Asia

India's Lepcha tribe may lose Kanchenjunga ritual

  • 7 November 2011
  • From the section Asia
Kanchenjunga - the world's third-highest mountain
Image caption The Lepcha tribe believe their ancestors were made from snow on Kanchenjunga's summit

Members of a mountain tribe in India say one of their most important rituals may never be performed again, after the death of their spiritual leader.

The Lepcha community, in the state of Sikkim, pray every year to the world's third highest mountain, Kanchenjunga.

However, their 83-year-old priest, Samdup Taso, who used to conduct the elaborate ceremony, died last week leaving no anointed successor.

The Lepcha regard Kanchenjunga as their guardian deity.

They believe their earliest ancestors were created from the snows on the summit of the peak, which towers over their homeland.

Around 50,000 members of the Lepcha tribe live in the tiny Indian state of Sikkim, which lies in the heart of the Himalayas between Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet.

Although many have converted to Buddhism and Christianity, they still follow some of their traditional rituals.

The Lepcha have been praying to Kanchenjunga for hundreds of years, with the ceremony always led by descendents of their original priest.

However, Samdup Taso's son decided not to follow his father's profession, and there is no sign of any other family member stepping forward to take on the role.

Lost tradition

"The tradition has ended forever," a local resident, Sherap Lepcha, told the Times of India.

Image caption The Lepcha are regarded as the original inhabitants of the Indian state of Sikkim

"It is not possible for another person to learn the rituals and take Samdup Taso's place."

Jenny Bentley, an ethnographer specialising in the Lepcha, said: "He was the last one in an ancient lineage of shamans who could perform the royal Kongchen [mountain deity] ritual."

"With his death a large part of the oral tradition and memory is lost irrevocably," she told the Sikkim Express.

A local filmmaker, Dawa Lepcha, said it was a sad situation.

"Of course it's a great loss to us, because it's a part of our history and part of our identity that is being erased."

Kanchenjunga was first climbed by British mountaineers in 1955.

The first member of the team to complete the ascent, Joe Brown, stopped just short of the top, out of respect for the belief in Sikkim that the summit of the mountain is sacred.