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10.3. Environmental Ethics in the Culture of Meeteis from North East India

- L. Jeetendro Singh,
N. Biraj Singh and Abhik Gupta
Dept. of Ecology, Assam University,
Silchar - 788011, Assam, India


It is now increasingly being recognized that nature and its rich biodiversity still support, and in turn, are maintained by a great diversity of ecosystem people and their cultures the world over (Gadgil, 1995; McNeely, 1995). The hunter-gatherers and shifting cultivators throughout the world typically possessed a 'weltanschauung' in which man is considered an integral part of the ecosystem. Such a worldview does not profess the concept of man-nature dualism, as emphasized in the western philosophical thoughts of Descartes, Bacon, Liebnitz, and many others. The 'organic cosmology' of the indigenous societies shaped an ecological ethic that is undermined by western science and market-oriented culture (Merchant, 1980; Nelson, 1993). Nevertheless, those indigenous cultures that are still surviving retain their traditional ecological ethic, which now seems to have profound conservation implications (Gadgil and Guha, 1992).

The Northeastern region of India is home to a myriad tribal and other ethnic groups. Large sections of these communities can be still said to attain their livelihood by exploiting their biomass resources as 'ecosystem people' (Dasmann, 1988; Gadgil, 1995). Such communities characteristically meet a substantial proportion of their resource requirements from a relatively small catchment area in which they have been living for a long time. Their cultures are still in perfect harmony with and spiritually tuned to nature (Saraswati, 1991). The religious practices, folklores and cosmologies of most of these indigenous societies maintain a conservationist ethos in order to sustain their natural resource base.

The Meeteis of Manipur State, in the extreme Northeastern corner of India, have been living in the valley areas of this state since long. Worship of nature and its various components form an important part of the Meetei religious practices. However, the original animistic religion of the Meeteis was largely replaced by Hindu Vaishnavism in the 18th century. The Meetei culture, including its ethical positions vis-a-vis nature and biodiversity, was also greatly influenced by the introduction of this religious doctrine. Vaishnavism is a cult of Hinduism that espouses non-violence and compassion towards other creatures. A unique intermingling between the naturalistic animism of the Meeteis and the broadly ecocentric Vaishnavite worldview, therefore, gives Meetei culture a uniqueness that is not encountered in any other part of India. This paper, therefore, attempts to document and analyze the community-based conservation mechanisms in Meetei culture, and assess their underlying ethics. In an earlier study on the conservational ethics of some indigenous societies of North East India, it has been shown that while most of these are 'shallow' and anthropocentric, some run much 'deeper' and reflect varying degrees of ecocentrism by recognizing intrinsic values in non-human components of nature (Gupta and Guha, 2002).


Our study investigated Meetei communities in the states of Manipur and Assam, in North East India. The Imphal and Jiribam districts of Manipur, and several Meetei inhabited areas in the Cachar district of Assam were surveyed to locate sacred groves and to know about the nature-related beliefs and practices of the people through participatory appraisal. Interviews and discussions with villagers, especially the old people, members of village clubs, women's groups, 'Maiba-Maibis' (priests and priestesses), cultivators, fishermen, and custodians of sacred groves were held. Furthermore, mailed questionnaires, interviews with scholars, as well as information from old texts, etc., were also used to elicit pertinent information.

Cultural Mechanisms of Conservation and Their Ethical Basis
Sacred Groves

Sacred groves, or Umang Lais, as they are called in the Meetei language, are an integral part of the Manipuri tradition of nature worship. About 364 sacred groves are reported to be present in Manipur. Table 1 lists some such sacred groves in Manipur and in the Cachar district of Assam. Several species of plants are protected in these groves, which also offer protection to birds and animals therein. Most sacred groves have presiding deities who are often housed in temples or shrines. These groves might have been established with the purely anthropocentric concept of preserving some greenery in the area, or for maintaining some trees of religious importance that are associated with a given deity. However, the ethical position has gradually transcended to an ecocentric one with total protection being accorded to all living beings including wild animals living in the groves. Further, Table 1 also reveals that trees other than those having magico-religious significance were also planted inside the grove. These include teak, several fruit trees like lemon, Ziziphus jujuba and Eugenia, plants of medicinal value such as ginger, Eucalyptus, Terminalia arjuna, clove (Syzgium aromaticum), shade trees also having ornamental flowers like Gold Mohur, and multipurpose plants like bamboo. While these might have been initially planted and protected because of utilitarian reasons, the ethical position gradually changed with these now being considered sacred along with the deity of the grove. Thus all the plants in a sacred grove are assigned very high intrinsic value to the extent of being considered divine, beyond mere instrumental or extrinsic value of being useful as a fruit tree, shade tree, or of medicinal utility, and the like. Of the nine groves listed, only one was part of a Forest Reserve, while the plants in the rest were most likely to have been planted by the people who had founded the grove or at a later date. Some groves might have started around a tree or a group of trees that had survived in a given area, and as the grove and its deity became well-known, other plants had been introduced.

