MONSOON RAMBLES

Looking up from the computer screen, I see the heavy rains pour down onto the crisp
brown grass in the garden. The water collects in shallow puddles, as the dry earth is
incapable of taking in the outburst of the summer storm all at once. I hear the shutters
rattle in the wind and open the window to let in the wet fresh air. As I inhale, I
remember the pelting rain on tin roofs, so loud it stops the conversation mid word and
a sense of anticipation fills the room. I can smell the damp withering scent of
vegetation that never has time to dry before the next rain engulfs it. I can feel the
moisture on my skin and the slippery earth under my feet. If I close my eyes, I can
imagine that I am back in the steep Himalayan hills of Sikkim that I have lived in for
many years and call my home of choice.
I smile and shake my head in disbelief as I yearn for the Sikkimese monsoons, so
easily forgetting the mould and the leeches. In my native language we have a word
that describes that feeling: Sehnsucht – a composite of the verb sehnen ‘to yearn’ and
the noun Sucht ‘addiction’. It is this sense of longing where the glorious highs make
the downsides of reality – such as the daily fight of drying clothes and keeping
electronic equipment safe from humidity – shrivel into non-existence. It has been a
while since I have visited and the sense of intense longing hits me ever so often – the
urge to bite into a juicy beef momo, the craving to drink coffee and eat delicious cake
at my favourite bookstore in the world, the thrill of reaching a hill top monastery that
overlooks the deep green forested valleys or the joy of sipping warm millet beer in
good company at a warm fire.
The monsoon is a special time of the year when the hills show their ambivalence in all
facets. The paddy fields shine in florescent lush green contrasting the mist that crawls
up along the valleys. The mighty snow-capped mountains hide behind an ever-present
roof of clouds. It is this time of the year when you can feel why the hidden peaks are
sacred and the abodes of the gods. The mighty Kangchendzonga – the abode of the
primary mountain deity of the indigenous people of Sikkim and the third highest
mountain in the world – rarely appears in these months but the thrill of sneaking a
peak is indescribable. During the monsoons, Sikkim carries the air of its ancient
Lepcha name Ne Mayel Lyang, the sacred eternally hidden land.
It is also the time of when the mountains become perilous. Travelling is an endless
series of holding your breath and praying to all the supernatural forces in the valleys
to ensure the shared jeep reaches its destination. The roads become slushy mud tracks,
while boulders and streams tumble down the steep hills. On my way to the Lepcha
reserve Dzongu in Northern Sikkim I have often admired the calm and stoic manner
in which the drivers navigate through the chaos of slippery dirt and the threat of the
gaping abyss – all while sharing the village gossip and delivering letters, gas cylinders
and meat to people on the way. Even the smallest rivers swell to ravaging beasts,
streams run through villages and landslides threatened the lives and livelihoods of the
people settled on the steep mountain hills.
It is the time of year when the native Lepcha people pray to prevent floods. Today,
the colourful festival of Tendong hill brings Lepcha people from all over Sikkim and
beyond together to celebrate their language and culture, but also to remember the
dangers of nature and bring their guardian deities offerings to protect them in this monsoon season. The myth of Tendong and Manon hill tells of ancestral flood that
covered Lepcha lands. The people climbed the hills to get away from the water. As
the Lepcha on Manon hill drowned, on Tendong hill the people prayed to the creator
deity Itbu debu rum and the Kohom fo, a local quail, offered fermented millet beer to
the deities. The creator deity intervened and the flood subsided. Also the old shamans
of Lingthem village in Dzongu used to perform a ritual against landslides, called rut
rum fat – reminding of a local version of the myth, but possibly also of a historical
incident that occurred in the mid-19 th century when a landslide destroyed a whole
village.
Ironically, the flood myths are love stories. The two main rivers of Sikkim – Rangit
and Teesta – ran away from their mountain homes to meet in the lower hills and
eternally flow together. The female river Teesta followed a snake and reached swiftly,
while the male took a hungry bird as a guide that hoped around and took longer. Out
of anger of missing his beloved woman, the male river returned and flooded the lands.
In Dzongu another love story shaped the landscape and caused an epic flood. In
ancestral times, the two hillocks on the opposite side of the Upper Dzongu valley,
Sumphyok in the vicinity of Panang and Rungdok close to the village Safo, fought
over a woman. As they moved towards each other in war, they blocked the river
valley. Recognising the hardship the warring hills were causing, the mountain deity
Kongchen intervened through a mediator Manik hill, who also ended up staying in the
region. It has always fascinated me how the myths of natural calamities and violent
transformation of landscape go hand in hand with stories of love and war among the
supernatural beings.
To me, during monsoons, the mystical landscape comes alive with its wonders and
perils. The guardian deities in the hillocks and mountain ridges, the ancestral beings
in the rocks and trees and the malevolent spirits in the water sources never seem as
vibrant as in those foggy days. The rivers claim the lifeline they are for the indigenous
people, along which they guide the souls of their deceased to their eternal resting
places, to pum lyang. The chants of the shamans echo in the mist requesting the
mountains deities to protect all the sentient beings. I strain my ears as if I could hear
them and smile.
I avert my eyes from the fog outside my window – a little lost, a little bewildered and
with the plan to cook myself some dhalbhat for dinner tonight.

 

post contributed by Jenny Bentley

photograph contributed by Kunga Tashi

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