Sayantani Deb | Feb 7 | 7 min read
No one dares to even pluck a leaf, as Khasi tribals believe their deity Labasa will punish those who try to remove anything from the grove
Shillong, Meghalaya: Twenty-five km from Meghalaya’s capital city Shillong lies the pristine forest of Hima Mawphlang (Kingdom of Mawphlang), where over 450 species of trees, herbs and wildlife, including clouded leopard, monkeys, deer and frogs of the genus Rana, thrive. This is no ordinary forest, but a sacred grove, where belief and conservation go hand in hand.
Labasa, the deity that governs the law-kyntang (the Khasi equivalent of sacred grove), can both protect and punish. Take a twig or pluck a leaf, and you are inviting the deity’s wrath and bad luck. This belief in itself has thrown a ring of protection around the nearly 800-year-old forest spread across 193 acres.
Located in East Khasi Hills district, the forest belongs to the native Khasi tribe, an indigenous ethnic group found in the Northeast. Its residents still identify themselves with the ancient Kingdom of Mawphlang and even now have a king elected democratically. The present king belongs to the Lyngdoh clan.
The Office of Hima Mawphlang decides on all matters related to the sacred grove. The responsibility to protect it lies with the men of 12 clans — Lyngdoh, Blah, Kharshiing, Kharsohliya, Kharhunai, Kharnarbi, Kharsahkar, Kharmawphlang, Kharmaram, Kharlangnuih, Kharphyrnap and Kharkalong — living in villages in the vicinity.
The forest is divided into three parts: phiephandi, the central portion where all rituals take place; Laittyrkhang located near the hamlet; law nongkynrih, an extension opposite the main forest. Though an ecotourism hotspot, tourist entry is restricted to only certain portions of the forest.
Leopard, snake, and the fear of desecration
Appeasing the deity is of utmost importance to Philarihun Lyngdoh (28), a local guide. Every morning, upon reaching the forest entry point, she chants in Khasi seeking permission and protection. She also pleads forgiveness, if she has wronged unknowingly.
Since time immemorial, villagers have been performing ritualistic worship of the forest deity in the presence of an important elder or the King, before taking any major community decisions, before a major event, or during disease outbreaks. Such events used to happen inside the sacred forest, before it was shifted to a nearby hill.
Bulls were sacrificed in the last known ritual held inside the forest during a massive famine in 1959. Nowadays, only hens and roosters are sacrificed in an annual ritual held before the monoliths that dot the landscape, which also serve as route markers.
It is believed that the deity used to appear as a clouded leopard or a snake when the elders sought permission during the sacrificial ritual, standing in front of the monoliths.
“Leopards and snakes are highly regarded here. Leopard will come to the rescue in times of danger, while the snake is a mediator that shows up when something is wrong,” noted ecologist Tambor Lyngdoh told 101Reporters.
Sharing some anecdotes on grove desecration, Tambor said stories about those who were punished by turning their heads backwards (shah khyrwait basa) still do the rounds in the region.
"In the 1970s, some Army personnel from Shillong went to Mawphlang to gather wood from the grove. When loaded in trucks, the engines did not start. While checking the truck's condition, the drivers began to feel uneasy and weak. Soon, they returned to the headquarters empty-handed.”
“The next morning, the brigadier reached Mawphlang on inspection and met the chief of the clan, who suggested unloading of wood in the grove itself. Once his advice was heeded, the engines miraculously started functioning again."
Ardent followers of Mother Nature
In the distant past, the people of Mawphlang were mostly dependent on the forest for basic essentials. Even before there was a religious system, people believed in one god: Mother Nature. This practice continues even today. Residents believe that in the sacred grove resides the wisdom of their forefathers and a way to carry forward their heritage and establish a legacy.
“Nature is given the highest regard in our community. Before starting anything auspicious, we pray to nature. We know we cannot survive without nature. No one is allowed to collect even firewood from the forest. We grow everything we need, including vegetables, fruits and trees for firewood, in our farmlands,” Tambor elaborated.
Philarihun said every household in this place used the water from the forest springs for cooking and drinking purposes as “we think its sacred quality can cure health problems.”
There are certain taboos linked to the sacred grove that the society here follows without fail. Women in Mawphlang cannot directly participate in the rituals, though the society is matrilineal in nature. Even the dorbar council meetings have only men above 18 years of age in attendance.
However, Tambor claimed that everyone, from a young child to an elderly person, was responsible for protecting the grove. Iemonleng Kharshiing, a school teacher, said this responsibility is imbibed into the minds of residents at a young age both through education and environment-themed competitions.
Mawphlang village consists of five sub-villages — Nogrum Mawphlang, Dongiewrim Mawphlang, Mawkohmom Mawphlang, Mission Mawphlang and Lad-Umisain Mawphlang. In all, there are 800 households, where agriculture was once the primary occupation. The area saw a shift towards ecotourism when Tambor, in his role as the secretary of the Office of Hima Mawphlang, introduced ecotourism to the area in 1996.
Tourist influx has since opened up new avenues of income for the local youth. Most of them now earn around Rs 20,000 per month. For instance, John Starfield, who used to work as a tourist guide, has recently opened his own homestay on the forest outskirts of Nogrum.
“This sacred forest is everything to me. As a guide, I got the opportunity to meet new people and learn new things. Most importantly, I see it as a way to showcase our rich Khasi culture and tradition in front of the world,” shared Starfield. Philarihun echoed him when she said, “Many youth shift to metro cities for better opportunities. But for me, this forest is heaven.”
A set of rules is in place to manage guesthouses in the area. For building homestays, permission from the village headman is necessary. Tourists should not roam around the village late in the night, or visit houses in the locality without the headman’s permission.
“Conservation is not a one-person’s job. Therefore, the village panchayat actively works with the Office of Lyngdoh. An annual or half-yearly general public meeting is held, where attendance of at least one person from every household is mandatory. Executive committee meetings are held frequently,” said Auspicious L Mawphlang, the headman of Nogrum.
Opportunities on the anvil
Taking note of the ecotourism activities in the area, Meghalaya Tourism has proposed to develop the David Scott Trail, a 16-km-long trekking route that starts near the sacred grove in Mawphlang.
“We plan to start a tourist information centre and ticketing counter here. Cafes, rain shelters, washrooms for travellers and signages along the trail are all part of the plan, proposed to be funded under the Meghalaya Ecotourism Infrastructure Development,” CVD Diengdoh, Director of Tourism, Government of Meghalaya, told 101Reporters.
He added that the government has no role in the maintenance and development of the sacred forest as “it is completely owned by the kingdom.”
Diengdoh informed that the Meghalaya government has implemented the Prime Minister’s Employment Generation Programme to push tourism-driven entrepreneurship. Under this, young entrepreneurs can claim a subsidy of up to Rs 7 lakh for a project worth Rs 10 lakh.
Mawphlang’s love for nature has set an example for the rest of Meghalaya, with Umket and Mawtneng in Ri Bhoi district and Baghmara in South Garo Hills following suit.
The cover photo is from within the sacred groves of Mawphlang (Photo- Nayanjyoti Medhi; 101Reporters)
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