From the Dawn of Time

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Legends of The Lepchas: Folk Tales from Sikkim by Yishey DomaThe Lepchas are a tribe who we hear about or encounter intermittently – the smiling faced people who inhabit parts of the Dooars, Darjeeling, Nepal, south western Bhutan and Sikkim – glimpsed perhaps on a holiday or seen in their tribal finery in photographs. As with all tribal folk, the Lepchas have their own rich lore of folk tales, stories of how the world they call their own began. ‘In the beginning there was nothing …Then Itbu-moo, the Mother Creator, shaped the mountains, the rivers, and the lakes. But something was missing. Why did her creation feel empty? So, taking a fresh ball of snow, she created the first man’ whose name was Fudonthing.

Most of the legends of ancient communities begin with how the world was created and go on to how the first man and woman fell from grace. Yishey Doma’s stories too follow this well trodden path, because the Lepchas, in common with the ancient Greeks, the Norwegians and even the Russians have their own stories from the back of the north wind. And though each story can be read on its own, together they form part of the collective cultural history of the Lepchas.

It’s a world peopled by mountains and rivers, like Kongchen Kongchlo or Kanchenjunga whose peaks are like watchful pricked ears, or the Teesta and the Rangeet which were originally spirits in love with each other. But then what can you expect from a people who call themselves children of the snowy peak and of the God, Mutanchi Rong Kup Rum Kup.

There are familiar elements to the stories which lovers of folk tales would recognise, like the cat and the dog who ask for food in the story of the missing red cow and who are refused by a widow and her two eldest daughters until the third, youngest daughter takes pity of then and saves all humanity from being eaten up by demons. There is more than a touch of Baba Yaga there too as the girl escapes by throwing a comb behind her which springs up to form a hedge of thorns. And, as in all folk tales, there are fairies and there are demons, there are talking animals, walking trees and even lakes that have the freedom to move from place to place.

We are also given insights into Lepcha rituals in stories like The Crown of Music – where we understand the reason why the Lepchas burn the effigy of the demon king Laso Mung Puno at midnight. Or there is the legend that dates from the coming of Buddhism, the story behind Padma Sambhava’s mysterious pot, the Bum Chu which is housed at Tashiding monastery and which is visited every year by tourists and devotees alike.

The slim book carries a Lepcha textile design on its cover and houses 22 stories, each accompanied by an illustration by Pankaj Thapa, in the time honoured manner of folk tales. The book, while being a gallant attempt to capture the stories of a vanishing way of life, is not without its problems. The tribal names, for instance prove to be a stumbling block for the outside reader, despite the footnotes thoughtfully provided at the end of each chapter. One could also wish for a greater lyricism in the language to match the heroic content of the stories.

Yishey Doma is not a Lepcha but comes from a tribe which has vowed brotherhood with the Lepchas, as described in the story of Khye Bumsa, the Wandering Prince. She describes the book as an attempt to document a heritage that is in imminent danger of becoming extinct and in this she has certainly been successful.

Legends of The Lepchas: Folk Tales from Sikkim by Yishey Doma
Published in India by Westland and Tranquebar Press

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Buy book online
Buy book online
Legends of The Lepchas: Folk Tales from Sikkim
by Yishey Doma

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Written by Anjana Basu
Anjana Basu

Anjana Basu works as an advertising consultant in Calcutta. In 2003, Harper Collins India brought out her novel Curses In Ivory. In 2004, she was awarded a Hawthornden Fellowship in Scotland where she worked on her second novel, Black Tongue, published by Roli in 2007. In February 2010. her children's novel Chinku and the Wolfboy was brought out by Roli. She writes features for travel magazines and reviews for Indian newspapers.

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