By : Dr. Surender S Ghonkrokta, IAS (Retd.), Centre for North East studies, New Delhi (Sghonkrokta@hotmail.com)
North-East of India holds a special place in the culture, beliefs and traditions of the Indian sub-continent as many of the traditions which were lost elsewhere are continuing in this part of the country. This region presents a picture of variety existing with commonness as traditions of North-east in oneness binds it together. The region is represented by eight Indian states, namely: Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura and Sikkim. These statesrepresent a unique region with natural beauty, ethnic diversity and a spectacular biodiversity. It shares international borders with many neighbouring countries, Tibet and Bhutan to the north, Myanmar to the east, Bangladesh to the south and west. North-east India is most centrally and strategically situated, hence geo-politically an extremely sensitive area as well but what makes it special is the abundance of bio-diversity.Keeping in with the Indian traditions, the prevalent oral narratives and folk traditions of this region play a pivotal role in the process of understanding its cultural contours. This area is home to more than 200 communities and many sub-communities. Difference, diversity, and heterogeneity in terms of folk and cultural elements distinguish this part of India. The intimate connection withthe environment and the understanding of the nature is visible more in this part than the rest of India.People of North East always expressed a profound awareness to evolve a balanced pattern in the human-environmental interaction, sustainability and living in harmony with nature. Environment has been traditionally an integral part of their lives andhuman-environmental interaction was formalised in life styles.
Environmental protection is not a new concept to Indians. It has a 5000-year-old history and tradition for them. The efforts for environmental protection can be traced from ancient Indian history to the modern age. In early days, many religious and customary norms governed environmental conservation. Indian civilisations, traditionally always believed in living in harmony with the environment. Indian civilisation has been known to be an eco-friendly’ and green civilisation.Ancient Indians divinized nature and systems were created to define and nurture this relationship. In Indian thought, Prakriti (nature) forms the very basis of progress ofa person and society. We had traditions of worshipping rivers, mountains, trees and everything which nature offered us and made our lives wonderful. Worshipping had been our manner to thank and appreciate. We always tried to live in the midst of nature as we were aware that brain can work better in such green environments, devoid of any pollution. Ancient India had traditions of having schools and learning places in forests. The great teachers and wise men, Rishi’s, used to dwell and teach in forests. So, they were celebrating the environment day throughout the year. Our Rishis and Munnis were scientists in that period, who searched, researched and established the relationships with biotic and abiotic components. Environmental and ecological conservation concepts, which we find mentions in our ancient Indian literature, like Vedas, Puranas, Smritis, Ramayan, Mahabharat and ancient Sanskrit books are the results of extensive experimentations of these scientists. There are many hymns in the Vedas and other Indian literature seeking the blessings of the five basic elements or the “PanchaMahabhoota” of Nature: akashor firmament, vayu or air, agnior fire, apah or water, and prithvi or earth. The Vedas always taught that the relationship with nature is such that “you give me and I will give You”. People were careful to refrain from activities that could cause harm to Nature’s bounties. It was understood that the well-being of Mother Earth depended on the preservation and sustenance of the environment. Atharva-Veda contains the hymn, BhumiSukta, which praises earth and appreciates it as the universal mother of all flora and fauna, full of peace and kindness. The elaborate Vedic ritual of ‘Athiratram’, is performed to appreciate the association of man with nature. The knowledge about the origin and significance of plants can be traced out from Vedic Literature. In Rigveda one Aranyani suktais addressed to the deity of forest. Oshadhi Sukta of Rig-veda addresses plants and vegetables as mother, ‘O Mother! Hundreds are your birth places and thousands are your shoots.’ The Atharvaveda mentions certain names of Oshadhis with their values. The Bodhi tree (ashvattha or peepal), under which the Buddha achieved his realisation has been always seen as the symbol of ‘the universal consciousness.’ The legendary philosopher of Tamilakam, Thiruvalluvar, talks of nature as man’s fortress. If he destroys her, he remains without protection. The kings or states are also advised to protect environment as a prudent policy for development of the nation. In the Arthasastra, Kautilya suggests the need to develop abhayāranya or abhayavana, forest and animal sanctuaries, where trees and animals would both dwell free from the fear of slaughter. It even prescribed penalties for poaching and causing damage to forests, especially productive ones.
