Climate Change

Sikkim, the land blessed by Guru Rinpoche, is being destroyed by anthropogenic activity: Yishey Doma

The author of several books on Sikkimese religion, folklore and culture speaks with Down To Earth in the light of the South Lhonak Lake disaster

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Saturday 07 October 2023

Teesta river flowing through the Yumthang valley in Sikkim. Photo: iSTockThe Teesta river flowing through the Yumthang valley in Sikkim. Photo: iStock

The South Lhonak lake in Sikkim burst on the intervening night of October 3 and 4, 2023. It is the latest in a series of Himalayan disasters that have struck India since 2013. 

South Lhonak lake follows in the footsteps of Kedarnath (2013), Rishiganga (2021) and Joshimath (2022). The death toll on October 6 was 40, according to Reuters. Bodies have been found downstream in the mighty Teesta river as it flows from Sikkim through north Bengal and into Bangladesh.

A journalist and poet, Yishey Doma has written several books on Sikkim, including Sikkim: A Hidden Fruitful ValleyFaith Healers of Sikkim: Traditions, Legends and Rituals, and The Splendour of Sikkim: Cultures and Traditions of the Ethnic Communities.  

Down To Earth  spoke to her on the cultural significance of the Teesta in the lives of the Sikkimese people as well as the very important role played by nature in Sikkimese life, religion and culture. Edited excerpts:

Rajat Ghai (RG): What is the religio-cultural significance of the Teesta and its tributaries for Sikkim's inhabitants?  


Yishey Doma (YD): It is difficult for me to explain in a few words the vastness of the religio-cultural significance of Sikkim let alone the Teesta and its tributaries.

The indigenous people of Sikkim — Lepchas, Bhutias and Nepalis — who are basically animists (though they later also accepted Buddhism, Hinduism or Christianity), have their life (from birth to death) revolve around nature, spirits and supernatural beings, which means their births, clans, rituals, festivals, and even their deaths are related with nature.

They have a deep spiritual and supernatural connection to their land. This influences the way these communities relate to their surroundings, and how they use and guard their natural resources.

RG: Let us start with the Lepchas then. What role has the Teesta played in their lives since time immemorial? 

YD: The animist Lepchas trace their origin to the snows of Mount Khangchendzonga, the waters of which flow through the Teesta. This is why they also believe that the sacred spirit of the river Teesta (or Rongnyu in its upper reaches) takes their souls to Khangchendzonga after death.

They worship the Rongnyu as a female deity. Rangeet (the largest tributary of the Teesta) is her lover and is worshipped as a male deity. The Lepchas also see the meeting of the two river spirits at Pozok (now in West Bengal) as a union of both lovers — a story from which the Lepchas take inspiration.

The story also reveals how a mountain by the name of Mount Tendong rose above the Teesta and saved the Lepchas from an ancient deluge.

How did the flood come about? According to the legend, Rangeet and Rongnyu — Goddess Itbu-moo’s creations — were known across Mayel Lyang, as the land of Sikkim was known then, for their grace, beauty and love for one another.

The river spirits decided one day to venture beyond the environs of their sacred homes and meet at Pozok, in the plains of Bengal. They decided to take different routes to travel to the rendezvous.

Rangeet asked the mountain bird Tutfo to guide him. He knew the bird was swift and hence would help him reach Pozok at the earliest. Rongnyu decided to follow Parilbu, the serpent.

Tutfo, being distracted by fruit trees, flowers, insects and other birds, delayed Rangeet’s march to Pozok. On the other hand, Rongnyu was able to reach first as Parilbu was not distracted and darted towards the plains like an arrow.

When Rangeet saw that Rongnyu was already at Pozok, his first words were: This-see-tha (from which we get, ‘Teesta’) — when did you arrive? His pride severely wounded as he had lost to a female, Rangeet decided to go back to the Himalayas. He roared and groaned and this caused a deluge.

Rangeet flooded everything in his path. Only Tendong Lho, a mountain in Damthang in south Sikkim, did not get flooded. The denizens of the Earth started praying fervently to Goddess Itbu-moo, imploring her to save them from the flood.

Finally, Kahomfo, the partridge, tossed mongbree or millet grains wrapped in a leaf towards the sky from the summit of Tendong Lho as an offering to the Goddess. She accepted it and the deluge subsided at last.

