Welcome Dr. Charisma Lepcha. We're so pleased to have this opportunity to speak with you today. You are an anthropologist and you teach at Sikkim University in India, and your doctoral dissertation was on religion, culture, and identity of your Lepcha people in the Eastern Himalayan borderland. Dr. Charisma, could ask you to say a few words about your Lepcha people, to locate them for us, and some of the environmental issues that the Lepcha people face? >> Thank you, Professor John. My name is Charisma Lepcha and like you have said, I work among the Lepchas itself. For me, I mean for the fact that there have been a lot written about the Lepchas for a really long time. Especially by colonial administrators, missionaries, explorers who were actually coming towards the Eastern Himalaya borderland which is basically the borders of India, China, Bhutan, Nepal. And for them, for the most part, of course your colonial administrators were there because of colonialism. But then we have these missionaries who came about and even the colonialists came about. So they were actually looking towards India, towards Tibet. Their main interest was Tibet. Majority of the times they have been interested in the bordering nations. And I think for that they chanced upon Lepchas and they started recording them as such. That's how I have seen it. But Lepchas are known to be the oldest inhabitants of this region. Currently they are scattered in Sikkim, in India, Nepal, eastern Nepal, maybe a handful, maybe about 2000 or so. And in Southwest Bhutan, which is about the same number. In India, we have about less than a lakh (100,000), which is maybe about 85, 86 thousand according to the Indian census. So we're talking about less than a lakh of Lepcha people across the world. Lepchas were believed, or whatever youre old records have been about, it has been said that they were the whole part of loving nature, "born botanists". So these are some of these phrases, some of these adjectives that were used for Lepcha people. But Lepchas say they were, they call themselves Mutanchi Rongkup which means "children of the snowy peaks." Because Lepchas believed that they were created from the snow of Mount Kanchenjunga. So the Itbu-debu Rum, the creator god, was a female and went on to, It was a she, because I also mentioned that because our imagination of creator god is usually the male God as such. And so but in Lepcha cosmology, if that's all, we have the female creator god who is believed to have picked up the snow from Mount Kanchenjunga and made the first man and woman and sent to live, so to say, in this area jungle. Which I hope we'll be talking about later. So because of that, they call themselves "children of snowy peaks." Like I said, Mutanchi Rongkup, that's where I believe the whole idea or not just idea, but this whole connection with nature comes about. And the Lepcha community or people is divided into clans, and it is believed that names of the clans are the mountain range in the Kanchenjunga. So there are all these peaks that exist, they represent the clans. And this becomes important because each clan has their own peak, mountain peak. So when they die, the idea is your souls go back to your mountain peak. So this idea again of this, of course, the Judeo-Christian heaven, hell does not necessarily exist in Lepcha religion if at all. Since we don't even have a word for religion. But yeah, so that's what comes about. But what happened was coming into contact with these different groups of people. Going back to your question, Lepchas were seeing. So the colonialists. So first off comes the Buddhists, the Tibetans, who come and establish this Namgyal dynasty in Sikkim. And at that time Lepchas easily, somehow, there was not a whole lot of resistance, although the ritual specialists are believed to have the spiritual fight etc. You seem to have taken place, but Lepchas somehow accepted Buddhism, we're talking 16th century, so to say. Then comes later, 19th century, you have the Christian missionaries and like I said, the missionaries were also wanting to enter either Tibet or Nepal because both these countries were closed for foreigners. So actually the Lepchas, I don't know if there are others who say it or those who are working on Lepchas, but I always say that they just chanced upon Lepchas and then, so Lepchas were the first to be converted to of course your Buddhism, your Christianity. And then of course, now with the coming of the Nepali population, you have a lot of Hindu influence. So my work, my thesis was, my PhD was basically looking into this coming of these different world religions and because what appeared was that Lepcha people seem to be fragmented based on their religious identities. So in that, so there was a bit of unspoken tension, the Buddhists and the Buddhist Lepcha, Christian Lepcha. So in in those lines, I set off my research, but of course I also looked into the Indigenous religion, which we say Mun-Bungthing-ism which is actually derived from the name of the ritual specialists for that. The "mun" is the female, mostly female, sometimes a male shaman if I may, and then the "bungthing" is the day to day. He's a male shaman who is more of a healer, more of a provider of medicines, who knows the medicine of plants. Who is basically, whose task is more of an everyday than the mun who is mostly required when somebody dies. So Mun-Bungthing-ism so I also look into that. But since the community, the people have accepted more of the world religions, either Buddhism or Christianity, there was very less, so to say, or more so if you find people worshiping or practicing traditional Indigenous religion, it was mixed, so to say, with Buddhism. And of course that was where it was. So that's where we got into in terms of this Indigenous religion and Buddhism, but then what happens is, so there was this tension that was happening