Tree Worship

Trees are worshipped or given very high magico-religious value by the Meeteis even outside the sacred groves (Table 2). The list reveals a very interesting cultural intermingling, as some of the plants like mango, wood apple, Bermuda or 'durva' grass, and sacred basil (Ocimum sanctum) are either worshipped or used in religious rituals by the Hindus all over India. It is, therefore, obvious that these plants were included by the Meeteis under the Hindu Vaishnavite influence. In contrast, tree species like Toona ciliata is a typical Meetei inclusion, and is not considered a sacred or protected tree in other parts of India. The same can be said about Chinese Sumac (Rhus chinensis), crowfoot grass (Dactyloctenum aegypticum), camphor tree (Blumea balsamifera), Xylosoma longifolia, Oroxylum indicum, Plectranthus ternifolius and Ficus hispida. Toona ciliata is a valuable timber tree, crowfoot grass and Cynodon dactylon are good fodders, although the latter also has medicinal value. All the other plants are prized for their medicinal properties. The extract of Xylosoma was found to be effective against nematode parasites (Joymati and Dhanchang, 2001). Thus a given species of tree or other plant was probably protected initially purely out of anthropocentric motives, and declaring them as sacred was merely a mechanism to ensure their conservation. Later, however, people started assigning intrinsic values to them from a religious viewpoint. Today, the primary reasons for protecting or worshipping these plants are their 'divine' associations, while their utilitarian values have been relegated to a secondary place. Thus, the religious beliefs resulted in a shift from mere anthropocentric to more ecocentric ethical positions and values, thereby making the conservational ethos run deeper.

Table 1: Some sacred groves of Manipur, North East India
Name and location of the sacred grove Identified protected plants
Yumjao Lairembi, Khurai, Imphal East, ManipurBamboos, Rhus chinensis
Lainingthou Puthiba, Khurai, Imphal East, ManipurTectona grandis (teak), Ziziphus jujuba, Eucalyptus sp., Caesalpinia pulcherrima (Gold Mohur), Toona ciliata (Australian Red Cidar), Eupatorium birmanicum, and others
Yangoiningthou Lainingthou, Khurai, Imphal East, ManipurEucalyptus sp., C. pulcherrima (Gold Mohur)
Lai Awangba, Khurai, Imphal East, ManipurZingiber officinalis, Citrus sp., Eucalyptus sp., Rhus chinensis, Mangifera indica, Ziziphus jujuba, C. pulcherrima (Gold Mohur), and others
Konthoujam LairembiFicus sp. (10 plants in a series)
Koubru, Phayeng, ManipurRhus chinensis, Citrus sp.
Mayokpha, Elangbam Leikai, Imphal, ManipurTerminalia arjuna
Phayeng, Phayeng Forest Reserve, urRhus chinensis, Pine, Bamboo, and others
Khoriphaba, Sonai, Cachar, AssamFicus sp., Syzgium aromaticum, Eugenia jambolina, and others

Table 2: Plants worshipped or attributed magico-religious importance by the Meeteis.
Plants worshippedPlants given magical-religious importance
Ficus religiosa (Peepul)Toona ciliata (Australian Red Cidar)
Ficus bengalensis (Banyan)Dactyloctenum aegypticum (Crowfoot grass)
Hydnocarpus kurjiiBlumea balsamifera (Camphor)
Mangifera indica (Mango)Mangifera indica
Ocimum sanctum (Sacred Basil)Ocimum sanctum
Terminalia arjunaCynodon dactylon (Bermuda or Durva grass)
Aegle marmalos (Wood apple)
Xylosoma longifolia
Oroxylum indicum
Plectranthus ternifolius

