Dzongu Valley – Distinctive World of the Lepcha Tribe


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“I couldn’t have had a better start to this day,” I said aloud as I looked out of the window of our room. Kanchenjunga Peak was covered by clouds but Pandim massif and Kabru peak were right there, seemingly looking at me acknowledging the statement that I just made. Mr. Karma, our homestay owner, had said the day before – “You have to be blessed by Kongchen Chu to set your foot here.” And, at that moment, blessed is what I felt! (Kongchen Chu is the local name for Mt. Kanchenjunga.)

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That’s what I woke up to on the morning of my birthday.

It was the month of April and the day was special as it was my birthday. My sister and I were in Dzongu Valley to experience the Lepcha way of life at Karma Lepcha’s home. Located in North Sikkim, Dzongu Valley is about 70 Km. away from Gangtok. The entrypoint to the valley is Mangan, the district headquarter of North Sikkim.

The Lepchas

Located within the Kanchenjunga biosphere, Dzongu is sparsely populated, inhabited by the Lepcha Tribe – the happy and peace-loving aboriginal people of Sikkim. The Lepchas believe that they are descendants of the mountains and the word ‘Lepcha’ literally means ‘Children of the Gods’. The Lepchas are a vanishing tribe with a dwindling population of about 50k across parts of Sikkim, Nepal, Bhutan, and West Bengal. The Lepchas have lived in Dzongu Valley for centuries and it was declared as a protected area for the Lepchas in the 1960s.

Lepchas are nature worshipers and believe that Mt. Kanchenjunga or Kongchen Chu is their protector. They are duty-bound towards Mother Nature and believe that by performing good deeds they will be rewarded with an afterlife and eternal bliss at Mayal Lyang – heaven hidden in the foothills of Kongchen Chu. Lepcha folklore has that Dzongu is the bridge to Mayal Lyang, which is the place of origin of the Lepchas.

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Lazy leisurely mornings. With Mr. Karma Lepcha in his home.
When we Arrived

The day before we had made a dramatic entry to Dzongu Valley at dusk, when the sky was overcast with dark clouds and it was raining quite heavily. The low visibility through the narrow, broken, winding road right up to the village with a deep plunge to Teesta on one side wasn’t the most comfortable thing though! We were going towards Tingvong, a village in upper Dzongu where we were to put up at Rumlyang Homestay for the next two days.

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Towards Upper Dzongu – not the best of roads.
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The only motorable bridge that was destroyed in 2016 landslide when Teesta changed its course.

Dzongu is divided into the northern ‘Upper Dzongu’ and southern ‘Lower Dzongu’ by Rongyang River, a tributary of Teesta. Dzongu Valley is vast and remains largely uninhabited though both these regions have several villages. The mighty Teesta that separates Dzongu from the rest of North Sikkim had changed its course after a devastating landslide in 2016. This resulted in the breakdown of the only motorable bridge that connected the villages of Upper Dzongu. A hanging bridge now connects Upper Dzongu with mainland but it is a walkway and vehicles cannot pass through. Hence, the Innova we had been traveling in for the past few days could not go up to the village. It went upto the landslide area over the broken bridge and another vehicle arrived from the village to take us.

Earlier, as the Innova had taken a turn from Mangan towards Dzongu the stunning greenery had made us feel like we were entering Amazon Forest.

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Karma’s home Rumlyang Homestay. The upstair room is where we stayed.
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Rumlyang Homestay – a view from the backside.
The Welcome Drink

Karma and his brothers welcomed us to their home with Chee, the locally brewed liquor, served in bamboo mugs with bamboo straws. Chee is made by fermenting millets and is like an organic beer. As a custom, Chee can be consumed only after offering it to Mt. Kanchenjunga and there’s a particular way of doing this.

Aarack is the other local liquor that is brewed from cinnamon plant and has a strong and pungent taste.

The Lepchas lead a self-sustained life and vegetables and crops are grown with organic manure. They only buy rice, pulses, and salt from outside. Cooking in their kitchen still happens on earthen ovens with log fires – surreal to us, the city dwellers. Karma did have a LPG gas stove but they seldom use it. The village had just one provision store that didn’t have much to offer.

