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Native believers and followers of Christianity collaborate to preserve India's revered woodlands.
Science & Health

Native believers and followers of Christianity collaborate to preserve India’s revered woodlands.

Tambor Lyngdoh navigated the forest, taking note of the various plants, trees, flowers, and even stones, as if he were visiting his elders.

As a child, the community leader and entrepreneur was brought to this place by his uncle who told him, “This forest is like your mother.”

This sacred space is in the village of Mawphlang, nestled in the verdant Khasi Hills in the northeast Indian state of Meghalaya, whose name means “abode of clouds.” On an overcast day, the forest, a bumpy 24-kilometer drive from the state capital of Shillong, was tranquil but for the sound of crickets chirping and raindrops rustling the bright green foliage.

The earth was covered in a layer of decaying leaves and young trees, with sacred stones scattered throughout. These stones have been used as altars for sacrifices and have received countless chants, songs, and prayers over the course of centuries.

Mawphlang is one of more than 125 sacred forests in Meghalaya, and arguably the most famous one. These forests are ancient, virgin woodlands that have been protected by Indigenous communities for many centuries; comparable tracts have been documented in other parts of India and around the globe, from Nigeria and Ethiopia to Turkey, Syria and Japan.

In Meghalaya, these forests represent an ancient tradition of environmental conservation, rooted in Indigenous religious beliefs and culture. For hundreds of years, people have come to sacred groves to offer prayers and animal sacrifice to the deities they believe reside there. Any form of desecration is taboo; in most forests, even plucking a flower or leaf is prohibited.

Lyngdoh, a member of the priestly clan responsible for sanctifying the Mawphlang forest, stated that this is a sacred space for communication between humans and God. This forest was designated by our ancestors to represent the balance and unity between mankind and the natural world.

These forests provide crucial water sources for nearby villages and are home to a diverse array of plant and animal species. Lyngdoh has identified four tree species and three types of orchids that are only found in the Mawphlang sacred grove.

Currently, these areas are facing threats from climate change, pollution, and deforestation. Another factor contributing to their decline is the conversion of the Indigenous community to Christianity, which started during the 19th century while under British rule. According to H.H. Morhmen, an environmentalist and retired Unitarian minister, the conversion resulted in the loss of the spiritual connection between Christian converts and the forests and their traditions. In Meghalaya, which is almost 75% Christian, this conversion contrasts with a predominantly Hindu country.

According to him, they saw their new faith as the symbol of enlightenment, while viewing the rituals associated with it as symbols of darkness, paganism, or even malevolence.

FILE - Jiersingh Nongrum, a member of the clan that cares for Swer sacred forest in the East Khasi Hills region of Meghalaya near Cherrapunji, on Sept. 7, 2023.

FILE – Jiersingh Nongrum, a member of the clan that cares for Swer sacred forest in the East Khasi Hills region of Meghalaya near Cherrapunji, on Sept. 7, 2023.

Over the past few years, environmental activists have collaborated with Indigenous and Christian groups as well as government bodies to raise awareness about the importance of caring for the forests in the region. These forests are essential to maintaining the local ecosystem and preserving biodiversity. According to Morhmen, this collective effort is starting to show positive results in rural communities.

According to Mohrmen, it has been discovered that even in areas where individuals have adopted Christianity, they are still preserving the forests.

Mustem village in Jaintia Hills is one example. Heimonmi Shylla, headman of the hamlet with about 500 households and a deacon, says almost all residents are Presbyterian, Catholic or members of the Church of God.

He stated that he does not view the forest as sacred, but he holds a deep respect for it.

It acts as the primary source of drinking water for the village and also provides a safe haven for aquatic life.

“He mentioned how the forest provides a refreshing escape from the heat, allowing us to stay cool. Breathing in the crisp air also rejuvenates the mind.”

Shylla is concerned about the effects of climate change and the lack of rainfall. However, he mentioned that there are strategies in place to boost tourism and enhance the environment by increasing the number of trees.

Petros Pyrtuh takes his 6-year-old son, Bari Kupar, to a sacred forest near his village, also in Jaintia Hills. He is Christian, but said the forest is an important part of his life; he hopes his son will learn to respect it.

He stated that in our time, we do not view it as the abode of the deities. However, we still uphold the practice of safeguarding the forest because our forefathers have instructed us to avoid desecrating it.

