Indian folklore and environmental ethics

View over the Siang Valley
Sartaj Ghuman
Storytelling and collective reflection can enrich efforts in environmental restoration.


I met Egam Basar - assistant director at the Department of Horticulture - in Itanagar, the disappointingly dusty capital of Arunachal Pradesh, the erstwhile North-East Frontier of India. 

My wife and I were there to meet some people studying glaciers through satellite images and remote sensing techniques. We were hoping to connect our work on the Sikkim glaciers with theirs on the glaciers of Arunachal Pradesh.

Basar told us about his initiatives to discourage hunting and restore the forests in and around his native village of Basar. Listening to him, I was reminded that stories hold the power to shape our reality and guide our actions within that construct.

Local action

I wonder whether Basar was aware of this when narrating the stories that he told us.

Arunachal Pradesh has some of the last and the largest contiguous patches of forests remaining in the whole of India. Basar talked passionately of the need for local action, and was acutely aware of how rapidly his state is losing its wildlife and its forest cover.

This year, the organisation that Basar and his friends founded back in 2011 is planting saplings of native species back into the forest. But it was the stories leading up to this initiative that really caught my attention.

I wouldn’t have known what to make of his stories had I not seen Ajay Bhardwaj’s documentary on the narratives about the partition of Punjab – the fertile plains of the five braided rivers in India’s northwest – and of its aftermath.

Sometimes, like birds hidden in a tree, you need someone to point these things out before you see them for yourself. Bhardwaj’s documentary features eyewitnesses recounting their memories of the partition, one of the largest forced migration of people anywhere in the world, marked by terrible violence. 

Reinforcing belief

Basar started with the story of a huge flash flood in his village a couple of years ago: “There had been floods before, but no one had ever seen anything like this. Even climate change can’t explain what happened.”

He wasn’t there, but eyewitnesses had told him about water gushing in a torrent from the sheer mountainside and washing away everything that stood in its path.

“Such natural calamities are linked in people’s minds to their beliefs", he explained, while scanning our expression to see if we understood.

He explained: “The elders would warn us against cutting trees. And then more recently, there was this big, ancient Peepal tree (a fig tree, Ficus religiosa) that people believed was the abode of spirits. Some people chopped it down.

"In the following year the flash flood inundated the rice fields of all those involved in chopping the tree and rendered them uncultivable."

Inviolable landscapes

Basar's story brought to mind something that I’d read in Mike Shanahan’s book about figs, Ladders to Heaven. It was a quote from the Ramayana, where Ravana says, “I have not cut down any fig tree … why then does calamity befall me?

I’d heard similar stories other places and in other forms as well. For instance, in the folklore surrounding the sacred groves of the Khasi hills in Meghalaya.

The Khasis perform annual rituals that offer the sacred groves to the spirits, who must then stay within these designated areas. The sanctity of the grove is inviolable, no one willing to risk taking so much as a fallen leaf from it.

In fact, one finds this kind of injunction in most ancient religions. In her book about Hinduism and Nature, Nanditha Krishna writes: “There was a popular belief that the cutting of trees would bring about the destruction of the woodcutter and his family”.

There are also the more contemporary narratives from the edges, where Arunachal Pradesh meets Assam. Here, large pockets of what used to be good Reserve Forest - a habitat for elephants and hornbills - have been cleared in a matter of years. Nowadays these places look like haphazard villages submerged in a sea of weeds.

Cursed money

A friend of mine who lives in Arunachal Pradesh summed up the situation: “The money that comes from forest trees is cursed. One can never digest it.”

But Basar’s stories differed in some crucial aspect. I was still struggling to see why they seemed so familiar, turning and twisting them in my head to see where they fit. Then he related one last incident and it all fell into place.

Basar told us: “There used to be this man who started a saw mill by the river in our village. The elders warned him against making money from the forest, but he wouldn’t listen.” Eventually the man was diagnosed with cancer and died a horrible, drawn out death, losing his mind towards the end.

Basar said: “Only god knows if his suffering was due to a curse for felling trees, his food habit or just his fate. His workers, however, died in the devastating flash flood which uprooted the entire mill complex – vehicles, machinery, everything washed away – as if nature had exacted vengeance.”

Losing one’s mind; a long drawn out death - I’d heard of a similar fate that someone else met with, and I’d heard about it in Ajay Bhardwaj’s documentary.

Collective guilt

Only those who have lived through the partition know what it was like. The trauma of being pulled up from the roots and flung towards a foreign land across a sieve of unimaginable violence leaves scars that never heal.

But what drove Ajay to make the documentary was a remarkable feature that emerged from the first few interviews with people who had lived through those times. He discovered that the chief emotion that coloured their memories wasn’t hatred, but remorse.

People would time and again describe atrocities etched indelibly in their minds, atrocities that they’d seen committed not by strangers, but by people that they knew, people that they’d lived amongst, seen every day and spoken to.

And these would be followed inevitably by the awful fate that the perpetrators eventually met with: of the awful deaths they died, the terrible fates their family suffered, of insanity and derangement that wiped out the entire lineage.

What Ajay calls “informal tales, almost like folklore … strewn across the memory-scape of Punjab's countryside” is their way of dealing with the collective guilt for a crime that they felt a certain complicity in; a crime against their neighbours, and a crime against their shared heritage.

Local history

This was exactly what I thought I saw in Basar’s stories about his own community. They were incidents from a local history slowly taking on the garb of local folklore, and they seemed like attempts to deal with a collective guilt for wrongs committed against nature.

Stories like the ones that Basar told us record the attitudes of people who witnessed the events and what they think of them with the wisdom of hindsight. These accounts are indispensible in shaping our attitudes and those of generations to come.

We need more narratives like these: whether of forests being cleared to make way for plantations in Arunachal Pradesh or for roads in Meghalaya, or stories of the land consolidation in east Punjab (chackbandi) that saw the indiscriminate felling of trees.

It is important that we know what the people who did that then think of their actions now, so that it can inform our decisions about the future.

Numbed and befuddled by a world where money is equated to happiness – and faster money to greater happiness – we’ve lost our moral bearings.

Alternative narratives

Governments that have little regard for the environment cannot be expected to formulate policies that will prioritise ecology over some shiny, near-sighted idea of development.

But away from the limelight of media and the billboards selling you a better life, there are streams of alternative narratives that have recorded the real impacts of everything upon people and upon interpersonal relations – from the advent of electricity to the influx of easy income.

It’s time we dipped into them - these narratives that account for human emotions and wellbeing - to piece together a moral framework that will make our lives as individuals more meaningful.

This Author 

Sartaj Ghuman is a freelance biologist, writer and artist based in India. 

More from this author