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Chee or millet wine – a traditional alcoholic beverage that’s brewed locally.
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In the kitchen, the surreal set up of which fascinated us. 
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The cooking place is called “pukum”. Some kitchens have an additional cooking place that looks smaller than this and is meant for larger utensils, which is called “putong”
The Picnic that Didn’t Happen

Day-1 in the village and my sister and I were up early in the morning. The sun was yet to reach the valley but the chirping and chattering birds made sure we stepped out of our room. Karma and his brothers – Dawa, Nordin, and Tashi – were still asleep.

The greenery in the morning light was freshly captivating. We took a stroll in the neighborhood amidst rice and cardamom fields, across icy rivulets, through random fluttering of Buddhist prayer flags, and admiring little boys and girls peeping though half-opened doors of their traditional huts.

We ended our morning odyssey by walking over to Karma’s elder brother’s home, situated closeby. Randomly walking into somebody’s home and introducing yourself – quite unimaginable, right?

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Immersed in everything green. Spot Karma’s home in the background.
Cardamom
Cardamom cultivation found all around.
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Millet cultivation

Later that morning, my sister offered to prepare parathas for breakfast. Karma announced the weather was perfect and it was my birthday, and that called for a picnic. And off we went. Loaded pats and pans, some potatoes, and some rice and lentils onto the Bolero-like vehicle. Karma, his three brothers, a relative of theirs, and the two of us.

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Lingzya waterfall with a vertical drop of 300 ft.

We first went to Lingzya waterfall, a steep vertical drop of about 300 ft in the middle of greens. We spent a substantial amount of time there while Karma and gang indulged in noodling but with no success.

We then visited the Lingdem hot water spring, located in Lower Dzongu. The hot water spring has two log cabins for men and women. However, the outlet of both were clogged at that time and a common area was provided outside for everyone. We dipped into the hot waters for a good 45-50 min. along with Karma’s gang. Just visualize soaking in the goodness of the medicinal qualities and healing powers of a Himalayan hot Sulphur spring in the middle of a dense forest beside a stream of icy melt. Pure bliss!

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The hanging bridge over Rongyang, the only connection of Upper Dzongu to mainland. And, I just got to know this bridge has collapsed due to heavy rains this Summer  – super sad 😦
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Another view of the hanging bridge. And, it no longer is there!
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On way to Lingdem hot spring.

Soon after the rains decided to play spoil sport ruining our picnic plans and forcing us to return to the homestay for the day.

By evening, the rains had stopped and the skies had cleared up. Nordin and Dawa came by inviting us for a walk to the village school, and off we went with them. There we found Tashi playing football with the village boys and also met a school teacher with whom we had some interesting discussions about Sikkim’s political scenario.

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The village higher secondary school.
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Village boys practice football every evening in the school football field.

We ended the day with some melodious and rhythmic Lepcha music over a simple dinner of rice, dal, and potatoes. Nordin and my sister danced away while we cheered them, sipped Chee, and chatted our way into the night.

Kanchenjunga Views

Kanchenjunga remained covered by clouds had eluded us so far. The other peaks, namely, Sinolchu, Kabru, Pandim, Langam Chu, and Pungyong Chu were clearly visible most of the time. While Pungyong Chu is considered to be the guardian of Kanchenjunga, Langam Chu is the guardian of Tingvong village.

On Day-2, we woke up to clear skies and looked out of the window of our room and voila – there stood the majestic Kanchenjunga draped in shining white. We jumped out of bed and rushed out. Karma recommended we walk a few meters ahead in the street for a better view and we did just that without bothering to even brush our teeth. We wanted to make the most of the view before the clouds came back. The view, however, remained clear for the next 2-3 hours. Karma thought we were really lucky and I guess we were.

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Mt. Kanchenjunga peak as seen from the window of our room.
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The majestic Kanchenjunga, a closer view.
The Village Hike

My sister and I gelled very well with the two brothers, Dawa and Nordin. We were already having a great time together. So much so that they decided to postpone some work they had in Mangan and stay back to take us for a hike to the village monastery and the other five villages that constitute Tingvong Gram Panchayat in Upper Dzongu. These villages are Namprick, Nung, Tingvong, Lonkoo, and Kusoong.

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Tingvong village monastery

A flight of steep steps took us to the village monastery and the climb was not an easy one. It was a special day at the monastery and some rituals were underway. The monks offered us fruits, biscuits and butter tea.

Thereafter, we reached Kusoong village walking through cardamom fields and bamboo plantations, across rickety bamboo bridges over several streams, and a waterfall here and there. The day was bright and sunny until then. The weather Gods changed their mood soon and it started drizzling. Dawa and Nordin took us to their friend’s home where we decided to wait till the rains stopped. The slight drizzle, turned to hailstorm and heavy rains, which continued incessantly for the next 3 hours. Dawa prepared tea and noodles as we waited for the rains to stop.

