Contested Landscapes? Imaginations beyond Gorkhaland

In a conversation with one of my respondents S Lepcha she tells me, “We Lepcha’s are often seen as primitive tribal people even within the Nepali community… Although we do share the same space we have our own culture, language, myths and so on which are slowly getting lost…Of course it is important to respect different ways of living right? We Lepchas have our own stories of origin, our own relationship with the surrounding environment and I feel we should not lose touch with it.”[1] Her friend takes cue from her to say “…You know we Lepchas are the original inhabitants of this region, we believe that we have a special relationship with the land and that binds us Lepcha’s together although religious conversions have created many differences within the Lepcha community. I am a practicing Christian but I feel that conversion to Christianity has led to a loss of some our cultural heritage, so I feel it is important to be aware of who we are, where we come from, our special relationship with Mount Khangchendzonga…”[2]

Mount Khangchendzonga becomes a recurrent motif in understanding the relationship of the Lepcha community with the area of the Darjeeling hills. The mountains are not merely a physical presence but are a site of complex geographical, cultural and sacred narratives that produce an understanding of the landscape that is very different from the imagination of Gorkhaland. This essay explore some of the ways Mount Khangchendzonga shapes and is shaped by the politics of landscape in the Darjeeling hills to understand how very different imaginations of a certain space can coexist. Further this space is not static but is indeed dynamic and has capacities for generating political imaginations that goes beyond temporal notions of progressive, linear developments. Literature on space-time often tends to see space as a static entity upon which time acts and hence cuts space off from the possibilities of political action and imagination. Through the understanding of the Lepcha idea of Mayel Lang and other conceptualisations of the areas of the Darjeeling hills, the essay attempts to recover the political agency of spaces so to speak, by showing how space and time are linked together through complex processes of history, culture, religion, myth and so on.

In this context studies in the field of political geography can point us in some important directions. Some scholars argue that place can be understood in terms of an intersection of a unique combination of social, economic and cultural relations which can be of local and global scales. They argue that places matter in political analysis because the engagement of different actors with places produces distinctive political effects.[3] They also argue that there are no objective, uncontested meanings that can be attributed to a place and in fact places are socially and culturally constructed by groups and individuals who draw on their own experiences, beliefs, and myths to endow places with certain characteristics, meanings and symbolises. These processes of construction and contestation may often lead to several different places emerging within the same physical space. While talking about the implications the formation of Gorkhaland would have for the people of the Darjeeling hills, U Sherpa tells me, “But you know brother, the Lepcha’s, although we all live together, speak the same language and stuff but they have always been a bit different. They always stand out a bit and I guess you do know about their idea of Mayel Lang right? They do already have an idea of a spiritual homeland of sorts, so I wonder what they feel about it if something like Gorkhaland has to happen.”[4]

