kachyo who would then take me to meet the Shamans. That Kachyo was teaching Lepcha culture was like a cherry on the cake for me, because I was eager to know more about this Nature-worshipping community.
On the way to Shaman Netuk's house
On a Sunday, we walked a considerable distance through the stunningly beautiful forest to meet the elderly Shaman, named Netuk, at his house. His son informed that he had gone to the farm. So after drinking some tea which Netuk’s daughter-in-law offered, we walked towards the farm where we hoped to find Netuk. We reached the farm and Kachyo scanned the crops to spot Netuk sitting amidst the green peas crop. We walked towards him and I said ‘Khamri’, the equivalent of ‘Hello’ in Lepcha language. Kachyo explained that I was here to meet him and know more about the Shamans. Now, Netuk is currently 80 yrs and above and his hearing faculties were failing. Although Kachyo explained loudly into his ears the purpose of our visit, he did not hear us correctly and responded with something else. We realized it would be difficult having a conversation this way. I said “Agonee” and “Tokchi” meaning ‘Nice to meet you' and ‘thank you’ and we took leave of him.

You may like my blog post of the Wild vegetables festival
Shaman Netuk
The next day we planned to meet the younger Shaman in his 50’s called Tithi Gyatso Lepcha. It started raining in the morning and it was finally in the early afternoon that it stopped, so we could finally leave. It was 4 pm when we left and Kachyo said it would be a 45 minutes’ walk through the forest to the Shaman’s house. We started walking and were soon in the dense forest. Giant trees, enormous ferns and colossal bamboo groves greeted us. We crossed streams, walked over slippery stones and some slush. Part of me was freaking out. The sun sets early in the east, especially so in the mountains, which means we would have to walk back in the dark over slippery stones and slush, not to mention narrow paths overlooking steep declines. 
The dense forest on the way to Shaman Tithi Gyatso's house

Kachyo is as sure-footed as a mountain goat in his flip-flop!

Beautiful colours of the forest
I noticed that Kachyo was wearing an ordinary flip-flop and didn’t even bother looking down and walking even on narrow paths. He was as sure-footed as the mountain goats, as is the case with all mountain people. I, a city woman, in trekking shoes and trekking pole had to watch each and every step. I wished I had more time to slowly walk through the forest and savor the beauty, but we had to meet the Shaman and return before it was too dark.
Shaman Tithi Gyatso
I silently requested the forest fairies to ensure that it didn’t rain and that we cross the difficult patch through the forest on the way back, before dusk. I couldn’t help noticing that both the Shamans had their homes, befittingly, in the middle of the forest, and the way to each was delightfully green, pristine and overwhelmingly beautiful. In fact, these were paths walked on only by Shaman’s family members or other villagers when they were visiting the Shaman.
View from Shaman Tithi Gyatso's house
Tithi Gyatso welcomed us at the entrance of his home. He could understand Hindi but couldn’t speak the language so it befell on Kachyo to become the translator. I asked him a few questions about his life and this is the gist of it. Tithi Gyatso began having strange dreams at the age of 18, with voices commanding him to go into the forest and look for answers in life. There was an inner calling about his inner power which required to be tapped into. He consulted the then Shaman who confirmed Tithi’s calling to be a Shaman. 
In Lepcha culture, there are no scriptures as such. For rituals, Shamans use their own words and compose their own prayers. But one could take the guidance of an older Shaman if the need arises. Shamans are allowed to marry and have a family. Among Shamans there are those who conduct regular rituals like house-warming, blessing a new born, etc which does not require interacting with supernatural powders or entities.  And there are Shamans who perform death rituals, and rituals involving the cleansing of a person’s aura from other entities, etc, which requires the Shaman to get into an altered state of consciousness. Tithi Gyatso performs all kinds of rituals including the death ritual in which the Shaman guides the spirit to the base of the Kachenjunga.
The Kachenjunga peak.

