The long-ago fight for Kirant identity

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the eastern Himalayan region was a hotbed of conflict as the indigenous communities pitched themselves against Tibetan Buddhist and Gorkhali hegemony. Hitherto unstudied manuscripts afford a new understanding of these rivalries, and of the life and work of a man who laid the ground for a Kirant revival.

[*Research assistance for this article by Sonam Rinchen Lepcha, and previous translation work by Imansing Chemjong and Bairagi Kainla.]

Historians today are convinced that a widespread cultural conflict took place in the eastern Himalayan region between the indigenous inhabitants – called the Kirant – and the Tibetan migrant population, reaching a climax during the 18th and 19th centuries. Another wave of political and cultural conflict, between Gorkhali and Kirant ideals, surfaced in the Kirant region of present-day Nepal during the last quarter of the 18th century. A collection of manuscripts from the 18th and 19th centuries, till now unpublished and unstudied by historians, have made possible a new understanding of this conflict. These historical sources are among those collected by Brian Houghton Hodgson – a British diplomat and self-trained Orientalist appointed to the Kathmandu court during the second quarter of the 19th century – and his principal research aide, the Newar scholar Khardar Jitmohan.

For over two millennia, a large portion of the eastern Himalaya has been identified as the home of the Kirant people, of which the majority are known today as Rai, Limbu, Yakha and Lepcha. In ancient times, the entire Himalayan region was known as the kimpurusha desha, a phrase derived from a Sanskrit term used to identify people of Kirant origin. These peoples were also known as nep, to which the name nepala is believed to have an etymological link. The earliest references to the Kirant as principal inhabitants of the Himalayan region are found in the texts of Atharvashirsha and Mahabharata, believed to date to before the 9th century BC. For over a millennium, the Kirant had also inhabited the Kathmandu Valley, where they installed their own ruling dynasty. As time passed, however, those Kirant now known as the Limbu settled mostly in the Kosi region of present-day eastern Nepal and Sikkim.

From around the 8th century, areas on the northern frontier of the Kirant region began to fall under the domination of migrant peoples of Tibetan origin. This flux of migration brought about the domination by Tibetan religious and cultural practices over ancient Kirant traditions. This influence first imposed shamanistic Bon practices, which in turn were later replaced by the oldest form of Tibetan Buddhism. The early influx of Bon culture to the peripheral Himalayan regions occurred only after the advent of the Nyingma, the oldest Buddhist order in Lhasa and central Tibet, which led followers of the older religion to flee to the Kirant areas for survival.

The Tibetan cultural influx ultimately laid the foundation for a Tibetan politico-religious order in the Kirant regions, and this led to the emergence of two major Tibetan Buddhist dynasties: in Sikkim and Bhutan. The early political order of the Kingdom of Bhutan had been established under the political and spiritual leadership of the lama Zhabs-drung Ngawang Namgyal. Consequently, Bhutan used to be known in the Himalayan region as the 'kingdom of [Buddhist] spiritual rule' (in old Nepali, dharmaako desh). The Tibetan rulers of Sikkim were also known as Chogyal, or spiritual rulers.

Both of these kingdoms adopted policies of suppression of indigenous practices, replacing them with those of Tibetan Buddhism. Bhutan's religious rulers established a tradition of appointing religious missions to other Himalayan kingdoms and areas, through which they were able to establish extensive influence in the region. Bhutan's ambitious missions were sent as far west as Ladakh. Even before the founding of modern Nepal by Prithvi Narayan Shah of Gorkha in 1769, Bhutan's rulers were able to establish spiritual centres in several parts of what was to become the former´s territories, including Kathmandu, Bhaktapur, Gorkha and Vijayapur in the midhills, and Mustang, north of the central Himalayan range.

Sikkim had long been home to Lepcha Kirant people and culture. Under the guidance of Tibetan Buddhist lamas, however, their self-rule and cultural independence was suddenly taken away. Sikkim kings were even able to subdue the entire far-eastern part of the Kirant region – historically known as Limbuwan – for at least a short period of time. Here, the new rulers adopted policies of religious and cultural subjugation, encouraging Sikkim lamas to travel to places of strategic importance in order to establish monastic centres.

