The Lepchas are still as committed as they’ve ever been to the completion of their Stairway to Heaven reconstruction project in Daramdin, West Sikkim, and its neighboring Lepcha Heritage Center. According to a news story last week, they have been protesting once again the delays in the project—due to corruption they charge.

A Lepcha man
A Lepcha man (Photo by Ernst Schäfer in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

The Stairway to Heaven is a Lepcha myth about a tall tower that their ancestors tried to build out of ceramic blocks in order to reach the sky. However, the story goes, when the people working at the top got the idea of using a hook to pull down the sky to them, tragedy ensued. They passed their request for a hook down the line of workers to the crews on the ground but the message got corrupted on the way down—they appeared to be requesting the destruction of the base of the tower. When the workers at the base obeyed what they thought was the request, the entire tower collapsed. The survivors fled into many places speaking different languages, much like the Tower of Babel story in Genesis.

Over the years, pieces of ceramic blocks have been found in the Daramdin area so tourism promoters conceived the idea of reconstructing a tower in the community with an adjoining Lepcha cultural center. Attract tourism money to West Sikkim. The project was proposed by the Sikkim state government in 1995 but got nowhere. Money for the construction was a problem. The project was revived in 2010, failed, and revived once more in 2014. Officials indicated in 2017 that the construction was underway, but the news story last week repeated the refrain, that the project has stalled once again. After 23 years, the Lepchas are still awaiting their cultural center and symbolic tower.

A Lepcha woman
A Lepcha woman (Photo by the International Institute for Environment and Development on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

The Sikkim Indigenous Tribal Association (SITA) filed a Right to Information application, as allowed by Indian law, and learned, from the state government’s reply, that the contractor that had been working on the project had filed a bill for rs. 4,350,000 and for an advance of rs. 22,000,000 but the construction is still not complete. The project has been re-assigned to another contractor.

The President of SITA, Mangalmit Lepcha, attributed the fiasco to corruption, considering it has  been delayed for over 22 years. He said bitterly, “this has hurt our sentiments and of all the Lepchas at large. We feel humiliated.” Members of the association are asking their representatives in the state legislature for their support.