Salil Mukhia and Minket Lepcha of Acoustic Traditional are travelling to 12 destinations across India, Nepal and Bhutan to share with a wider audience the vanishing traditional stories — many of them sacred — belonging to communities from the Eastern Himalayas

It was love for music that set them sailing on a mission which they now think they should have taken up anyway. Back in end 1990s, musicians from Darjeeling, Salil Mukhia and Barkha Henry, went about chasing the forest and mountain tunes hoping to inject their repertoire with rhythms rooted in their way of life. They soon realised a fact: that majority of the tunes they zeroed in on were actually part of stories, many of them sacred, customarily recited to people only by shamans.

Visiting shamans or traditional community storytellers posed them face to face with another fact: that you have a chance of knowing these stories (and the music) in detail only if you are initiated as a shaman. But it is another fact, a stark one, which set them thinking real hard: that the oral tradition of storytelling by shamans, prevalent in almost all communities of the Eastern Himalayas, is fast vanishing under the weight of changing lifestyle.

Like so many others from the younger generation belonging to various communities of the region, Salil and Barkha too have lost touch with their oral customs. The urge to bring the slivers of their heritage back from an imminent death ate into their minds and they thought up a classroom project on Shamanic traditions, “to bring the stories to children.” With no other way out to get hold of the stories, Salil trained himself as a shaman.

And before they knew it, they formed a cultural organisation, Acoustics Traditional, to document the stories in an organised manner along with their music. As they went about looking for stories, they were joined by other people, “anthropologists, students, elders, organisations working with different communities not just in India but in Nepal and Bhutan too” to help reach them their goal.

“We started documenting these stories, many of them sacred ones told only to people belonging to their own communities, in 1999. Today, combining communities like the Limboo, Rai, Kwociu, Lepcha, etc., we have documented about 570 stories including folklore, mythological tales and sacred stories,” says Salil. The most threatened ones are the sacred stories called mukdum or mundum. “This is because only shamans are to pass on these stories to the communities orally. They are never meant to be written down.” Interestingly, these sacred stories are the ones that tell the communities “what are their origins, why are they the way they are, the creation of the universe, the story of the guardian spirit Yeti.”

Shamans, Salil explains, can be both men and women. “Every community has their male and female storytellers. Their roles are different.” Say in Lepcha community, “the women or mund play an important role. Besides telling stories like her male counterpart, the bunthung, she is required for the death ritual.”

Shamans “are also medicine men, considered spiritual doctors.” “When you are ill, a shaman would come and tell you a story. By doing that, he is also reminding himself/herself the diagnosis of the specific illness. Like a modern doctor consults the book, shamans go back to the stories stored in their mind,” says Salil.

With the older generation of shamans dying and very few young people taking up the shamanic traditional, such knowledge is disappearing. Salil points to his poncho, saying, “The shaman’s poncho has all the colours of indigo because we as a community pray to the rainbow. Today, we are forgetting things like why the poncho has so many colours, why Kanchenjunga is called Konchen Chu.” The back of the poncho looks like a mountain range. “This is the Kanchenjunga,” he says.

Acoustics Traditional knows that merely documenting these stories should not be their aim. “Culture is meant to be experienced, it has to be lived though people, that is the essence of our oral traditions,” he says. This thought has become the basis for a tour the organisation is undertaking to tell a wider audience their stories accompanied by the rituals attached. “The sacred stories are coming outside their communities for the first time.”

The tour brought Salil along with another member of the organisation, Minket Lepcha, to New Delhi this past week where they showcased to people the oral traditions of different Himalayan communities at various venues including some city schools, universities and also at the India Habitat Centre for 10 days. “We are having a session in Jaipur on April 21. We will tour 12 destinations for about six months covering parts of India, Nepal and Bhutan,” states Salil. Nepal and Bhutan are included “because their stories are similar to ours.”

Minket joined Acoustics Traditional last year. She has her reasons for quitting her advertising job in Delhi. “Our Lepcha community is vanishing; we are a few thousands now, our stories and traditions are vanishing too. I felt I need to do something,” she says. Salil’s “Mukhiya community is around 40,000 only.”

“That is why”, he says, “as part of this tour, we are also taking up workshops with some smaller communities, not those belonging to only the Eastern Himalayas but some of them in South India too on how to take up the task of documenting their own heritage. Finally, it is the people’s job to preserve their stories.” And herein, Salil, Barkha and Minket feel they “should have got into this mission anyway.”