Biodiversity and the Tribal Lore

India has diverse communities and issues to deal with. The problem is not finding issues but actually preserving them and the communities they relate to. In recent times, a concerted effort is being made in different corners of the country to finally record a good deal of our oral traditions, for fear that ‘progress and development within the global village’ may not eradicate those oral stores altogether.

Of course there is also the very real fear that the formalizing of those oral pearls of handed down wisdoms may not mean that they will be stolen out of the villages into the global villages where the ordinary villager or common man will no longer have access to it; as has been the case ever so often.

Recent memorable examples have been the efforts to patent the medicinal usages of haldi, methi seeds and other basic agricultural products. In some of these cases, it is reported that it is second generation NRIs who backed the demand for the patents on what is the traditional knowledge base of almost all of India; but that should serve as a lesson for traditional knowledge to be recorded at the earliest, before they are ‘stolen’ by some commercial entity, Indian or foreign.

In the north eastern corner of India, students have been associated with a project to record traditional knowledge, as a test case to see how much the younger generation has assimilated the traditional wisdoms of their elders.

The north east coordinator of Project Baidik worked with students and their teachers, village elders, anganwadi and headmen to record for posterity what may be seen as the bio-resource base of some communities. They have of course understood its value and their stake in its conservation and enhancement.

Biological diversity is crucial to generating ecological services and natural resources, the value of which cannot not be computed mathematically. he various practices have been woven into a complex knowledge-practice-belief core which offers sustainability and significance which may not be superior to modern knowledge, but is neither necessarily its inferior. Rather, it is for mankind to understand that the strengths and limitations of the two are complimentary and should be respected as such.

Unfortunately, indigenous knowledge and folklores, based on the sustainable use of environmental resources, are dying a slow death; the most visible factor in this is of course, the usurping by market forces of resources and knowledge in the public realm and placing into the profit oriented market. Unless these resources are documented, the indigenous peoples have no means of fighting back, which makes the effort to involve school children and their teachers in this project to record traditional knowledge all the more path breaking.

Some of the facts thrown up in this project may seem quite astounding; until one sits back and tries to understand the logic of the practice or the belief in the context of the area and the lives of the villagers there.

The Angami tribe is located in the north eastern state of Nagaland, often called “Switzerland of the north east”. At the turn of the century, they numbered just over 12 million, in 16 major tribes and several sub-tribes, now mostly Christian. Their main occupation is agriculture and they produce upto 20 varieties of paddy. How is that for bio-diversity?

The most striking difference between the Angami and their neighbors in the north is the wet rice cultivation that they practice by terracing the hills and their intricate system of irrigation which has turned the steepest hillsides into flood rice fields.
Close by the villages, wood, especially bamboo is preserved, again in all its varieties, each of which has a specific purpose. Plantations are well cared for and highly valued. While the men folk are excellent craftsmen and masons, the women are proficient in weaving the traditional fabrics.

The project divided the knowledge base to be documented under different heads, materials made from bamboo, eco-indicators, the study of birds, wild food and medicinal plants, crafts and traditional weaving practices. The entire documentation was done in the Angami dialect and then translated for the record.

Upto 26 varieties of bamboo were identified, which are individually or in combinations, put to different uses by the villagers, from catapults made of bamboo and rubber to shoot birds, to a variety of baskets for drying meat, storing grains, carrying paddy etc. Other uses include fencing and doors, before cheap plywood made its inroads. Other interesting products include a headband used to carry heavy loads, a flat bamboo used to remove the husk from the paddy, and to shell soya beans, trapping devices for birds and small animals.

Unfortunately modernism has meant a decimation of the flora and fauna and a number of birds identified are indicated as declining in numbers due to over hunting or on account of large scale felling of trees which eliminates their natural habitats. Some, like the Mou are edible and sell well in the market. Others have beautiful feathers for which they are prized.