But the indigenous population did not easily surrender themselves to this cultural invasion. Limbu and Lepcha manuscripts collected by Brian Hodgson in Darjeeling indicate significant resistance by the Kirant against Tibetan Buddhist rule and cultural domination. On the basis of information found in these manuscripts, the Limbus appear to have put up a more vigorous resistance than did the Lepchas. While much of this struggle consisted of attempts to strengthen cultural awareness, there were also violent engagements between Kirant communities and their new rulers. The manuscripts contain clear expressions of grievance and anger at Tibetan cultural hegemony (see box 1).

Sirijanga Singthebe and Kirant revival

Limbu society's first known literary figure and reformer was a talented young man from Tellok, in present-day Taplejung District of far-eastern Nepal. Born around 1704, he was formally known as Sirichongba, but his more popular name was and remains Sirijanga. Hodgson and Jitmohan's manuscripts have uncovered significant details of Sirijanga's life, including his education and his movement towards reformative activities. A Limbu-language instruction book found in this collection reveals Sirijanga's real name: Rupihang. The hang part of the name is a common Limbu term indicating a family of high or royal origin. In the Lepcha language, Limbus are referred to as Chong, so 'Sirijanga' seems to have been a corruption of the Sanskrit-Lepcha compound Shree chongba: the great hero of the Limbus from Limbuwan.

Sirijanga had accepted his Lepcha nickname by claiming to be the incarnation of a legendary figure also called Sirijanga. It has been widely believed that it was this supposedly 9th century hero who invented the ancient chong or Limbu script; but many now feel that the Sirijanga legend was most likely created by the 18th century Sirijanga himself, with the intention of making the Limbu and Lepcha people more ready to believe and follow his teachings.

Sirijanga Singthebe re-invented the old chong script, and also developed a new Kiranti alphabet, today known as Sirijanga. With the use of his newly developed script he collected, composed and copied huge amounts of Limbu literature pertaining to history and cultural traditions. He traveled extensively through remote regions, attempting to amass sources of Limbu knowledge and culture. Eventually, he began going from village to village, publicising his findings and establishing centres of Limbu Kiranti learning. In doing all of this, Sirijanga laid the foundation for a Kirant ethnic revival, and contributed significantly to the resistance against Tibetan Buddhist cultural domination.

Sirijanga preached that acquiring broad cultural knowledge and experience was the key to the revival and enrichment of the Limbu community. In an attempt to trace the sources of his culture, he at first studied with local Tibetan Buddhist lamas, who at the time were the only means in the region of connecting to a learned tradition. Sirijanga was also witness to the influx of the Hindu-based Khas culture from the western hill districts of today's Nepal. As such, along with his preliminary studies under the local lamas, he also practiced reading and writing in contemporary Khas, now known as Nepali.

In order to better understand the dynamics at play in the region and to gather support for his movement, Sirijanga traveled far and wide to establish contact with rulers and powerful personalities. In one of these adventures, it seems that he had either contacted or met King Jayaprakash Malla of Kathmandu. A manuscript found in Hodgson's collection contains a description of such an encounter in what appears to be Sirijanga's own writing in Limbu and Nepali (see box 2 and image).

This multi-lingual and multi-cultural exposure to Buddhist and Hindu standards enabled Sirijanga to grasp the fundamentals of both of the region's dominant cultures. He used this exposure as inspiration in developing the Limbu alphabet and the tenets of his own moral and religious teachings. His ultimate goal was to re-invent the Limbus' traditional cultural and religious understanding, by producing a vast treasure-chest of Limbu literature. He emphasised to his followers that the main cause of Limbu backwardness and impoverishment was the people's ignorance, and that this could be cured only by education (see box 3).

