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Notes of my learning walk in Dzongu, Sikkim
28th Jan 4th Feb 2015
Marianne Esders

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

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.

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

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

My phone camera is tucked
shoulder bag; I want to record
this strange performance. But I
am not fast enough. Dont stop
dancing, I say. Please dont
stop. The leaf doesnt 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 wont
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 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

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
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?

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 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?
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 worlds land mass,
but eight percent of the worlds 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
mountains 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, peoples lifestyles have changed,
oranges, TVs and SUVs have started taking

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.

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.

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 fruits tiny size, I
assume one needs to eat a lot of amala to
ease the desperation caused by thirst.


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.



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 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
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.

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
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.




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 footsized 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 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 wont
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 claypuppet 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 beautifull and
light geometric shapes. The Lepchas make
these to remember their ancestors.

I have forgotten about time. It is not

important which day it is, which
month. Everything seems small
before the mountain. I am irrelevant.
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


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 the parts of a building together.

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
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.

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 regions natural hotspring though. Instead of preserving the
unique natural ambience, a concrete building
was set on top of it, thereby destroying the
hot-springs 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 waters 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.


someone is playing a flute or a local string

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.

In the doorframe of the womans 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.
The ladys son has won the
medals in two-hundred and
five-housand meter runs. The
professor and the yatris applaud
the boys 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

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 handwoven 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.
On their heads they wear either a bamboo
hat with a birds 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.

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
The melodies are catchy and soon no one
can escape the urge to hum these Lepcha
tunes over and over again. The melodies

enter our hearts and leave a feeling of

contentment and happiness. The song texts
reveal tiny sparks of wisdom. Dont 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.


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.

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


Thank you.