The fire is crackling in the open kitchen stove. It is warm and cosy. The air is heavy with incense and the sweet smell of ci, local fermented millet beer. I cradle a warm cup of milk tea in my hands and wait for what is going to happen next. Villagers are huddled together in the small kitchen. Here in Dzongu, it is the last night of the old year as the Lepcha celebrate it. It is Már nyóm tyángrígóng sonáp, the black night in the last month of the year. The Lepcha religious specialist, the búngthíng, sits facing in the direction of Mount Kangchendzonga, hidden in the darkness beyond the kitchen walls. The mighty mountain is the abode of the most important Lepcha deity, Kóngchen, and thrones over the Lepcha village nestled into the steep Himalayan slopes. Pine incense burn on glowing coals. This marks the beginning of every Lepcha ritual as the scented smoke calls the attention of the deities.
Slowly, the búngthíng prepares the ci sankyo, a small wooden bowl filled with fermented millet beer and decorated with five butter smears. The most important ritual item of the evening lies to this right: the bundle of elephant grass leaves called pashór. The gods gifted the pashór to the Lepcha religious specialists in ancient times. The búngthíng will narrate its tale of origin in the ritual tonight. It is the story of two brothers, the sunrays, who get into a fight. One of them is hurt badly and remains unconscious. The deities assemble to find a way to heal the ailing brother. The bird Namprik fo is sent to fetch the elephant grass from its place of creation. As a reward for its brave task, every year the bird receives the gift of the first grain. Then the gods seek someone who has the powers to use the pashór. Many animals offer their services, but the pashór only listens to the ancient Lepcha religious specialist. He touches the ailing brother’s hand and foot three times with the elephant grass. The sunray brother regains consciousness, but remains weak as the winter sun. Since then, the búngthíng uses elephant grass in healing and cleansing rituals.
The búngthíng starts reciting. He offers liquid ci and sways the pashór during the entire ritual. I watch the búngthíng intently as he starts his ritual, trying to capture his every movement, his every word. He addresses the deities of the house and the protectors of the village. Then he requests them to prevent evil and bring prosperity to the house and village in the coming year. According to the legends the last night of the old year is all about the death of Láso múng, a feared malevolent spirit, and the cleansing of the people from all evils. Anything bad needs to be ritually detached from the people’s bodies so that it does not cling to them and enter the New Year. The búngthíng now performs a purification ritual and swipes the pashór over the people in the kitchen. The villagers bow their heads as the búngthíng bids farewell to the old year and the old evils, while welcoming the New Year.
Then the first ritual sequence is over and the villagers follow the búngthíng outside. I leave the warmth of the kitchen fire and shiver in the cold crisp mountain air, while I wait for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. I can make out the shadows of the steep mountains surrounding us. The sky seems filled with an endless amount of stars, leading into the infinity of space. I breath in the chilly air and wish I had time to enjoy the beauty of this starry night, so far away from the lights of the big cities. But I can see the backs of the villagers vanishing into the dark as they ascend the narrow path. The beams of their cell phone flashlights selectively show the muddy steep stretch in front of us. I switch on my flashlight and hurry to catch up, stumbling over my own feet. I can hear their voices and laughter. Loud cries of ácúle, the Lepcha praise to the mountains, resound through the night and the traditional songs arouse a yearning in my chest, as anticipation and excitement fills the air.
The villagers are preparing to burn the effigy of the evil spirit Láso múng, the demon that changes its appearance. The evil spirit started the annual cycle that determines the Lepcha calendar. Lepcha mythology narrates that this wrathful spirit flew down the Dzongu valley brutally killing the inhabitants. The present village names are manifestos of this ancient blood bath. The names describe in which manner Láso múng slaughtered the inhabitants in that specific place. The deities and the religious specialists chased malevolent being, but it kept changing its manifestation. The demon materialised as twelve animals in twelve consecutive years: mouse, ox, tiger, eagle, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, bird, dog and pig.
Eventually, the deities and religious specialists tricked Láso múng. They created a lake of blood and poison with upright spears hidden just below the surface. A small and very light bird called Kahryo fo jumped up and down on the lake, mocking Láso múng and calling it a coward for not entering the pool of blood. Enraged, the wrathful evil spirit pounced on the bird. The spears and the poison finally killed it. After its death the Lepcha people rejoiced for seven days, while Láso múng’s body decomposed. Its death marked the end of an era of malevolence and this mythological feast was the first New Year celebration.
Running through the night, the villagers collect the offerings from each household for the ritual burning of the evil spirit and all the malevolent forces of the old year. I am panting behind the villagers, unaccustomed to the paths and the steepness of the terrain, trying not to slip or stumble. The búngthíng carries the pashór from house to house, cleansing the villagers and their houses on the way. Pans of ci stand outside, ready for the villagers to sip, when they reach. It is the first taste of the fresh millet beer prepared for the New Years celebration. The homeowners hand over a mix of grains called dú as offerings for the protective deities.
Finally, the villagers reach the ground in front the community centre. Here the effigy of Láso múng awaits us. It is an impressive structure made of bamboo and straw and looks like a human, a snake, and a dragon merged onto one being. The villagers place the offerings at its the feet. Then, the búngthíng performs the last ceremony of the old year, again invoking the protectors of the place to come forward and guarantee a prosperous New Year. He then puts the pashór on the bamboo straw structure. At midnight the villagers set fire to the effigy and burn all the evils of the past year collected from people and houses. At this very moment, the weeklong NewYear celebration begins with songs of joy and dances. I feel an ecstatic sense of hope and rejuvenation as I watch the flames engulf the symbol of the greatest evil of all times. I am humbled to share this celebration of life and laughter, of rejoice and victory over evil. Let the year of the dog begin.
post contributed by Jenny Bentley