between these religious identities that came about. And of course I think everybody is familiar with all these ethnic identity in the Himalayas, the resurgence even especially of the Indigenous people. In terms of Nepal, I think we know the Janajati movement and even here I think we had this idea of, what was happening? What was the true Lepcha? So the pure Lepcha is at all. So and in that, that's where I got into trying to examine whether either of these identities, whether these tensions or these cleavages based on their religious identities, were at all a barrier to the pan-Lepcha identity. So basically my work was looking into religion but was trying to get into the identity formation of how they negotiate, or how they choose, how they construct their religious identities vis-a-vis your ethnic identity. So that's where my work comes about and of course, but everything in between that has to do with the Lepchas I try to look a little closer in India, we always get questioned when we are working on our own communities. Are you biased? Are you not objective? But I think there was a point when this critical assessment needed to be done without certain bits of group loyalism if at all and that's why I have come about and try to look into these aspects. >> Yeah, wonderful. Charisma, can I also ask, you have studied Lepcha identity in relationship also to local environmental issues. Can you speak a bit about the environmental issues that the Lepcha people face and especially how have young people seen their identity in terms of these environmental issues? >> So, like I mentioned earlier about this whole cleavages, these divisions between different religious identities, I think there was a point when dam projects were set to come to this Lepcha area. So just to backtrack, in Sikkim, the heart of Sikkim, there is a place called Dzongu which has been set aside as just a Lepcha reserve. Of course in comparison, it may sound very colonial etc. But then it was a place where the queen wanted only Lepchas to reside, back when Sikkim had its own country and the queen wanted. So that received a royal affirmation, a royal order saying nobody could enter there. So this is a culturally homogeneous Lepcha terrain. Otherwise we're living in a very heterogeneous, very mixed population setting. So, Dzongu is the place where, but Dzongu is also seen as the place where, like I said earlier, the first men and women were sent to live. So this whole area has a special significance to the Lepcha people. So what happened was in 2000, there are these damn projects that the government of India has been sanctioning, especially in the eastern Himalayas, from Arunachal Pradesh to Sikkim, Darjeeling. This Teesta River, so to say more so. And in that, what happened was, it's the young people actually who were educated in the capital Gangtok and even to Kolkata who decided to start this protest against these six dam projects that were slated to be built inside this land, inside this reserve area, because, and the main argument for them or what their slogan was, "no dams in our ancestral land." So that's how it started. And so it was more of this. And I usually like to see it as whether you were a Christian Lepcha or a Buddhist Lepcha, this was the turning point where the earlier labeling of Lepchas as naturalists or born botanists or having their ways with nature, comes to the fore when despite your religious identities, you came and said no, the dams must be stopped. So it was this dam project. So it was this big dams, because we know that Himalayas are the youngest of the mountains that exist also, and it's very vulnerable to a lot of the tunneling, the coming of these hydro projects have a very negative, not just negative, massive impact on not just the lives but the biodiversity, and so to say the whole environment in general. So I would like to think that it was the coming of this youth, them starting out as protests, and it's very sad, interesting, one might say anything, but it was only, I mean we don't, in Sikkim and this neighboring areas in the eastern Himalayas, it's not just the Lepchas who reside, but it was the Lepchas who initiated the protest and it became more of just a Lepcha protest. Whereas it should have been a Himalayan protest or anyone who would be interested, because it was not just the six dams, we have about 26 dams that were slated to be built along this Teesta River that we are familiar with. So in that, the Lepcha initiated the protests, it was a very difficult task. They were seen as anti-Sikkimis, anti-development. And it was among, the people themselves within the reserve area were torn between pro-dam and anti-dam Lepchas. So the community was again divided into being for development or anti-development, but I think it was the persistence of the youth, four of them, four of the dam projects were scrapped. So this started in June 20th, 2007, I was doing my masters then and we went there, we of course I am not in the ground protesting, but our solidarity has always been with it is Tao Lepcha and Tenzing Lepcha. These are two amazing young people who initiated, started, and it's also seen as the first ever protest in Sikkim, Sikkim is such a small state and we've had the same chief minister for the last 25 years. Of course it recently changed that nobody dared speak against the government. So when the Lepchas initiated this hunger strike, it was seen to be something uncharacteristic even for a Lepcha. Because Lepchas were always labeled as nature lovers, simple, docile, all these identities built up by the colonial texts or colonial ethnographies as such. And that's why it became an issue not just in Sikkim. Of course it garnered some interest of environmentalists like [inaudible name] who also visited the site. But I think it resonated more with international Indigenous people and the solidarities or the support was coming