Sonam Tshering Lepcha plays his self designed string instrument

Sonam Tshering Lepcha, Padmashree

Lepchas are a small community residing mainly in the regions of North Bengal and Sikkim and believed to be primarily residents of Sikkim for the last some hundred years. They are a small bunch of perhaps 60,000 people. Today they are spread across Darjeeling, Kurseong, Sikkim and Kalimpong. Anthropologists venture that the ancients might have migrated from Tibet or Outer Mongolia. Maybe from parts of Burma down Erawaddy because their language (also known as Lepcha) has a wee bit of resemblance with Burmese and the script resembles Tibetan. Basically, they haven’t the foggiest.

The people themselves believe that they are aboriginal, native and didn’t migrate from anywhere except from northern parts of Sikkim. Though they are currently four communities, they used to consider the Sikkim Chogyal as their leader.

My short story is about the 89-year-old, full of spunk Sonam Tshering Lepcha. In lower Kalimpong, he runs a school but more importantly, runs a Lepcha museum; Perhaps the only one in Asia. The other museum that I have heard of is in Netherlands and has a host of artifacts and some ancient scriptures. Go visit the man, and his museum if you are interested in local cultures, a bunch of stories and a whole lot of indigenous music.

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The museum is kind of hidden away. Most locals have not heard of it either. Go down from the main bazaar somewhat eastwards. The broken road goes through a smelly area of vehicle repair and poultry shops gradually going downhill into a residential area. Ask for the Lepcha school, where the first floor is the museum.

While talking to you super enthusiastically about Lepcha culture, showing various older implements of cultivation and battle, he will talk to you about his Padmashree (2007) and Bangashree. He might, his memory is starting to fail these days, also mention that his wife got a Padmashree too for sustaining an indigenous culture. He might not be able to recollect when she received the award and what it was for. A bit of googling will tell you the year as 2013, and it was for folk music.

In any case, the museum is housed in a hall not too large, but is crammed with artifacts and small models that Sonam Tshering has made over time. It is amazing to figure that he has continued to remain motivated and keep the museum and culture going over decades, primarily, on his own dime. He is, however, widely respected in his community for what he has done, continues to do, his child like simplicity and sagaciousness.

Some visiting tourists donate, some don’t. There is no way, however, you will go back without heaps of respect for this individual. His child-like simplicity and enthusiasm is well-respected by the community too.

Belonging to the Támsángmú community which is based in and around Kalimpong, he has composed what is known as the anthem for the people in the language of Tibetan-Burmese decent. Sonam is usually clad in normal trousers and a shirt with a Lepcha cap; but on special occasions he would don a dumprá with a conical hat (which you will notice in video below).

Towards the end of the tour, he took us to what works as his office and took out a bag full of musical instruments. Most of them were wind instruments, except the last one which was a four-stringed fret less instrument made of wood and somewhat of a cross between a sarod and a rabab. Here he is playing a Bangla folk song. Click on the picture below to see the video (courtesy G Kozhipurath).

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Kalimpong itself is a boring, also ran hill town and there really isn’t much to see or do…except visiting Sonam Tshering Lepcha.

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