During Sirijanga's life, the Bhutani and Sikkimi quest for greater control over the eastern Himalaya led to many wars between Limbu and Sikkimi Bhotiya (Bhotiya indicating Tibetan origin) authorities. In due time, the lamas of Sikkim were able to extend their monastic centres into the northern areas of that part of Limbuwan that now lies in Nepal. After a time, this cultural encroachment enabled the Bhotiya rulers to repeatedly subdue and take control of the entire Limbu Kirant territory.

The root of this state of conflict can be seen to lie in the politics of culture and knowledge at play in the region. Sikkimi Tibetan rulers and Buddhist spiritual leaders were able to subjugate the entire far-eastern Kirant region by means of their hold over the established learned traditions and the systematic spiritual culture of Buddhism. It was realisation of this that led Sirijanga to emphasise the necessity of a peaceful, knowledge-based movement. In present-day terms, Sirijanga's ethnic movement can be said to be one of Kirant-Limbu empowerment through education.

Sirijanga's movement came to represent a significant threat in particular to the Sikkimi Bhotiya rulers and their spiritual gurus. The man's writings and teachings, his Kiranti alphabet and the literary texts he collected, attracted significant numbers of Limbus and Lepchas, and led to the start of an ethnic awakening. Sirijanga was able to establish centres of Kirant-Limbu cultural and religious learning in many places throughout the eastern Himalayan hills. The Sikkimi authorities felt enough under threat to want Sirijanga eliminated. He was killed in 1741, somewhere near the Pemiyongchi monastery in Sikkim. The Kirant learning centres were subsequently destroyed, and Sirijanga's disciples murdered or brutally suppressed.

In both life and death, Sirijanga was known as keba lama, the lama or preacher of Limbu tenets. A popular Limbu text of moral teaching called Sapla Munthum, also found in Hodgson's collection, indicates that he would sometimes introduce himself as such. Due to his early association with Tibetan Buddhism and the 'lama' title to this particular name, some scholars have been led to believe that Sirijanga was a Buddhist. The sense in which 'lama' is used here, however, indicates a teacher, a learned person or a guru. Sirijanga came to be keba lama because he was revered as the discoverer, worshipper and follower of mubokwama-ningmaphuma or kebalani, the goddess or mother of Limbu wisdom, knowledge and learning. In these scriptures, he is also addressed and idolised as mahatma (a great soul) and mahakulu (a great guru).

The Lepcha case

The Kiranti movement pioneered by Sirijanga also appears to have had a strong influence over the Lepchas of Sikkim. Since Sikkim's large Limbu population had close contacts with the area's Lepchas, and since the two communities found further bonds in their shared state of hegemonic suppression by Tibetan Buddhist culture, this influence was inevitable. In an attempt at resistance, both developed their own scripts, writing and literary tradition. The Lepchas of Sikkim were not only comfortable entering Sirijanga's tutelage and studying Limbu texts under him; they even offered him financial and physical help for the promotion of Kiranti writing and Limbu literature. It was by following Sirijanga's direct example, too, that the Lepchas developed their own script.

A mid-18th century Lepcha text found in Hodgson's collection and titled Lepcha Dungrap or Samtinyetring Chho contains historical and contemporary descriptions of the rivalry between the Lepcha and Sikkim's Tibetan Buddhist authorities (see online appendix). This particular Lepcha manuscript seems to have been a section of a historical text known as Dungrap, the traditional genealogy-based legend of Sikkim. The document includes a description of the early rivalry between the Tibetan Buddhist authorities and local Lepcha leaders, known as Muns or Bonthings

Towards the end of the Samtinyetring Chho is another interesting statement on the early Lepcha-Tibetan rivalry, major incidents of which are described while laying the ground for a spiritual 'forecast' about the cultural and political future of Sikkim. The text highlights the suppressive and discriminatory policies of the Tibetan authorities against the Lepcha, and concludes with the story of a new hope of Lepcha emancipation from this state of domination. It also predicts the ultimate downfall of Tibetan Buddhist rule, and the revival of indigenous Lepcha values (see online appendix).

