Thaiang Sacred Grove

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 Location  Ecosystem Type    Conservation Type    Area(hectare)  Legal status 
 Ri Bhoi, Meghalaya  Forest  Sacred Grove  Not Available Community Owned

Background

Untouched patches of forest forming pockets of rich biodiversity mark the landscape of Meghalaya. These sacred forests are known as law iyngdoh, law kyngtang and law niam and have been protected by the Khasi tribes of the Khasi Hills. The sacred groves are integrated into the lives of the Khasis as a form of nature worship. The traditional Khasi religion is animist and to some extent monotheistic, with a paramount ‘God the creator’ (u blei nongthew), wherein the gods represent the natural forces of water, river, wind, etc. They worship trees, forests, groves and rivers as their deities or the abodes of their deities. They believe that the gods will be offended if their domain is disturbed and that ‘those who disturb their forests will die’. This age-old ideology has saved many pristine forestlands from ‘falling under the axe’.

During British rule, Presbyterian missionaries began in 1841 to spread their work in the hills, converting many people to Christianity. The decline in the form of nature worship, coupled with the increase in demand for timber for both local as well as market forces from outside resulted in the speedy felling of these sacred groves. The disappearance of these pristine sacred forests can also be attributed to the overpowering demand for timber from outside the state as well as the decline in number of Khasis who are strict followers of the Khasi religion.

After Independence, the Constitution of India made a provision (Schedule 6 areas)1 that an elected body of tribes (Autonomous District Council) would take up the administration in their respective districts except in the case of Reserve Forests, which were to be managed by the State. However, the former rulers of the land and managers of the forests since the British Raj, who did not follow the traditional system of conservation and the rules laid down by the government, subsequently ravaged the forests, using them as a source for generating money. The depletion can also be attributed to the lack of vision and long-term aim on the part of the District Council, which caused maximum damage.

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.

  Box 1

Sacred forests of Meghalaya: Biological and cultural diversity3

The Khasi Hills of Meghalaya are characterised by pockets of rich biodiversity that have been protected by the Khasis and form the basis of nature worship practices in the area, manifested in the trees, forests, groves and rivers. The Khasi people believe that those who disturb the forest will die, and that sacred animals such as the tiger bring about prosperity, happiness and well-being. These beliefs have resulted in the protection and continued regeneration of considerable forest land in the region. In fact, the people of Thaiang believe that the destruction of their forest by their forefathers has caused ‘good luck’ (i.e., the tiger) to leave, leading directly to suffering due to a scarcity of medicinal plants, wood, water and fertile soils. In the state of Meghalaya, 79 sacred groves have been recorded so far—15 in the Jaintia Hills, three in Ri Bhoi, 32 in East Khasi Hills, 13 in West Khasi Hills, eight in East Garo Hills, and eight in West Garo Hills. In size these groves range from 0.01 ha in Jaintia Hills to Maw Kyrngah in East Khasi Hills at 1200 ha. At least 40 of these range from 50-400 ha. Mawphlang sacred grove at 75 hectares is probably the best known of all of these because of its proximity to Shillong, the state capital. Many of these sacred groves have remained untouched since times immemorial because of the fear of the deities associated with them. About 1 per cent of these sacred groves remain completely undisturbed in their pristine form even today. 42 per cent are dense forests with a canopy cover of 100 per cent to 40 per cent, 26 per cent are under sparse forest cover (40 per cent to 10 per cent), and 30 per cent are open forests (less than 10 per cent).

 

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.

Plantations in Thaiang sacred grove have reportedly been very successful. This example brings out the close relation between wildlife and local people in Meghalaya, with people believing in the tiger as their guardian spirit, and where the tiger is believed to bring prosperity, happiness and well being.

  This case study was contributed by Ritwick Dutta in 2001. He is currently a lawyer at the Supreme Court.

Ritwick Dutta
Chamber 69, Lawyers Chambers,
Supreme Court of India,
Bhagwan Das Road,
New Delhi. Ph: 011-9810044660 Email: ritwickdutta@gmail.com

1 Wherein Autonomous District Councils are given the sole authority of managing their own natural resources, except in the case of reserved forests, which are to be managed by the state government.

2 Khyrim was a traditional Khasi state headed by the Syiem. Presently, its traditional status no longer exists, although many of the traditional practices continue.

3 Source: B.K. Tiwari, S.K. Barik and R.S. Tripathi, Sacred Forests of Meghalaya: Biological and Cultural Diversity (Shillong, Regional Centre, National Afforestation and Eco-Development Board, North-Eastern Hill University, 1999).

This case study was part of the Directory on Community Conserved Areas (2009), published by Kalpavriksh. The directory can be downloaded here.

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