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Of giant ferns and tiny prayer temples - Marianne Esders

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Notes of my learning walk in Dzongu Region, Sikkim

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Of giant ferns and tiny prayer temples - Marianne Esders

  1. 1. OF GIANT FERNS & TINY PRAYER TEMPLES Notes of my learning walk in Dzongu, Sikkim 28th Jan – 4th Feb 2015 Marianne Esders
  2. 2. My special Thanks goes to Tshering Gyatso Lepcha without whose countless efforts this Shodh Yatra would not have been possible. I would also like to thank Sonam, LakPao, Kipu, Thinlay, Laachunl, and others who tirelessly guided us on our path in the mountains and made this Shodh Yatra an unforgettable experience
  3. 3. Shodh Yatra is a journey for the search of knowledge, creativity and innovation at grassroots. Shodh Yatra is an attempt to reach out to the remotest parts of the country with a firm belief that hardship and challenges of natural surroundings are the prime motivators of creativity and innovation. www.sristi.org 3
  4. 4. My idea of bliss is walking alone in the forest, feeling the breeze caress the leaves and then caress my hair. I walk alone. I follow the rocky trail further up into the mountains, somewhere between the river Teesta and Kangchenjunga, the third highest peak of the world. I am close to something that I cannot completely grasp. Two women from a nearby village pass by. Soon they are far ahead. Despite being many years younger, I feel slow and sluggish in comparison. My feet and legs are not used to the uneven mountain terrain My phone camera is tucked away somewhere in my shoulder bag; I want to record this strange performance. But I am not fast enough. Don’t stop dancing, I say. Please don’t stop. The leaf doesn’t listen, follows its own rhythm of movement and rest. When I finally get hold of the camera, the performance is over. I wait a little, but the leaf won’t dance again. How can it be, the breeze has not changed, or at least I assume it not having changed in intensity and direction. After a while I give up the wait and decide to continue my walk. When I look up, my heart jumps. Right in front of me, a giant fern leaf bows down from the head of its stem. I would have completely missed it without the tiny leaf calling out for me. Is this why you danced, I say to the leaf. Realising that I speak to a fern, I turn around to see whether some of the other yatris are catching up. Yet nobody is in sight. I AM CLOSE TO SOMETHING THAT I CANNOT COMPLETELY GRASP Winter light falls gently through the canopy of leaves. The days are fresh but not cold. A valley of green opens up to my right. My eyes are not trained to distinguish the vast variety of plants growing on these foothills. Something catches my eye. At the slope, a single fern leaf stands out; it is dancing in joyful swings. I pause and imagine the leaf dances just for me. 5
  5. 5. I turn left to continue my walk and realise that for the last minutes I have been under surveillance. On the other side of the trail stands an assembly of funny creatures with widely protruding hair. A group of giant ferns, brothers and sisters of the one that I just discovered. Something about their appearance seems strange. An aura of secrecy surrounds them, thickens the air and fills my heart with melancholy and happiness at the same time. For a moment I feel like an intruder. Then I give in to a smile that comes from somewhere deep within my heart. I sense I have discovered something precious. I am sure the little dancing leaf stopped me on account of the taller ferns, so that they could take a better look at me. Was it not for the leaf, I would have passed by heedlessly without noticing them. So here I am, from a far and foreign land, feeling strangely at home among the local Lepchas, I came into jungle this jungle driven by my heart and curiosity. Times have changed; it is so easy to get to places that a hundred years ago would have been almost unreachable. I am aware though that even today parts of this particular region require special admission and extra effort to reach. Not many have come here before. What actually am I doing here? A moment of self-realisation overcomes me. I choose to stay for a while and take rest, in save distance from the ferns, seated on a rock, watching them watching me. How long does it take for a fern to grow to such height? I have never seen ferns grow so tall. What have these creatures observed in their lifetime, which stories do they have to tell about people who have come here before me? How deep is their longing for company, new observations, wanderers passing by?