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Somewhere along the way towards Kusoong village.
Village walk
A bamboo bridge along the way towards Kusoong village.
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Another bamboo bridge along the way towards Kusoong village.
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One of the several waterfall we encountered on the way.

Finally, the rains lessened. It was pretty late by then and we decided to go back to the homestay instead of the other villages. Karma had prepared some special bamboo shoot dish for us and we did not want to disappoint him by not having lunch. We reached back around 4.00 PM and had a late lunch together.

The rains continued lashing through the evening forcing us to remain indoors. It was cold and there was no electricity. We spend the evening in Karma’s kitchen cozily wrapped in blankets catching up on stories from our respective lives.

Bidding Goodbye

My sister and I left behind a part of ourselves at Dzongu. We are certain, we have some greater connection with Karma and his brothers. At Karma’s home, we never felt like guests. It was like visiting friends or family. There are many subtle feelings and emotions that I cannot describe in words. Dzongu has been super special and shall always remain so. God willing, I would love to go there once again and stay for a longer duration. Three days is hardly sufficient to explore the valley.

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With Karma and his brothers as we bid goodbye to Rumlyang Homestay. The yellow scarf around our necks is known as hada, khata, katak, or khada. It is a traditional ceremonial scarf that is presented to guests as part of the Lepcha culture.
Lepcha Words and Phrases

Here are some Lepcha words and phrases that we picked up during our stay:

  • Achuley: Cheers, used mostly while drinking Chee
  • Chee: Wine, liquor, alcohol
  • Chu: Mountain
  • Khamri: Hello
  • Tokchee: Thank you
  • Tokchee atim: Thank you very much
  • Eng: Younger sibling – brother or sister
  • Anum: Elder brother
  • Anom: Elder sister
  • Tyol: Friend
  • Amu: Mother
  • Abbu/Appa: Father
  • Tedi: Man
  • Teyue: Woman
  • Cho: Child
  • Ong: Water
  • Adho sa ab ryang shugo: What is your name?
  • Ho sarey jong nee: How are you?
  • Go arum se: I am good
  • Adhom go lenchyo matsyo: I love you
  • Kat, Net, Sam, Flee, Fumo: One, Two, Three, Four, Five
In Addition…

I have a feeling of incompleteness about this write up. Perhaps, I have not been able to capture the essence of Dzongu Valley. The feelings and emotions I have experienced are beyond words. I leave you with some more pictures.

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With Dawa (L) and Nordin (R) during the village trek. The large knife dangling from Dawa’s waist is locally known as ‘tukmok’. 
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That stem we are chewing is locally known as ‘thotney’. It has a sour taste similar to gooseberries and is an antidote for dehydration. It is used to make pickles.
Village walk 3
The ‘putong’ is also used to warm up when it gets really cold. A saucepan with water is always placed over it. The hot water is then used for drinking and for various household purposes like cleaning utensils, etc. Nordin sports a traditional Lepcha hat here.
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The house at Kusoong village where we waited for the rains to stop. The house owner (in blue boots), referred to as Anum or elder brother, has graduated from Jadavpur University, Kolkata. He left his well-paid job in the city to teach Mathematics to children in the village school.
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Nordin proudly displays animal hooves, horns, and tusks, that are kept in houses and are considered to be lucky charms.
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Bundles of corn hung for drying in the balcony of the house in Kussong where we waited for the rains to stop.
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The well-kept house of Karma’s elder brother. It was really beautiful.
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The tidy and well-kept kitchen at Karma’s elder brother’s home was quite a contrast to Karma’s rustic minimalistic kitchen.
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The bolero-like vehicle that took us around. It’s named Langam Chu after the village’s guardian mountain and is apparently the first vehicle of Dzongu Valley.

