Sikhim and Bhutan/Chapter 02

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The aboriginal inhabitants of Sikhim are the Lepchas, and the language they use is Lepcha. Their origin is doubtful, as they did not enter Sikhim from across the Himalayas or from Tibet, but are supposed to have come from the East along the foot hills from the direction of Assam and Upper Burmah. They bear little resemblance to the Tibetans, they are smaller and slighter in build with finer cut features, in many cases almost Jewish, and their language is a distinct one, not a dialect of Tibetan. They only number about 6000. They are people of a mild, quiet and indolent disposition, loving solitude, and their homes are found in the most inaccessible places, in the midst of forests if possible, and seldom above an elevation of 4000 feet. They are also very improvident, living from hand to mouth; with abundance when the crops are good, but once the supply is eaten up going often in the direst straits, picking up what they can in the jungle till the next crop ripens. They are great nature lovers and good entomologists and botanists, and have their own names for every animal, insect and plant, and are, I should think unequalled anywhere as collectors. They make most excellent and trustworthy servants and are a quite exceptional people, amongst whom it is a pleasure to live. I speak from a very intimate knowledge of their ways and habits after having spent a very happy twenty years amongst them with friends in every degree, from the Maharaja himself to some of the humblest coolies.

They now profess Buddhism and are generally very devotional, although they originally worshipped the spirits of the mountains, rivers and forests, a natural outcome of their surroundings. Leading solitary, isolated lives, everything would tend to foster such beliefs in a country where the mighty snows appear immortal, the raging torrents irresistible, as though impelled by some unseen avenging spirit, combined with the curious shapes taken by everything when veiled in grey mist and the ghostlike and awesome forms to be met in the shadows of the damp dripping forests full of phosphorescent stumps of old trees scattered round in strange contortions, with the accompaniment of the weird sound of the wind, as it moans round some projecting crag or through some giant tree, and where even the melancholy cry of the birds is pitched in a minor key, all must encourage such beliefs and leave a deep impression on the character of the people who live amidst it.

A few Lepcha families are to be found in the lower valleys of Western Bhutan, and also in Eastern Nepal, where they apparently settled at the time they came to Sikhim.

The next race to enter Sikhim, probably long before the time of the accession of the Sikhim Rajas, were the Bhuteas who are of Tibetan origin and who spread at the same time into Bhutan. In Sikhim they number a little over 6000 and are more traders and herdsmen than agriculturists, although they cultivate small areas round their houses. They are for the most part of good physique, big and sturdy with a Mongolian type of features, and are not so reserved or so fond of isolation as the Lepchas. Their houses are substantially built at elevations always above 4000 feet and never in the hot steamy valleys. The whole family, sons and sons' wives, live together under one roof in patriarchal fashion, instead of each man having his own

house and establishment. Their religion is Buddhism or

Lamaism, and their language is a dialect of Tibetan.

By far the greater number of the inhabitants of Sikhim, however, are the Paharias, who number nearly 50,000. They have migrated from the neighbouring densely populated State of Nepal, and are slowly but surely pushing their way eastward. They are almost all Hindus by religion, with innumerable castes, the few exceptions being the tribes coming from the north-east of Nepal, who still profess Buddhism. They are on the whole a steady, industrious and thrifty people, very pushing, and eager to take up new employments, they make excellent settlers, pay their rent regularly, and give no trouble in that way. But they require a strong hand over them, and some of the castes are most litigious and quarrelsome. Many of their head men are excellent managers, thoroughly to be trusted, and will carry out anything they undertake to do to the best of their ability. In more than one case I have known Nepalese settlers in Sikhim, by dint of hard work and perseverance, rise to important positions which they have successfully filled, in marked contrast to the Lepchas, whose indolent temperament always acts as a deterrent and causes them to be outdistanced by more energetic races.

The only plainsmen from India to be found in Sikhim are a few Marwaris and men of the Bunia or shopkeeper class, who have come for trading purposes and settled under the protection of the British Raj since the expedition of 1888.


The population of Bhutan, numbering, perhaps, 400,000 may be roughly divided into two, those living on the West and those living on the East of the Pele-la.

The people of the West are for the most part of Tibetan origin who came into the country centuries ago. They are of the same original stock as the Bhuteas in Sikhim, but

have developed in Bhutan into a magnificent race of men

physically. Why there should be this marked contrast I cannot say, it may be due to the difference in climate, but there is no comparison between the two, although the Sikhim Bhutea is a strong sturdy fellow in his own way. The Bhutanese are fine, tall, well-developed men with an open, honest cast of face, and the women are comely, clean and well-dressed, and excellent housekeepers and managers. Their religion is Buddhism and their language a dialect of Tibetan.

