Sacred water wisdom: Rediscovery of traditions

By Dr Arvind Kumar

“It is argued that if a nation loses its biodiversity, it stands not only to lose its wealth but also its future. Thus, biodiversity conservation has become an important issue especially for the traditional communities who are in close contact with Mother Nature. A perspective of sacred groves moves towards preserving the traditional wisdom and prompts a search for better ways of conserving the same. Whether the values favoring environmental sustainability can be considered in relation to values of the indigenous communities, the answer is through ‘water ethics”

The people of Meghalaya scaled the peaks of art and culture because of the depth of their philosophy of sacred life. This philosophy gave a special space to ‘sacred groves’ (also known as Law Kyntang). The indigenous community has collectively worked to preserve and manage the divinity of the groves despite the changing climate contours.
Communities have a moral obligation to understand the science behind sacred groves and water ethics. According to a Khasi saying, a village (hima) has no identity without its own sacred grove where the communities of Meghalaya believe that the sacred groves are the abode of the deities. Behind the cultural touchstone grove at Mawphlang, near Shillong lies an ecological importance — a number of perennial streams originate from these groves. Amidst the heterogeneous diversity in Meghalaya, they play a significant role in preserving landscape biodiversity, maintaining ecological services like preventing soil erosion and extensive water holding capacity especially the ground water.
Water conservation is proportional to the existence of forests around rivers also impacting the availability of water in surrounding regions. This is also true in the case of Miombo woodlands, a vast African dryland forest ecosystem which sustains the livelihoods of more than 100 million rural poor and 50 million urban people through an integrated and sustainable management by supporting the conservation of biodiversity on one hand and sacred water resources on the other.
The sacred groves of Meghalaya are associated with reservoirs, ponds, springs or streams. Many sacred groves are located in catchments near the origins of springs or streams, making the groves act as local-area micro-watersheds largely aiding to meet the water needs of local communities. It is believed that such groves aid to restore the water-land-biomass balance and augment natural resource management which is visible through sustainable management of ecosystem, leveraging water as natural capital and green practices to improve resilience among the communities. Many of these are actually mature forests providing climate benefits of carbon sequestration, natural sinks and offset the carbon levels in the atmosphere. Sacred forests also act as a vital source of resilience in the midst of climate change mitigation.
By making communities own and manage their own ‘local resources’ with their gainful right, Meghalaya has achieved the most important socio-economic prerogative of grassroots democracy, well to say much ahead of their times. Most of the groves are located in the catchment areas of major rivers. The vegetation as at Cherrapunji, is today represented by sacred groves where Sacred Waters are found connected. They have inherited sacredness from their ancestors and have a shared responsibility to be good stewards of their water today. They have a moral obligation to preserve indigenous knowledge about water.
Water ecosystems have inherent rights and intrinsic value much beyond economic value to the communities. They have already set a precedent towards moral responsibility to adjust human demands for water and accommodate healthy ecological functions on the other. In short, the people of Meghalaya learnt how to co-exist with Nature. Living as sustainability allies, they are living in harmony with nature.
It must be signified that sacred ecosystems have a true value for the range of tangible and intangible services they provide to people, but also for the services they provide to Nature. They recognise the fundamental interdependence of social, economic and environmental factors which sacred groves offer and preserve traditional cultural values on the other. Water ethics, however, is still a niche topic but Meghalaya was well ahead of its time, understanding the twin relationship of water with Sacredness. Meghalaya’s committed efforts can surely become an Eco-model, because the world of water needs ethics today.
Water availability is often seen as a prime controlling factor in maintaining biodiversity of the sacred groves because Ecosystems are linked, maintained and sustained by water.
Let’s work together towards the protection and preservation of the sacred groves. Can’t we assume our moral responsibility to adjust human demands for water to accommodate healthy ecological functions just like the communities of Meghalaya did by aligning with ‘Water intrinsic Sustainability’.

(The author is the president of
India Water Foundation)

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