There are only 11,000 Lepcha in India. This tiny community is distinct from the rest of the population, distinguished by their ancient language, their mountain culture and fantastic regional food.
The Lepcha are from eastern Nepal, Sikkim state and the Darjeeling region of West Bengal in Northern India, as well as from western Bhutan. They are thought to be the earliest inhabitants of Sikkim. Over centuries of settlement, they have also absorbed aspects of the Bhutia culture from people who left Tibet and entered Sikkim in the 14th century but they remain completely unique.
Our Gap Year program to India offers you an extraordinary opportunity to spend time with the Lepcha. Our volunteers live in the Lepcha community, learning first hand about their rich cultural heritage and even picking up some Lepcha language skills. Read on to find out more about the Lepcha people and what to expect from your AV Gap Year to India.
The Lepcha language
As the indigenous inhabitants of Sikkim, the Lepcha have tended to live in the remotest valleys as the population around them grew. Thanks to their mountain settlements, their language and their writing remained completely unique. The Lepcha speak a Tibetan dialect that is only spoken by the Lepcha people and cannot be found anywhere else in the world.
Do you want to learn some Lepcha? A good place to get started is with the basic greeting: ‘Khaamree!’ For thank you, you can say ‘Taokchhyee!’. Of course, you’ll also need to learn ‘Aazuk’ if you’re staying in the foothills of the Himalayas as this word means beautiful. They also have a special saying ‘Aachuley!’ meaning ‘Hail to the Himalayas’ and this is the most common phrase used by the Lepchas.
Celebrations in the Lepcha community
Much of the Lepcha culture incorporates aspects of the stunning landscape around them. The community would traditionally have worshipped the world’s third highest mountain, Kanchenjunga, which they regard as their guardian deity. They believe that the ancestors of their people were created from the snow on the summit of Kanchenjunga. Now other religions including Christianity and Hinduism have been adopted by the Lepcha but many unique cultural and religious practices still remain.
This incredible community has so many diverse and distinct customs. Originally converted to Tibetan Buddhism by the Bhutia, the Lepcha have also retained their own mythological history of spirits and shamans. They have regular festivals involving singing and dancing, as well as archery contests!
Traditionally, the Lepcha would have been hunter-gatherers and they still maintain some hunting and gathering activities. Archery is one of the most important sports in the Lepcha community, doubling as both a pastime and a key aspect of their culture. However, most households in the village now farm and keep pigs and cattle, giving them access to milk and meat.
Lepcha food includes dishes like ‘khoori’, buckwheat pancakes made with spinach and homemade cheese, bamboo shoots, and special, regional soups. The ingredients are all grown in and around the community so they’re always fresh and organic in the most natural sense of the word. The local drink is a type of fermented millet beer known as ‘chi’ – it’s strong stuff!
Living with the Lepcha
Our AV Gap Year program to India is completely unique, offering you a chance to experience life with the incredible Lepcha people in Northern India. Living in the village, you will quickly become a part of the community, giving you a privileged insight into the lives, history and culture of this indigenous group. There is no other Gap Year that will provide you with this level of cultural immersion and the chance to be included into this tiny, close-knit group, where you will be treated as a friend and even a member of the family!