Cultural environment is composed of people and their culture: folklore, dress, handicrafts, religious handicrafts, work and lifestyle. It also includes the built environment from individual buildings, historic monuments and archaeological sites.
Indigenous tribes form an important part of the cultural environment. In the context of the hill tribes, their lifestyle and customs form an important part of the habitat. Continuance of the traditional form of customs, rituals and folklore forms an attraction in the world constantly undergoing fast changes. In the records of the travellers to the hills of Darjeeling and other hill stations, there exist numerous references to the customs and practices of the hill tribes. Practices and lifestyle of the tribes are a part of the cultural environment of the hill resorts. They hold an appeal for the travelers from different cultures.
It is a cultural encounter of the ‘advanced’ Occident and the traditional, ‘exotic Orient’ in the most direct manner. Many European writers have written in detail about the tribal settlements, customs, daily life, rituals, festivities and mode of expressing sorrows and joys as peculiarities. Habits and attitudes of various hillmen were broadly generalized by the British writers of the nineteenth century. This general impression has carried forth in more recent times. For example, Edward J. Buck, an early twentieth century author of a book on Simla, characterized Tibetans as “simple shepherds of Tibet. Wild and unkempt looking fellows with their long hair falling down – a mass of rags and dirt.” Their small squat noses, sallow faces and upturned eyes were unfavorably compared to the “delicate Aryan features of the Punjab hill men.” However, Buck found Tibetans to be eminently truthful, honest and chaste, easily amused, easily satisfied and very sociable.
The Bhutias include Sikkimese, Sherpas, Dhrukpa and Tibetan Bhutia. These people are a cross-breed between the Tibetans, who settled in Sikkim, and the aborigines of that land, the Lepchas.
Lepchas are original inhabitants of the Darjeeling hill tracts. Their number and their customs and lifestyle have been gradually diminishing since the onset of British empire into Darjeeling. Sikkim gazetteer of 1891 describes them as: the “rongpa” (ravine folk).” They are, above all things, woodmen of the woods, knowing the ways of birds and beasts, and possessing an extensive zoological and botanical nomenclature of their own. They have been rightly considered by scholars as “born naturalists.” A characteristic trait of the Lepchas was that they had separate names for nearly every bird, plant, orchid and butterfly to be found in their region. Sir Joseph Hooker, a renowned 19th century naturalist, was full of praises for these born naturalists in his Himalayan journal He wrote in 1848:
Lady Dufferin, during late 1880s, described Tendook,’ a Lepcha chief and the usual costume of the Lepcha men. They dress in “a selves petticoat,” wrote Lady Dufferin, “red jackets, a hat like flower pot turned upside down, with a peacock feather struck in the front of it. These men all beat big drums.” This somewhat amusing description her and the analogies she drew up provide a highly touristic impression of the tribes. A travelogue of the 19th century also observed this distinct costume of the Lepchas:
“Their dress is quite unique and graceful. It consists of thick blue and white, or red and white cotton cloth. This is crossed over the breast and back, leaving the arms bare and free, and descends to the calf of the leg, it is then gathered in round the waist by a leather or ornamental girdle,…, the women’s dress is a slight modification of the men’s, but with a loose kind of bed-gown over it. They wear heavy silver ear-rings, a profusion of imitation coral and colored bead necklaces. They take great pride in their hair plaits.”
The fondness of hillmen and in particular hillwomen for jewellery is also drawn out in case of hill tribes around Simla. Edward J. Buck observed the hillwomen to be fond of gay attire and bangles and nose-rings. He also drew up a colourful picture of a Simla hill chieftain: “He is a mountain chieftain, whose home is lonely castle on hillside overlooking a great rich valley which is his own. One cannot help observing how gallantly he is dressed in gay but well matched colours and cloth of richest coloured material.” Such descriptions indicate the extent of curiosity that existed among the European visitors vis-a-vis the native hill tribes. Such colourful narratives about their dress, food, habits, fairs and festivals intrigued and enchanted the tourists.
This enchantment for the tourists was further stimulated by the colourful festivities of the hills. Edward Buck vividly described the famous Sipi fair held annually at Tara Hill, Simla. It gives an insight into the traditional form of gaiety of the hill people. He wrote:
Like the Sipi fair of Shimla hills, the Tibetan new year, celebrated in Darjeeling hill tract, has also attracted writers and tourists. ‘Devil dance,’ in which the participants dance wearing animal masks, is an important part of the festivities. Thus it is clear that the cultural environment of the traditional hill community is exceedingly light hearted, generous to a fault, fond of pleasure in any form, excitable and aggressive to a degree.
Besides the culture of the hill tribes developed over the centuries, the Raj created its own cultural milieu in the form of the institution of hillstations and its trappings. ‘Raj nostalgia’ is in evidence in a number of residents of the hills. Many tourists also seek the ‘Raj’ culture in the country clubs, the English type cottages and hotels with typical English furnishings and tastes. Grand public Buildings erected for the Imperial rulers are the everlasting monument, opened for public viewing. Viceregal lodge at Shimla (now Rahstrapathi Niwas), ‘Shrubbery, the Lieutenant Governor’s residence at Darjeeling, various clubs and other public buildings, theatres and town halls are the contribution of the British community to the hill environment along with the mall roads. In fact, cultural environment is a major tourist attraction.