Close to the Assam border, in the Thaiang area (comprising seven villages) in Ri Bhoi district of the Khasi Hills, a large and magnificent sacred grove was sold and cut down thirty years ago. The people who were responsible for this were the village elders who had a critical role to play in the management of these sacred groves.
The people of Thaiang believe that due to the destruction of the forest by their forefathers, ‘Good luck has left the area.’ ‘Good luck’ or prosperity in these parts is represented by the tiger, who is the spirit of the sacred grove and protector of villages. The absence of ‘good luck’ leads to the suffering caused by the lack of availability of many forest produce such as medicinal plants, wood for religious occasions, along with scarcity of water and an increased rate of soil erosion.
Therefore, in 1992, at a suggestion from Lyngdoh (priest), the new generation finally decided to try and bring back the ‘good luck’ to their villages by reforesting the area of the former grove. This initiative was led by a Khasi poet and folklorist, Desmond L. Kharmawphlang, with help from a Swiss artists’ association called Bureau 64.
In April 1997, the people of Thaiang celebrated the beginning of reforestation of their sacred groves with a ritual of Knia Ryngkew—the Ritual of the Tiger Spirit—which had not been performed for almost thirty years. After erecting a group of monoliths for future commemoration of the event, they entered the sacred grove led by dancers and drums. There was a celebration of the spring dance ‘Shad Suk Mynsiem’ (Dance of the Happy Hearts), which was to be celebrated again regularly from then on.
A month later, at the end of June, the actual reforestation was performed in the community area. However, it is not known whether the species planted were indigenous or not.
In the winter of 1997-8, Desmond L. Kharmawphlang, along with some friends and a group of intellectuals from Shillong, founded Dalamariang (Protect the Earth), an association to serve as a coordinator for the Thaiang project. The Syiem (traditional head of the Khasi state) of Khyrim2 acts as Dalamariang’s president and the Lyngdoh of Nongkrem as the vice-president. In 1998, the Thaiang spring dance took place a second time since its restoration work. With logistic help from Dalamariang and financial support from Bureau 64, 92 fishponds were dug.
Given the fast-changing social trends, it appears unlikely that religious belief will be able to protect sacred groves for long. If these repositories of flora and fauna are to be preserved, it is important to take some of the following steps:
• Legal backing, such that it is with the consent and acceptance of the local people.
• Strengthening the local management systems through appropriate financial or other intervention, aiming at improving the biomass requirements of the local people.
• Helping in the better management of the other village commons to meet local needs.
• Reviving the old custom of supply forests and sacred forests by treating buffer zones sacred groves as supply forests.
• Instituting awards for the best-managed and protected sacred groves.