“Mumma! Can we take this Basket to our home and plant it there? It will not take much space and we will play ‘basket leaf’ there.”
“No dear. It is a sacred forest. You are not allowed to take anything outside; not even a dried twig, not a single dried leaf,nothing at all that belongs to this forest. But you can play for some more time.”
I smiled and patted myself for including ‘Mawphlang Sacred Grove or Law-Lyngdoh’, in our itinerary for Khasi Hills of Meghalaya.
“Sacred forests, often referred to as sacred groves, are sites that have cultural or spiritual significance for the people who live around them. They have been protected by communities around the world for a variety of reasons, including religious practices, burial grounds, and watershed value (A. Ormsby)”
In Meghalaya, the Khasi community have protected small areas of Primary forests as sacred groves since time immemorial. The Khasi believe that departed souls of ancestors abide in these forests. No one collects wood, flowers, fruits, seeds or even leaves from these groves. Nothing and nothing can be taken outside as they believe that deities will be offended. These small forests have therefore survived more or less unharmed.
Mawphlang is a small village about 25 kms from Shillong. Our guide for that day was seventeen year old Hebbock. He is son of Tambor Lyngdoh, the secretary of Mawphlang village. Tambor has played a significant role in protecting and preserving the sacred groves. When we talked to him, we felt that we were in a living library of knowledge about the customs, rituals, legends, folktales and culture of the groves and Khasis.
Hebbock was a teen who spoke very good English as is common in these parts of India. When he pointed to the Grove, all I could see was a thick impenetrable mass of greens, pressed in a bowl, surrounded on all sides by the same grassy slopes. We followed him through these grassy and slope-y field surrounding the grove and wondered where could be the entry gate to the grove.
There was no formal entry gate of the kind we usually have at sanctuaries and national parks. He led us to a way to enter which was nothing more than a usual spacing between trees and the view hit a wall of greens.
Once inside, it looked as if we had entered in a prehistoric era of Jurassic Park. We walked on all things woody; under a roof which was all trees and only trees; we saw green, touched green, breathed green. Once inside, there was no trace of outside world.
We walked on multi layered antique carpet of leaves, twigs, fruits and ferns, woven together in hundreds of years. Trees, the largest of inhabitants of this mystic world were standing proud of having had no amputation from man. The elder trunks that had fallen gracefully after a full, long and prosperous life were providing home to Lichens and mosses and ferns. Adult trees were leaping up to reach the sky. Their branches were intertwined happily, weaving a complex roof, only sometimes allowing curious Sun to have a look into their private world.
Low hanging branches taught us to be humble and to bend down if we wanted to move ahead. Fallen tree trunks created the necessary hurdles to test our candidature of being suitable to explore this botanical treasure. Streams invited us to tread along the length and breadth of this wonder world by balancing on moss laden boulders and follow the ‘medium path’ of falling neither too right nor too left.
Every inch of the ground and every trunk of the tree was happily claimed by different inhabitants of the green empire. Abundance of orchids and other epiphytes declared the least intervention of humans.
At one stream, Hebbock picked a pink purple petal floating gently on the water which was ready to tumble-down the boulders and float in another stream merging there. It was a petal of a flower. It was spoon-shaped and quite sturdy for its lineage. And it is indeed used as a spoon by Khasis when outdoors in the wild.
Kids were amazed and asked if they could secretly take it out in their pocket. How would the forest know then? Hebbock smiled and narrated the folklore of U Ryngkiew U Basa,the guardian spirit residing in the forest.
“The Basa comes in two forms – a serpent and a tiger. If any person goes to the Grove and do anything destructive in the Grove, the Basa appears in the form of a snake. For instance, if a person cuts branches from the Grove for use at his home, people would see strange happenings and after ascertaining the cause they say to the snake, “Go, he has done wrong and abused the Grove”. The snake would then disappear and the wrongdoer would go to throw back the branches in the place from where he cut it. People who do not repent after they commit the offence, will fall sick and may even die.
