On maintaining equilibrium

Monday Musing

[ Karyir Riba ]

“If all the beasts are gone, men would die from a great loneliness of spirit, for whatever happens to the beasts also happens to man. All things are connected. Whatever befalls the Earth befalls the sons of the Earth.” – Native American saying.

Every living organism on this planet has a role to play to keep things going smoothly for every other organism, and to keep ecological balance.

Ecological balance is the equilibrium between living organisms such as human being, plants and animals, as well as their environment. The goal of ecological balance is to maintain as many species as possible while preventing any from going extinct. Whenever an ecosystem is affected by a substantial disturbance event, either natural or manmade, individuals and even entire species may be weakened or killed off. Thus, to maintain ecological balance, all living organisms should respect each other’s existence.

Human beings, having the highest thinking capacity compared to other living organisms, have the key role to maintain ecological balance. It is important that humans take care of the natural world they live in by taking care of the environment and its natural resources, by reducing pollution which harms wildlife habitats, and wildlife itself.

Respecting wildlife, understanding its value, and learning how to coexist is of utmost importance. Humans have already left no stone unturned to destroy their habitats in the name of development, chasing them away from their homes and depleting their population in an overwhelmingly vast number. This in turn is gradually affecting the human quality of life.

We speak of saving the environment, but often forget that wildlife conservation is essential for balancing the environment. We all know that without plants and animals, our lives would not be possible. Oxygen, clean water and soil, our earliest tools, food and clothing, all came from the wilderness and wild animals. But what are we doing as communities to ensure that our wildlife is flourishing?

Well, while many tribes of our state have some kind of customary laws that protect our wildlife in one way or the other, one tribe that stands out in protection and conservation of wildlife is the Idu Mishmi.

The Idu Mishmis of Arunachal Pradesh, though not huge in number, are extremely rich in traditional and customary values. They follow an organized, almost scientifically backed, set of customs which takes into consideration their natural surroundings.

Being the daughter of a forest official, love and respect for our flora and fauna was imbibed in our conditioning very early on. After marriage, when I slowly started learning about my tribe-in-law, among many other beautiful things, what struck me the most is how the Idu Mishmis have been protecting and conserving their wildlife since time immemorial.

Hunting is never encouraged in the Idu Mishmi community; rather it is considered a taboo. It is more so in respect for the higher spiritual entities of the natural world, and because of the belief that one should not take in excess from nature.

Hunting is discouraged to an extent that there are too many rituals, omens and taboos attached to it, and with no place for mistakes while following these rituals, hunting is not common. It is about maintaining the relationship between humans and wildlife.

There are only a handful of hunters in the Idu Mishmi community. A hunter has to follow a list of ritualistic restrictions, known as aangii or ena, for a number of days during his hunt as well as after his return following a hunt. These restrictions depends on, and may vary from animal to animal, but have to be followed strictly nevertheless.

For instance, if a hunter has decided to kill a musk deer, rituals will fall in place the moment he has made his plans and the entire household will have to start following these restrictions until his return.

These restrictions or aangi (ena) include:

  1. No washing of clothes. One cannot wring clothes during the time of aangi; hence, washing of clothes is not allowed in the household of the hunter. Any wet clothes that need drying can be hanged but sans wringing.
  2. No consumption of onion and garlic.
  3. No weaving or knitting. In general, no work that involves thread can be performed by the family of the hunter.
  4. Ami-apu or the food supply and bedding of the hunter, which he will take along with him for the hunt, must not be handled by any menstruating female of the house.
  5. No intimacy between the hunter and his wife.

While some animals can be hunted by strictly following these ritualistic restrictions, there are some forbidden animals that cannot be killed at any cost. These are called as misu, meaning bad omens, and so are strictly off limits for any hunter.

Some of these animals are the hoolock gibbon (ame-pa), amrakutulu, ichitu and petaa from the owl family, tigers and epamuchi, which is a kind of mongoose with a big, bushy, striped tail.