What is Mayel Lang? Lepcha folklore about Mayel Lang emerges from a cosmology interwoven with the Khangchendzonga that cuts across the states of Sikkim, West Bengal and sometimes the international boundary to include Eastern Nepal. In traditional Lepcha ideas Mayel Lang is conceptualised as a ‘hidden land’.In certain Lepcha narratives the decline of traditional ways of Lepcha lives has caused a complete closure of the path to Mayel Lang. However certain understandings of Mayel Lang as a pure psychological reality with no physical correspondence reveal influences of Buddhist ideas of sacred geographies on Lepcha thought. Scheid argues that Mount Khangchendzonga occupies a central place in Lepcha cosmology and vernacular religion. The mountain is understood to be both the Lepcha land of origin and the destination upon death, and in traditional Lepcha folktales the snows of Khangchendzonga was believed to have produced the first Lepcha humans. Mayel Lang is symbolised through certain animals such as pigs and birds, agriculture, the number ‘seven’ to represent the seven offsprings of the first Lepcha beings and ‘time cycles’ (Gorer, 1996). It is seen as a land that is constantly in harvest and in most narratives the ‘Mayelmus’ (inhabitants of Mayel Lang) are understood to age cyclically, beginning as children each day in the morning, becoming men in the afternoon, and elders in the evening only for the cycle to be repeated the next day. Geoffrey Gorer argues that the Lepchas see the pleasing of the Mayelmus as intrinsic to successful harvesting, particularly of crops like dry rice, maize and millet and hence elaborate rituals are organised in honour of the inhabitants of Mayel (Gorer, 1996). Vibha Arora argues that the sacred groves of Tholung in North Sikkim, are also a part of this Lepcha imaginary of Mayel Lang and held as important by Lepchas even outside of Sikkim. The Lepchas argue that sacred landscapes such as Kabi and Tholung symbolise and materially embody their culture and indigenous knowledge systems (Arora, 2006). She argues that the Lepchas trace their social origins and the birth of their lineage ancestor to places such as the Mount Khangchendzonga, lakes and sacred caves in Sikkim and Darjeeling hills. Rituals related to agriculture and sacred landscapes help to reaffirm the socio-cultural belongings of the Lepchas and their political rights particularly in the context of Sikkim. In the Sikkimese ethno-political context, the idea of a sacred landscape such as that embodied in the Tholung sacred groves legitimised the Sikkimese Bhutia-Lepcha polity into the present structure of Sikkimese politics and governance. In contemporary Sikkimese political life, sacred landscapes materially reflect the politicisation of culture and ethnic identity, particularly in the context over struggle for resources and ecological activism. However in the Darjeeling hills although there was Lepcha support for the anti-dam movement in Dzong, Sikkim in order to protect the sacred homeland of the Lepchas, the idea of Mayel Lang has different connotations. In the case of Christian Lepchas three registers emerge- that of colonial modernity and the encounter with Christianity, that of a certain political modernity with the establishment of statehood and a certain cultural belief in the idea of a homeland that co-existed with these seemingly opposite ideas. In the next part of this essay the relations between these kinds of seemingly different discourses will be explored.

Landscapes are no simply constellations of natural and cultural objects and artefacts. Cosgrove and Daniels argue that landscapes are powerful and affective because of the role they play in shaping the everyday consciousness and that certain points in landscapes symbolise certain memories and meanings of place. Landscapes do not simply represent places passively, but there is an active dimension to it through the performance of rituals and festivals as seen in the Lepcha festivals dedicated to the inhabitants of Mayel Lang. However despite the important and affective role Mayel Lang plays in Lepcha identity, for the Lepcha’s living in the Darjeeling hills the question of Gorkhaland is an inescapable reality. What becomes important to see is that how these discourses co-exist through a conceptualisation of place and landscape that helps us move beyond the binary of this or that. Doreen Massey argues that a certain hegemonic conception of space that refused to acknowledge its multiplicities and fractures provides support for the coherence and stable conception of territorial spaces which become central referents for discourses of nationalism (Massey, 2005). The only difference that can exist is a difference between states and not betwixt. Within this framework, spatial differences are read as temporal differences where different spaces function as different stages in a single temporal and linear path towards “progress.” Within this conceptualisation of temporality both the form and the content of the future is already inscribed and foretold and there is one, homogenous, and cohesive way of reaching it. Further within this geography of modernity these temporal differences are also qualitative ones, where the forms characteristic of “advanced” spaces becomes pedagogical models for those seen as “backward.” In this conception of progress being inextricably conceived of in temporal terms, the dynamism of space is lost and it merely becomes a fixed unit upon which time acts.