Ironically, the parrot has been saved from that fate; while elders do eat its flesh; children are forbidden from eating parrot meat. This is on account of the belief that the parrot is bad mouthed and children eating its flesh might become like them!!
The Hutu or cuckoo, again disappearing, is believed to indicate the time for seeding with its chirping. There is appearance of the bird heralds the arrival of summer during which no marriage takes place. Could it be possibly ancient wisdom decreeing that the young studs buckle down to work rather than be distracted by newly wed brides?

Another interesting species is the PEU, which resembles the domestic chicken and moves on the ground in large groups, chirping loudly before settling down for the night. It is their loud chirping which make them prey to night hunters who sell their meat in the market.

Among the wild food and medicinal plant category there are the meza gakhwu creeper from the hill slopes, the gara and the gakhra shrubs which appears in harvested rice fields after the harvest is taken in... Different parts of the plant may be eaten, as soup or cooked and taken with rice; medicinal purposes are generally against diarrhea and upset stomachs.

Traditional Angami weaving is done by both men and women. The men weave with bamboo, cane and rope etc; whilst the women weave cotton, silk and woolen fabrics in patterns which are unique, depending on the tools used. The fabrics turned out are again segregated as those for male use and those for female use only.

Finally we come to the range of beliefs and Angami proverbs. Here listeners, listen with your heart and arrive at the logic of the dictums of a small tribe located in the north eastern hills. Many serve to remind the villagers that they need to restrain themselves in order not to harm themselves or the environment around them.

  1. Everything in nature has a protecting spirit and should not be harmed; if you harm nature’s creations you will not achieve your goals in life.

  2.  Anything taken from nature for consumption should be divided equally in the village. It is a sin to take someone else’s share.

  3. Encroaching on neighbors’ territory can lead to mental illness….from the tension of protracted battles ahead?

  4. No enemies make for a dull person. Enemies are your sharpening stones

  5. If you misguide a stranger, you will turn blind.

  6. Closing of public paths is prohibited

  7. When there is a death in the village, there should be no screaming outside the village. That will attract further deaths, sickness or calamities to the village. Logic: when neighboring villagers realize they are engrossed in mourning, they may mount an attack?

  8. Even enemies must be allowed to enter and offer condolences. Keeping out an unwanted person will bring calamities upon the family and its children……by strengthening and deepening the enmity?

  9. Do not cross your legs when you sit to eat. Obvious logic: you cannot stand quickly if attacked by enemies.

  10. If your shadow falls on your food as you are eating, it is like you are eating yourself.

  11. When you eat food in the jungle, do not eat without untying the knot which binds the pack. If you do, it makes you vulnerable to enemies. Logic; worming out food from a tied bundle will leave droppings which could give you away to stalkers.

  12. When you go out hunting, do not take meat in your lunch pack. The smell will drive away your prey.

  13. Don’t eat meat of animals hunted by other animals. You will never succeed as a hunter.

  14. A single tree, however large, does not make a forest. Watch out

  15. If you allow yourself to be served by an elder or a parent, it signifies selfishness and a fear of early death.

  16. Eating wolf meat will make you as greedy as the wolf.

  17. Never show contempt for dirty or despicable persons or pluck the leaves of the chili plant. It will not bear fruit.

  18. Catching a pair of mating birds or animals will enrich your sex life

  19. A pair of snakes found in your compound foretells death in the family or neighborhood.

  20. Pumpkin or squash on the vine should not be destroyed or defiled. It can be the lifeline during droughts.

Now for the ladies’ specials:

If a woman steps across a man’s leg, it will weaken his spirit.

After sowing operations, if you have surplus seeds, do not give them to a man but to a woman. If you give them to a man, you will suffer and weaken.

If a woman serves food with her head covered, it means we do not have the courage to face our enemies.

If a woman enters a gate or doorway with her head covered, it will bring misfortune to the village.

Does that translate into the high respect for the woman who can move about freely without covering her head? The matriarchal system is prevalent in India in parts of Kerala and the Northeast. In both it has been weakened with the advent of modernism, bringing social evils such as dowry and patriarchy in its trail.   


More by :  Kusum Choppra

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