“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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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!
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.