  6. 6. How long have these ferns been standing here and what do they think about the large group of strangers, shodhyatris, walking into their protected territory in one single day? They are just one assembly of leaves in a long line of ancestors. My imagination about them seems to have gone wild. Maybe they do not take notice of me at all, of us, passing by, each one of us navigating on a different path of learning. . I imagine life as the canvas of a loom. Below this web of pathways, I feel, there is a common string that guides all of us into a similar direction, then again separates us, weaves new patterns, ever creative and unpredictable in its repertoire of images. Watching the giant ferns, I think of all those precious feelings that we leave untouched. When we are in anger, we barely hold back and easily burst out with hurtful words. But when there is a moment of love, we often shy away from sharing our feelings. We stand still and clueless like giant ferns, watching time passing by. Sometimes we shed a leaf. If only in such moments we had little leaves dancing for us as reminder to take a closer, a better look at those details, feelings and thoughts that we keep tucked away. Emotions swimming like tiny fish in a turbulent stream of consciousness, hardly visible but nevertheless an important part of what makes us whole and confuses us at the same 7
  7. 7. same time. How beautiful the world would be if we decided to share more such moments of intimacy and love. How intense would each and every single life be if we decided not to hide these feelings in the shade of some callous anonymity? What are the things that really touch us made of? Do we ask the right questions? A local farmer walks by and shares a mandarin orange with me. I learn that the people of Lum, the village from where we started our yatra two days before, grow the best mandarin oranges in Sikkim. I am fascinated by the fact that I can easily communicate with the Lepcha people living in this remote part of the world, much better than with people in many other parts of India, or even Europe. Their English is pretty profound. My Hindi is still bad. In one school I saw the script of the Lepcha language depicted on a wall. I wonder how difficult it might be to learn it. The farmer leaves, I enjoy the fruit he gave me and after some time also I set out to continue my walk. The many different variations of green, patches of shade and light shaping my surroundings, completely take me in. According to Greenpeace, India makes up only two percent of the world’s land mass, but eight percent of the world’s biodiversity. Certainly a vast amount of this diversity can be found here in the mountain range at the foothills of Mount Kangchenjunga. The Lepchas refer to this habitat as the mountain’s kitchen garden. And it really is. Various sorts of wild and cultivated eatable plants such as yam, cardamom, leafy vegetables, millet and fruits grow here in abundance. Pineapple, oranges, grapefruit, ginger, cinnamon, plums, herbs, red rice and many more. Just a decade back, the region was known for its extensive cardamom production. Now the production has declined, the locals say the climate has changed, people’s lifestyles have changed, oranges, TVs and SUVs have started taking over. over. The Lepcha women know how to prepare tasteful dishes from the local plants and every time we are welcomed in a village, a new variety of cooked and fermented dishes is waiting for us. For the first time in my life, I taste banana plant flowers and cannot get enough of it.
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  9. 9. There are millet pancakes filled with leafy vegetables, bitter and sweet, rice with green dal, and walnut tea as well as a very sour local fruit. I cannot recall its name, but the better do I recall how one bite of it empties the mouth of all saliva within just a second. In this region, sale of commercial liquor is banned and fined with ten thousand rupees. But a variety of fermented tubers and tasteful organic liquors is available ranging from yam and millet over guava and other fruits to cinnamon and even bamboo. And the Lepchas offer us what they call pocket wine, fermented tubers that can easily be carried in the pocket and eaten in a moment of “need” or indulgence. The shells of wild cardamom growing here look a bit different from the ones I know. Their colouring is darker, their structure is rougher and the taste is more intensive than that of the cardamom I usually buy in the market. There is also a very small round fruit called amala which tastes similar to nut and is eaten by hunters in case they cannot find enough water. Taking into account the fruit’s tiny size, I assume one needs to eat a lot of amala to ease the desperation caused by thirst.
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  11. 11. Two kids from a lower village carrying a basket of tomatoes and a bag of cement overtake me with ease. A few minutes later I reach a broken prayer wheel. I feel like repairing it, but I do not know how to accomplish the task since I do not carry any tools that could be useful here. The wheel is made of a wooden, beautifully decorated upper part which is connected to a broken lower part, a blue wooden wheel that lies dusty in the shade of the little temple it once has been set into. I do not completely understand how the prayer wheel works. Later throughout the yatra I will find an unbroken wheel and see that the lower part is supposed to be pushed by running water which then turns the upper part of the wheel that in turn strikes a bell, sending out its high, clear sound into the forest. The two women and the kids that overtook me are resting nearby. I see that people have put little fern leaves close to the prayer wheel. I follow their example. At many places I see leaves given as gesture of gratefulness to nature. Here and there on a rock one can find a nicely arranged staple of leaves, the lower ones withering, the upper ones fresh and radiating in the sun. Given the beauty of nature that surrounds me, I can completely empathise with the urge to worship it and I add my own offering every time the opportunity emerges. Many prayer flags adorn the path we walk on. Every bridge that helps us cross the river is decorated with colourful flags. I learn that the larger white flags that we see at many waysides are dedicated to the deceased. 13
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  13. 13. The Lepcha people pray to the mountain Kangchenjunga, nature and their ancestors. Their religion is known as Mun. In translation they call themselves worshippers of nature. They marry in presence of their mountain deity. With sunrise the snowy pinnacle of Kangchenjunga turns golden and the locals of Dzongu say that beyond this peak lies paradise. I feel I am in paradise already, a place so beautiful, fertile and green with smiling people living together in harmony. The Lepchas’ knowledge about the higher and lower altitude herbs and plants of this region is vast already at a young age. Just two days earlier, on the first evening of our walk, I met a six year old girl in a shining blue dress wearing a necklace with big blue pearls, who took me by the hand to introduce me to her friends. At one point of our stroll, we reached a row of posters that the shodhyatris had put on display on a nearby wire mesh. I started to explain the creative creative and innovative ideas of children from various parts of India depicted on some of the posters to the girl in blue. Suddenly, she spotted a bee on one of the posters. Then a second one on the height of her eyes. Why are there bees drawn here?, she asked. Hmm, it is the symbol of the Honey Bee Network, I started, the network that has brought all these people here … Before I could continue she exclaimed: I know! I know why it is a bee! Why is it a bee?, I asked. One bee does the work, the other bee makes the honey, she said. I smiled and decided to leave it at that.
