Looking back at the history of humankind in context to how they lived and invented new tactics as means for survival, it often leaves us awestruck and wondering if life was difficult then or have become difficult now. As in the earliest days the only challenge was to survive and make it through the end of the day and now we all know it isn’t merely about surviving but maintaining that standard for survival.
Although many things we learn of the past is based on theories which is again based on some findings that supports the theories. Like the theories on invention of stone tools, fire, pottery, practice of agriculture, hunting and gathering, the earliest human civilization, etc. each theory is the outcome of evidences found. While talking about evidences and findings, I am primarily focussing on the material culture which is an important aspect of human culture be it the culture of past or present. Defining material culture for basic understanding, we can say that it is the aspect of culture which is in the physical form. For instance, the evidence of earliest stone tools gives us the idea of the human culture of the past. The material culture profoundly carries with it the history and stories of human culture. It not only helps in defining a culture but also helps in understanding the transition in the culture that occurs in due course of time. The stories and information behind the objects of material culture are mostly passed down orally or by the practical use of that object in day to day living. This is also the reason why I feel that the two aspects of culture material objects and oral tradition complement each other well.
To defend the statement I would like to cite an example of traditional clothing fabric used by the Lepchas known as “Aashyam” or the fabric made out of nettle thread. The material object defines the culture of using nettle fabric by the Lepchas and origin of the use including the practice of obtaining the fabric is passed down practically and orally. Now, in order to safe guard the traditional knowledge people are documenting the practice in various forms like written and audio-visual which again shows the transition of material culture as the documents will also be a part of material culture that contains the traditional knowledge.
Talking about the material culture and the oral tradition my idea is primarily to showcase things I came cross during my fieldwork which made me aware of the concept of the material object and oral tradition going along side by side especially among the Lepchas as my research work is on the said community. By looking at the topic of this article I am sure the readers might be wondering how is that even possible. Well, that is where the concept relies. Stones have always been a very important part of human culture right from the very beginning of human cultural history. Right from the crude stone tools to the great megaliths, each structure craved out of stones tells us stories of human culture. Be is used as hunting tool or as a symbol of brotherhood or any other things for that matter. As, such during my field work in different Lepcha villages of Sikkim, I came across many stories based on the stones/ rocks which plays an important part in the lives of those people. To start with the first one, it was at my neighbouring village known as Ringhim which is situated few kilometres above the Mangan town at North Sikkim where a huge rock in the shape of butcher block is there in its natural state. The fascinating thing about the rock is that the upper portion of the rock has marks (naturally) as told by one of the villagers just like on the butcher block. People of that area call it as “Mung Anchu” which in English translation is devil’s butcher block. Now how is that stone that is placed naturally a part of material culture of the people? Well, it is said that not till many years ago whenever any misfortune was to happen in that area or the surrounding areas especially any deaths, people residing in that areas used to hear noises of mincing meat on that rock. It was a symbol of bad omen for which people used to burn incenses and pray. It had become a part of their lives. Upon asking whether they still hear the sound to which they said that now it’s not as often as before. The rock still exists with scars but the stories behind surely is fading with time. Another, rock which I came across is again in its natural state which has footmarks and some marks carved on it. This rock is situated at Saffo, a Lepcha village in North Sikkim. The said rock is an important part of the people living there. Every year a ritual “Param Rong Lungten Rumfaat” is performed on that rock by Bongthing. It is believed that failing to conduct that ritual can bring bad omen to the village. The rock had footprints which are believed to be that of Guru Padmasambhava. Apart from that some marks that of some stone games are also seen carved on the rock. People of that village also believe that it is the place where the origin of consuming pork originated. All in all that rock is an important part which holds with it many stories which are part of the people’s lives. The whole idea of the footprint and the folklore gives us the idea of influence of the Buddhism going alongside the traditional belief system of that area.
Apart from these stones/ rocks that are in their natural state but still are important part of the people’s lives, there are other stone objects which after being given a human touch have been created a symbol of something meaningful. Like the Longchok at Kabi which everyone is familiar about depicts the symbol of brotherhood. The stories of it has been passed down both in oral form and in written documents as it marks an important event in the history of Sikkim. Upon understanding it deeper, it also showcases the culture of erecting stones usually among the Lepchas. The three stones erected are not just stones but considered the epitome of sacred mountain Mt. Kanchenjunga and its connecting peaks. Apart from symbolising it as sacred mountain, stones are also erected to mark boundaries which I saw in few of the villages.
The above examples are merely based on my experience of being encountered with things that paves way for looking at things from whole new perspective which obviously does not mitigate the importance of the already existing history but rather gives way for understanding it from a broader perspective. The topic “the stone that tells stories” in itself is a conceptual approach of putting forward the idea of understanding our culture based on the material objects. The focus is given on the importance of stones/rocks yet it applies to the rest of the material objects as well which practically cannot tell stories but culturally they are the story tellers that add value and meaning to the human existence.
[the writer is Research Scholar, Department of Anthropology, Sikkim University]