B.K. Tiwari, a former faculty member in the field of environmental science at North Eastern Hill University in Shillong, is pleased to observe that embracing Christianity has not completely severed the connection between the people and their land.

According to Tiwari, who has researched the diverse biology and culture of Meghalaya’s sacred forests, the Indigenous religion considers all things, such as animals, plants, trees, and rivers, to be sacred. Although individuals may not personally feel a connection to the divine or spiritual, the culture as a whole recognizes their responsibility as caretakers.

Donbok Buam, a resident of Jaintia Hills who continues to follow the traditional beliefs, described how ceremonies are conducted at the meeting point of three rivers in his community’s sacred woodland, to pay tribute to the goddess Lechki who is seen as the protector of the village and the forest.

FILE - A Jaintia tribal man stands by a sprawling sacred forest in Jaintia Hills, a sparsely populated mountainous region of Meghalaya, a state in northeastern India, Sept. 6, 2023.

A member of the Jaintia tribe is pictured next to a vast holy woodland in the Jaintia Hills, a scarcely inhabited mountainous area in Meghalaya, a state located in northeastern India, on September 6, 2023.

Buam stated that individuals who are experiencing problems or illness, as well as women who are struggling to conceive, will visit a certain location to make sacrifices.

A traditional practice involves collecting water from the river before sunrise and presenting it to the goddess at a designated spot in the forest. The water is poured into gourds and accompanied by five betel nuts and five betel leaves – four for the rivers and one for the sacred forest. A white goat is sacrificed to honor the deity of the forest, according to the source.

Buam stated that we hold the belief that the goddess still roams the forest in present times.

The Nongrum clan is a member of a group of three that takes responsibility for the Swer sacred forest near Cherrapunji, a region located approximately 56 kilometers southwest of Shillong. This area is known for its high levels of precipitation, making it one of the wettest places on Earth. The Nongrum clan practices the pantheistic Seng Khasi religion, which believes that divinity can be found in all living beings and objects. For the Nongrum clan, the forest serves as a sanctuary for their deities and they perform rituals to protect against conflict, famine and illness. Knik Nongrum, the president of the local committee in charge of the forest, shared this information.

He promised that as long as their clan upholds the traditions set by their ancestors, the village will prosper due to the presence of a thriving forest.

Similar to other holy woodlands, this particular one is not conveniently reached from the main road. It is situated atop a steep incline, which can be hazardous during heavy rainfall – a common occurrence. The forest cannot be entered without encountering the touch of gnarled limbs, inhaling the fragrant aroma of blossoms and herbs, and being sprinkled with droplets of water from rustling leaves.

The area of the woods that is considered sacred by the community is a patch covered in leaves and enclosed by dense, towering trees.

Many of the ceremonies are only carried out during chaotic periods; the most recent trouble was the worldwide COVID-19 outbreak. A specific ritual, the offering of a bull, is performed by the chief priest only once in his lifetime, granting him the power to conduct other rituals for his community.

Jiersingh Nongrum, who is 52 years old, indicated the sacrificial altar located outside of the forest. The altar has a depression in the center where the blood of the animal collects. At the age of 6, he witnessed this rare and significant sacrifice.

He expressed, “It was an extremely profound encounter. Reflecting on it now, it seems like a dream that I am unable to fully articulate.”

According to Hamphrey Lyngdoh Ryntathiang, the main guardian of a sacred forest in Khasi Hills, some of these forests are also used as final resting places for ancestors. He follows the Khasi religion while his wife is a Christian.

Every forest has its own unique guidelines and restrictions. For example, in this particular forest, individuals are allowed to gather fruit from the trees, but cannot burn anything. However, in other forests, fruit may be picked from the trees as well, but it must be consumed within the forest. It is believed that deities will punish those who cause disturbances.

Lyngdoh, a resident of Mawphlang, practices Christianity but still takes part in traditional forest rituals that honor the deities believed to take the form of a leopard and a snake. He has also observed the impact of climate change on the local forests, including the presence of invasive birds, trees infested with fungi, and disappearing species.

According to Lyngdoh, in rural Meghalaya, those who are the most impoverished depend heavily on the land. He also mentioned that forests have the potential to not only sustain life, but also serve as a source of income by supplying water and attracting tourists.

However, most importantly, a sacred forest is designated for us to maintain what we have possessed since the beginning of the world’s existence.