Indigenous Peoples of Manipur: Heritage and Biodiversity ( Part I)


By RK Ranjan Singh


Through a long history of evolution, the human race has evolved on our Earth in the womb of Mother Nature. It is believed widely that human beings possess the highest intelligence and rationality among all living beings. In the beginning, human behavior was, by the large, governed by inner instincts and the forces of nature in the struggle for survival. In a way, both inner and outer “nature” determined all aspects human life, including its evolution. Inevitably, ancient peoples lived a life that was inextricably linked with natural objects and phenomena. It was human beings` close relationship with nature, both in terms of struggle against the vagaries of nature and peaceful co-existence with nature, that has led, through a very long period of evolution, to a period of human culture and civilization. Abiding by the laws of nature has been the guiding principle in our march to civilization. Thought we inhabit a completely different world today, dominated by science, technology, industry and the market we are still confounded by a number of natural phenomena that remain mysterious. These phenomena show the continuity of human cultural tradition. Some examples of these remnants of this cultural tradition are the worship of stone boulders, caves, trees, lakes, rivers, fire, snakes (reptiles) and cosmic bodies – all of which are held sacred by indigenous peoples throughout the world. Such reverence for natural elements and objects underpins a fundamental philosophical idea that links our past to our future, in terms of natural, cultural, religious and ethnic heritage.  It has bound the human race with nature in a symbolic and mutually sustaining relationship.

Present development paradigm:

Unfortunately, over the recent couple of centuries, dilemmas, controversies and conflicts have confounded the whole scenario with the emergence of an era of uncontrolled industrial production and consumption. Human consumerism has come in direct conflict with our relationship with nature and its laws. In fact, most of these conflicts are results of modern national governmental actions and policies that further material production but are detrimental to the well being of organisms, species populations and life communities in the Earth`s natural ecological system. To put is another way, such conflicts occur whenever the preservation and protection of natural and wild living beings involved some cost in terms of human benefits. Thus, given the rise of advanced technologies, and an economic dependent on and geared for higher and higher levels of consumption, what is left of the natural environment is quickly disappearing. The more we consume for ourselves, the less there is left for other species. It is a state of clear-cut value conflict – a development model that comes in direct conflict with nature. We need to view this conflict from an ethical standpoint – as something that exemplifies a moral order. By imposing constraints on our own life style and cultural practices, we as moral agents, should have the capacity to replace the chaos of a world torn to pieces by human greed. There is no reason why the human race and a great variety of animal and plant life cannot exist side by side on our planet home. But to do so, to regain the “lost paradise”, we need to regain the world moral order that allows us to accept the Earth and other species as One. We must impose once again. Natural bounds for our population expansion, our consumption patterns and our technological marvels. If we respect our own lives and our own rights, we must also genuinely respect the lives and rights of all living organisms in the world.

Indigenous knowledge system in Manipur:

It is a matter of pride for us that till recently this moral order, a mutually respecting and mutually sustaining relationship with nature, existed among our indigenous peoples in the tiny state of Manipur. physiographically, ours is a hilly terrain, with a little price of alluvial valley dotted with wetlands in the centre. Manipur has an altitude ranging from 25 mt. a.m.s.l. to 3000 mt. a.m.s.l.; hence it is blessed by different climatic conditions enriching its bountiful biological diversity. Our small state is famous for its rich heritage of flora and fauna. This in fact reflects the highly resourceful gene pool of the region. Manipur has been recognized today as the meeting ground for Indo-Tibetan and South East Asian animal kingdoms, being a juxtaposed zone of the Indian sub-continent and the Indo-China sub-continent. However, the resourceful natural bounty of this area has been tremendously threatened by the ever-increasing onslaught of market forces blowing across the globe, the complete negligence of indigenous knowledge system and the so-called modernization drives in the area. For example, the indigenous practice of paam (jhum cultivation) on the hill slopes by the highlanders of Manipur was good and scientific system of land use. This was in vogue when the indigenous population was living in tune with the laws of nature. Now-a-days both the growth of population and the impact of urban based western cultural assimilation processes in the area have resulted in great distortion in this perfectly appropriate farming science. Every village community in the region followed an ethnic code of conduct for using community lands, whether jointly or individually. The people were compelled to strictly follow certain customary rules like which area will be under paam cultivation for the current season, what types of trees of what age can be cut and which trees will allow to grow, etc. there were even areas near the villages where the forest was preserved for other common purposes, and felling strictly is regulated.

After the harvest, individual households had to preserve seeds for the next cultivation season. There was no question of a gene bank or a patent rights and no dependence on the so-called modern seed technology. Every elder woman knew better how to preserve the seed through indigenous treatments of different crop seeds for posterity. Being largely forest dwellers, the peoples were totally dependent on the forest resources, and there was plenty for survival and leisure. Together with these occupational practices, many ethical and cultural practices also evolved in the midst of forest ecologies, where all kinds of non-human species lived their natural lives. In the later stages, these practitioners of swidden cultivation formed their own traditional codes of conduct not only for land-use but loss for cropping patterns and the preservation of flora and fauna in the areas surrounding their villages. Everything related to our lives, including material needs, health and healing needs, fertility of the peoples or the earth; and everything else was based on the well being of natural objects in their natural forms. Here, we may assume that the laws of nature totally and commonly bound all both the human and the non-human.

Destructive transitions:

Unfortunately, such kind of mutual linking with the nature has been destroyed by the so-called introduction of modern technology and its dubious benefits. This is a direct fall-out of our exogenous education system, whether secular or not. The impact of modern education and religions eroding the traditional value system of the indigenous peoples in this region has been on the increase particularly in the recent decades. some kind of critical point seems to have been reached beyond which the wind of destructive trends blow unhindered. In fact, so enamoured are we by the new-fangled system that most people in our new educational system are not even aware of the indigenous value system and practices. Consequently most of the modern younger generation disown the gift of nature and biological diversity, the priceless heritage of their ancestors. Today for our educated elite there is no link between modern education and modern means of life styles and nature. It is a mystery how all is not lost.

This education system and its perspective also dictate development imperatives within the national framework. Large development projects and programmes are politically promoted and infused into our lands. We have to live with them the logic goes, as so much of our national resources have been invested and the benefits are to large extent addictive. The march of development has to be hastened and changes must be immediate, determined by five-year planning cycles, otherwise we well be all left behind by others. The thought of what are we leaving behind for our future is never thoroughly understood nor discussed.


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