Disease, ecology, and an indigenous way forward toward sustainability

On fieldwork, searching for stories woven around the fabric of human connections with nature, I went to the remote jungle villages of West Khasi Hills in the winter-spring of 2020. There, during sleep, special people with the gift dream of their transformation into either a tiger or a snake. Interviews with such gifted women, young girls, and men lead me into the story realm of the dream-narrative. Sangkhini, the snake people, have intimate connections with water. During the tropical jungle rains of the Indian monsoon, the tasks of the snakes begin. In human society, they help humans to escape death by drowning during flash floods, where in the dream-state their snake form manifests as a bridge that helps people cross rivers.

On fieldwork in West Khasi Hills interviewing sangkhini people.
Image credit: private collection

Water among the people of this Nongtrai region is not just a life-sustaining, natural object. The Nongtrai clans know water as an entity that is alive and beloved. But water is um in its mundane form, and ñiaring in its supernatural manifestation is also capricious. She wants to flow out freely, and as such creates pathways that exist only during the monsoon season. Hence, government constructed roads, bridges, and other manmade structures are washed away, thus creating a pathway for the water deity. The Sangkhini, the people who transform into snakes during their dream-like state, foresee the destruction of roads, landslides, other man-made constructions by ñiaring and hence warn village members not to go to such places to avoid injury or even death. But it is the sangkhini who comprise the workforce of ñiaring. She chooses the paths, and sangkhini clear it for her.

Once, in summer 2019, my resource person and guide Marcus Lapang told me about a significant practice, peculiar to the ritual nature of water, ñiaring.  Rivers, waterfalls, and other water bodies are plentiful in the Khasi and Jaintia Hills of Northeast India. When water flows in rivers, streams, rivulets, etc., there is a point when the flow stops. Ñiaring takes a rest. The rivers become still. Marcus’ acquaintance was able to collect this water, this ñiaring, in a small water vessel. This water has powerful qualities of enchantment and can be used to kill, for magic, and for healing. But it is not easy to get this water of a river that is resting.

Farmer in Nongmyndo village. Image credit: private collection

Academic research, some might reason, has no connection with such practices. But having worked and lived in these regions in intervals over the course of 11 years, I would argue otherwise. The human–nature connection is one that is often overlooked. “Nature” is relegated to edibles, parks, animal sanctuaries, ecological endangerments, and species extinctions. A lot of “wellness” centers are increasingly turning to natural remedies to offset the stress of “modern” living. The stress on growth, whether of the GDP or others, creates distance. What if resources are finite?

But we, as biological organisms, part of a natural ecosystem, are not meant to be distanced from our natural environments. Here is where I look at the breakdown of the human–disease barrier. Microorganisms natural to some species now affect human beings. It is not the first time and I don’t claim it to be so. But the fallout of the pandemic – forced isolation, not only between humans and nature, but also between humans – has brought about a halt to modern life as we knew it.

What if this requires an “ontological reversal”, a way of looking at nature not as a resource but as a participant in human/animal lives? Many ideas stemming from indigenous worldviews propose a sustainability that advocates an equal partnership with nature. Here, I would illustrate this statement with an example. As an indigenous woman from Northeast India, and as a researcher in the Department of Estonian and Comparative Folklore, I bring the stories of my community in the Khasi Hills as case studies and examples of ecological sustainability. Sacred groves (we have examples of this in Estonia as well) are fundamental to how space is viewed. In the Mawphlang sacred grove, in East Khasi Hills, one may enter for ritual purposes. But visitors are also allowed, with the strict conditions that nothing, not even a leaf, may be taken from the grove. Nothing must be brought in, neither must anything be taken out. Botanists have identified over 514 species representing 340 genera and 131 families present in this particular sacred forest. But the forest has many medicinal resources, and only after the ritual request to borrow the necessary plants, may these plants be taken. The tiger deity protects this forest. Another example are the living root bridges of Meghalaya that are representative of indigenous technology. See a basic example.

Megaliths outside the sacred forest in Mawphlang. Image credit: private collection

This idea of an “ontological reversal” is not new, but it can provide an alternative possibility towards looking to a future where there is no compulsory disconnect between humans and humans or humans and nature. To come back to the snake people, the sangkhini mediate and provide an example of how respectful, participatory interactions can show us the way forward.

This work was supported by the Estonian Research Council grant (PUT number PRG670) “Vernacular Interpretations of the Incomprehensible: Folkloristic Perspectives Towards Uncertainty” (ongoing) and the Post Doctoral Grant PUTJD746 (completed).

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