Taboos on Harvesting and Consumption of Plants

The naturalistic worldview of the Meetei has prompted him to declare a plant or plants taboo on a given day of a week (Table 3). It may be seen that bamboo is taboo three days a week, as well as on every new moon day. The reasons are obviously anthropocentric, as bamboo has multiple uses in the village economy, being used as a "poor man's timber', as food (shoots), for storing grains and even money, and for making bows, arrows and a vast array of household items, and hence needs to be exploited prudently. Similarly, Oenanthe javanica (water dropwort or water parsley) is not consumed in the monsoon month of August, perhaps to facilitate its colonization and propagation in the extensive wetlands of the state. Other edibles like Cucurbita moschata (pumpkin or sweet gourd), Portulaca sp., Nelumbo nucifera, Polygonum chinensis and Chenopodium album, as well as medicinal plants like Gynura cusimba and Alpinia galanga are not consumed or used by one Meetei clan or the other, presumably to ensure prudent and sustainable harvesting. Again, Adhatoda vasica, a medicinal plant used widely throughout India for treating cough, is also a taboo in Manipur on Sundays, the reason being that Sunday is believed to be the birthday of this plant. Thus this plant is assigned an intrinsic value only in Manipur, but not in the other parts of India. Similarly, bottle gourd, ash gourd and banana (Lagenaria siceraria, Benincasa hispida, and Musa balbisiana, respectively), are not consumed during the period of worship of Goddess Durga (an Indian Goddess who slays evil forces), as these plants or their fruits are believed to represent the different body parts of the Goddess. However, to our knowledge, such a taboo is only observed by the Meeteis, and not in the other parts of India or even in Bengal, wherefrom the worship of this Goddess was introduced in Manipur. Thus, recognition of intrinsic values in all the aforementioned plants takes the Meetei conservational ethics onto a higher plane from a mere anthropocentric, need-based one.

Table 3: Plants taboo on specific days or periods, or to a particular clan of Meeteis.
Name of the plantNature of tabooAssociated beliefs, if any
Bamboo- different speciesNot harvested on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, and on new moon days-
BananaNot harvested on Saturday-
hatoda vasicaNot harvested on SundaySunday is the birthday of this plant
Almost all treesNot felled on FridayGods take rest on the trees on this day
Oenanthe javanica (water dropwort or water parsley)Not consumed during August-SeptemberViolator will have worms in stomach
Luffa cylindricaNot consumed by the Ningthouja clan-
Cucurbita moschata (pumpkin or sweet gourd)Not consumed by the Luwang clan-
Bombax ceiba (silk cotton), Portulaca sp., Gynura cusimbaNot used or consumed by the Khuman clan-
Alpinia galanga, Nelumbo nucifera (upto March)Not consumed by the Khabanganba clan-
Polygonum chinensis, Chenopodium albumNot consumed by the Angom clan-

Taboos on Hunting and Consumption of Animals

Fishes, waterfowl and other aquatic animals like snails, insects and crustaceans are very common items in the diet of the Meetei. However, many of these animals are not eaten during certain periods, perhaps with the pure anthropocentric motive of sustainable harvesting and conservation (Table 4). However, some of these are total taboo for certain clans, while certain others are taboo for all clans during specific seasons or occasions or even throughout the year. Thus the conservational ethics transcends to ecocentrism in certain cases. The Meeteis also observe prudent harvesting practices for some aquatic animals. For instance, the snail, Brotia costula, is collected before thunder and lightning, and the collection always proceeds from downstream towards upstream, as such practices are believed to prevent collection of gravid females.

