By H H Mohrmen
The State of Meghalaya is blessed with a significant forest cover as 17,146 sq km or 76.44 % of its geographical area is under forest cover. This is as per the State of Forest Report, 2017 published by the Forest Survey of India. The survey also stated that the state ranks fourth in terms of forest cover in the entire country. But because of the prevailing land tenure system in the state, only 5.10% of the forest area in the state is under the direct control of the state government. The remaining forest area which is about 71 % of the geographical area of the state belongs to the communities, the clan, and private owners and the Autonomous District Council also owns some forests in their respective jurisdiction.
The community-owned forest is divided into categories like community forest, clan forest, and sacred forests. Sacred groves in Jañtia are called by different names in different places of the two districts of the erstwhile Jañtia Kingdom. In some places, they are called “khloo langdoh,” while in other places they are called “khloo blai” or in some cases, people use both khloo blai and khloo langdoh when referring to the sacred forests in the “elaka.” In the War Jañtia area, sacred forests are called tken, and they are smaller in size and are kept by the clans. While in the other parts of the Jaintia Hills, there are some sacred forests kept by the community, in most cases the Raij. There are also sacred forests that are under the care and protection of the clans.
In Jowai the two prominent sacred forests are Mooliksoo and khloo Langdoh; both these forests are managed and controlled by the Raij Jowai, while Mooliksoo is used for performing the final rites (thang mynso) of those who died an unnatural death, which included u Kiang Nangbah whose final rites were performed here. Khloo Langdoh, like any other sacred forest, is kept because certain rituals and sacrifices, especially those that have a connection with Behdieñkhlam, are performed in this forest. The other sacred forest is ka khloo Rampyrthai on the banks of the river Myntdu.
The sacred grove in Ïalong is also under the care and protection of the Raij Ïalong; it is sacred because sacrifices and rituals to appease a deity like u Ryngkaw u Basa are performed in the forest. The unique aspect of the sacred forest in Ïalong is that occasionally a bull was sacrificed inside the forest. It is unique because in almost all Niamtre traditions in the Jañtia Hills, partaking of beef is a taboo; perhaps this could be because of the influence of Hinduism, the religion of the later generations of the Jañtia monarchy, but only Ïalong Raij has this special bull sacrifice and at least on this one occasion people can eat beef. Again this has a story of its own which would justify why for once the Ïalong were allowed to partake of beef and kill a bull instead of a fowl, a goat, or even a pig. The sacred forest in Ïalong also tells a story, or rather the history of the village. The ancestors of the Ïalong people, like other ancient settlers, lived close to the river, in this case, the river Myntdu. So in the old Ïalong village one had to pass through the forest to enter the village, but because of the frequent outbreaks of a plague which almost swept the village clean, the people decided to move to a higher elevation and the old Ïalong and the cremation ground became the sacred forest.
It is the same story as the sacred forest of the Raij Tuber. The sacred forest of Raij Tuber is in the Chohchrieh village and it is also located near the banks of the river Myntdu. Legend has it that earlier the village was situated close to the river, again in this case the river Myntdu, but later on, the village moved to higher grounds and the old village and cremation ground became a sacred forest. In Chohchrieh if one walks down towards the river one would also see a collection of monoliths which are remnants of the old cremation ground. Again this is also a place where we can find a big collection of monoliths. There is a certain part of this forest where one has to walk barefoot and no item made of leather can be taken inside the forest.
Near the Ïalong and Tuber sacred forests, there are two more sacred groves, one in Chyrmang and another in Iongnoh village; both these villages are under the Raij Chyrmang. In Chyrmang village the sacred grove is near the Aitnar or the place where the final part of the Behdieñkhlam festival of the Raij Chyrmang is celebrated, but the biggest of all the sacred forests in the Jañtia Hills is ‘ka blai Khap-Ïaba,’ which is situated in Ïongnoh village. Khap-Ïaba is still intact and free from any human interference; very few people visit the place because even the local people are scared of the curse of the deity of the forest. The other special aspect of this forest is also that the river Myntdu passes through the forest so Khap-Ïaba is a very special sacred forest.
In the Elaka Raliang there are four sacred forests; some of these forests are maintained by certain clans while there are forests that are owned and maintained by the Elaka. The forests in Raliang are not as big in comparison with the forests in Choh-chrieh and Ïalong, but the Daloi of Raliang informed us that there is another bigger forest in the elaka Raliang which is in the village of Khonchnong. Part of the famous harvest festival “Pastieh Kopati” was also performed in one of the forests nearby known as Khloo Raij. Despite being one of the biggest and the oldest elakas, Shangpung has just one sacred forest; this is also a shadow of its previous glory because part of the forest was given to the community to expand the village playground.
There is one sacred forest in Bataw village, and again this forest is unique because it is also part of the sacred lake known as ka Um Hang (which is much bigger than Wards Lake in Shillong). The folk story of Ka Um Hang and ka Hang Polok Suchiang is another tragic tale of a young woman who met with a sad end. The sacred forest is also adjacent to the cremation ground and sacrifices are still performed regularly in the area.
The story of the sacred forest in Sohmynting village needs to be shared because it is distinct from the stories of the other sacred groves. In the sacred forests mentioned earlier, the forests are maintained and protected by people who are followers of Niamtre; some studies believe that in the areas where locals have converted to another religion, the forests are not properly maintained, or they are encroached upon by neighbours and in some cases even desecrated. But in Sohmynting, although the entire village has converted to different Christian denominations, the forest has been kept intact by the community. The village also has one khloo Langdoh of the Pyrtuh clan and the other conserved forest are khloo Kyndait, khloo Moosyiem and khloo Nangrim.
There are smaller sacred groves in Mukhla and Mihmyntdu from where the River Myntdu originates. In the War Jaintia area, the tradition of keeping sacred forests is different because the “tken” are mostly kept by the clan rather than the community. To name a few there is one tken in the center of Padu village and another in the vicinity of the village, one tken can be found in Pamchadong village, and two in Kudeng. There is another tken in Sohkha Shnong, another in Nongbareh, and still many in Nongtalang and other places.
The total area of forest under the direct control of the state government which includes reserved forest, protected forest, national parks, wildlife sanctuary, non-forest transferred to the department, parks, and garden is 1145.19 sq km. How are people going to benefit from keeping their forests? The state government has started Paying for Ecological Services (PES) to people to encourage them to conserve forests but we also have a model of a community selling carbon credits.
Mawphlang sacred forest has benefitted from REDD+ project and speaking to A. Parveen Rahman of Mongabay November 30, 2020, Tambor Lyngdoh said that between 2013-2019-20, the community had sold 280,000 tonnes of carbon at the rate of USD 5- 9 per ton and they still have 66,000 tonnes of unsold carbon. The public can benefit from carbon credits and because the State still has a large forest cover, it can help the community avail this opportunity. If the government wants to encourage people to conserve forests, it should encourage and support the communities to enter into the carbon credit market like Mawphlang.