Lepcha people

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Lepcha, Róng
Bundesarchiv Bild 135-S-02-11-39, Tibetexpedition, Lepscha.jpg
A Lepcha man
Total population
80,316 (2011)
Regions with significant populations
 India (Sikkim and Darjeeling district)76,871 (2011 census)[1]
   Nepal (Ilam District, Panchthar District and Taplejung District)3,445 (2011 census)[2]
Lepcha, Sikkimese (Dranjongke), Dzongkha, Nepali
Mun, Buddhism

The Lepcha are also called the Rongkup meaning the children of God and the Rong, Mútuncí Róngkup Rumkup (Lepcha: ᰕᰫ་ᰊᰪᰰ་ᰆᰧᰶ ᰛᰩᰵ་ᰀᰪᰱ ᰛᰪᰮ་ᰀᰪᰱ; "beloved children of the Róng and of God"), and Rongpa (Sikkimese: རོང་པ་), are among the indigenous peoples of Sikkim, India and number between 30,000 and 50,000. Many Lepcha are also found in western and southwestern Bhutan, Tibet, Darjeeling, the Mechi Zone of eastern Nepal, and in the hills of West Bengal. The Lepcha people are composed of four main distinct communities: the Renjóngmú of Sikkim; the Dámsángmú of Kalimpong, Kurseong, and Mirik; the ʔilámmú of Ilam District, Nepal; and the Promú of Samtse and Chukha in southwestern Bhutan.[3][4][5]


A group of Lepcha shingle cutters at Darjeeling in the 1870s
A group of Lepchas in Darjeeling (c. 1880)

The word Lepcha (endonym Roang kup) is considered to be the anglicised version of the Nepalese word lepche meaning "vile speakers" or "inarticulate speech". This was at first a derogatory nickname but is no longer seen as negative.[6]

The origin of the Lepcha is unknown. They may have originated in Myanmar, Tibet or Mongolia but the Lepcha people themselves firmly believe that they did not migrate to the current location from anywhere and are indigenous to the region.[6] They speak a Tibeto-Burman language which some classify as Himalayish. Based on this, some anthropologists suggest they emigrated directly from Tibet to the north, Japan or from Eastern Mongolia. Others suggest a more complex migration that started in southeast Tibet, a migration to Thailand, Burma, or Japan, then a navigation of the Ayeyarwady River and Chindwin rivers, a crossing of the Patkoi range coming back west, and finally entering ancient India (this supported by Austroasiatic languages subtratums in their vocabularies). While migrating westward through India, they are surmised to have passed through southern Bhutan before reaching their final destination near Kanchenjunga. The Lepcha people themselves do not have any tradition of migration, and hence they conclude that they are aboriginal to the region, currently falling under the state of Sikkim, Darjeeling District of West Bengal, eastern Nepal and the southwestern parts of Bhutan. In the Mechi Zone, they form 7% of the population of Ilam District, 2% in Panchthar District, and 10% of the population in Taplejung District. In Sikkim as a whole they are considered to be around 15% of the population of the state.[citation needed]


The Lepcha have their own language, also called Lepcha. It belongs to the Bodish–Himalayish group of Tibeto-Burman languages. The Lepcha write their language in their own script, called Róng or Lepcha script, which is derived from the Tibetan script. It was developed between the 17th and 18th centuries, possibly by a Lepcha scholar named Thikúng Mensalóng, during the reign of the third Chogyal (Tibetan king) of Sikkim.[7] The world's largest collection of old Lepcha manuscripts is found with the Himalayan Languages Project in Leiden, Netherlands, with over 180 Lepcha books.[citation needed]


Lepchas are divided into many clans (Lepcha: putsho), each of which reveres its own sacred lake and mountain peak (Lepcha: and ) from which the clan derives its name. While most Lepcha can identify their own clan, Lepcha clan names can be quite formidable, and are often shortened for this reason. For example, Simíkmú and Fonyung Rumsóngmú may be shortened to Simik and Foning, respectively.[8] Some of the name of the clans are "Sada", "Barphungputso", "Rongong", "Karthakmu", "Sungutmu", "Phipon", "Brimu", etc.[citation needed]


