Last mountain priest dies in India’s Sikkim

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An ancient ritual of worshipping Kanchenjunga, the world’s third-highest mountain, has ended with the death of the last Lepcha priest in remote northeast India, reports said Sunday. “The tradition… has ended forever. It is not possible for another person to learn the rituals and take Samdup Taso’s place,” local resident Sherap Lepcha told the The Times Of India. The indigenous Lepcha people of Sikkim have worshipped the Himalayan peak for hundreds of years in an annual ceremony led by direct descendants of the original “bongthing” or priest. But the death of Samdup Taso, 83, has left the Lepchas without a priest to continue prayers for the mountain, which is revered as Sikkim’s guardian deity, the paper reported. Taso had one son who has not become a priest, the newspaper reported, adding that Taso died in his native Nung village in the Dzongu region of north Sikkim on October 31 without anointing a successor.
The Lepchas are seen as the original inhabitants of Sikkim, a tiny former kingdom nestled between Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan that only became part of India in 1975.
“Taso, believed to be a descendant of the first ‘bongthing’, used to lead (the) elaborate rituals that would commence with overnight prayers at his residence,” the Times reported. Details of the Lepcha creation myth vary, but the Calcutta Telegraph in its report on Taso’s death said locals believed that the first Lepcha couple had been made from fresh snows at Kanchenjunga’s summit. The British climbers who conquered Kanchenjunga in 1955 stopped just short of the peak out of respect for the Sikkimese belief that the spot is sacred, and other expeditions have since followed suit.
The mountain, measuring 28,169 feet, straddles Sikkim’s western border with Nepal, and tourists from around the world travel to the region to admire its distant peaks from viewpoints and hotel balconies. Sikkim was controlled by “chogkals” (kings) until 1975, when India intervened after an uprising against the monarchy by the majority-Nepali population who migrated into the region in the 19th century. The Times reported that about 55,000 Lepcha people remain in Sikkim, 800 years after they settled near the base of Kanchenjunga. It said many Lepchas had turned from nature-worship to Buddhism or Christianity, and that ceremonies devoted to Kanchenjunga had become rare in recent decades. Reports said that Taso died after mild earthquake tremors shook the region. Sikkim was hit by a severe quake in September that killed at least 100 people.