Sources other than these literary references have also been found with regard to the Tibetan-Lepcha conflict, which reached its height during the early 19th century. With the Sikkimi authorities increasingly worried about their continued supremacy, they adopted brutal anti-Lepcha policies. In 1826 King Phyug-phu Namgyal assassinated his Lepcha chief minister, Karthak Chanjok Bolod, along with all of his immediate family. But Chanjok's nephew Yuklathup, also a minister in the king's court, escaped the killings and took asylum in the Limbuwan district of Ilam in Nepal, taking with him family members and about 800 other Lepchas and Limbus.

Due to similarities between their cultures, the Limbu elites of Ilam welcomed Yuklathup and his large, multi-ethnic party. For this purpose, the Limbu elites had also coordinated with the government of Nepal. It is said that a massive suppression of the Lepcha in Sikkim had occurred before and after Yuklathup's asylum in Ilam. Lepchas who arrived in Nepal in the wake of such suppression were to become strong followers of Gorkhali traditions: they observed the festivals of Dasain and Tihar, and even came to worship Hindu gods and goddesses. Those who thus assimilated into the dominant culture came to be known as sampriti Lepcha. Among the Lepcha manuscripts in Hodgson's collection is a religious scripture titled Sampriti-Lepcha Munthum.

The asylum-seekers were also called sukhimbaasi, or people from Sikkim. It was from this that the Nepali word sukumbaasi developed, which is used today to refer to a landless person. Similarly, the Nepali term for thumbprint came to be lyapche, it is said, because most of the Lepchas in the largely illiterate group of refugees had to use their thumbprints to sign the formal request for asylum. Manuscripts in Hodgson's collection corroborate information found in official records of the period as to these etymologies.

Gorkhali hegemonies

The next phase of military and cultural threat faced by the Kirant people was at the hands of the Gorkhali expansionists of Nepal, shortly after Sirijanga´s death. The nature and intensity of this hegemony was to prove significantly different from that of the earlier Tibetan one, however. From the very beginning, the Gorkha court's intention in the region was not the extension of its Hindu-based culture. Rather, Gorkha's was a clear military campaign of territorial expansion.

After the completion of the conquest of the Kathmandu Valley in 1769, the Gorkhali army marched east towards the Kirant territory. The Sen rulers of eastern Nepal, known as Hindupati, had established a weak rule in the Kirant region by adopting a policy of mutual understanding with the local Kirant leaders. The Gorkhali military campaign, in contrast, brought with it a forceful and brutal occupation. During the conquest, the invading authorities adopted a harsh divide-and-rule policy: they first asked the Kirantis to surrender, assuring them that they would retain local rule and their traditional order. After many took up this offer, however, the conquerors instead demanded that Gorkhali rule be obeyed and Gorkhali traditions be followed. Manuscripts in Hodgson's collection make mention of Kirant men, male children and pregnant women having been murdered in great numbers (see online appendix).

The Gorkhalis ultimately divided the Limbu Kirantis into two groups, the sampriti and the niti: the former were those who had surrendered to Gorkhali power and cultural traditions, while the latter maintained their own traditions. The Gorkhali authorities naturally favoured the sampritis, killing the niti Limbus or forcing them to flee their lands. As a result, much of the niti population migrated towards Sikkim and Bhutan.

But Gorkhali wartime policy changed, particularly after the conquest of the territories of Kumaun and Garhwal far in the west. By the end of the 18th century, the authorities in Kathmandu were in need of more state revenue, and implemented a policy to bring people into Nepali territory in order to make barren land arable. The Kirant who were ousted from their lands during the Gorkhali military conquest were also asked to return home, albeit under the condition that Gorkhali rule and traditions were strictly followed. Relatives and friends of those who had fled were recruited to call them back, and people moved again between the state-given identities of niti and sampriti.