  14. 14. Now I want to show you something else, she said with a smile. A few metres further someone from Lum village had fixed little transparent plastic bags to the mash wire. Look, she said, this is a collection of plants from the forest. Do you know what they are used for?, I asked. Without hesitation she started to explain: This you crush in your hand and put on wounds, this one you take when you have cough, this one is to be used when you cut your finger. She kept talking vividly and I was amazed by the knowledge this girl had about the plants of this region, Dzongu Forest. “ONE BEE DOES THE WORK, THE OTHER BEE MAKES THE HONEY” 17
  15. 15. I leave the broken prayer wheel behind and follow the path further up the mountain. Someone has prepared the pathway for us. Shaky bamboo bridges have been laid out or tied to rocks for our support so that we do not lose balance when crossing small gorges or waterfalls. Someone has chopped foot- sized dents into withering trunks that block the jungle passage. It makes it easier for us to climb over them without slipping down the steep hillside slopes. I enjoy walking alone but sometimes it is good to have company. The day before, someone slipped but was successfully pulled up by Siddharth and other fellow yatris who walked behind the lucky one. Especially when the path is steep or long, the local songs and encouraging shouts of our guides Sonam, LakPao and others help to tackle the way with a lighter heart. Aachuley! Up we go. Or down. Climbing down is more difficult for me. Pain in my knees and a nasty cough make make this yatra a challenge. But I will walk it from beginning to end. Further up on the path, I close up with the yatris who walk in front of me. Most of the time, the Bregadier, who is an experienced shodhyatri, and a few others surrounding him, form the first group of yatris to accomplish our daily walks. This group now is waiting at a parting so that latecomers won’t take the wrong turn. While I wait for the next group of people to catch up, Diken discovers a mysterious construction. It looks like a clay- puppet in a boat set out to sail on the currents of a breeze. I learn from the Bregadier that it is a site of worship for the local people to commemorate their deceased. In several places, usually close to a house, one can find white threads and thin wooden sticks formed into beautiful and light geometric shapes. The Lepchas make these to remember their ancestors.
  16. 16. 19 I have forgotten about time. It is not important which day it is, which month. Everything seems small before the mountain. I am irrelevant. All that counts is beyond comprehension. Kangchenjunga has entered my mind and my heart. As long as water flows, a prayer wheel sends out a melody. Giant ferns listen, waiting for nothing. I am part of it all. Everything is intertwined. Something incomprehensible grows, takes lead and reminds us of our roots.
  17. 17. Traditionally, the houses have been constructed out of wood and bamboo standing on wooden stilts. The region is prone to earthquakes with the latest incident in 2011. Because of the stilt construction, the houses shake but do not break and collapse when the earth is shaking. One villager shares with us that traditionally, the houses have been facing North-South direction. That way they can move in unison with the movements of the earth plates. Also, traditionally, the houses were constructed without requirement for even one nail to hold hold the parts of a building together. Nowadays Nowadays, government funded schools and also private buildings are constructed from concrete and other non-locally sourced material. Not only are these modern buildings aesthetically inferior to the traditional bamboo buildings. More importantly, they cannot withstand an earthquake. Further thoughts are needed on how to better integrate local resources and traditional knowledge of carpentry with modern elements of construction.
