Re-discovering Shangri-La

Texts and Images By Barun Roy

If words could have portrayed our emotions, like colours in the hands of a painter; if words could have latched on to the reality of moment like a nestled dream in our mind…I would have been happy. I would have danced around the meadowed green like a cur training to catch a butterfly, like an unborn child trying to wiggle his way out from the womb of his mother. But alas, my words fail me… They leave me alone in the midst of battle surrounded by enemy, unarmed and baffled. Only to stop beyond the lines to look back and mock at the General, they once served well. True, I am a man of words, and just words. True, I am a man moist in the deluge of dreams and imagination. But still, I can’t make it. Words fail me, when I need them the most today…

Emerald green, divine blue, visions of dream perhaps…

I began my journey without much planning like most India travellers. By experience perhaps, of having travelled in Africa, Nepal and more so having survived in the interiors of Andhra, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar there were not much that I was expecting in the backyard of the land I was born. How far is Kalimpong? How far is Pedong? What more can be expected beyond cheap hotels and monasteries visited time and again? Rude questions that I had levied upon those who were to accompany me. There was reluctance on my part. Bhutan would have been a much better destination!

Possibly, my big mouth was to blame. On an earlier visit to Kalimpong, I had walked over the crest of fearsome trans-Himalayan streams – unchangingly hostile – cold, grey, icy and menacing in the typical profile of the Teesta and Rangeet, their several headwaters that drain the Terai and beyond. What more lies above the forests – lured into them as Kipling was, I had decided to venture beyond the ravaging rivers in search of an ancient specimen – a genuine Lepcha Heritage, almost invisible in the rest of Mayel Lyang. The journey was part of a scouting exercise for a documentary film but who would have known that we would experience something from beyond, something from Shangri-La.

Far yet near

To show how much close and yet far removed from the hustles of the chaotic town of Kalimpong, it took only 52 minutes to transport the crew to Pedong, packed liked sardines, in a can people gloriously call ‘The Commander Jeep’. Yet, immediately, the slopes of Pedong summed up the lyrical appeal. The terrain was more beautiful than dramatic and the poetry it conjured up was that of Rudyard Kipling’s – ‘The Jungle Book’ – an intense fragment of the psychic state most of us come near to owning but lose when common reality and the out turned mind reassert their thrall.

Pedong occupies an area of about 45 sq km and slices right through the crest that divides India, China, Sikkim and Bhutan. The medieval Lepcha Kings administered the land but lost much control to the Bhutanese who later expanded during the 14th Century taking over much of Pedong and Kalimpong. The Sikkimese Rulers themselves, ardent Buddhists and sharing traditional legacy with the Bhutanese Royal House enjoyed much freedom and access to the region. Regular trade was carried out between these Kingdoms and Tibet and the Silk Route that existed operated until the 1960s. In fact, our guide and host Sebastian Pradhan was good enough to surprise us by pointing out that the road we had travelled such uncomfortably was no other than the ancient Silk Route itself.

I confess I have never been so turned on by history than I was at that moment. The crew disembarked from the can much relieved to be humans again and more so to stand where centuries ago people much like ourselves but less complaining travelled covering almost 500 miles to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. A short descending trek, thence, thank God, took us to Sebastian’s house at Kashyone village, our base camp, a lone sentinel surrounded by hectares of greenery.

Unlike in urban settings where it is each one for himself (or as T. S. Eliot put it – people live together not because they love one another but because they can make money from the proximity of others) the rare settlements in Pedong are pragmatically humane and helping hands are extended cheerfully to all strangers. It was usual on climbing up during the trek and frequent hiking to experience the oasis mood of a thriving little community occupied with small but abundant holdings and giving off that flavour so rarely met with in more advanced societies – contentment with their lot. Barley is a bumper crop yielded in the lower Teesta and Rangeet valley. It is the world’s most ardent fermentor. Chang may not compare with whiskey but their parentage is common. If one is lucky and we were, a vintage Chang, is a treat for the palate, a marvellous sensation indeed that stays for the rest of many days. A bit, like rafting over the Teesta River. I felt rejuvenated by a decade – a considerable blessing to an already ancient mariner across the threshold of 30.

The discovery!

We left Kashyone, the next day, ready to rediscover a forgotten paradise, one that had already enthralled me. As our convoy of scribe travellers made way up towards the Cross Hill, a light drizzle dampened much of our spirit. The clouds themselves, likes nymphs in hurry covered much of the surroundings and soon there were none that could be seen except hear the heavy breathings of us, heavily laden gorks, making way towards the unknown forests. Our guide as for the entire trip was Sebastian Pradhan and the entire success and the pleasure of the trip was due to his fluent knowledge of the land and the conditions. “Don’t worry, Roy,” he would frequently cry from the top of a hill scampering over them like a mountain goat, while, I, a man half his age stood down panting already convinced that the journey was ill timed and the effort, wasted. Surprisingly, enough, our guide never missed a prediction or a chance to explain about the birds, plants, trees and animals. We reached the top to find the sky clearing rapidly and the drizzle now a distant dream. The day turned into a glorious afternoon with scenes of women beating off husks from rice in the distant terraced fields. Suddenly and remarkably out of nowhere, then, a most fascinating structure stood out in the fore – a 10th Generation Lepcha Heritage House built during 1700 A. D., and today still in its magnificent best. So much so that apart from a fresh coat of distasteful distemper on the walls and a Maruti Omni trying desperately to navigate the road a furlong above, the house would probably have looked exactly the same during the advent of the Honourable British East India Company in India in the reign of Mughal Emperor Jahangir.