Author: neelstoria

Traveling, Gardening, Trekking, Hiking, Storytelling, Writing, Nature, Outdoors, Yoga, DIY

35 thoughts on “Dzongu Valley – Distinctive World of the Lepcha Tribe”

  1. What a wonderful post: it seems in two days you were able to completely immerse yourselves in the life of the village, so different from what most of us experience. And that immersion was also so different from what most of us experience as visitors to a new place.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes Raile, we were fully present in the village in every sense of the term far away from thoughts of our own lives in the cities. Even though it was just two days, it felt like a as though we belonged there. All thanks to the wonderful people we connected with in the village.
      Thank you for reading and leaving behind your precious thoughts 🙂

      Like

  2. What a beautiful experience you have shared and your photos are stunning. Your colourful words and pictures put me right there with you. It certainly does seem like you have a connection with this place so I do hope you have the opportunity to return there one day.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Rosemary. I am so glad that you read my post even though its really long and left behind your thoughts. The feelings I had in this place was soul-touching 🙂

      Like

  3. Lost world? Looks like a different place. Although I have come across many blogs talking about Dzongu valley I never bothered to read them. I guess one of the reasons is that I have no clue if I will ever make it to that part of the country. I guess it is a perfect way to celebrate the birthdays rather than what everyone is doing these days! A fun post this is, Neel

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You never know, Arvind. Never say never :D….you may go there some time, who knows. Indeed a lost world it is, completely off mainstream and that’s what makes it so very unique especially to us who have lost the real connection with nature having lived in cities for so long.

      Like

  4. Living in Canada an image of India has been created which is often not pleasant. But whenever I read your blogs in your own beautiful style along with the pictures, my image of the country is totally transferred to a place of absolute tranquillity unwrapping the wonderful valleys of Himalayas. Your style of writing and the details of the places you explore with a deep respect for the local customs and traditions certainly offer an altogether different perspective of India, and I love it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much, Promod. Your comment made my day. 🙂
      This post was really long and I really appreciate that you took time to read it and left behind your thoughts.
      Not everything maybe okay in our country but there is so much we have and so much to be grateful for. A single lifetime isn’t sufficient to experience all the goodness.

      Like

  5. A “like” doesn’t do justice to the post – simply loved it; what an adventure! I have to stick close to you, fellow-Aprilite, for you take me to places which only dreams are made of! 🙂 Thank you for writing this amazing narrative and sharing the wonderful pics; I await the next dream!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So, are you an Aprilite too? Or, did I misread that 😀
      Thank you, Narendra. Coming from a writer like you, it means a lot.
      Also, I appreciate your reading this post, it was super long and most of us don’t have the patience these days 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, April it is! 🙂
        Do not worry whether the post is long or short, Neelanjana – just go ahead and write. You are a brilliant writer and such insignificant constraints should not be an impediment to the explicit descriptions that flow from your thoughts. Very few people take pain to write travelogues so vividly and herein lies your strength! Readers of this genre, like me, want to enjoy the experience of getting lost in the wonders of nature, and we are always hungry! Bring it on, we’re waiting… 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Thanks again, Narendra. That’s a huge ego booster, I must say 😀
          Often I do try to curtail my descriptions, sometimes I can and other times I just let it be. Feels nice to know that people like you read them 🙂
          So, you’re an April born too!

          Liked by 1 person

  6. I had been to Gangtok few years back. Thank you very much for taking me further to Dzongu Valley through your blog. Its really an awesome place. All the snaps are very nice and eye pleasing. The view of Kanchenjunga breathtaking. Once again thank you for taking us along with you to the Dzongu Valley. Belated birthday wishes to you.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Picturesque!! The elder brother’s home is quite colorful and organized. You must be feeling blessed seeing Mt Kangchenjunga every day from your room’s window. Definitely a fantastic way to celebrate one’s birthday 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Hi Neelanjana,
    This is a wonderfully written post and it inspired me to add Dzongu to my Sikkim itinerary!!
    I will be staying in another homestay very close to Rumlyang (coz Rumlyang was booked on my dates :/ ). I have a quick query:

    I will be returning from Tingvong to catch my return flight from Bagdogra. Approx how much time it will take from Tingvong to Bagdogra? Which route is best and any idea of cost? Is it possible to start at say 5.30am and reach Bagdogra airport by 12noon? Need your advice, so that I will book my flight accordingly.

    Thanks in advance! Vaibhav

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Vaibhav,

      First of all my sincere apologies for not responding to your message on time. I was travelling and was away from all social media (I usually do this during all my travels….). I guess by now you would have already planned your trip. However, starting at 5.30 AM from Tingvong to catch a 12 PM flight from Bagdogra sounds like a stretch. You would need to go to Bagdogra via Gangtok and there is no alternative route. Anyway, I hope you had a great trip and enjoyed Tingvong as much as we did.

      Thank you so much for visiting my blog and reading my post.

      Like

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