The North East communities continued to preserve the Indian traditions and culture of caring for environment, which unfortunately is not reflected practically so much in the rest of India. There may be reasons for the same as India had to face a lot of invasion, physical, political and cultural for more than 1000 years. During all these turbulent periods the people of north east were lucky to live in close vicinity of forests and have managed pollution and conserved the biodiversity. One main reason for this preservation may be the tough hilly terrains of North East which invaders found difficult to penetrate. These communities took shelter in forests and utilized wild edible plants, both raw and cooked. Most of the 7,500 species of medicinal plants present in India and used for indigenous health practices are from North East. Similarly, a large number of plant species are used in India as food, fibre, fodder, in preparation and extraction of chemicals (which are used as naturally occurring insecticides and pesticides), extraction of gum, resins, dyes and perfume. In addition to these, a number of plants are used as timber and building material.Many of these plants are important from moral, cultural, religious, aesthetic and social point of view. North East is a biodiversity hotspot of the world. It represents one of the highest avian and plant biodiversity of the Indian subcontinent. Several avian species inhabiting this unique ecosystem are not found or reported anywhere else in the world. The region is ecologically represented by the Eastern Himalayan biome and is rich in a number of endemic flora and fauna. The NE India constitutes evergreen forests of the Brahmaputra river valley, the broad-leaf forests at the foothills and the high altitude sub-alpine coniferous vegetation and the Indo-Myanmar dense bamboo and pine forests. This is a vast ecosystem include the plains as well as low and high altitude mountainous ecosystems. The North East is also endowed with rich forest resources. The region which constitutes only 7.98 percent of the geographical area of the country, accounts for nearly one fourth of its forest cover. According to India State of Forest Report 2015, the total forest cover of the region is 171,964 sq.km, which is 65.59% of its geographical area in comparison to the national forest cover of 21.34%. Some of the states have more than 80% of area under forests.
In Manipur, the tradition of having sacred groves, or UmangLais, as they are called in the Meetei language, is example of Manipuri tradition of nature worship. About 364 sacred groves are reported to be present in Manipur. These Sacred groves are known as Law Kyntang,, Law Lyngdoh, in Jaintia hills in Meghalaya. Similar Sacred Groves are also found in Cachar district of Assam. Several species of plants are protected in these groves along with birds and animals. Most sacred groves have presiding deities who are often housed in temples or shrines. These groves might have been established with the purely anthropocentric concept of preserving some greenery in the area, or for maintaining some trees of religious importance that are associated with a given deity. Gumpa forests (attached to monasteries) of Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh are one of the examples of sacred forests from Buddhist traditions. The sacred grove tradition was always an intrinsic part of the Indian ecological imagination and tradition. There was the kovilkādu in Tamil Nadu, kāvu in Kerala, nandavana or daivavana in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, deorai in Maharashtra. These sacred groves preserved for centuries in the outer precincts of the village used to grow into rich ecological repositories. North East is still trying to preserve these Indian Traditions when these are under threat in the rest of the country.
In North East, trees and other forest plants are used for various purposes from food, fodder to timber, from house making to packaging material, appreciated from medicinal to spiritual values, sometimes considered the abode of spirits. The relationships are so intrinsic and intimate that Trees/ plants are worshipped and considered to have religious value by many communities in North East. Some of the trees like mango, wood apple, Bermuda or ‘durva’ grass, and sacred basil (ocimum sanctum) sacred to Meiteis of Manipur are either worshipped or used in religious rituals in rest of India. Leaves of plant Artocarpusheterophyllus Lam., (Moraceae.) are used as a dish in religious festivals in Meghalaya, NorthEast India.The tree Bixa Orellana L., Bixaceae. is known as a source of annatto, a natural orangered condiment made of wax, which is coated with its seeds. The plant is used to worship Gods and Goddesses in various socioreligious rites in Nalbar and Sonitpur districts of Assam.The plant known as the red cedar, toon or toona, has wood delicately scented and is burnt in temples as incense sticks in Manipur state. Incense sticks are used for religious purposes in order to express faith and devotion to the almighty God.The leaves, branches and flowers of Bokul (Mimusopselengi) tree are used in the worship of Goddess Kali in Assam.Banyan tree (Ficusbengalenses), Mangoo (Mangiferaindica)Peepal tree (Ficusreligiosa) etc are also worshiped in many parts of North East, similar to rest of India.
