by Rohan Nath
The Khecheopalri Lake of Sikkim Himalaya can easily be considered as the most sacred lake among all the 150 lakes in Sikkim. It is a highly popular site for a large population of domestic as well as international tourists due to the rich biodiversity, the landscape of the lake and many religious and cultural values and sacred beliefs associated with it. It is also known as a “wish-fulfilling lake” due to several folklores on the lake. The lake and its surrounding were intensively studied and documented. The research included the benefit of the surrounding watershed on the lake and numerous parameters like forest ecology, nutrient and sediment deposition from the neighbouring watershed into the lake and precipitation portioning pathways were taken into account. Moreover, the physio-chemical properties of the lake like pH, dissolved oxygen, alkalinity, and nitrogen, phosphate and phosphorous concentration were studied.
The study revealed the fact there is a severe anthropogenic influence on the lake. The values of sacred beliefs, ecotourism and folklore might contribute to the conservation of the prestigious ecosystem.
The sacred Khecheopalri Lake is located 147 km west of Gangtok, Sikkim at an altitude of 1700 meters above mean sea level (Fig. 1, 2). The lake is formed more than 3500 years ago by the scooping action of an ancient hanging glacier.
A forested watershed area of 12 square kilometres called Ramam watershed surrounds Khecheopalri Lake.
The size of the open water surface area is 3.79 hectares with 7.2 metres of mean water depth. 2 perennial and 5 seasonal inlets keep the lake well drained from the watershed. The lake morphometric data is provided below (Table 1).
Many Trans-Himalayan migratory birds halt at this lake. Numerous pilgrims from Sikkim as well as from Nepal and Bhutan are attracted to the religious events and festivals celebrated in this lake. Moreover, the rich biodiversity of the lake lures several tourists.
Table 1. Lake Morphometric Data
Folklores associated with Khecheopalri Lake
Demazong (Land of Hidden Treasures) is a sacred valley of rice of which the lake forms a part. According to local beliefs, the rice produced from the Demazong valley can satisfy the food requirements of the people. The senior members of the local communities in Khecheopalri and Yuksam believe that the saviour of Buddhism in Tibet, Guru Padmasambhava visited Sikkim, blessed the area, and sanctified it.
Demazong has four religious sites, each considered to represent four plexuses of the human body (Table 2).
Table 2. The four religious sites of Demazong where the sites symbolise four plexuses of the human body.
Since the lake is considered sacred, the local communities forbid fishing and boating in the waterbody. It is only used for rituals and ceremonies. The Lepcha communities are dominant in that area and their belief in sacredness has led them to maintain a strong bonding with the natural environment surrounding the lake.
The Buddhists believe that the mother of Lord Buddha, Goddess Tara Jestum Dolma dwells in that lake and the shape of the lake resembles her footprint (Fig. 1).
Lake Khecheopalri is also worshipped as the Goddess Chho Pema. Numerous religious sites are surrounding the lake, such as holy caves named Dupukney, Chubukney and Yukumney, which were the incarnation site for the lamas and was used as a meditation site for rimpoches. A stone near the stupa contains the footprints of Macha Zemu Rimpoche. According to the Hindus, Dupukney Cave located just above the Khecheopalri Lake was a meditation site for Lord Shiva.
According to folklore, the north-western part of the Himalayas contains two sister lakes. The younger of the two lakes, Labding Pokhari is situated in the western part of the Sikkim in a place called Yuksam. The Goddess residing in the Labding Pokhari lake got dismayed when the people of Yuksam threw waste into her waters. She flew the lake into a place called Chhojo. She then shifted to Khecheopalri when the lake could not fit into the area of Chhojo. There is still an absence of an open water surface in the dead Chhojo Lake other than a marshy land with terrestrial vegetation (Fig. 3).
Religious and Cultural Features
Chho-Tsho and Bhumchu are the two main festivals associated with Khecheopalri Lake (Table 3). A Buddhist monk or a Hindu priest helps the communities to perform rituals and rites. Bamboo poles or small trees (Eurya acuminata and Symplocos thaefolia) are used to place prayer flags around the lake. The prayer flags contain inscriptions or prayers for the sick members, deceased relatives and, wish for peace and harmony in the family. The local communities set up numerous stalls selling clothes, food, and other items like prayer flags, holy books, photographs of Gods and Goddesses and, rosaries. Therefore, both religious and recreational purposes are satisfied by the lake.
Table 3. Main festivals associated with Khecheopalri Lake.
Despite the protection Khecheopalri Lake receives, it is still under the threat of anthropogenic influences like agricultural practices and watershed exploitation which includes the collection of fodder, the felling of trees for timber and firewood, and uncontrolled livestock grazing. This has resulted in the damaging of the forest structure leading to soil exposition. The longevity of the lake is affected when soil and nutrient are deposited into the lake from the neighbouring watershed during the rainy season. Moreover, the biodiversity of the lake water is negatively affected due to the offerings made by pilgrims and tourists. Therefore, the government as well as the local communities must take action to save this sacred sanctuary.
- Jain, A., Singh, H. B., Rai, S. C., & Sharma, E. (2004). Folklores of sacred khecheopalri lake in the Sikkim Himalaya of India: a plea for conservation. Asian folklore studies, 291-302.