The Lepcha culture is full of stories that shows how their lives are intricately intertwined with Nature. Firstly, they believe that they were moulded out of the snow of the Kanchenjunga Mountain. In fact, the original name of Sikkim is ‘Mayal Lyang’ which means secret paradise. That paradise, the Lepchas believe still exists at the base of the Kachenjunga. For that reason, the Kanchenjunga is very sacred to the Lepchas and a cloudless and clear sighting of the mountain peak in the morning is considered auspicious. I saw many Lepchas stopping on their paths and bowing to the peak on a clear day. Even today, when a person dies, the Shaman guides the souls to the ‘Mayal Lyang’.
Shaman Netuk performing a ritual. Picture taken from the documentary on the laptop.

The offering of flowers, fruit and chi to the Nature spirits.Picture taken from the documentary on the laptop.

The altar and the ritual. Picture taken from the documentary on the laptop.

Even their wedding rituals abound with analogies to Nature. The Shaman blesses the bride and groom with the benediction that their marriage may be as long as the rivers Teesta and Rangeet have been flowing.
Offering of the chi with butter to the nature spirits. Picture taken from the documentary on the laptop.

Village people partaking of the chi after the ritual.Picture taken from the documentary on the laptop.

The onset of seasons is also heralded by birds which are believed to fly out from the base of the Kanchenjunga, where the secret paradise lies, to inform people about seasonal and weather changes. The racket tailed drongo, especially, is considered very important in Lepcha culture. The detached ‘racket’ feather of the bird, if found, is considered very lucky and is used as adornment on men’s traditional hats.
Traditional attire of the Lepcha man with the 'racket' feather of the racket tailed drongo on the hat

I saw a documentary of Shaman Netuk where he leads a group of people to the upper reaches of Dzongu. Before crossing a river or a stream or a sacred grove, the Shaman makes an offering of flowers, fruit and the local brew ‘chi’ to the spirits of the forest and seeks their permission to enter.
The ‘chi’, the local beer brewed from millet is very integral to all Lepchas activities. They themselves drink copious amounts of Chi and also offer it to the Gods and spirits on every occasion, be it weddings, funerals, house-warming or just casual get-togethers. Another important ritual that happens annually is the propitiation of the Kanchenjunga. This happens sometime in January. An altar is created facing the scared mountain, with wood and flowers and an offering of fruit, meat, eggs and chi is made. The Shaman leads the ritual by asking the Kanchenjunga to protect her children from all calamities and ensure a good harvest. At the end of the ritual, the Shaman breaks open 3 eggs and reads the pattern it forms to predict what lies in store for the Lepchas.
Fortune telling by breaking the eggs. Picture taken from the documentary on the laptop.

What do the eggs say?Picture taken from the documentary on the laptop.

At Shaman Tithi Gyatso’s home before taking his leave, I asked him to give me a message without the rituals, because we didn’t have time for that. He said that I should avoid travelling for the next 2-3 months as I may fall ill. That could have been true because I was inflicted with a recurring throat infection around the same time. I thanked him for his message and we started our way back to the home-stay across the same slippery rocks, streams and enchanted groves. The Nature fairies had heard my prayer. We arrived just as the sky was swallowing the last remnants of light.
In a place where Shamans and Nature reign supreme, could it have been any other way?
The sunrise on the morning I left

The dramatic sky
In ancient Lepcha communities, owing to their hunter-gatherer lifestyle, cut off from urban civilization, where the sustenance was entirely on forests, Shamans would have had a greater role to play, I am guessing. But I am happy, I could meet the Shamans of Dzongu and gather information on Nature worship rituals and gain an insight into their way of life.