There is misconception that people in North East are all non-vegetarians and eat all animal life. The fact is not this as most part of any north east community diet consists of mainly vegetarian food, a lot of green plants/ vegetable and fruits. Like rest of India, people in North East also eat non-vegetarian foods as well but they are very considerate and scientific while doing so. Wild animals, deers, birds, Fishes, waterfowl and other aquatic animals like snails, insects and crustaceans are very common items in the diet of the people. However, many of these animals are not eaten during certain periods, especially during the periods when they hatch eggs or are pregnant, with the pure anthropocentric motive of sustainable harvesting and conservation of wild life. Killings during such reproductive periods is considered a taboo. Some officers of Arunachal Pradesh, mainly of Basar/ Aallo area, concerned about the loss of traditions in conserving the rivers/ life in rivers, came together to form a group and even started a movement for creating awareness to follow old age traditions and results were positive. Jainism and Buddhism, which mainly advocate vegetarian foods, appreciate such gesture of human compassion towards animals. This all is in conformity with the Indian tradition, philosophy and lifestyle; and North East is leading by example. The river festivals of North East are also examples of appreciation and celebration of mutual understanding with environment. The worship of rivers is one of the manifestation of such an alliance. PapumPoma River Festival (PPRF) and Yomgo River Festival(Siang River Festival) are celebrated every year by people of Arunachal Pradesh in which families come and spend their time in and around rivers, and also perform certain rituals.
There are many examples in North east where people are coming forward to preserve their old age tradition of living in harmony with nature. They have their unique traditional system of agriculture, giving back, recycling and conserving; all in harmonious relationship with nature. Indigenous farming systems like Alder (Alnusnepalensis) based farming system, Zabo farming, Panikheti in hills and pond based farming system in plains of the region developed by local farmers using their ingenuity and skills over the centuries.Zabo’ farming system of Nagaland, a time-tested method of cultivation is still prevalent among the farmers of Angami, Chang, Chakhesang, Yimchunger and Konyakcommunities of Nagaland. The place of origin of this farming system is Khonoma village in Kohimadistrict of Nagaland. In Khonoma, the villagers came together to stop unchecked deforestation by outsiders.This Angami community village, having population of about 3000,is estimated to be around 700 years old and is spread over an area of 123sq.km. This village is famous for itsforests and a unique form of agriculture, including some of the oldest terraced cultivation. Similarly,Mawlynnong in Meghalaya was awarded the cleanest village in Asia and where all guesthouses are constructed of bamboo. Apatani community of Zero valley in Arunachal Pradesh is known for its agro- forestry and unique farming system resulting in judicious utilization of limited land area. This systematic land-use pattern ensures high level of biodiversity in the area and efficient conservation of crucial watersheds ensuring perennial streams flowing into the valley to meet the needs of the people. The community has evolved a unique skill of rice-fish cultivation where along with paddy, fish is also reared on the fields. This is further supplemented with millet (Eleusinecoracana) grown on elevated partition bunds between the rice plots. The pigs are reared on the agriculture waste. The agro-ecosystems are nourished by nutrient wash-out from the surrounding hill slopes. Nutrient loss with crop harvest is replaced by recycling crop residues and use of organic wastes of the villages/ animals/ pigs so that soil fertility is sustained year after year. These practices are in line with traditional Indian natural farming system of zero waste and recycle of biomass. North East India still continues to have the traditional systems when rest of India and world had adopted the western farming system; and now is struggling to conserve the eco-system. Traditional water conservation methods for irrigation like Water Kundis called Khoop in Arunachal Pradesh, Zabo method of Nagaland, Dong Pokhar of Assam etc. demonstrate that the Indians were conscious of the need to protect nature and to harness it within prescribed limits. Harappan sites at Dholavira, for example, demonstrates the elaborate techniques employed for water harvesting and storing. The initial structure of the Grand Anicut on the river Kaveri, erected by the great Chola King Karikala, who ruled around 180 C.E. diverted the Kaveri waters without ‘impounding them’ and is believed to have irrigated 30,000 hectares during that period. Temple tanks served the dual purposes of ‘ritual ablution’ as well recharging of the groundwater level.
The above examples and the life style adopted by various communities in North East is ample proof to demonstrate that the concepts of environment and ecology were clear to the people of North East India much before the word ecology came in use in the latter half of 19th century. The need for Stockholm and Rio was felt when it was discovered that the western lifestyle of destruction and exploitation of environment is not sustainable and world was heading for an imminent environmental disaster or destruction. The Jain, Vedic and Buddhist traditions established the principles of ecological harmony centuries ago. The indigenous and ethnic people of the world,living in most hostile environmental conditions, had no intensions or inclinations to harm the environment. This is the reason that these communities live in localities which are immensely rich in biodiversity, mainly because they offered equal opportunity to nature to thrive. We have a lesson to learn from the present environment crisis, climate change, global warming and other ecological problems that Indian traditions of living in harmony will win the race ultimately. In this regard, North East India, which still follows the natural farming, have respect for traditional conservation practices, has shown a path to rest of India and the world to live with environment and that is the true celebration of world environment day.