The Sikkim Herald, a state-run weekly news bulletin in the Indian state of Sikkim, is a model of linguistic pluralism. It is published in no fewer than thirteen languages: Bhutia, English, Gurung, Lepcha, Limboo, Mangar, Mukhia, Nepali, Newar, Rai, Sherpa, Tamang, and Tibetan.Lepcha is perhaps more accurately called Rong. (The English name “Lepcha” derives from a Nepali insult meaning “inarticulate speech.”) Their own word for themselves is Róngkup (‘children of the Róng’), and their language Róngríng (‘language of the Róng’)–is the oldest language in Sikkim, pre-dating the arrival of the Tibetan and Nepali languages, and the Rong themselves are thought to be the original inhabitants of Sikkim.

The Rong language is spoken in Sikkim, in Darjeeling district in West Bengal in India, in Ilām district in Nepal, and in a few villages in south-western Bhutan–a tribal homeland they refer to as “hidden paradise” or “land of eternal purity.”

“Today,” Heleen Plaisier writes, “the [Rong] people constitute a minority of the population of modern Sikkim, which has been flooded by immigrants from Nepal. Although many [Rong] people estimate their number of speakers to be over 50,000, the total number of [Rong] speakers is likely to be much smaller. According to the 1991 Census of India, the most recent statistical profile for which the data have been disaggregated, the total number of mother tongue [Rong] speakers across the nation is 29,854.”

The Rong may be a minority, but they are not an abandoned minority. Like the Sikkim Herald, the state of Sikkim is unusually pluralistic. Rong (or Lepcha) is one of eleven official languages. Lepcha is taught in schools, there is a textbook department that develops official learning materials, and the government radio station broadcasts news bulletins and cultural programmes in the Lepcha language. There is even a Rong cultural conservation area in North Sikkim where few outsiders have been allowed to settle.

Yet the Telegraph of India reported in 2008 that Rong culture is endangered.

“The Lepchas are nature-worshippers and it is often claimed that their language has names for all the birds, plants, butterflies, animals and other insects as well as the hills and rivers in their native habitat. This knowledge, which is mostly passed orally, is disappearing fast as the community grapples with modernity.

“It is this vast but dying knowledge base that has been attracting researchers and academicians to Dzongu, the last bastion of Lepchas in the remote parts of North Sikkim, for conservation and documentation works.”


UPDATE June 2023 by Joseph Valoren

The language is still spoken frequently by the indigenous Nepali community in the state of Sikkim, where it’s taught in schools, but not used as a medium of instruction–the focus is more on keeping the culture alive. Most people in the region speak Nepali. As an example, publicly displayed signs in India must be printed in all languages that are considered to be “local,” and Rong is not one of them, even with the majority of Lepcha people residing in Sikkim. However, the local community is becoming more conscious of the use of the language and script as an ethnic and cultural identifier, and learning them has been gaining in popularity over the last several years.
Elsewhere, in West Bengal, in the city of Kalimpur, the indigenous non-Bengali have been petitioning the state for autonomous governance. There, the Rong language and script has made a strange comeback due to politics, where the Bengali government has promoted the language and script as a means of splitting the loyalties of the Lepcha and Nepali people who make up that contingent. A few years ago, one could attend night school classes in Rong if one was so inclined for personal edification; now, it’s being taught at public schools, as script, language, and in song–though again, not as a medium of instruction, just as a subject.
The language may not gain much new traction in administrative or official use, but that it will likely be seen increasingly in Sikkim and West Bengal in art, religious use, and on products and services offered within the Lepcha community.
Sikkim University has an explicit Lepcha department.
The last official document to be written in Rong might have been the Treaty of Tumlong (1861), in which the Kingdom of Sikkim gave free trade to British travelers, making it a de facto protectorate of the British empire.

You can help support our research, education and advocacy work. Please consider making a donation today.