The Bhutias of the Darjeeling Hills: The narratives around the practices of saving religion

Posted by Kaahon Desk On March 30, 2018

Buddhism was introduced in Tibet in the middle of the seventh century A.D. The religion at that stage was based upon the preaching and doctrines of Buddha himself. In the middle of the 8th century, Guru Padmasambhava of Ujjain, better known as Guru Rinpoche among the Tibetan Buddhists, visited Tibet and introduced many Brahmanical elements into Buddhism, which was well accepted and practiced in Tibet. Tibet also had its own shamanistic or the Bonn religion. The common people of Tibet hesitated to accept the new form of religion. Thus Guru Rinpoche used the philosophy and strict practicing rituals of Hinduism and a good mix of all the three forms of religion namely the old shamanistic religion, the teachings of Buddha and some Hindu elements were well accepted by the common people of Tibet. The new form as preached by Guru Rinpoche was worshipping the idol of Buddha in different forms. In the 11th century, Atīśa Dīpaṃkara Śrījñāna, a native of Bengal and his disciple Dromtön or Dromtönpa Gyelwé Jungné, protested against these modifications and advocated the earlier form of Buddhism prevailed in Tibet. These protests created divisions and schisms among the followers of Buddhism in Tibet. The followers of Atiśa created a new sect of Buddhism known as the Gelugpa and started playing the role of the reformists. They distinguished themselves by wearing yellow head dress. The followers of Guru Rinpoche were known as the Nyingmapas or the Red Hats. The people who followed the old Bonn religion were known as the Shammars. The teachers of the Gelugpa sect founded the succession of priest-kings known as the Dalai Lama. The successors of the Dalai Lama used their influence over other tribes of Central Asia and Tibet. The 5th Dalai Lama through his operations and strategies could secure the royal patronages and established the Gelugpa sect as to be the most important Buddhist sect in Tibet. Eventually the Nyingmapas were reduced to a very submissive population and to add to their woes, they were also not liked by the royal kings. In order to save their religion and to practice their religion respectfully, they started moving towards southern regions viz. Bhutan, Sikkim and East Nepal. They realised the necessity of institutionalizing their religion. Thus to counter the practice of the priestly kings of the Gelugpa sect, they wanted to establish the idea of a new priest-king in Sikkim. They ultimately installed Phuntsog Namgyal as the first Chogyal or Dharmaraja of Sikkim in 1642.

This is a short history of the Bhutia tribe found in West Bengal and are marked as to be one of the scheduled tribes of India. People, who had migrated from Tibet in-group and for some other reasons than religion, could maintain their ethnicity to some extent. Or people who had migrated in group from a particular area of Tibet and could maintain that group structure even after migration could also save their ethnicity like the Sherpas, (who though are again sub grouped under the Bhutia tribe). But according to the census of 1872 (Bengal District Gazetteers Darjeeling) the Bhutia tribe is composed of a number of ethno linguist group who are all followers of the Nyingmapas sect of Buddhism and have migrated from Tibet, as the word Bhotia is derived from the term Bodpa meaning the inhabitants of Tibet. Bhutias in West Bengal are categorized to be comprising of four classes, the Sikkimese Bhutias or Denzongpas, a mixed race of Tibetans and Lepchas, being the descendents of Tibetans who settled in Sikkim a few centuries ago and intermarried with Lepchas; Sherpa Bhutias, who came from east of Nepal; the Drukpa Bhutias, the descendants of the Bhutanese who were settled on the land at the time of annexation and the Tibetan Bhutias who had immigrated from the table land of Tibet.

Thus, it will be an injustice to think that the Bhotias of West Bengal are the immigrants from Bhutan. Bhutan was also another religious state formed when some kings found the sacred image of the kings of the Namgyal dynasty to be falsified. But, the form of religion was the same Nyingmapa sect of Buddhism.

The Bhutia tribe, which has been documented in this audio visual of Kaahon, is mainly the followers of the Kagyupa sect of Buddhism, who are one form of the Nyingmapa sect. It traces their origin from a scholar named Marpa, who was a native of Lho-brag of Tibet, and who had vividly studied the Tantric texts in India along with other scholars from Tibet. Upon his return to Tibet, he had formed a new sect of Buddhism, who was also under the rule of the priestly king of the Namgyal dynasty.  The people and the rituals, which are shown in the audiovisual, are all called broadly the Drukpa Kagyu.

It is a very astonishing fact that to save belief, even in today’s material consumerist world, thousands of people are daily fighting to save their identity, which finally stands on their religious beliefs. The form of Buddhism that they are practicing till now is based on the transmission of the teachings of the religious leaders orally through generations. These people from Tibet who are now the strong citizens of India, whose nationalistic imaginations are all rooted in India, connect through religion, their ancestral land, the great Tibet.

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