A new side to Darjeeling : Tunglabong
Welcome to our blog! This is the first in a series of blogs sharing insight from our month long 2022 trip to Darjeeling where we were visiting many of the smallholder communities across the hills; we hope you enjoy the read!
Michelle : We were staying in Tunglabong the Lepcha name for the village meaning ‘Tapioka.’ - the plant that was abundant here in the early days of settlement. This is Lepcha country - the Lepcha are the original people of Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Sikkim & Ilam with a rich culture, forts, kings and a strong connection to the land. Farden Lepcha, who was to be our guide during our stay explained how the Lepcha were exploited by everyone who came to this land afterwards - 'Tibetans, Nepalese, Indian and Bhutanese. When the British arrived to change the rich forest into the monoculture of tea we see today the Lepcha refused to work for them under the conditions they imposed - conditions that included the cutting of trees - one of the reasons that the British then brought workers from Nepal. The pine trees that we see across Darjeeling were planted by the British to be used to make tea chests. Many people come and marvel at their beauty - but pine is a monoculture just like tea - you never see pine in our natural forests. Both pine and betel (which we saw across the mountain) - take a lot of water from the ground meaning that nothing grows around them - they are not good for the land of for biodiversity’
Farden continued ‘We Lepcha are very different from the Nepalese, Lepcha people have our own rich culture, there are many different tribes across the hills but only the Lepcha have stories about all the parts of nature- for example the Teesta river - its origin, where it converges with the Bhramaputra we say that they meet as lovers. Lepcha people are animists - we say prayers for and worship nature and have festivals for crows, dogs, cows (which represents the mother) and buffalo. We are all born from the mountain Kanchenkonglo - which you call Kanchenjunga - the 3rd highest mountain in the world. It is the highest form of deity for Lepcha’ The village is home to 362 people who live from the river up to the top of the hill.
It’s a place that Farden left for and after his education visiting only during holidays which he spent with his grandfather - an incredible man, in fact a Lepcha shamen who spent many years in an around the forest. As we sat in his house Farden shared an extraordinary story...
‘My grandfather was captured by a forest spirit, taken for a month and it was during this time that he was given his knowledge. The forest spirit was a man called Banjhakri, he has a wife called Lamlammey who feeds on human beings’. When Banjhakri took Farden’s grandfather he fed him coal. Hearing of the presence of a man in the forest Lamlammey came to see him - she asked him to spit and when he did he spat out black coal - upon seeing this Lamlammey decided not to eat him. ‘Banjhakri saved him’ shared Farden ‘and then left him on a cliff - it was a place he simply could not have reached on his own. My grandfather then described how he felt the sensation of riding down the cliff in a trance - full of the knowledge he had gained from the forest. He had incredible powers - the ability to heal people from snake bites and to stop hail from falling. He was one of the original Lepcha shamen which we call Bongthing’. Fardens grandfather has now expired but Ongden Lepcha who lived with him from a young age and travelled through the forest with him still lives in the village.
‘Ongden is one of the last Lepcha Shamen’ shared Farden ‘there are still some in Sikkim and Kalimpong but not many remain - Ongden doesn’t have all the powers of my grandfather but he knows all the offerings and still offers healing to those in the village’. Ongden used to live in the forest in a simple shelter with his wife Nimkit, tending to his cattle and chickens and playing his traditional flute and Lepcha guitar He occasionally came to the village but since the pandemic many of the forest people have been removed so for a year he has been back with looking after their cattle, tending the maize, rice, millet, corn and vegetables. ‘They don’t care for money’ explained Ongden ‘they own 18 hectares of land but have no interest in developing it preferring to live a simple sustainable life’ On a rainy afternoon I had the great privilege to talk with Ongden who shared tales of riding wild boars like motorbikes when they attacked him on a hunting trip (some impressive scars tell the tale) and hiding when forest spirits - presenting as small people before rising into the air with long flowing hair - came to visit one night. ‘When the spirits come you must not confront them’ he shared ‘stay hidden or small and still’ it’s advice I will hold close should I ever be deep in the forest at night.
With stories such as these it is perhaps not surprising that Farden felt compelled to return to Tunglabong - his path had led him to Dubai and having seen this other side of life he had a greater appreciation for his Lepcha home. Back home he began exploring numerous pathways - including a spell in Nepal learning about pig keeping (which the rest of the village were not so keen on). Determined to live an entrepreneurial life Farden returned to Gorubathan and observed how others had successfully set up greenhouses - this struck a chord and became his first new venture in the village growing vegetables for sale. In 2016 focus turned to tea and it was around this time that a crew came to the area to make a short film - ‘we took care of them, fed them and in return, when they left they offered to make us a logo for our farmstay’ and so it was that moonbeam was born - the name being a translation of Farden’s mothers name.
With solid foundations in place in 2019 and 2020 Farden invested his savings to build the home stay accommodation, keen to open up their community with others who shared the Lepcha appreciation for nature. The timing was unfortunate - after a strong start COVID hit and visitors stopped. The factories that purchased green leaf from the community stopped production and the community survived by selling vegetables locally. For many in the village life remained unchanged - they continued their daily work with the cattle, planting, harvesting unaware of the chaos that the world was facing. Emerging from this period Farden reflected ‘I feel glad that we have chosen to slowly develop our initiatives here in Tunglabong. We care for the land and the land takes care of us. Sustainability for us is about ensuring that we retain our culture, respect the land and that any activity we undertake are collectively agreed. We can only grow each of our initiatives if everyone agrees
Talk turns to tea - although the community grows tea they, like many smallholder communities do not have a factory to process it. Across the village individual families have patches of tea - 13 of them who are committed to organic farming have now decided to come together and, with the help of Rajah, start their own brand of tea - ‘it’s something we could have looked into before but I’m glad we didn’t start with tea. We now have a sustainable food system in the village which supports us and tea will be just part of that rather than being the main source of income’. The foundations in place in the village with nurseries and herb gardens have also sparked a herbal group (many of whom are also in the tea group) - under guidance from herbalist Ram they have already started producing mouthwash, massage oil & have a aloe Vera cream on the horizon. Underpinning all of this work is of course the soil - Farden shared how the group produce vermi-compost and Vegetation Compost and also introduced us to IMO - indigenous micro organisms which they borrow from the forest (a process involving bamboo, cooked rice and jaggery) and spray as a Fungicide; it's a rich source of NPK and healthy for our their Animals. Crops are rotated - Corn, rice, millets - and nitrogen fixing plants like Dal are dotted across the landscape.
Life here moves slowly and peacefully underpinned by the hugely diverse skills & hand work of the community. We sat and watched as Nimkit & Ongden separated the husk from the rice using traditional methods, ground corn using the stone grinder used by generations in this village (‘many people try to buy this from me’ shared Farden ‘but of course I will never sell it’). We ate vegetarian feasts (and incredible soups especially the Gundruk soup) conjured by Dilliram (the legend) from the plants, herbs and vegetables grown here - experimented with making tea together, made curd and momos with Tamit Lepcha, swam in the river walked through the tea gardens passing relatives who invited us in for soup and tea and, when the evening came, were entertained by Ongden singing Lepcha songs, dancing & playing the flute. We saw how the entrepreneurial spirit present in Farden is inspiring others - Dillirams daughter Karishma has set up a nursery [see picture above] and is sharing her passion on YouTube and instagram, visitors buy plants and herbal products [see picture below]….
If Farden can continue to capture this spirit in his tea then the team here are surely onto something very special ; watch this space