“While it may look like any other forest to you, it is sacred to us. We revere and respect it”, explained Daya Prasad Gurung, while I sat and listened to him under a dim light in his house in Nepal.The 69-year-old, who lives with his wife Hosuba Gurung, in Khilang, an interior village in the Annapurna mountain range of Nepal, belongs to one of the many communities living in the Himalayas who is closely associated with the environment.
For those who aren’t aware, the Himalayas is one of the most biodiverse regions of the world. Most communities living here revere nature and have a repository of oral tales, legends and myths built around this intrinsic relationship. Co-existing comes easy to them and is further strengthened by their age-old narratives, some of which are so old that even the locals don’t know the time of its origin.
While some of the folklores have religious connotations, others are strong on beliefs, and cultural and traditional ties. Whether it’s Arunachal Pradesh in India, the locals of the Annapurna Mountain Range of Nepal or Bhutan, societies at large display a strong natural alignment towards their environment.
For people in Khilang, the patch of forestland overlooking the village is sacred. Popularly known as ‘Kuliphi’, it centres around the ‘Thanku asthan’ – a holy place which symbolises the abode of their deity ‘Thanku’. Locals believe that the ‘asthan’ was brought to its current location about 500 years ago from a place called ‘Komu’ in the Himalayas. At present, its resources are preserved and conserved to the best of their knowledge and ability. Similar is the story of the religious forest of Bajra Barahi which is located close to the city limits of Latitpur, a few kilometres from Kathmandu city.
The 16th-century temple of Bajra Barahi is surrounded by a thick green deciduous forest of approximately 19 hectares. The temple was built by King Shree Niwas Malla of Patan in 1666 AD in respect of Goddess Bajra Barahi, who is believed to be the guardian deity of the valley. This forest patch is conserved by the local communities and is maintained by a committee named Jyotidaya Sangh.
Dirang basti located in West Kameng district of western Arunachal Pradesh in India carries an age-old narrative of how animal sacrifice was banned in the area through an interesting challenge which took between the head priest of the people following Bon religion and a Buddhist lama Lopon Rinpoche visiting from Tibet.
While animal sacrifice was an important ritual of the Bons, Lopon Rinpoche advocated for non-killing of any beings. This soon resulted in a challenge to which both agreed – it was to reach the Dzangto Peri mountain first. The head priest of the Bons lost the challenge and thereby, promised never to sacrifice any animals during their religious performances, especially while worshipping their sacred mountains – ‘Bangle’ and ‘Dunphu’. Following this, till date, not only animal sacrifice is banned in the area but the killing of animals in the village for dietary consumption is also prohibited. Not far from Dirang Basti, there is the picturesque valley of Sangti where one can find oral narratives in abundance. Similar sentiments also echo in the mountains of Bhutan.
A common string which connects these places irrespective of their local and national boundaries is the fact that they are conserving their backyard forests and hence, the biodiversity. No resources from the sacred forests are taken out for personal or community use by the locals. There is an understanding that there should be no felling of trees or lopping of branches in the sacred groves. Such practices strengthen the eco-system and create an important refuge for biodiversity. Locals living in these areas seem to be interested in preserving their environment more for the reason of their ‘being’ than its economic or scientific value.
In a time when science-based conservation practices are prevalent, rekindling our past cultural ties with our natural surrounding is important so as to create a common language between the local communities and the modern-day conservationists. Developing such a language can open channels for establishing the much-needed balance between people, environment, science and culture.
Amongst many conservation initiatives which can be undertaken, documenting and preserving the oral narratives that connect people with the environment is a vital step. However, a brimming challenge in preserving them are the increasing dearth of storytellers in the region. With changing value systems and a shift towards individualistic society, these narratives might soon become a thing of the past. But what most don’t understand is that spreading the practice will not only help to preserve our culture but also strengthen people’s natural alignment towards the environment.