Tuesday, 23 June 2020

The Nature Whisperers of the Sherdukpen Tribe





It was sometime in November 2018 that I stumbled upon an article on the net which mentioned ‘Ethno forestry’ and a unique library run by the Sherdukpen tribe in a remote village in Arunachal Pradesh. These keywords were enough for me to decide that it will be my coming Spring getaway to the Himalayas, a ritual I have been following for a few years now.

You may also like my blog post on the Shamans of Dzongu.


The members of the Garung Thuk- Photo by Lobsang Tashi Thungon
From the article I had the name of the village, of the person who is doing research on Ethno-Forestry and the name of the library. With these keywords, I combed the net for any contact number I could get. After a few days of search, I found a Facebook group in which a number was mentioned related to the activities of the library. I called the number and thankfully it happened to be Lobsang Tashi’s who is the very person whose research I was curious about. He was curious about where I had got the number from since their contact details are not posted anywhere explicitly. He directed me to his cousin Dorjee Thungon, whom I spoke to and he told me that they are in the process of setting up home stays and that I could stay in his sister’s house. Since I had no idea of how the accommodation would be, I requested Dorjee to send me pictures of his sister’s house. He innocently asked me what kind of pictures I wanted since they had not yet got into the ‘business’ of running home stays. I sent him some sample pictures of home stays from the net requesting him to send me pictures of his sister’s house from those angles. In a few days he sent me the pictures and I was bowled over by the surrounding beauty of the house.
The river gurgling past Dorjee's house. I sketched the scenery.

I read a beautiful book about Nature Spirits sitting by the riverside. Can't be a better location than this to read on the subject.
In April 2019 I arrived in Arunachal Pradesh. I first visited Thembang, and then Dirang and then Shergaon was my last stop on my way back. My lovely host Karmu Chotten from Thembang dropped me right at the home stay in Sheragon. Lobsang Tashi welcomed me and took me to Dorjee’s sister, Chang Chom Ano’s home. I was introduced to his father, Shri. Lotu Thungon, a remarkable person about whom I would be writing more.

I was so eager to know more about the culture of the Sherdukpens and how they have been preserving their ancient knowledge and culture.
Everywhere I walked in Shergaon I was met with serene sights like this and few people. 

The ubiquitous cherry blossoms during Spring time. 

The Sherdukpens are a small tribe numbering around 4000 people in the three villages of Shergaon, Rupa and Jigaon in the West Kameng district of Arunachal Pradesh. It is believed that they are descendants of Asu Gyaptong, who belonged to the bloodline of the 7th century the ruler of Tibet, Gyalpo Song-tsan Gampo, who married an Assamese princess. The Sherdukpens call themselves as ‘Sheinji’ and the label of Sherdukpens is probably given to them by those from outside their community. The village was also originally called ‘Shenthuk’ and later changed to Shergaon. They speak a dialect which belongs to the Tibeto-Burmese family of languages. They do not have a script but the Budhhist monks use the Tibetan script for religious purposes. The Sherdukpens were earlier hunters gatherers who also practiced agriculture and traded with neighboring Assam.
Located just below Zengbu Gompa. It got its name from there. Zengbu kho Bang. This used to be the water source for monastery before the pipeline water connection came in. The serpents here is of black colour as per eye witness. Caption text and photo by Dorjee K Thungon.

The Sherdukpens were originally followers of the Bon religion which originated in Tibet before the advent of Buddhism. Tombu Sherap of Tibet was the founder of Bon. Bon religion believes in the presence of a super sensible world and that every object, animate and ‘apparently inanimate’ has a spirit. In other words they are nature worshipers.
Monks offerings prayers to a Lei (sacred grove). Caption text and photo by Dorjee K Thungon.

