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Conserve Stories. Stories Conserve: Nature Stories and How I Became A Conservationist

Text by Deepika Chhetri

Photo: Deepika Chhetri

I wasn’t sure what I was expecting when I signed up for the late December workshop in Dzongu, Sikkim 2019.

The poster read –

Social Science Winter School Workshop

Dzongu, Sikkim

Heritage, Oral Narrative and Sustainability

The workshop was initiated by two scholars from the community, Sir Tshering Lepcha and Kachyo Lepcha. The workshop was organised in collaboration with Kaziranga University and Anthropos India Foundation. It was designed for students and budding researchers. The workshop is a first of its kind in its attempt to mainstream experiential learning for a region and its tribes that barely find representation or discussions in school and university curriculum.

In hindsight, I think I signed up for two reasons. One of the themes was ‘Oral narrative‘ and I have always been captivated by folklore. I have grown up on such stories. Secondly, this was my chance to learn more about a region and its minority tribe that so far I knew little about. I have been on a personal journey of trying to learn more about different communities in NER. In this context, the Lepchas.

The Lepchas are an indigenous minority tribe of Sikkim. Interestingly, ‘Lepcha’ is an anglicised Nepalese term ‘Lepche’ meaning ‘Vile speakers’. They are Rongkup meaning ‘Beloved children of God’, and they write their language in their own script, called Róng.

The workshop by far has been the most enriching and insightful exposure I have had. Over the course of the week, I began by enjoying the spell of Teesta and Rongyong in my tongue with the sounds of their confluence, then I felt the pain of the damage done to the Forests, and the death we were summoning upon ourselves. By the end of the journey, I felt like a protective sister who wanted to embrace her little brother and protect it from the thoughtless projects of ambitious men.

It was then that I finally realised the power of stories to change. I believe that these stories can enable us to look at the wild in awe and with love, than that of fear. For fear is what inspires war for dominance. And in the war between Man and Nature, Man is winning. But are we winning?

Conservation is a feeling

Photo: Deepika Chhetri

“No one will protect what they don’t care about; and no one will care about what they have never experienced.”

-David Attenborough

Before I tell you about the stories that have been life changing for me, I would like to share what led to it.

In the first year of my MA Development course we studied Ecology in combination with Sociology and Economics. Through the course I learnt about Climate Change, and the resilience of biodiversity, and their crucial role in adaptation. Equally crucially, I learnt about social justice in Environmentalism.

Yet, what I was learning and reading were information. Information that disturbed me, yes, but my life remained unaffected. I had taken my upbringing amidst nature for granted. I expected the biodiversity in the Northeast to stay just as I knew it from my childhood memories. Through the one week immersive workshop, my heart and mind finally felt aligned. What were earlier discussions and papers I read in class, were now realities I was seeing and experiencing. I saw the consequences of dams, as well as alternative forms of livelihood that are sustainable.

We reached Dzongu, and the Lepcha Homestay at Lingthem on a cold December evening.

The next morning after breakfast, we trekked to the site of the 2016 Mantam landslide. I stayed by Denmit’s side as we walked. A petit, bubbly Lepcha woman who always had a handful of stories to share.

Here comes the first one –

Rhododondren was this beautiful flower. She was adored by her parents and loved by all. And there was Utis. Utis was an evergreen thin legged tree. When Rhododondren is in full bloom, Utis’ leaves become food for insects who leave him looking like a pauper with holes all over.
But Utis loved Rhododondren (Guras). So he went to her parents to ask for her hand in marriage. Ro’s parents were unimpressed, and instead complained, “Look at our daughter and look at you!”.
Utis was heartbroken, and in his grief he commited suicide on a landslide.

At this point, Denmit looked at me, and with mischief in her eyes she asked, “What do you see growing here?”, pointing at the thin legged evergreen trees lined up on the sides of our path.

It was Utisssssss!

“For some reason, whenever there is a landslide anywhere, the first tree we see growing abundantly is Utis”, Denmit explained.

I suddenly realised we had begun to walk on what was the debris of the Mantam landslide. Small new hillocks had formed out of what must have been a massive landslide. The path was not marred by tar. It was plain earth even after 3 years since the incident.

As we continued to walk towards the Mantam lake. In the middle of green hills and trees was a huge area covered in earth. I could see the part of the hill that had slipped.

When Gods’ Abode Dissented: Mantam Landslide in North Sikkim, EPW, 3rd Sep 2016

Photo: Gyatso Lepcha for EPW

We were soon joined by our mentors and hosts -Kachyo and Tshering sir as we walked past a few deserted homes with large cracks in the buildings. Kachyo sir has been one of the front line activists of Affected Citizens of Teesta (ACT) who began protesting numerous damming projects in Northern Sikkim since 2004.

The intensity of the landslide was so great that it blocked the flow of the Kanka river (locally known as Rongyung, one of the main tributaries of Teesta). The water swelled and created an artificial lake, now known as Mantam lake.

When we reached the lake, it seemed harmless in the winter month of December. There were a few men who were removing an iron bridge. Some of the pieces lying around had begun bleeding into the water, turning it red where the water was stagnant.

