The survival of the native culture and language of the Lepcha people is endangered. Although the Lepcha people are indigenous to Sikkim in India, today they constitute a minority of the population of Sikkim and neighbouring areas. Many Lepchas today never mastered the Lepcha language at all and give preference to Nepali and English, and the great majority of young Lepchas have lost interest in Lepcha religious and cultural traditions. The Lepcha culture and language have been losing ground for more than a hundred years now and although there are still areas in which Lepcha language and culture flourish, the situation appears to be worsening.
The Lepcha people have their own indigenous script which dates back to the 18th century. The invention of this writing system is likely to have been motivated by the religious activities of Buddhist missionaries. Nowadays, the Lepcha orthography is mainly used in government language textbooks and in journals and magazines privately published by groups of Lepchas who are actively writing stories, poems and songs in serious attempts to keep their language and culture alive.
Lepcha manuscripts are the remnants of the earliest stages of the Lepcha literary heritage. The oldest handwritten materials that have so far been identified were written in the second half of the 19th century. Many of the Lepcha manuscripts that have been identified contain texts of a Buddhist nature, a smaller number of texts reflect older indigenous Lepcha traditions. The study of Lepcha manuscripts is still in its early days, but is expected to shed light on the nature of indigenous Lepcha religious beliefs and the spread of Buddhism in the area, whereas from a linguistic point of view the language used in these old texts is of historical interest.
During recent fieldwork in Sikkim and the Darjeeling district in 2008, a collection of approximately thirty Lepcha manuscripts in a private family archive in Kalimpong was shown to the grantholder and there were stories of similarly-sized collections held by a handful of other families in the area. During fieldwork in the 1990s, approximately ten Lepcha families in the Kalimpong area and Sikkim were visited, who each owned one or two manuscripts. These manuscripts were often hidden from sight in the owner's house and were rarely shown to outsiders. Many of the older generation of Lepcha people claim to own one or two old manuscripts, which they generally cherish as valuable heirlooms. There are some local institutions that are rumoured to own sizable collections, notably the privately-owned Lepcha Museum in Kalimpong, which is thought to hold about sixty Lepcha manuscripts. The Namgyal Institute of Tibetology in Gangtok in Sikkim holds at least six Lepcha manuscripts.
Most of the Lepcha manuscripts that are available in libraries in Europe have been identified and catalogued by the grantholder. All the manuscripts that have been consulted are written on paper, many of them are vulnerable and incomplete and practically all have suffered from moisture, smoke and insect attacks. This holds especially true for the manuscripts in private collections in Kalimpong and Sikkim that have been shown to the grantholder. Despite the care taken by most private owners to preserve them, the Lepcha manuscripts in private collections in Kalimpong and Sikkim show clear signs of ongoing suffering from being kept in unfavourable climatic and archival conditions.
With the loss of interest in their cultural heritage, many of the younger Lepchas have no attachment to these heirlooms, which puts the future of these delicate materials at great risk. During this project, the areas that are inhabited by the Lepcha people will be visited: Sikkim and Darjeeling district in India, Il_m district in Nepal and Samtsi district in southwestern Bhutan, in order to locate and identify Lepcha manuscripts in private collections.
The survey this pilot project hopes to produce should provide the basis for a major preservation project of Lepcha manuscripts, as it will provide information on the content, context and background of the materials, as well as a physical description of the materials, details of the location and ownership.
The investigation into the survival and status of Lepcha manuscripts has made it clear that an abundance of handwritten Lepcha texts still exists in private collections throughout the Lepcha homeland. Through this pilot project new insights have been gained into the number, nature and condition of these manuscripts as well as the circumstances under which they are kept. A better understanding has also been achieved of the position Lepcha manuscripts hold in modern-day Lepcha society. Some of the titles of Lepcha manuscripts that were identified during this project represent rare copies of religious Lepcha texts, although the majority of titles that were identified reflect more popular religious Lepcha works.
A survey was carried out of the Lepcha manuscripts located as part of this project, which contains details pertaining to 7 collections of Lepcha manuscripts, holding altogether 155 manuscripts. Of these, 40 Lepcha manuscripts were fully digitised and copies deposited with the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology in Sikkim and the British Library.
Two further collections of Lepcha manuscripts have been located, which hold approximately 120 Lepcha manuscripts altogether. Although a detailed study of these collections was not made possible during this project, some relevant descriptive details are included in the survey. At least two other significant collections are thought to exist, consisting of altogether approximately 420 Lepcha manuscripts.
During this project it became obvious that many Lepcha manuscripts are zealously protected both by their owners and by socio-cultural organisations from interference by outsiders.
These results were achieved during a trip to Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Sikkim in India. Unfortunately the field visit had to be terminated two weeks earlier than planned because of political unrest in Darjeeling and Kalimpong. During the course of the project and after having consulted the EAP Panel it was decided to cancel the second field visit to Nepal and Bhutan, as the political situation in eastern Nepal was exceedingly unstable and it had not been possible to arrange in advance the necessary research permits for fieldwork in Bhutan.