Khangchendzonga, the third highest peak in the world which is worshiped as the guardian deity of Sikkim has lost its priest Samdup Taso. Taso was the last ‘Khangchendzonga Bongthings (priest)’ – the high priests who presided over the worship of the peak. The indigenous Lepcha people of Sikkim have been paying homage to the Himalayan peak for hundreds of years in an annual ceremony. Taso passed away at his native Nung village in the remote Dzongu region of north Sikkim last week. He was 83. The death of the tribe’s last priest has brought the curtains down on an 800-year-old ritual of the Lepchas, the original inhabitants of Sikkim who now number close to 55,000 and are in a minority in the state.
Lepchas have been worshipping the peak since the 13th century, when they settled down in the Dzongu region at the base of the peak. Since then the Lepchas have been holding special prayers and rituals to worship the peak in the month of ‘Kursong’ (February-March ). Taso, believed to be a descendant of the first ‘Bongthing’, used to lead these elaborate rituals that would commence with overnight prayers at his residence. The next morning, the ‘Bongthing’ would lead a large procession towards Lha-thu, an open air altar at Nung – the first Lepcha settlement – while singing songs that trace the history of the Lepchas and explain this ritual. This processional song was interpreted and translated by Halfdan Siiger, a theologist from Denmark who published the translation in his seminal work The Lepchas: Culture & Religion of a Himalaya People published by the National Museum of Denmark in 1956. Siiger had travelled across Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan in 1947.
According to this song, It mu, Kong Chen (as the peak is also called) was created by the God. The song dwells on a girl who lived at Sangnok Patam in Upper Dzongu along with her six brothers who were hunters. The brothers returned from a hunting trip one day and declared they’d go away forever to become Khangchendzonga’s soldiers, the song says, and the girl promised her brothers that when she bore children she’d ensure they worshipped Kong Chen and his soldiers. She moved to a neighbouring village, married and had a son but forgot about her promise, which enraged Kong Chen who sent ‘Payelbu’, a mythical serpent that coils itself at Kong Chen’s feet down the Talung river that flows through Dzongu and blocked the river whose rising waters created panic among the people. It was then that the lady’s son started praying to placate Kong Chen and the waters receded. This boy became the first Bongthing. A few generations down the line, a Bongthing didn’t have a son and he adopted a relative’s son from Nung and passed on the knowledge of the rituals to him. That’s how Nung became the source of successive Bongthings. And Taso was the last in this line of priests. For some unknown reason, Taso didn’t pass on the mantle to his son or grandson.
“The tradition… has ended forever. It is not possible for another person to learn the rituals and take Samdup Taso’s place,” says local resident Sherap Lepcha, a resident of Tingvong and former East Bengal footballer.
The annual worship of the peak used to be preceded by a trek by the Bongthing, accompanied by some 20-odd young men from Nung, to this erstwhile kingdom’s capital at Tumlong near Dzongu (the capital later shifted to Rabdentse in West Sikkim and then to Gangtok in 1894) where they would be received by the Chogyal (the King) and hosted at the royal palace. “Siiger’s translation of the prayers shows that they were more than just a worship of Kong Chen; they were an invocation to the peak to protect Sikkim from external aggression, namely from Bhutan and Nepal. Offerings from all parts of the kingdom used to be brought to Nung for this ritual,” says Pema Wangchuk, who co-authored a book Kangchendzonga: Sacred Summit on the Lepchas.
The yak sacrifice was stopped in 1973 as the Chogyal felt the practice was against the tenets of Buddhism. “He (Taso) told me that ever since the Chogyal stopped offering the yak, the prayers lost their lustre and even the times stopped being good for Sikkim,” says Wangchuk, who edits a newspaper at Gangtok and interviewed Taso extensively for his book.
Incidentally, internal strife overtook the kingdom and the Chogyal was deposed in 1975, paving way for the kingdom’s merger with India that year. Many Lepchas believe that the discontinuation of the traditional offering (of yak) by the Chogyal displeased Kong Chen and brought to an end the 300-year-old Namgyal dynasty of the Chogyals. After 1975, state patronage to the rituals at Nung ceased and the prayers became perfunctory. An attempt to revive the rituals a few years ago didn’t succeed either. “Very few Lepchas follow the traditional ‘Lepcha Mun’ faith and most have converted to Buddhism or Christianity. So few care for the rituals at Nung and fewer still know about them,” says Wangchuk.
“He was the last one in an ancient lineage of shamans who could perform the royal Kongchen (mountain deity) ritual,” Jenny Bentley, a Zurich-based ethnographer specialising in the Lepcha, wrote in the Sikkim Express on Sunday.