The story goes that once, not so long ago, one lady by the name of Thimur, visited her relative who was very ill at Lyngkein village. No one could diagnose his disease and his condition was deteriorating. On the way, Thimur saw a snake lying flat on the path. She told the snake, ‘I’m going to visit my relative who is very ill. Please don’t be in my way’. The snake did not move. Then a thought struck her and she addressed the snake thus, ‘If the person I am visiting is ill because of his abuse of the Law Kyntang (Sacred Forest) please let me go so I can talk to him’. Immediately, the snake disappeared.
On reaching Lyngkein, she asked the sick man if he had disturbed the Law Kyntang Sacred forest in any way. The man then admitted that he had cut some trees from there. Then they prayed and offered sacrifices of rice and water to appease the spirit. The man recovered.
Prayer to appease the Basa are simple and goes like this ‘O Great Uncle, O Father, forgive them; the young children who know nothing. O Ryngkew, O Basa, O Great Uncle, O Great Progenitor, do not punish them. Forgive them, release them so that they will always remember you. Release them.”
The Basa therefore is in fact the guardian of the Grove. He is like a reminder of the traditional belief that anyone who tries to behave callously in the Grove will be punished in the strange ways either psychologically or physically.
Basa as tiger is the guardian of the innocent people. When in trouble, people pray to Basa to save them. They either hear the guttural sounds or they may get to see the tiger and their troubles are solved.”
So these two form of Basa appear as good and bad, just as in every other religion. The good spirit appears in the form of tiger and the bad as revengeful snake.
And there are many more folklores concerning army personnel, PWD workers, which indirectly help the Grove to preserve it as a sacred forest. Listening one such folklore under a giant of the tree was like having a heady cocktail of folklore and antiquated plant kingdom.
Hebbock picked a fruit from ground and gave us to taste. It was the very same fruit I had been given in Shillong by some kind girl when I was asking the fruit seller in Iew Duh in Shillong to sell us one piece of each fruit to have a taste of all the local fruits. The fruit seller lady, who was speaking very little Hindi and English refused to do so, perhaps she did not understand that we were asking to buy it. This girl was buying it from her and she gave us one, smilingly. It had a very sour taste and it is said to be an appetizer.
Hebbock picked another fruit from ground and asked me to peel it.
I spoke in wonder,” it looks like a Rudraksh.”
“It is a Rudraksh,” replied he.
Having heard and seen Rudraksh since our childhood, it had some exclusive, mystic status somewhere in my sub-conscious. I knew that it come from a tree, which in hinterland is given an almost godlike status. Holding it in my hand, I felt the mysticism arouse and as I picked one more to peel and looked at the tree and touched its trunk, I found its mystic appeal fading away. Such is the power of seeing things as they are! All the legends and folklores and beliefs are never too powerful to shroud the observation, the real, in mystic alleys. But they do make our life colourful, for what is a life without stories; some from our times, still others from bygone era, all a healthy concoction of imagination and history wrapped in a bundle of beliefs.
Yes, But the Rudraksh will make the forest qualify as sacred for some more people!
Our guide explained us about the legends and rituals and beliefs but knew very little about the greens. It was a treasure trove, so many varieties of ferns, trees, wild flowers, shrubs and I could know so little about them.
Many a Botanists and researchers come here but the local community gets to know very little about their own inheritance. I wish our own Botanical departments do more than just research. What is the harm if more people could know about their findings? In my quest to know more, I came across many papers listing that a field study was done and this and that number of varieties were recorded. But will we not do a favour to ourselves if we will spread the knowledge and train locals to conduct birding tours, plant trips, wild flower walks and butterfly walks and so on? It will help them earn a livelihood in their own environment and tourist will get to learn so many thing. And it will be less expensive as well, considering the extortionist cost of the all these wonderfully advertised birding and wildflower and eco-tours; making it affordable for more and more people.
At one place, Hebbock imitated a bird and the bird chirped back in reply. Kids tried to do the same and failed miserably. And a laughter ensued which ricocheted in the silence of this Green Theater for long. He plucked a leaf and crushed it in his palm and the aroma was liked by all.
Greens, Silence, Laughter, Aroma: don’t you think it to be the best spa to rejuvenate?