Of their morals. Dr. Griffiths, who accompanied Pemberton in 1838, writes as follows:

“Of the moral qualities of the Booteahs it is not in my power to give a pleasing account. To the lower orders I am disposed to give credit for much cheerfulness, even under their most depressed circumstances, and generally for considerable honesty. The only instances of theft that occurred did so on our approach to the capital. How strange that where all that should be good, and all that is great is encouraged, there is little to be found but sheer vice; and how strange that where good examples alone should be led, bad examples alone are followed.

“To the higher orders I cannot attribute the possession of a single good quality. They are utter strangers to truth; they are greedy beggars, they are wholly familiar with rapacity and craftiness and the will of working evil. This censure applies only to those with whom we had personal intercourse; it would be perhaps unfair to include the Soubahs, whom we saw only once in such a flattering picture, but it certainly would not be unreasonable, and I must make one exception in favour of Bullumboo, the Soubah of Dewangiri, and he was the only man of any rank that we had reason to be friendly towards and to respect. In morale they appeared to me to be inferior to all ordinary hill tribes, on whom a Booteah would look with ineffable contempt, and although their houses are generally better, and although they actually have castles

and places called palaces, and although the elders of the

land dress in fine cloths and gaudy silks and possess money, ponies, mules, and slaves, I am disposed to consider them as inferior even to the naked Naga.

“They are not even courageous. I am inclined to rank courage among physical rather than moral qualities, yet it could not be so classified in the consideration of a Booteah in whom other qualities are well developed. I therefore consider it among those other qualities which, as I have said, are absent in Bootan. A Booteah is a great boaster but a small performer. All accounts I heard of their reputed courage were ludicrous. . . . Their courage may therefore be written down as entirely imaginary.

“Their ideas of religion appear to be very confused, religion with them consisting, as indeed it may do among other more civilised people, of certain external forms, such as counting beads and muttering sacred sentences. The people throughout are remarkably superstitious, believing in an innumerable host of spirits. . . .

“Of any marriage ceremonies I could not hear, but as chastity would appear to be unknown, no particular forms are probably required. Nor do I think that there is a particular class of prostitutes. We all had opportunities of remarking the gross indelicacy of Booteah women; of this and of their extreme amiableness the custom of polyandry is a very sufficient cause. So far as I could see, there is no distinction of rank among Booteah women, and those only are saved from the performance of menial duties who are incapacitated by sickness or age. . . .

“Of the social habits little favourable could be said in any place where the women are looked on as inferior beings and used as slaves. . . .

“I need scarcely add that both sexes are, in all their habits, inexpressibly filthy. The women, in their extreme indelicacy, form a marked contrast with such other hill tribes as I am acquainted with. The only use either sex make of water is in the preparation of food or of

spirits—no water ever comes into contact with any part of their

person; they scarcely ever change their clothes, especially the woollen ones.”

Eden formed much the same opinion in 1864, and I cannot help thinking both writers were prejudiced against the Bhutanese by the treatment they received, for it is not possible for a whole race to so completely change in so short a time; and in addition Bogle and Turner’s accounts of their experiences coincide exactly with mine.

When I visited Bhutan in 1905, I certainly had more and better opportunities of judging, and I found no signs of such a state of things. My experience of the people was that they were universally polite, civil, and clean, and during the whole time I spent in the country, I only saw one drunken man. I had every opportunity of judging, as I entered numerous houses and temples in all parts of the country, and invariably found them clean and tidy; in many of the houses, the floors were washed and polished, and the refreshments they hospitably pressed on me were served in spotlessly clean dishes.

The clothes of the higher officials were always immaculate, their brocades and silks fresh and unstained in any way, and even the coolies were a great contrast to the usual Tibetan or Darjeeling coolie. Therefore I cannot help thinking Messrs. Griffiths and Eden have exaggerated what they saw, and as we know with what discourtesy they were treated, it is perhaps not altogether unreasonable for them to have seen, only the worst side of the people.