Out of these misu, the tiger and the epamuchi, even if killed by mistake or in self-defence, calls for a huge traditional ritual to be conducted by the hunter, similar in stature to that of the ritual conducted for the funeral of a person. This ritual is known as tama-ma. The tama-ma is also conducted by a hunter if he has killed a gaur or wild mithuns (saa kraya).

Tigers are considered as brothers by the Idu Mishmis and killing a tiger could mean the highest form of taboo in the community.

Once the hunter has returned home with his kill, he will continue to observe the aangi (ena) for the next few days. The number of days the aangi has to be followed differs from area to area, but the maximum number of days is five.

The traditional Idu Mishmi house has at least two rooms with fireplaces. The first room in the entrance is called the alongga and is meant for the head of the family. It is also known as meya-igru or the fireplace of the male. The next room with a fireplace is called the yapino or the yaku-igru, the fireplace of the female. This is where cooking for the family is done.

So, when the hunter returns, he remains in his alongga and doesn’t mingle with his family. He will cook and eat his hunt there, using his own set of utensils which cannot be mixed with the rest of the family’s.

Females and children of the house cannot eat this meat. Any person that eats this meat must follow the aangi strictly; hence, the women and children are not fed, in case there is a slip.

There are, however, animals such as porcupine, squirrels, fish and a few commonly found birds that the women and children can eat. These animals do not require any form of aangi, unlike the musk deer, the Mishmi takin, birds like tragopan (peba) and munal (pidee), stag (macho), wild boar, spotted deer, barking deer and the black bear.

In the forest, when the hunter has killed his game, he has to conduct aphu-yuha. Aphu-yuha is the ritual through which the hunter makes an offering to the khinu or the spiritual guardian of the animal. He offers a part of his kill to the khinu in order to appease it. Generally, the tip of the left ear of the animal is cut and hoisted on any stick or bamboo. This has to be placed towards the south or the west direction, which is believed to be the directions of the spirit world.

In case of Mishmi takin, its left front limb is taken for the ritual, and in case of a stag, a piece of skin from its neck part is taken. Instead of hoisting, the limb and piece of skin are thrown in the west or south direction after performing a rite around a small structure made of sticks or bamboo, which is known as embrona.

In addition to this, for the aphu-yuha, the hunter has to make aphu or small cones out of leaves. The number of aphu depends upon the animal that was killed. For example, three for the black bear, one for spotted deer, and so on. It is important for the hunter to remember the number of aphu he has had to offer during his lifetime as a hunter. When asked by someone, he cannot mix up the number and has to give the exact number of aphu he has had to offer till date.

These cones are placed on the ground on a three-legged stand made of twigs or bamboo. Then some brass from the bullet that was used to kill (can be from a previous kill too) is shaved into these cones. What is important is to ensure that the the right amount of shavings is put in these cones. Too much or too less can cause displeasure with the khinu. Again, these cones have to be placed towards the south or west directions. Identifying the correct direction matters a lot in this ritual.

When the hunter is performing the aphu-yuha, he interacts with the khinu in chants, which is called the toh – the language between the hunter and the khinu. It is, however, deemed okay for hunters that do not know toh to simply perform the offering ritual without the chant.

Despite the existence of these traditional rituals, the Idu Mishmis do not permit excessive hunting of wildlife. They believe that nature has a system and crossing the limit is not advisable. One should take from nature only how much is required. Excessive hunting is considered abominable as it is destined to being misfortune to the hunter.

History has witnessed many such hunters who have had to pay with their lives in distasteful ways.

Amithy Mena, a prominent member of the Idu Mishmi community and the son of a renowned igu (Idu Mishmi shaman), who helped me in putting together this piece, puts it this way in very simple words: just like people around the world are bearing the brunt of deforestation, one day humans will also suffer for excessively exploiting their wildlife.