Meanwhile, Rongnyu was able to woo Rangeet again, saying Tutfo, and not he, was at fault. Rangeet was placated and the two lovers again reunited, never to be parted again. They met at Pozok and since then, the Rongnyu is called the Teesta after the words that Rangeet had uttered.

Every year on August 8, the Lepchas trek to the base of Mount Tendong in South Sikkim and offer thanksgiving prayers to the mountain deity, and to both the river deities.

RG: What about the Bhutias?

YD: For the Bhutias, Sikkim is a sacred land. It is their Beyul Demazong, a hidden valley of sacred treasures blessed by Guru Padmasambhava (also known as Guru Rinpoche or ‘precious teacher’).

They believe that Guru Padmasambhava has blessed the valley and concealed many sacred treasures in its rocks, soils, caves, forests, etc, with each place being entrusted to a deity to look after. For fear of a calamity or sickness, people dare not disturb these places. They rather worship /appease them in different seasons with offerings.

Sikkim’s most important festival Pang Lhabsol (coinciding with the end of monsoons in August-September) is a testimony to how the indigenous Bhutias take out time every year to dedicate the day to make large-scale ritual offerings to the deities and spirits of the land through a ritual called Nyesol, a text dedicated to the deities of Sikkim. All the names of the sacred sites, including the Teesta, also find a prime mention in the Nyesol ritual text along with other sacred sites and their deities.

The Bhutias refer to the Teesta as Tashi Drag, a rock of auspiciousness, a treasure rock found in the river marking “inner Sikkim — around Tashiding”. 

A tributary of the Teesta, the Rathong Chu, is very sacred to the Bhutias. It flows through “inner Sikkim”. The Sikkim government has notified the Rathong Chu as a sacred river, the water of which is used in an annual Buddhist festival, Bhum Chu at Tashiding — an important Buddhist tradition since the time of the erstwhile Chogyals (kings) of Sikkim.

Bhum Chu, which takes place on the full moon of the first Buddhist month (February-March), is an annual holy water measuring ceremony that prognosticates the future of Sikkim for the year.

The water in the urn sealed and kept in the sanctum sanctorum of Tashiding Monastery is taken out each year in a ceremony and measured. The level and colour of the water predicts the future: if the water level is higher or lower, it signifies ill-fortune such as droughts, diseases, and natural calamities; clear water signifies good fortune and bountiful harvest.

After the urn is opened and measured amid rituals, monks take out three cups and mix the water to be distributed among the public. The vessel is again refilled with 21 cups of water collected from the Rathong Chu river, and sealed to be opened next year.

RG: Would you agree that the harmony of Sikkim’s people with its natural beauty put in place by religious systems has been disturbed by anthropogenic activities like dam projects?

YD: I very much believe that anthropogenic activities such as dam projects have disturbed a land worshipped by its people as holy and sacred since ages.

Sikkim has a large repository of rich animistic rituals, which form a major part of the local medicinal system. It has been shaped by the deep devotion to nature endemic to the Lepchas, Bhutias and Nepalis.

Each group attributes this trait to their long faith-healing tradition (Shamanism) symbolic of their natural heritage. This has influenced the way communities relate to their surroundings, and how they use and guard their natural resources — springs, lakes, trees, etc.

For instance, when a lake gets disturbed due to blasting or pollution, the deity living there will abandon it, causing the lake to dry up and loss of agriculture. This is why villagers traditionally to seek permission through rituals from such supernatural beings before undertaking any agricultural activity, construction, hunting or gathering.

Every community has its own dhami/jhankri, pawo, padim or yeba — often used interchangeably by ethnic groups to describe a faith healer, ritual specialist or shaman, who not only helps villagers propitiate the gods, benevolent spirits, and evil spirits, but also cure sickness and ill-health in humans and animals alike.

As a medium, he/she also performs rituals in honour of the supernatural beings to bring happiness, harmony, health and well-being to individuals, families and communities.

These faith healers are the true guardians of Mother Earth, recognised in Sikkim as custodians of ancient wisdom, and as those who bring harmony in the community through their indigenous wisdom. 

Their indigenous wisdom has kept the people of Sikkim rooted in their culture and living in harmony with nature. Shamans are keepers of scared natural sites. Shamanism is a way to keep the human realm, the realm of nature and the realm of spirits and ancestors interconnected and imbued in human consciousness.

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