Neither do I consider the Bhutanese an excessively idle people, the amount of labour expended on their irrigation channels alone dispels that idea, and, their houses are all large and substantially built. And as in the case of Dug-gye-jong, in the courtyards we found retainers busily occupied in various trades, while the women of the household spin and weave and make clothes for the men-folk in addition to their ordinary duties. A great part of the country is

under cultivation, and they raise sufficient crops to support

the whole population, including the lamas, who are a great burden to the State.

We saw no immorality. They follow certain curious customs, such as the right of the head man when girls marry, but after all, the same custom prevailed in Europe not so many years ago in the right of the Seigneur. But even this is being put a stop to by the present Tongsa. The women were open and frank in their demeanour, but with no trace of indelicacy. The men were cheery and jovial, always ready for a game at quoits, shooting at a target with arrows, jumping, &c., at the end of a day's march when we had settled into camp. They are fond of their beer, but there is no great harm in that, and small wonder they are thirsty after toiling up the hills with their loads. I have drunk many a choonga (bamboo mug) full of the mild ale myself and been none the worse for it.

Amongst the people of the East who live beyond the Pele-la the bulk of the population is not of Tibetan origin, nor do they speak Tibetan. I give a few words they use, spelt phonetically, which seem to me different to those of Tibetan derivation. Gami = fire, Nut = barley, Mai = house, Tyu = milk, Yak = hand, Tsoroshai = come here. Their origin is not clear, but they are allied to the people of the Assam Valley and to those living in the hills to the east beyond Bhutan. They are of a different type to those in the west, smaller in stature, the complexion is darker and features finer cut, and their dress is different. They also profess Buddhism, but are not so observant of its customs, nor are there so many monasteries and Lamas to be met with as in the other part of Bhutan. Sir Ugyen Wang-chuk estimates there are about 200,000 of them.

The remaining inhabitants are Paharias, the same as those in Sikhim, who are creeping along the foot hills and now form a considerable community extending the whole length of Bhutan where the outer hills join the plains of India. With the exception of the Hindu Paharias, Buddhism is the religion professed throughout Bhutan.

To my readers who wish to study the subject of Buddhist religion in this part of the world I cannot give better advice than to read Waddell’s “Lamaism,” as I have no intention of entering deeply into it, and will content myself by saying that in both Sikhim and Bhutan the religion is an offshoot of Buddhism, and was introduced into these countries from Tibet by lamas from different monasteries who travelled south and converted the people. Most of the tenets of Buddha have been set aside, and those retained are lost in a mass of ritual, so nothing remains of the original religion but the name. The form of worship has a curious resemblance in many particulars to that of the Roman Catholic Church. On any of their high holy days the intoning of the Chief Lama conducting the service, the responses chanted by the choir, sometimes voices alone, sometimes to the accompaniment of instruments, where the deep note of the large trumpet strangely resembles the roll of an organ, the ringing of bells, burning of incense, the prostrations before the altar, the telling of beads and burning of candles, the processions of priests in gorgeous vestments, and even the magnificent altars surmounted by images and decorated with gold and silver vessels, with lamps burning before them, even the side chapels with the smaller shrines where lights burn day and night, add to the feeling that one is present at some high festival in a Roman Catholic place of worship. I have been present at the services on feast days in the temples in Sikhim, Bhutan and in Lhasa, and no great stretch of imagination was required to imagine myself in a Catholic Cathedral in France or Spain, especially the latter. There is also some resemblance in the dress and vestments of the priests and lamas, and even in some of their customs. Many of them go entirely into seclusion, and they also have certain periods of time devoted to prayer corresponding to a Retreat, during which they see no one.

Sikhim is not so priest-ridden as Bhutan and Tibet. As a class the lamas are disliked, but also feared by the people, on account of the belief that the lamas have the power to do them harm.

As a rule the lamas are ignorant, idle and useless, living at the expense of the country, which they are surely dragging down.

This is particularly the case in Bhutan, where the lamas are fed, clothed and housed at State expense, and as their numbers have steadily increased, they have become a very heavy burden which cannot long be borne, and an evil which I hope may soon be curtailed by the method proposed by Sir Ugyen Wang-chuk, namely, the gradual reduction by leaving vacancies, occurring through death and other causes, unfilled, and the limitation of the number admitted to each monastery.

There are, of course, exceptions to every rule, and I have met several lamas, notably the Phodong Lama of Sikhim and others like him, men who were thoroughly capable, who acted up to their principles, and whom I thoroughly respected, but I am sorry to say such men were few and far between. The majority generally lead a worldly life and only enter the priesthood as a lucrative profession and one which entails no trouble to themselves.