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Monday 17 December 2018

Experiencing Bird(ing) Paradise in Sarmoli

The forest floor carpeted with rhododendron petals.
You've heard of the saying, 'You can't have your cake and eat it too'? Well, I realised if you are a Hindu that's totally possible. Now, before you think this is a religious statement, (of course I am a proud Hindu) let me hasten to explain why :-) In 2017, I had a unique wish for my birthday. I wanted to celebrate my birthday with the Nature fairies in a forest and wanted the birds to sing my birthday song:-) Well, while it may sound like fantasy to some, I knew that was totally possible. If this time-space reality has the ability to give birth to a desire, it also has the power to fulfill it! So the answer lay in my long pending trip to Sarmoli, which had been getting postponed for the last 3 years. The only hitch was that I also wanted to be with my favourite person that day- my husband who couldn't travel with me. So that is where being a Hindu came to my rescue. For us Hindus, we get to celebrate our birthday twice a year, one on the day as per the Gregorian calendar and another as per the Hindu lunar calendar (called 'tithi'). Both birthdays usually fall within a few days of each other.

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Curled up with a book in my home-stay

So I spent my Georgian calendar birthday with my husband and off I went the next day morning to Sarmoli, after a flight to Delhi, an overnight train to Kathgodam and a 10 hour road trip to this quaint village. Sarmoli is also home to the Himal Prakriti trust- an organization that works to conserve the forests in Munsiyari. I had been in touch with Malika Virdi, the woman behind the conservation initiatives and the community run homestays. I decided I wanted to also contribute in some way I can. So we decided that I would illustrate birds of the region. I was asked to illustrate the Laughing Thrushes that inhabit the Munsiyari area- totally eight of them. Here’s my work. They would be printed on brochures by Himal Prakriti for educational campaigns.
Chestnut crowned Laughing Thrush

Rufous chinned Laughing Thrush

Spotted Laughing Thrush

Streaked Laughing Thrush

Striated Laughing Thrush

Variegated Laughing Thrush

White throated Laughing Thrush

The very first morning I was woken up by the songs of so many birds. I went out and there was the son of my host, all of 10 years, confidently naming each and every bird that was singing. Barbets, Verditer Flycatcher, woodpeckers, warblers, etc. 

The realisation dawned on me that I was in bird paradise, and that my trip was going to be a beautiful bird-filled one! I would be woken up every morning at around 5.30 am by the birds and I would sit up on my bed, wide eyed, watching the sun infuse energy into everything around. Slowly the bird song would reach a crescendo giving the day a perfect start!Munsiyari, the hamlet in which the village Sarmoli lies,  is rich in bio-diversity and has around 350 species of birds and I was looking forward to seeing as many as I could.

Yellow Grosbeak- male and female

I was assigned a large desk next to a large picture window in Ram’s dream mountain house. Ram, originally from Chennai, has made Sarmoli his home since the last 24 years. One look at his wood and stone house, you would know that this is what weary urban office goers dream of. Well, I’m not a typical office goer, but I too dream to have a house like his, basking in the lap of the Panchachuli mountains.
My workdesk :-)
Now, this window where I sat each of the 10 days and sketched away, overlooked a magnificent walnut tree, amongst others and beyond it was the gorgeous snow peaked Panchachuli mountains! 
The Panchachuli mountains

Could I have asked for anything more! Now comes the best part! Ordinarily, one would have to walk around to spot birds. But sitting right where I was, I could get such splendid sighting of birds such as Whistling Thrush, Rufous Treepie, Red billed Blue Magpie, shy Partridges, etc. I carry only a small pocket sized camera, so these are ‘humble’ pictures but they will give you an idea of the beauty I experienced.
Yellow billed Blue magpies and Rufous Treepie

Chestnut crowned Laughing Thrush

Whistling Thrush

Khalij pheasant and a Turtle Dove
As in all mountain regions, the weather would be moody and each day was different. Sometimes, the sky would be aglow with purple, pink and gold, some days there would be cottony clouds floating through huge beams of sunlight. 
Different moods of the sky.

Can you spot the UFO landing? Kidding...it's a sun beam :-)

Just before sunrise

I even experienced hailstorm, my first ever. Luckily, I was watching it from the cozy comfort of Ram’s home, or else I would have had a dent or two on my skull! But it was beautiful, to see lemon sized hail stones pelting down from the heavens above. As soon as the storm subsided, I went to pick up a few hailstones. How wonderful!
Hailstones on my palm. I was thrilled!
Hailstones everywhere!