more from outside India than within, than from India, also because of the problem we have. I think with indigineity in India because India is a country where we don't recognize, the government does not recognize the term Indigenous. >> Yes >> We use tribes. So we are tribes or Adivasis and it's very interesting even between tribes and Adivasis, because that is just the Hindi translation. However, the tribes are mostly, seem to be the hill areas. So to say of Northeast India. >> Yes. >> And the Adivasis are the central Indian tribes which, and then we again have that distance. So there is no common ground with the similar kind of marginalization that is happening. So I think the solidarity comes more from international support, also because in many ways, within the country, we failed, because there, I think, in India there's so many issues that people just, it's not a big deal. It's not news, but I think what happened was it's interesting also because when the Lepcha started protesting it was to safeguard their holy land. >> Yes. >> Right, so in Dzongu, jungle reserve area. So it was for to safeguard the holy land. And when people asked, in terms of why would you talk about your culture? Nobody cares about your culture. It was, and then people were saying you should talk more in terms of, because of the environment, because of the biodiversity. But then what they failed to see was when you talk about religion, your environment automatically comes. >> Yes. >> When it comes to the people because majority of the rituals, et cetera, everything is associated with the environment, with the rocks, with the grass, with mountains, and the rivers. So it made sense when Lepchas were saying it, but it didn't make sense so much when somebody else would hear, oh the Lepchas are protesting for their homeland, their holy land, their ancestor land. So, but I think, after a decade of protest, there's still a project, Teesta Stage IV, that is now, that is happening. And now there are more protests, not protests, but not like back in 2007, but there's a whole lot of Lepcha, not just Lepcha youth, but youth from other communities also who are supporting, and these protests have now gone to different forms like in social media. So I think now there is more of the support against these. And because I think after a decade or so, people have also realized that the dams that were there have actually brought a lot of disruption in everyday life. >> Yes. >> There's been floods, there's been landslides, which has changed the landscape. >> Yes. >> So this, and I think you're also aware of the earthquake that hit Sikkim and so this earthquake basically, extreme events as such. And this earthquake actually shook the people. I think it's 2011, we're talking about September and majority of the relief was sent to the city areas, but it was up in, the epicenter was very close to where I'm talking about. >> Yes. >> In that, of course it's also to be remembered that even the kind of houses that Lepchas built are actually earthquake proof, too. >> And that's the traditional house. >> Yes traditional houses. So to say it's built from just one, there's no nail use, its just built from carving within. So maybe that's not as relevant, but, what has happened? So there was this earthquake and then in 2016 we had this whole landslide that occurred and the landscape changed. So there's an artificial lake that was formed. >> Yes. >> And we are seeing in front of our eyes how the ecology is being damaged, how this environment is in pain. So to say because when you look from one side of the hill to the other, there's this huge dent, there's this huge scar. And I think that is triggering a sense of, what is happening to our mountains, our hills and our rivers? To a lot of especially our younger generation. And I think if I may in one of your questions you get into how Indigenous students might also be interested in this whole environmental bit. >> Yes. >> I think I am very, I find myself very fortunate that I get to teach in Sikkim University because the university is not very old. It was started in 2007, but I think since its beginning a lot of Indigenous students, and I say Lepcha students, have been able to gain higher education otherwise you don't go beyond Gangtok which is the capital of Sikkim. But then even indigineity is, I get this idea of performing because sometimes to be recognized as Indigenous because who is Indigenous, you do certain things. And you do certain things and I think it becomes interesting that I think you are seeming to be closer to the land but not everyone is. >> Yeah. >> is closer to the land. So you may not have the ways of how your indigineity is articulated. And in that we cling to the memories, or what has been told about what could be Lepcha indigineity as such memories. Or even practices, that was that was still there in your ancestral land or what comes about. A few of these things, if at all, it connects is majority of even Lepcha religious rituals, if at all, is based on this environment. And this practicing, because Lepchas were never a very organized group of people, like "okay 25th December is going to be your biggest festival as Christmas or something". Yeah. >> Like I said, we're organized in clans, and each clan had its own peak. So even the worshiping of a mountain was a very small affair. So in that little things like Chu Rum Faat, which is a mountain, a festival for worshiping the mountain, or even the sprouting of the grass, et cetera, was a very small level, at a smaller level. But the fact that now something like Tendong Lho Rum Faat, which is a festival, has now received state approval. So the state has approved it and it's a state holiday. So what I'm getting at is to prove one's indigineity, one has had to establish certain rituals or certain, one has had to move further than what was in its original place. >> Yeah.