Gorkhali and Tibetan hegemonies and the resistance to them have left their mark on the cultures of the eastern Himalaya in complex ways. The papers of Brian Houghton Hodgson, lodged at the British Library in London, help us to approach an account of this evolution, and to create a better historical understanding of this one corner of Southasia. Understanding of the hegemonic cultures that encroached upon the Kirant living space, and the conflicts and subjugation that ensued, can be said to be yet at a rudimentary stage. Extended study of these papers among others will be followed by a deeper understanding that will also help further strengthen and consolidate the process of ethnic assertion afoot today in the eastern hills of Nepal as in other parts of the country. Knowledge of the deep past will help in better comprehension of the present, and so also serve as a guide for the future.

Vol 73, fol 155-56 Colophon of a Limbu manuscript that describes the assassination of Sirijanga by the Raja and Lamas of Sikkim.

Let the wisdom of the Yakthung Hang [the Limbu king] be victorious! He [Sirijanga] wrote the scripture of the Yakthung Hang! Please be informed, the very foundation [of Limbu upliftment] is now raised or laid! The Great Guru [Mahaguru] who can even bring and halt the wind and storm has now got the enlightenment of written knowledge of the Limbus! Once you have got the foundation [of the scripture] you must read and understand it.

… Please notice, Oh Limbus! He [the Mahaguru, or Sirijanga] found the scripture written on leaves [wild leaves?] and floral petals while he was in his dream! Having rewritten those scriptures, he brought them as if he found them miraculously. However, when he had not even got to finish the writing of the scriptures and while he was just looking [visiting] towards the kingdom of the Bhotes [for dissemination and publicity of the scriptures he had composed and was composing, basically among Limbu and Lepcha communities] having thought that the Bhotiya king's kingdom would collapse if the tenets or scriptures of the Limbus were to flourish and, also having heard a similar version from the Lamas [Tasong Lamas of Pemayonchi], they [the Bhotiya authorities of Sikkim] killed him [Sirijanga]!

[Thus,] Oh Limbu brothers! You are advised to please chant the prayers [that Mahaguru wrote] every day and night!

You should know that on the earth Phaktalung [the Kumbhakarna Himal and the areas around its foothills] is the naval [main source] [of human being], the main body is God Mahadeva, who resides above it. You are standing alive [protected by our deity] and now there is the Limbu tenet above you [available for your protection and betterment]. Limbus' guru is the Mahaguru [Sirijanga], queen of your mind [Kevalani, Mubokwama or Ningmaphuma and the scriptures collected, rewritten and composed by Sirijanga]! 'Let the Limbu wisdom be always victorious!' This in fact is the prayer of the Limbus!

Vol 88, fol 6 recto – Mention of the name 'Rupihang Raya' and Sirijanga's contact with King Jayaprakash Malla of Kantipur. The original is in 18th century Nepali.

Hail! Let it be auspicious everywhere! Let Maharaja Jayaprakasha Malla be victorious!

Let the everyday services or greetings of this Sri Rupihang Raya [offered to Jayaprakasha Malla] be perfected or be turned into truth!

Vol 88, fol 1 – Colophon of the textbook of the Kirant (Sirijanga) script and language by Sirijanga.

Sri Om! I advise you to keep reading [the Limbu scriptures] every morning and evening!

I advise you to please keep the scripture of the Yakthung Hang [the Limbu ruler] properly/safely!

I advise you to please ask for a copy of the scripture of the Yakthung Hang [if you do not have one already]!

Om! I prostrate myself before Sri Tolingsomu camen-bhumen-bhime!

Om Sri! This is the scripture [sastra] of the Yakthung Hang!

Please note that I, Sirijanga, brought this text into light [discovered or wrote]!

Oh, the Sun God! I prostrate myself before you!

Please note that I, at first, brought a serious thinking into my mind [of producing a scripture] and made [or wrote] the scripture of moral teachings of the goddess of knowledge or learning [Mubokvama or Kevalani]!

Om! I am speaking the words of Mubokvama: I wrote the story of the origin of the Sun and the Moon and also wrote about the origin of the planets and stars…!

Om! This is the tenet of goddess Mubokvama! I, Sirijanga Hang, wrote it! I advise you all [Limbus] to read it [always]!

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Himal Southasian