So, on my Hindu calendar birthday, I went on this amazing trek-cum-birdwatching trip on the upper reaches of the Munsiari mountains, where I had only birds (hundreds of them), the snow capped Panchachuli mountains and the forest fairies for company. And just as I had wanted, I spent the whole day being enthralled by the beauty of the forest, reading a book, taking a nap on the flower strewn grass, and meditating, with the birds singing for me in chorus throughout:-) 

You may like my post on the Rhododendron trek
Taking in the beauty of the forest.

A received a red carpet welcome! 

Reading a book in the forest.

I was greeted with sights like these- of the forest floor carpeted with rhododendron flowers, golden sunlight streaming through the thousand shades of green and porcelain blue skies speckled with fluffy clouds. We even had a little party with me eating some delicious gobi-parathas and rajma which my host had packed for me while the birds snacked on insects and seeds around. :-) I cannot even begin listing the variety of birds I spotted, but I've drawn a few. 

My illustration of the birthday with birds :-)

To the left is the Yellow billed Blue Magpie, Rosefinch, Woodpecker, Verditer Flycatcher, and to the right are the Long tailed Minivet, Barbet, Warbler and the Black and Yellow Grosbeak. All the birds looked like they had been dipped in buckets of happy colours and sprinkled with some more for patterns :-) That's going to be one of my best memories forever. Thank you Universe!

Mesar Kund

While I am writing about Sarmoli, the community effort of the village people deserves a mention. What makes this village different from others is that the forests around the village are owned by the community as opposed to being owned by the Government or private individuals. I was completely floored by the pride and reverence that the people of Sarmoli have for their culture, mountains and forests. Each person of the village does voluntary 'Shram-daan', meaning offering service in the forests for any number of days in a year. One day while trekking up I saw a group of 7 children jumping into the Mesar kund, a pond in the forest. I thought they were having fun. But my guide pointed out that the children were cleaning up the pond- removing plastic bottles and bags strewn by thoughtless tourists. This concept of a community owned forest is the only kind outside of the North East of India. Here, I am basking in the warmth and love of the forests near Nag deo kund. :-) 
Kheela devi with the carpets she has woven
Our traditional self sustaining societies included weavers and Sarmoli is no different. There are weavers of shawls, sweaters and woollen mats and carpets in Sarmoli, but I could only meet Kheela devi who weaves beautiful woollen mats and carpets in traditional Kumaoni designs. These are sold through Maati Sangathan, a women's collective founded by Malika Virdi, about whom I will talk later. To give the mats an interesting spin, designs of birds found locally are also incorporated. I visited Kheela Devi's home, saw her at work and bought a colourful mat woven by her at the Maati office.
Bird motifs on mats

Yellow billed blue magpie on a mat

The first 5 days I spent in a home-stay which I have nothing to write about. The host, Pushpa Sumtyal, did not keep basic necessities like milk for tea and  I had only potatoes for 5 days! I was wondering if I should have skipped writing this, but I also need to give an honest review of my experience. So I requested a change of home-stay and the second one more than made up for the 1st five days. I would never forget my endearing, warm hosts, Saraswati Thakuni, her daughter-in-law and her grand daughter, Bhanu for making authentic Kumaoni dishes for me. I have dedicated an entire post about Kumaoni food and thanks to Bhanu I could sample as many as 16 dishes over a period of 5 days at her place.

                            You may also like my post on Himachali cuisine
Lip smacking Kumaoni dishes made by Bhanu Thakuni

I would surely recommend Sarmoli for a relaxed getaway in Nature’s lap. You may contact Malika Virdi at 9411194041 or Ram Narayan at 9411194042 for homestays.
Yellow billed blue magpies giving me a farewell.

The full moon soothing my soul

On the last evening of my stay there, I took a long walk around the village, my heart already heavy that I would be leaving next morning. On the path I saw some Yellow billed Blue Magpies gathered as if to give me a warm farewell and I looked up at the sky. There was the full moon in its glory beaming at me, assuring me that I will continue to have such beautiful experiences. 

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