There is a new form of entertainment in town: lungten sung (myths, legends). The Lost Stories Project, run by the NGO Acoustic Traditional, seeks to preserve the oral knowledge and folklore of indigenous tribes in India. Almost every evening their Darjeeling-based Mountain Storytelling Centre hosts sessions by storytellers from tribes in the Eastern Himalayas, as well as lectures from academics and advocates who work closely with tribal communities and their shamans.
Since it opened in early January 2013, I had passed by the Mountain Storytelling Centre every weekday on my way to work but had never found the time to attend one of its sessions until this weekend. The Centre isn’t much more than a single room where Darjeeling residents and interested tourists, those of tribal and non-tribal descent, gather to engage in critical dialogue about the value of indigenous storytelling, the environmental and social knowledge encoded in it, and the need for its conservation. The walls of the Centre are painted a warm red and the chairs arranged in a circle. A makeshift café serves “Yeti” tea (chai spiked with spirits) and local biscuits. Naturally, its windows offer a clear view of Kangchenjunga–the sacred mountain worshipped by many Himalayan peoples.
This weekend’s session featured a lecture about plants used for traditional medicines, as well as the origin of shamans and faith-healers who to this day play an active and important role in Darjeeling and Sikkim-based tribes. In his explanation of shamanism in this region, one of the presenters told part of a creation story from the Lepcha community. There are approximately 20 tribes in the Darjeeling and Sikkim area, of which the Lepcha tribe is supposedly the oldest, having lived in the hills for centuries. The Lepcha creation story has different variants but I give you the version shared with me last night:
In the beginning God Aitbu Deburoom created the first man and woman out of fresh fallen snow from Mount Kangchenjunga. God called the man Fudongthing and the woman Nazong Nyu and gave them immortality. God deemed them brother and sister and forbid them from enjoying physical relations. But as their bodies matured Fudongthing and Nazong Nyu could no longer resist their physical urges. Out of this their first son, Laso Mung Pano, was born. Fudongthing and Nazong Nyu were so ashamed of what they had done that in order to hide their sin they cast away their newborn son into the forest, as well as the six children they conceived thereafter.
When Nazong Nyu was pregnant for the eighth time her heart softened. She gave birth to twins, a girl and a boy. She called the girl Rilbu and the boy Singbu. Filled with guilt and overwhelmed by motherly instinct she gave them milk from her breast and decided to rear them. Upon seeing her affection for the twins the other seven children, who had become demons during their time in the forest, grew jealous. The evil energies of the seven demons weighed so heavily on Rilbu and Singbu that they eventually fell ill and died. Fudongthing and Nazong Nyu had more children who became the Lepcha people. These children too eventually fell ill and died. This is how the Lepchas became mortal.
The demons, led by Laso Mung Pano, continued to torment the Lepchas. On seeing their misery God Aitbu Deburoom created the first priest out of the purest snowflakes from Mount Pandim. God named him Azaor Boongthing, also called Taamsangthing, and granted him immense powers and knowledge. A great war was fought between Taamsangthing and Laso Mung Pano. It took twelve years for Taamsangthing to finally kill Laso Mung Pano, who evaded death by shifting shape into a different animal each year. In turn he assumed the form of a mouse, an ox, a tiger, a rabbit, a python, a snake, a horse, a sheep, a monkey, a bird, a dog, and a pig. These animals now constitute the twelve months of the Lepcha calendar.
In order to forever ensure the death of the demons, Taamsangthing bestowed his powers on earthly representatives who became shamans, known as “Boongthing,” amongst the Lepchas.
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