Five houses were damaged, 300 metres of road was washed away and nine villages were completely cut off from other villages”.
"Every monsoon, this man-made lake swells, the bridges you see get completely submerged, and nine villages are cut out from any contact with other villages during monsoon.
Every year, that bridge is taken by the current, and every year the villagers make a new one

As I looked at the man-made bridge we were approaching, I felt sadness begin to creep in. The report submitted by the NHPC accepted that the landslide was caused due to blasting of dynamite to create tunnels in the hills, causing vulnerability to landslides.

The next story taught me what story to tell kids who steal from your orchard.

This was at the Lepcha homestay. Kachyo and Dawa Lepcha started their homestays in Dzongu as a way of rebelling against the government narrative's of development, and to lead by example in showing what sustainable development can look like.

Coming to the story, Kachyo's homestay has an orange orchard, and some of the oranges were at a hand's distance from where I was standing that day waiting for breakfast. So I suggested that we pluck some to Nim Tshering. He simply said, "Ahaha. Malik lai na mange kina hunna".

There are individual household spirits (In Nepali we call them Kul) that protect orchards against thieves. So as a rule, people don't steal. At least not around here in Dzongu. If they do, they get possessed by the spirit that guards the orchards.

On our way to the hot spring I suggested the same again as we passed through a valley of orange orchards. This time Nim Tshering stared at me, made his face twitch, raised his arms parallel to the ground and let his wrist hang like a scarecrow's. He directed his eyes upward and let his tongue out. Before I could ask he said, "Eee! you'll be like this if you try; tongue and body tied if you steal".

I knew he wasn't joking.

If Nim Tshering, an adult takes these stories seriously, I realise the sway of these stories, and even more so, I am certain that theft isn't a big problem in the area.

How do you like the stories so far?

Another day Dawa Lepcha came, showed us his first film, and Sikkim's first indigenous film titled 'Dhokbu' The Keeper. It was a story about a researcher who gets abducted by 'Muns' who live in the forest. Initially, I didn't understand why these Muns were evil spirits, or what made them evil. There had to be a story to it I thought to myself. And there was.

Tell me we are thinking the same when you read this -

In the beginning, Itbú-mu, the mother, who resides at the foothills of Kanchenzonga created the whole world and several other gods called ‘Muns’. On top of Kanchenzonga lives Konchen, a guardian warrior, often referred to as the big brother. And from the purest of the first fresh snow of Kanchenzonga, Itbú mu created the first man and woman - Fudothing and Nozong Nyu, and they lived in Myal Long, the heavenly abode where Lepchas believe they go back to after they die.
Between Fudungthing and Nzong Nyu's incestuous relationship many children were born. But, they discarded one after another, and another, for fear of their mother.
When Itbú-mu found out, she settled them where the Lepchas live today. The children born after their departure from Myel Lyang (Paradise) were the legitimate children of the first two Lepchas.
The children they discarded in the forests, becam known as the 'Muns'. The 'Muns' only purpose was to disturb the peaceful life of the Lepchas, their own siblings.

The last story is about Teesta and it has been my favourite so far. Teesta, known as Rongeet in Lepcha is of cultural significance to both Sikkim and Darjeeling. Bipul Chhetri's 'Teesta' song in Nepali is an ode to the river. Meanwhile, the river is the lifeline of the people of Sikkim and West Bengal. I have been in love with Teesta ever since I saw her confluence with Rongyong, and even more so after this story.

On our way to Dzongu, we stopped at the Namprikdang, where in a week's time, the 'Lamsung' festival would be celebrated in full jest. It was late evening and I could hear the gushing sound of the water on huge rocks below the house on the cliff. The sight and the sound was magical. The sight and the sound combined was a trance like experience. I saw 'Pozok' - where Rongyong meets Teesta.

Here goes the story -

Rongeet-Teesta (female) and Rongyong (Male) were two lovers who lived in Ne Myel Lyong, the ancestral (heavenly) abode of Lepchas. Fearing that their love would not be accepted, they decided to elope to live together forever. They decided to meet at a point -’Pozok’ (dense forest).
Since neither of them had flown outside of their home, both of them took the help of two animals - a bird and a serpent. Rongyong promised Teesta that he would wait for her at 'Pozok' and took the help of the bird - Toot Pho (Blood Peasant) while Teesta was guided by a Paril Bo (snake).
The bird that was guiding Rongyong was hungry on their way and went off route a few times looking for food. So by the time they reached 'Pozok', Teesta was already there waiting for her lover. Angry and furious at not having kept his promise, humiliated Rongyong began to travel backward, creating floods and destroying land. Teesta who followed Rongyong up also added to the damage. After a long time, both of them halted and Teesta asked Rongyong to look at the destruction they had caused. Rongyong on realising his mistake remorsefully agreed to join Teesta and descend towards the plains to live with her forever.

It is said that one taking a birds eye view of the two rivers, Teesta's flow closely resembles the shape of a slithering snake and Rongyong's looks like the bird really was very hungry.

By the end of this experience, I was in love with Dzongu, the stories, the workshop, and Sikkim. Most importantly, I felt more connected and protective of our own Amazon that I was beginning to realise was the brink of losing itself.

About the Author:

Deepika Chhetri is from Mizoram and Assam. Both are her homes - the former by birth, the latter by migration. She's a Romantic when it comes to Northeast. Yet, the Insider - Outsider conflicts in the region are not lost on her. She feels them sharply. Currently she runs a blog on Instagram called @northeast.books_ Her personal musings and poems can be found @orange_head

You can reach her at

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