The forbidden forests of Meghalaya

By Witerson M. SangmaonOct. 08, 2021in Environment and Ecology

A social worker from Meghalaya’s Chiringmagre village shares how ancient traditions and tribal culture help preserve a patch of pristine biodiversity in Meghalaya’s South Garo Hills

Chiringmangre village, surrounded by the jungle. Photo: Global Himalayan Expedition

This is a special place. Outsiders are forbidden from entering the sacred forest. It is a patch of pristine greenery where no one, not even a member of our tribe, can cause any harm to the trees, flowers, or animals there. It has been this way for as long as I can remember, and my forefathers before that. And like any ancient tradition, there is a story behind it.

A rare picture of the Chiringmagre sacred forest, where outsiders are not permitted to enter and no foraging / hunting is allowed. Photo: Global Himalayan Expedition

One of the most unique beliefs of the ancient indigenous Garo people is their faith in the one supreme spirit, who is the creator of all universes and preserver of all living beings. It is believed that man is unworthy of calling him by his name, so he is known by his manifestations and his work. The avatar of the one supreme being that acts as the preserver and protector of humans is known as Kalkame. The Garo people offer sacrifice to him once a year, thanking him for his work and praying for his continued protection.

Traditionally, the place where the sacrifice is offered is preserved as a forest. It is home for different kinds of animals and birds. It is a vast forest area where no one can hunt, kill or harm any living beings, including animals, birds, insects, and even the plants and trees. No one can even touch anything from that area, you cannot even spit there. It is a strong belief that if anyone disobeys, they will get sick, so everyone avoids making any mistakes in a sacred forest.

The sacred forest is a pristine patch of the jungle. The vegetation is typical of the rainforests of Meghalaya. Photo: Global Himalayan Expedition

Chiringmagre’s sacred forest was established in the 17th century when Shri Wanding Ch. Marak, his wife Mejing M. Sangma and the villagers who bought our village land offered the first sacrifice here. It is located about 10 kilometres from Chokpot Block in South Garo Hills district, west of Rongmegre village, and covers an area of 97 bighas.

The practice of offering sacrifice continued till 1989, when it was stopped as most members of our tribe converted to Christianity. Though we no longer offer sacrifice to Kalkame, we have continued to preserve the forest as a village tradition, and will keep doing so in the future as well. Besides a variety of birds, animals and insects, more than 1,000 varieties of trees and plants are found in the sacred forest, including medicinal plants and wild fruit trees.

Rare plants continue to thrive in the sacred forest. Photo: Global Himalayan Expedition

Besides the fear of the taboo, the reason we’ve been able to continue to protect the forest as a village reserve is due to our tribal culture, which is being kept alive in the northeast of India. One thing that all tribes have in common is their respect for nature.

In our tribe, the elders make decisions for the community and we all abide by them. The forest is our inherited wealth, and everyone in the village must follow the rules made for its protection or face a fine. Lastly, I also try to conduct programs to inform the people of my village about global warming, the impact of cutting trees, and the need to preserve our biodiversity.

A tribesman in front of his bamboo hut. Photo: GHE

Our tribe has created a village group, of which I am the president, to maintain and protect this reserve. We want to look after the forest so it can be a home for a diversity of animals, birds and plants. The forest is also our water catchment area that helps us ensure we will have resources for the future. This way we can also preserve the stone monuments that were erected here by our forefathers.

Our tribes live in the forest and understand the value of using its resources wisely as our survival depends on it. I believe that ancient traditions can play a huge role in designing modern sustainability practices. From them, we can learn to live with nature.

First published by Voices of Rural India on 21 Oct. 2020, with audio-snippets of this story

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