Although in a sense the Gorkhaland question emerges from the injustices that such geography of modernity creates in the context of the Indian nation-state and the relation with West Bengal, the model of Gorkhaland seems to replicate this very discourse. It conflates statehood with progress, and argues that it is the progressive movement towards the achievement of statehood that would make possible “development” of the place. However this requires the Darjeeling hills to be grounded solely in such an understanding of Gorkhaland that does not make space for any other imaginations of that space to exist. It is capable of imagining that region solely and limitedly in terms of political modernity and a temporal march towards institutional progress. However the Lepcha idea of Mayel Lang problematises such a conceptualisation of the Darjeeling hills by revealing differences that lie betwixt and conceive of landscapes not outside of, but beyond the language of political modernity and development. Firstly while Gorkhaland imagines the space in terms of state-oriented contours, Mayel Lang as a homeland goes beyond this. It symbolises what Oscar Martinez calls ‘interdependent borderlands’, in which societies have cross-border connections and both symbolic and material links. The necessity that Gorkhaland imaginaries feel to define their specific borders because of its implications for statehood, are nor felt in the case of Mayel Lang where the borders between Sikkim and West Bengal are not seen as central to the question of identity. This does not mean that such landscape imaginations are blind to or outside of prevailing political realities. The politicisation of Mayel land in Sikkim is not seen in the case of the Lepcha’s of the Darjeeling hills and this is due to the difference in the political histories of the Sikkimese Lepchas and the Lepchas living in the Darjeeling hills. It however indicates that it allows certain solidarities and common imaginations that are not necessarily overdetermined by the political contours of institutional statehood. The idea of Mayel Lang also allows a more complex reading of the space-time relationship where space is not merely a canvas upon which temporality paints the path to progress. In the Darjeeling hills, the space – the idea of the mountains, the sacred landscapes, the relationship with agriculture becomes dynamic in generating imaginations which of course are not outside of time but are not overdetermined by it. Similarly in Sikkimese politics the idea of the sacred Lepcha landscapes that justifies the present political structures of the Sikkimese state problematises the linear narrative from present to future, by bringing different times and seemingly disparate discourses of constitutional political modernity and spiritual guardianship together to produce something far more complex than reductive narratives of developmental modernist pathways. This does not mean that the idea of Mayel Lang is an “essentially” Lepcha idea bereft of any external influences. Schneider argues that attempts to understand contemporary narratives about Mayel Lang cannot ignore that impact of Buddhism on Lepcha culture as well as the complex relationship between the Lepcha and the Lhopo. Charisma Lepcha argues that Christianity brought about an “internal conversion” among Lepcha Christians who gradually moved far away from Lepcha traditions and customs. This is reflected in ideas about the path to Mayel Lang being closed because of the loss of Lepcha heritage and the distance between Lepchas and their faith. All of these processes inform the landscape of Mayel Lang. We also see from some of the narratives of my respondents that one can simultaneously be a Lepcha and a Christian, a Gorkha and a Lepcha and so on, but the important denominator that cannot be ignored in this equation is the Lepcha, which cannot be thought of without reference to Mayel Lang.

The existence of Mayel Lang does not negate the Gorkhaland question or pose itself as an alternative to it. Rather it allows us to see that landscapes of political modernity are not the only representation of particular spaces, that there may co-exist other landscapes that transcend the contours of the politico-institutional. This transcendence is however rooted in political reality, although it is precisely there that its dynamism lies. It makes possible a dialogical imagination where space and time are both equally active in generating meaning without one being necessarily overdetermined by the other. The meanings that the space of Mayel Lang generate are by no means outside of the political histories that inform the Gorkhaland movement, but the space itself remains a critical term of reference that reveals the limits of political modernity to claim itself as the sole and hegemonic representation of space, where space is subject to the dictates of a progressive time. Mayel Lang is by no means the only other representative landscape, and the Darjeeling hills being a zone of transnational contact is possibly characterised and imagined in many other ways. Yet Mayel Lang is representative of the ways of thinking about landscapes that co-exist with projects of political modernity but are not limited by its contours and idioms. It also allows us more dialogical and relational ways of thinking about space-time matrices beyond the language of developmental modernity.


Arora, V. (2006). ‘The Forest of Symbols Embodied in the Tholung Sacred Landscape of North Sikkim, India.’ Conservation and Society, 4(1), pp.55-83.

Scheid, C. (2014). ‘Hidden Land and changing landscapes: Narratives about Mt. Khangchendzongpa among the Lepcha and the Lhopo.’ Journal of the Irish Society for the Academic Study of Religion, 1(1), pp.66-89.

Gorer, G. (1996). The Lepchas of Sikkim. 2nd Edition. New Delhi: Gyan Publishing House.

Jones M, Jones, R & Woods, M ed. (2004). An Introduction To Political Geography: Space, Place and Politics. London: Routledge.

Massey, D. (2005). For Space. London: SAGE Publications


[1] Interview conducted in December 2018. Respondent is a 26 year old resident of Kalimpong.

[2] Interview conducted in December 2018. Respondent is a 27 year old resident of Kalimpong.

[3] Jones,M; Jones R & Woods,M. (2004). An Introduction to Political Geography: Space, Place and Politics. London: Routledge.

[4] Interview conducted in February 2019. Respondent is a 22 year old resident of Kalimpong, studying in Kolkata at present.