Female Lei in the middle of the field. Such is the respect ffor the Lei that it is left untouched and offered prayers even though it occupies a substantial space. Photo by Dorjee K Thungon. 
Although Buddhism was introduced to the Sherdukpens in the mid- 18th century and although all Sherdukpens now identify themselves as Buddhists, they still retain their Bon practices. So, they have Buddhist monasteries and Buddhist lamas who perform rituals as well as Shamans or Chizi or Yumin as they are referred to in Sherdukpen language.
When I visited Shergaon, I realized how Nature is an integral part of their lives and how the survival of Bon religion alongside mainstream religion has helped preserve the rich flora and fauna and forests of Arunachal Pradesh.
The Lei beyond the fields.
Firstly, in Shergaon there is the concept of community owned forests, a feature very unique to the North East India. I had visited the only other community owned forest outside the North East in Sarmoli, Kumaon. Within these forests are sacred groves called ‘Lei’ or ‘Lei thung’. The Lei is usually associated with a stone, stream or stone. Lobsang showed me a Lei while exploring the village and surrounding areas. From a distance I paid my respects to the majestic oak trees in the Lei. 

You may like to read my blog on community owned forests in Sarmoli, Kumaon.
The sacred grove-Lei.

The scared spirit of the forest in the form of a serpent resides in the Lei. Dorjee mentions that the one in "Zengbu Kho Bang" upper Gompa in Shergaon is of black colour and smaller in size as per the eye witness. It is forbidden to cut trees, damage flora and fauna in these scared groves or show any disrespect and doing so would cause great calamity on the violator. The person who owns the land adjoining the Lei takes responsibility to protect and preserve it. He may use the fallen oak leaves litter from that area for agriculture and it’s proved to be the best for mulching. 


The Lei in a stone. 
This Lei has an old tree and a stone and is located near the entrance of the old village. Photo by Dorjee K Thungon. 
Respecting the Lei ensures a healthy crop and all round prosperity and this belief is intrinsic in preserving the forests of the area. Dorjee recalls a popular legend associated with the Lei. “Long time back there was devastating flood in the village. The rain would not stop for months. There was great fear of Shergaon being wiped out of human existence. The Leii rose to the occasion. Leii God in the village offered Mithun to the river coming from South and a Pig to the one coming from the east, hence the flood was stopped. Even today when there is prolonged rain, the monks would offer models("tormu") of Mithun and Pig to the direction as done in the legend. This prayer is called "kho-batap".”

Sherdukpen children playing instruments during Kro-Cheykor festival. Photo by Lobsang Tashi Thungon.
A form of tribute is paid to Mother Nature by means of two festivals- The Kro-Cheykor in the Buddhist tradition and the Khiksaba in the Bon tradition. Kro-Cheykor is a celebration in which the entire clan of the Sherdukpens regardless of their age participate with full gusto. The rituals and dance which have been in practice for hundreds of years are kept intact through this festival. The younger generation even receive training on the dance moves and songs for a dedicated period of time from the elders in the months preceding the festival. Traditional food including wild berries, roots and fruit foraged from the forest are served with copious quantities of the locally brewed beer. This is the time when each member of the clan, dresses up in traditional attire, complete with the Sherdukpen hand woven bag and necks bejeweled with big coral and turquoise beads.
Sherdukpen women in their traditional finery heading for the Kro Cheykor festival. Photo by Lobsang Tashi Thungon.


A unique culture in Shergaon during  the Kro-Cheykor puja is to bless the mothers. All newly married ladies among with the other mothers are ask to sit. Honouring them with local wines and juices or teas, chanting Buddhist mantras by the monks, the women folks are being blessed by the entire community on the said day. Some are blessed for their babies while some are blessed for their daughter in laws. Many mother ask people to pray for her children’s to be recruited in some good job while few pray for their families well-being. Unique part about this ritual is that only women are being honored by Monks and village elders, not Men. A deep respect for women folks. Text and photo by Lobsang Tashi Thungon.

Monks playing musical instruments during Kro Cheykor. Photo by Lobsang Tashi Thungon.

Performers during the Kro Cheykor. Photo by Lobsang Tashi Thungon. 
The Kro-Cheykor festival was started by the great monk Doyan Tanzing and commences on the 25th day of the 3rd lunar month and the main procession is taken out on the full moon day of the holy month Saka Dawa, the 4th month. During the 20 day festival, all Nature spirits including the Lei spirits are invoked and their blessings are sought. They are also given a beautiful farewell through a song called Lurjaang in which the first few lines are dedicated to the great monk. After the farewell, the Nature spirits retire to their respective resting places thus bringing an end to the fun and festivities.
Sherdukpen men dressed up for the Bon festival- Khiksaba in Rupa. Photo taken from https://www.facebook.com/Shertukpen/