Most Lepchas are Buddhist, a religion brought by the Bhutias from the north, although a large number of Lepchas have today adopted Christianity.[9][10] Some Lepchas have not given up their shamanistic religion, which is known as Mun. In practice, rituals from Mun and Buddhism are frequently observed alongside one another among some Lepchas. For example, ancestral mountain peaks are regularly honoured in ceremonies called cú rumfát.[8] Many rituals involve local species. In Sikkim, Lepchas are known to use over 370 species of animals, fungi, and plants.[11] According to the Nepal Census of 2001, out of the 3,660 Lepcha in Nepal, 88.80% were Buddhists and 7.62% were Hindus. Many Lepchas in the Hills of Sikkim, Darjeeling and Kalimpong are Christians.[citation needed]


Photograph of a Lepcha c. 1900, wearing the traditional cone-shaped hat

The traditional clothing for Lepcha women is the ankle-length dumbun, also called dumdyám or gādā ("female dress"). It is one large piece of smooth cotton or silk, usually of a solid color. When it is worn, it is folded over one shoulder, pinned at the other shoulder, and held in place by a waistband, or tago, over which excess material drapes. A contrasting long-sleeved blouse may be worn underneath.[12][13]

The traditional Lepcha clothing for men is the dumprá ("male dress"). It is a multicolored, hand-woven cloth pinned at one shoulder and held in place by a waistband, usually worn over a white shirt and trousers. Men wear a flat round cap called a thyáktuk, with stiff black velvet sides and a multicolored top topped by a knot. Rarely, the traditional cone-shaped bamboo and rattan hats are worn.[12][13]


Traditionally, the Lepcha live in a local house called a li. A traditional home is made out of bamboo and rests around 4 to 5 feet (1.2m to 1.5m) above the ground on stilts.[14]


The Lepchas are mostly agriculturists. They grow oranges, rice, cardamoms, and other foods.[14]

Arts, crafts, and music[edit]

The Lepchas are known for their unique weaving and basketry skills. They also have a rich tradition of dances, songs, and folktales. One popular instrument used by the Lepchas is a four-string lute that is played with a bow.[14]

Marriage customs[edit]

The Lepcha are largely an endogamous community.[14]

The Lepcha trace their descent patrilineally. The marriage is negotiated between the families of the bride and the groom. If the marriage deal is settled, the lama will check the horoscopes of the boy and girl to schedule a favourable date for the wedding. Then the boy's maternal uncle, along with other relatives, approach the girl's maternal uncle with a khada, a ceremonial scarf, and one rupee, to gain the maternal uncle's formal consent.[15]

The wedding takes place at noon on the auspicious day. The groom and his entire family leave for the girl's house with some money and other gifts that are handed over to the bride's maternal uncle. Upon reaching the destination, the traditional Nyomchok ceremony takes place, and the bride's father arranges a feast for relatives and friends. This seals the wedding between the couple.[15]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ ORGI. "A-11 Individual Scheduled Tribe Primary Census Abstract Data and its Appendix". www.censusindia.gov.in. Office of the Registrar General & Census Commissioner, India. Retrieved 20 November 2017.
  2. ^ "National Population and Housing Census 2011" (PDF). UN Statistical Agency.
  3. ^ Plaisier 2007, p. 1–2.
  4. ^ SIL 2009.
  5. ^ NIC-Sikkim.
  6. ^ a b West, Barbara A. (2009). Encyclopedia of the Peoples of Asia and Oceania. Facts on File. p. 462. ISBN 978-0816071098.
  7. ^ Plaisier 2007, p. 34.
  8. ^ a b Plaisier 2007, p. 3.
  9. ^ Joshi 2004, p. 157.
  10. ^ Semple 2003, p. 123.
  11. ^ O'Neill, Alexander; et al. (29 March 2017). "Integrating ethnobiological knowledge into biodiversity conservation in the Eastern Himalayas". Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine. 13 (21): 21. doi:10.1186/s13002-017-0148-9. PMC 5372287. PMID 28356115.
  12. ^ a b Plaisier 2007, p. 4.
  13. ^ a b Dubey 1980, p. 53, 56.
  14. ^ a b c d Human: The Definitive Visual Guide. New York: Dorling Kindersley. 2004. p. 437. ISBN 0-7566-0520-2.
  15. ^ a b Gulati 1995, pp. 80–81.
Cited sources

Further reading[edit]