  18. 18. In some villages with access to a road, locals offer homestays to tourists who would like to experience the beauty of the region. Close to the road, guest houses are under constrution with the best rooms offering a view of the higher mountain peaks and Kangchenjunga. In their attempt to protect nature, some Lepchas try to follow a path of sustainable or eco-tourism offering traditional local dishes and hiking days in the surrounding nature. One homestay heats water by directing the pipe through the kitchen stove. On many tree trunks one can find trash bins. They remind wanderers to avoid littering. These efforts stand in vast contrast to what has been done to the region’s natural hot- spring though. Instead of preserving the unique natural ambience, a concrete building was set on top of it, thereby destroying the hot-spring’s beauty and natural charm. In those mountain regions that cannot be accessed by road, these issues still seem to be far away from daily reality. I climb further up. The sun is warm and my winter sweater, which is indispensable in the nights, is needless now. In my bag I carry a small bottle with water that I collected the day before at a fireplace. The water’s smoky taste runs down my throat and gives me the energy to carry on climbing further up and down and up … and down. Houses are scattered here and there and mostly made of bamboo and other types of wood. Soon we come to a single house on a mountain slope. I imagine that only rarely people come up into this region. The lady living here has prepared boiled yam for us and offers it on a plate to every yatri passing by. The Lepchas’ overwhelming hospitality leaves me speechless again and again. 21
  19. 19. The lady’s son has won the medals in two-hundred and five-housand meter runs. The professor and the yatris applaud the boy’s success and slowly we set out to continue our walk. I am told that Lepcha people are shy as fish. They prefer privacy and silence for which this mountain region offers the best conditions. However, they also know very well how to dance and sing together. Almost every village welcomes us with a cultural performance, dances and songs, sometimes someone someone is playing a flute or a local string instrument. Local youth perform their dances in traditional dresses. Especially the Lepcha girls are eager to show the traditional dance forms. Often there are not enough male dancers in a group. The girls take up those roles as well and wear male dresses inclusive the required moustaches drawn on their faces. Once per year the Lepchas organise a huge festival with dance and food competitions to keep their traditions alive. The traditional long dress for girls and women is made of off-white cotton, worn over a red silk blouse, or a colourful silk drape pinned to the shoulders and arranged into three folds that are held by a hand- woven waistband. Their hair is covered with a white scarf and sometimes the cheeks are coloured pink with rouge. The men and boys wear hand-woven garments in the traditional pattern of the region. their On their heads they wear either a bamboo hat with a bird’s feather, often that of a peacock, or a black hat made of stiff felt with a colourful middle part. Traditionally, the Lepchas walk barefoot and they wear short knives at their waist (men) or their back (women). Women and even the young girls wear necklaces with big pearls matching the colour of their dress. In the doorframe of the woman’s house, I spot a little kitten. In my attempt to catch it, the kitten runs into the building. I follow and soon many yatris enter the house. It consists of two main rooms, of which one is the kitchen with a traditional fireplace and a balcony. Corn is drying in the sun. Soon Anil Gupta discovers a row of medals on the kitchen wall.
  20. 20. enter our hearts and leave a feeling of contentment and happiness. The song texts reveal tiny sparks of wisdom. Don’t keep the darkness of foregone days in your heart. Every new day is a new beginning. At the end of the shodhyatra many of us will have got hold of one or two songs on their mobile phones to be taken home and replayed when the memories are fading and need to be revived with melodies. The dancing steps are simple and after a few days many of us join the local dance performances. Throughout this yatra we really begin to connect with the local people, walk, dance, sing and laugh together. It will be impossible to forget these moments with each other. We are not only walking through Dzongu Forest, we are on the way to making new friends. The dances they perform may depict a farming or harvesting scene with men and women doing their tasks and coming together to celebrate the completion of their work. At other times, the dances show scenes of boys and girls courting or simply dances that resemble gratitude for nature, the mountains, the circle of life. Also the smaller kids already know very well how to dance. In the background of a performance one can sometimes watch children imitating the steps of the dancers. One small girl dances herself into the heart of everyone. We are told that she is only two years old. She knows all the steps by heart and is truly the incomparable star of this region. . The melodies are catchy and soon no one can escape the urge to hum these Lepcha tunes over and over again. The melodies enter 23
  21. 21. Shodh Yatra is a journey for the search of knowledge, creativity and innovation at grassroots. Shodh Yatra is an attempt to reach out to the remotest parts of the country with a firm belief that hardship and challenges of natural surroundings are the prime motivators of creativity and innovation. www.sristi.org
  22. 22. 25 List of images Title page – Element of Buddhist stupa 4 – Dzongu forest 5 – Giant fern, Dzongu forest 6 – Assembly of giant ferns, Dzongu forest 7 – Detail of handwoven bag, Dzongu, Sikkim 8a – Orange farmer with bamboo ladder used for harvesting 8b – Lepcha script, Lum 8c – Lepcha kids playing 9 – Local kids and Lepcha script 10 – Bamboo house in Dzongu 11 – Variety of traditional dishes: Yam, millet pancakes, momos, served on banana leaves 12a – View over Sikkim 12b – Buddhist prayer flags 13 – Temple with prayer wheel in Dzongu forest 14 – Kids 15 – Kids 16 – Mount Kangchenjunga in the morning sun 17 – Kids 17 – Wall of a mountain house with corn hanging to dry and daily utensils 18 – Shodh yatris and guides walking up into the mountains 19 – Prayer site 20 – Outside a mountain house 21 – Traditional food of the region 22 – Kids in a dancing performance 22 – Bamboo hair pins 23 – Shodh yatris crossing a river Back cover – Variety of high altitude medicinal plants on display
  23. 23. Thank you.

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