Offerings made to the Nature Spirits during Khiksaba. Photo taken from https://www.facebook.com/Shertukpen/
Khiksaba is a Bon/Animist celebration of Nature Spirits and also coincides with the harvest celebration. Earlier entire families of Sherdukpens would migrate to Assam for the three freezing months of December, January and February when Shergaon used to be covered in snow. So Khiksaba used to be (and still is) celebrated before the winter migration, which happens on a full moon day as per the lunar calendar usually in the month of October/ November. The Shamans play a major role in offering prayers and performing rituals to appease Nature spirits. All the village people come dressed in colourful traditional attire and there is dance, music and, fun and feasting.



Shri. Tawla Thungon, Bon priest who is considered to be a last priest left in Shergaon village performing a ritual on his grandson. Photo by Lobsang Tashi Thungon.
Coming to the Bon priests of the Sherdukpens who are Shamans, there are two kinds primarily. One is the Chizi, who performs household rituals like house warming, general rituals, prescribing herbal remedies for ailments, etc, and the other kind is called Yumin, who is of a superior kind by virtue of his supernatural powers and the ability to communicate with spirits and the after life. There are no standard scriptures in the Bon religion and all rituals and chants are received by the Chizi or Yumin in a dream or trance state. Both receive their abilities and powers from the Nature Spirit who is called ‘Phu’ in Sherdukpen language. Lobsang says that every Bon priest is assisted by invisible super natural powers locally known as “Zaablo”, Bzampu, Maakpe etc.
At the beginning of every ritual, the Shaman invokes the Nature spirits to assist and guide him. Usually the mountain peaks are guardians and family deities of the tribe people so the mountain spirits are invoked. He requests them for blessings for a good crop, prosperity, etc, and they in turn also offer specific advice for problems.. At the end of a ritual, there is a concluding ceremony to bid farewell of the Nature spirits.
The Shamans, in addition to working with the Nature Spirits or Phu also prepare herbal medicines and treat ailments of all kinds, physical as well as mental. They can feel the pulse of a person and tell the ailment troubling them. There have been umpteen instances of the Shaman sucking out stones and thorns from people who are afflicted by strange problems and spitting them into the water during rituals which has brought them relief.  They also help people locate lost belongings through predictions which they call “Thaanbu”.

The Shaman is bound by a strict code of conduct to maintain his powers. They cannot consume beef, mutton, chicken, pork, eggs, onions, garlic, etc. There is only a specific variety of fish they are allowed to consume. The Shaman either follows his family legacy of Shamanism or receives inspiration in a dream state to become one.
I, unfortunately, could not meet the Shaman in Shergaon as he was very old and with failing health. Luckily I had seen a Shaman ritual in Thembang a few days prior.


Lobsang Tashi on the left and Shri. Lotu Thungon, Dorjee's father on the right discussing about plants.
Coming back to Ethno-forestry, which Lobsang is doing research in, I had a very enriching discussion (he mostly spoke as I had nothing to contribute) with him and Dorjee’s father, Shri. Lotu Thungon, who is a brilliant repository of traditional knowledge of the forest. But let me explain what Ethno-forestry, used interchangeably with Ethno-Botany is. Ethno-forestry is the collective knowledge of flora and some fauna) of the forest of the community through observation and rooted in culture. It is knowledge passed over from one generation to other over hundreds of years of the community. It relies on knowledge embedded in stories, myths, recipes, songs, art forms and rituals of the community. This knowledge conveys the wisdom that human life is interwoven with that of Nature and teaches man how to respect Nature.


Lobsang, as part of his research, in an effort to preserve the ancient knowledge and wisdom of his ancestors, has been talking to and learning from the elders of the village about the secrets of the forest. Dorjee’s father has been a major contributor in this effort. Even as we sat and sipped tea taking in the morning sunlight to keep us warm, Grandpa randomly picked and plucked leaves around us and talked about their medicinal properties. Everything in nature, be it a leaf, flower, twig or bark, has properties beneficial to mankind, only that some are undiscovered yet.

I got these Botanical names from Lobsang and I’m listing a few of these herbs/leaves about which Grandpa spoke about.
While ambling around the village with Lobsang, we spotted a few women collecting the very rare mushroom Marcella (Sherdukpen name is ‘Mubung Shruk’) which sells for an exorbitant price of around Rs 2000 per kg on account of its rarity. But because it’s so scarce people don’t sell but consume it themselves.