Sebastian quickly set out to explain the fascinating aspects of the Lepcha Heritage House. Still inhabited by the ninth and the tenth generation Lepcha family, the house is built over huge stone pedestals, the foundation columns directly standing over them without a paste or a glue to bind the two. The cross beams themselves dissecting and intersecting without a nail, joint or a binding agent. No equipments except an axe and a scratcher were said to have been used. The thatched roof was bound with the inner frames of bamboo laces and the partitions thereof made entirely of bamboo woven mats covered by mud paste.

The house has survived more than 300 years without a scratch or a column or a plank or beam being displaced or a pedestal being moved. It has survived because it incorporates a simple and an effective design. The free standing columns are truly free and not rooted. Like twelve legs the free foundation columns are capable of reacting and reinforcing pressure independently and collectively through ingenious use of interlocking columns and cross beams. As Sebastian pointed out, while buildings collapsed and people died during the massive earthquake of 1985, the Lepcha Heritage House stood ground, dancing like village maiden over a minstrel’s bard yet not a single beam or a column or a pedestal being displaced. A miracle indeed! Who could ever imagine that a 300 year old Lepcha House which is basically a glorified hut incorporates a structural design which even today being accepted as probably the safest still is thought of to be possible only in the future; where ‘intelligent’ structures would react to surrounding change of space and based on that reaction remodel itself, preventing structural damage and stress. Well at least for the Lepcha’s; the future, it seems, came 300 years ago.

The house is pleasantly placed in the heart of the Kashyone village on the slope overlooking Sikkim and Tibet. The soil quality is good and contains great amount of iron. The ground is strewn with formation of clastic sedimentary rocks and is very stable. Tropical vegetation surrounds the house and a ground carved out of the slope facing the house acts as a courtyard which does not seem to be an integral part of the house.

The origin of the house can be challenged as Lepcha’s do not have a tradition of written accounts. Their histories are scattered and based on fables and folk tales. However, since Lepchas were part of the ruling bureaucracy both in the Sikkimese and Bhutanese Royal Houses, excerpts of their history can be found in records of these Royals Houses. One such record is observed in an appeal sent to Captain Lloyd by Kazi Gorok of Ilam in 1828. The Appeal essentially, an invitation to mediate the internal feud leading to the flight of King Namgyal Phuntso from Sikkim to Sinchel, Darjeeling and his reign being subsequently taken over by Changzod Tamdring. Kazi Gorok requests the Honourable British East India Company to support him to oust Changzod Tamdring and reinstate Namgyal Phuntso. Proving his credentials as a Lepcha of ancient Karwang lineage, he offers names of his forefathers who had been Kazis of different places. He particularly identifies the following Karwang Kazis, as his direct ancestors – Den-sa Kazi of Barmiok, Chogthup Kazi of Phedong (Pedong), Yogdra Kazi of Enchay (Gangtok), Kazis respectively of Rumtek, Tathang, Majong, Norzang, Gyengjong, Kotra Kungha Kazi of Illam, Dallam, and Bolot Kazi of Tateng. Since all the Kazis were appointed by Sikkimese King Chakdor Namgyal and Chakdor Namgyal himself being crowned in the year 1700 and his reign only extending to the year 1717; the origin of the above Lepcha Heritage House which by tradition belongs to Chogthup, a Tibetanized name of Choo.thu could be safely place during the tumultuous 17 years of the Chakdor Namgyal’s rule. After the ousting of Chakdor Namgyal in 1717 and Gyurme Namgyal coronation, all of the former King’s nobles were forced out from the Kingdom. Kazi Gorok’s appeal to ‘Shaheyeb Llo…dd’ (Sahib Lloyd) being the only present Lepcha written statement preserved at the National Archive, New Delhi is of great signification to Lepcha history and in this case to the Lepcha Heritage House. Kazi Gorok’s appeal is also presently the oldest Lepcha written document preserved for eternity.

The question of history and architectural ingenuity settled, our crew quickly set on a photographing spree when the plight of the owners surfaced most dramatically. Nothing had been done for the protection, preservation, maintenance and the general upkeep of the historic house and the owners themselves owing to the scarcity of fund were desperate for financial help. An interaction between the owners and the crew mediated by Sebastian Pradhan ended up with my promise for financial help towards the protection, preservation, maintenance and the general upkeep of the historic site. The predicament resolved and a hot Lepcha brew set us up for yet another journey of discovery. The indomitable Damsang Fort built by the spirits, according to Lepcha legends, was our next stop. But drenching my throat with hot Lepcha brew that reminded me of Chaang, I wondered, sitting on the porch staring towards Sikkim and Tibet; what must have it been like 300 years ago…..Lepcha houses dotting throughout the slopes and valleys and people living in association with the nature not as a consumer of its resources but as a guardian. There was a great wisdom and power in their simplicity since they were able to redefine spaces not just in its physical terms but most importantly in psychic and purely spiritual terms. A house to a Lepcha, I realized, is a simple ‘living’ space. There are palaces more opulent and older and there are architectural structures more elaborate and unnerving but none as simple, as unique and as futuristic as this simple Lepcha hut which was built possibly during the reign of Emperor Jahangir by a small tribe of peaceful people who lived by the land as its guardian and protector. The land which they called Mayal Lyang and the world, Shangri-La!

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