Author: Shivani Thegim Subba
Date: 2020-05-01

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As I stood at the gate, I caught a glimpse of the gold-coloured statue standing atop the hill. I had been looking forward to visiting this place since I first heard that the Government was working on a project that consisted of erecting the tallest statue of Teyongsi Sirijunga in the world. Being a Limbu, I felt good about having something monumental like a statue as a testament to my small tribal community. Those of you reading this from outside our region must be getting angsty about what all of these words mean. I’ll get to it right away.

Sikkim has a long history entrenched in civil wars among the various tribes and cultures that have wanted to amass this Himalayan land. If you have visited this gorgeous state, you can see why. The region of Limbuwan extends from Eastern Nepal and creeps its way into present day West and North Sikkim. The portion of Limbuwan in Sikkim was conceded to the Bhutia Kings after the establishment of the Namgyal Dynasty when the brotherhood treaty was signed between the Bhutia, Lepcha and Limbu chiefs. Limbuwan stands for "Abode of the Limbus” or "Land of the Limbus."

Being born and brought up in Sikkim’s urban state capital of Gangtok in the 90s, I was influenced by a culture and people that had taken to speaking Nepali as the common language with schools that were English-medium. I learnt Hindi through the television. No one in my immediate family spoke the Limbu language, and I grew up ignorant of a gaping void in my identity.

My first touch with my identity came around 8 years ago when my father was posted in West Sikkim. The family stayed there often and it was during one of these instances that he decided to take us on an impromptu trip to Hee-Bermiok. On the way there he briefed us on what he knew about Sirijunga. 

Sirijunga was the first Limbu scholar who made it his life’s mission to preserve and protect the culture, language, and script of his people, and his teachings led to the start of an ethnic awakening. Sirijunga was able to establish centres of Limbu cultural and religious learning in many places throughout the eastern Himalayan hills. The Sikkimese authorities felt threatened. Sirijunga was killed in Martam, Hee-Bermiok in West Sikkim in 1741 after being tied to a tree and shot at with arrows. The place where he was shot at has turned into a shrine for people from all communities. 

We visited the shrine, where there was a framed painting of Sirijunga—that was the first time I saw the image of the man behind the story. He stood in traditional clothes, hair medium-length, middle-parted kept till his shoulders, his right hand raised in a symbolic gesture of teaching while the other hand held books. Visiting the shrine and putting a face to the name ignited in me this longing to be more invested in my culture, my history, and my identity.

After paying our respects, we headed to the Limbu temple (Yuma Mangkhim). A flat stone—chaplatey dhunga in the local Nepali language — on which he sat and preached still exists here, and where a temple has now been built. It was my first visit to a temple of this sort. My family follows Hinduism, part of a long chain of ancestry who converted from the Limbu religion many decades ago. I learnt about Yuma, our faceless God who takes the essence of a grandmother. I learnt about our rituals, our tribe’s fascination with alcohol, the local dances, and customs. Most importantly, I realised that I had a lot to learn.

Years passed. I was in college, picking out a topic for my architectural thesis project. I knew I wanted to take up a project in Sikkim, and I began enquiring about upcoming/live building projects. This was when I first heard about the Limbu Community Centre that was proposed to be constructed in West Sikkim, near Hee-Bermiok. It was to be complemented by a tall statue of the man Sirijunga himself. 

I could not pick this project for technical reasons, but it gave me hope; hope for a younger generation of Limbus who hear about Sirijunga at an early age; hope that immersion of self in culture and tradition makes its way back into the mainstream; hope that manifestation of cultural values begin to take root while children are still young and permeable.

Hope stemmed and flowered into expectations. After the recent completion of the beautiful statue of Lord Buddha at Buddha Park, Ravangla, South Sikkim, I expected something similar - something monumental.

Which brings us back to me as I stand at the gate and catch a glimpse of the gold-coloured statue standing atop the hill. After paying 20 rupees (for Indian citizens) at the entry, the path began, leading our journey up the hill. It was a gentle incline that encircled the hill giving us different views of the Himalayan hills and valleys at every tangent. 

One circumferential path before we reached the top led to a space underneath the base of the statue. The facade was prettily ornamented with windows in the traditional style. We opened our shoes and stepped inside into an empty space, our voices resounding with echoes. On the walls were small, framed boards that held phrases and teachings of Sirijunga – in the original Limbu script with an English translation.

There was one table with six chairs. On the table lay books on Limbu literature and poetry in the Limbu script. Understanding nothing, I leafed through them and made a mental note to make time for myself to learn the language someday.