The thorny leafed plant is called 'bichchu' (Stinging nettle) and contact with the skin causes severe itching. It's very common on the mountains. And the plant that I am holding is an anti-dote for the itching growing just beside it called dock leaves.

Artemesia plant which is anti-fungal and anti-bacterial.

On a trek to a mud fort another day, we chanced upon the dork eared fungus. We gathered it, took it home and just nibbled on it after washing it. Apparently it tastes delicious when cooked with fish. 
From the Artemesia-used as an antibacterial medicine, for ear bleeding, itching, stomach ache, skin disease, swelling, etc, to the Narang which is a type of grassy leaf is made into a paste with oil and relieve pain (for men and animals), to Plantoga Erosa which heals cuts and bruises and when eaten with betel leaves aids in digestion, to a variety of rhododendron which purifies the air and is used for fumigation, to Auxilarus corniculata which curdles milk, to Litsea cubeba  used to treat sleeping disorders, each leaf and herb was a hidden and unsung wonder.
Timur seeds. I had seen this being used in Sarmoli too and bought a packet with me back home. 
Lobsang spoke about a spice called ‘timur’ ( Zanthoxylum armatum) which I had eaten in Sarmoli too. It is sharp and hot much like black pepper. Timur was used in the barter system with Bhutan in the earlier days in exchange for plates, clothes, etc. It is expensive at Rs 800 per kg.  It grows alongside the rive bank and is used for cooking fish too. It’s seed is oily so it’s difficult to sprout. So when birds eat the fruit and poop it germinates. Timur oil also alleviates tooth pain, stomach ailments, cold and fever. There is a belief that if there is a dispute over the tree, it won’t survive long.
Shri. Lotu Thungon explaining about the plants.
Another tree, Pine, which is abundant in the area also has many uses. When the bark is removed, there is a milky layer underneath which is used for deworming. It is only to be eaten fresh and it’s especially juicy during summer. The Pinus valichena, a variety of pine has oil content. When the tree is wounded it secretes a sap which is white like sugar. This is used for cough and cold. Before electricity arrived in the villages and candles were hard to come by, pine sticks rich in their oil content were used as a source of light. 
The pine bark acts as a candle due to its oil content.



If you look closely you will notice creases which are darker due to its oil content.
My host in Thembang Jambey Gyaltso Chetan had mentioned this was the practice in Thembang too. Another semi-liquid sap which is brownish is colour was used as glue. And the soot from the pine candles used to be collected and used as ink. Old pine trees have more oil. Other tree parts used for fumigation were pine, artemesia, juniper and thuja.
Lobsang mentioned a few more uses of the rhododendron tree. It’s wood was used for agricultural implements. When a fish bone gets stuck in the throat, the rhodo flower helps getting it unstuck. When a thorn gets stuck on your feet or fingers, the crushed flowers helps to take it out easily.
I saw plenty of cannabis growing everywhere in Arunachal Pradesh. It is used to treat dysentery in cattle. Either the leaves are boiled in water and then the water is given to the ailing cattle or the leaves are mixed with flour dough and then fed to the them.
A sketch of Dorjee's father.
I sat in awe as Dorjee’s father spoke joyfully and spontaneously about the characteristics of all the plants around us and also some not around us. Suddenly, what I had till then perceived as just another plant acquired a personality of its own and commanded reverence.
I would say Lobsang is doing a commendable job by preserving the ancient knowledge of the forest and the flora around them by documenting these from the elders. This is precious treasure which otherwise would be lost to future generations.
The close bond that the Sherdukpens share with Nature is translated into the various activities they are involved in to conserve the rich forests. I have mentioned them in detail on my write up on Garung Thuk which started as a library but has become a hub for preserving and the continuation of the Sherdukpens’ rich cultural and environmental heritage.


That's me enjoying a flower shower on my last day in Shergaon. 
They may be a small community but they are giants in terms of the pride and love they have for their culture, village and Nature. And I am glad to have experienced that for myself. On my last day there, I sat beneath the cherry tree with full blossom to wrap myself up with the beauty of the place and a farewell flower shower.


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