Environmental Ethics in Folklores and Rituals

Several Meetei folklores reflect an ecocentric worldview. For instance, a folklore called 'Hijan Hiraao' vividly portrays the lamentations of the parents of a young tree that had grown tall and strong, and consequently had been marked to be felled for making a boat. Finally, however, the tree parents bless their young son and ask him to make a sacrifice, so that he can be used for making a good boat that will carry the people safely across the waters. Perhaps because of this folklore, it is a custom for the Maiba-Maibi (priest and priestess) of Manipur to always ask forgiveness of a tree whenever it is cut for some purpose. In the same vein, another folklore describes the kindness of an ox that took care of an orphaned brother and sister named Khamba and Khamnu. In yet another folktale, the soul of a girl named Sandrembi was successively converted into a dove, a mango tree and a citrus tree, after she was killed by another girl named Chaishra and her mother. In another version of the same folktale, it was Sandrembi's mother who was killed by Chaishra's mother, and the former was transformed into a turtle. However, the wicked lady came to know about this, and killed and ate her. It is said that since that time, the Meeteis have a feeling of compassion towards this animal, and it is a taboo for the entire Ningthouja clan. The mango and citrus trees are also held in esteem by the Meeteis, and are often offered protection. The creation of the Manipur valley is also believed to be the work of a gigantic fish, Hutunga, with a pointed snout. This fish is said to have drilled a hole in the Chingnunghut mountain to drain the seawater under which the landmass of the present day Manipur Valley was submerged in ancient times. The snail, Brotia costula, is a very favoured food item in Manipur. There is an ancient folk song, which describes how people fleeing to the hills during the war sustained themselves on this snail, sackfuls of which were carried by them to meet their nutritional requirements. As shown in Table 4, this snail is not consumed by the Meeteis belonging to the Ningthouja and the Khuman clans. Furthermore, all Meeteis observe some precautions while harvesting this snail from the water bodies. Thus this lower animal has been assigned some intrinsic values by the Meeteis. Fishes belonging to the genus Channa also enjoy an exalted position in Meetei culture. During 'Thou-touba', a traditional ceremony for appeasing the Gods, these fishes are released into water bodies. If the fishes swim away actively, it is considered a good omen and vice versa. A pair of this fish is also let off in nearby ponds during marriage for bringing prosperity to the young couple.


Conservation of the elements of biodiversity through various sacred uses of nature such as maintenance of sacred groves, tree and/or animal worship, and observing taboos on harvesting and hunting of plants and animals is characteristic of many indigenous communities in India (Gadgil and Vartak, 1981; Ramakrishnan et al., 1998; Syngai, 1999; Guha et al., 1999; Deb and Malhotra, 2001). A similar ethics underlies the Shinto faith of Japan, which located its shrines in 'Himorogi' (places where trees grow thick), as forests were believed to be the places where a divine atmosphere prevailed. A similar practice is followed by the Ami tribe of Taiwan, which worships various species of trees or sacred plots of land, in the belief that Gods reside in these entities or places (Kato, 1993). The present paper shows that the Meeteis also possess certain religious beliefs and practices that result in the conservation of nature and its biodiversity. These beliefs and customs have also had great influence on their attitude towards nature, and have resulted in the society's recognition of the "bequest values" of the elements of biodiversity. However, from an ethical viewpoint, we are not merely interested in the use of religion in conservation, but in the motive behind conservation, and in the values recognized in nature and its various living and even non-living components. An anthropocentric basis for conservation can at best make man a good steward of nature and ensure its sustainable utilization. In contrast, only an ecocentric ethic can raise man to the state of a partner of nature or a participant in nature's own goal of attaining perfect harmony not only among all living things, but also between living and non-living.

As shown earlier, these values could range from 'shallow' extrinsic or instrumental reflecting an anthropocentric ethics, or could be 'deep' and intrinsic, signifying an ecocentric philosophy. The practice of worshipping plants and animals by associating them with Gods and attributing magico-religious values to plants and animals suggest that the Meetei environmental ethics does not recognize the philosophy of man-nature dualism, and does not always put man on an exalted alter, or give him a mandate to lord over the other creatures. The expression of innate love and respect for everything alive, an attitudinal state referred to as 'biophilia' (Fromm, 1973; Wilson, 1988), is very much evident in the Meetei culture. This biophilia induces a Meetei to sacrifice animals to God not by killing them, but by setting them free in their own habitat. Similar attitude of biophilia is also reflected in the different folktales where the joys and sorrows of animals and even plants ascend to a human scale. The Meetei weltanschauung even goes beyond biophilia to 'ecophilia' or 'cosmophilia' through the practice of 'Chingoiron' - the worship of hills and mountains, and 'Nungoiron' - the worship of stones. Although the original animistic religion of the Meeteis was later replaced by Hindu Vaishnavism, they did not forsake their naturalistic ethics. This was possible because even the Vaishnavite movement in Bengal was basically reformist in nature and had rejected the orthodox animal sacrifice based religious practices to conceive and propagate an ethics of humility and 'jive daya' or 'compassion towards all creatures' including fellow human beings. Consequently, this religious philosophy did not enter into any conflict with the biophilia of the Meeteis, and instead absorbed into its repertory their ecocentric ethical elements. Under the influence of this new religion, many Meeteis gave up eating meat and eggs, and began to worship the cow. They also added to their already long list of sacred plants those that were worshipped or held sacred in the mainstream Hindu religion, thereby enriching their own conservation-oriented traditions. Thus the Meetei culture represents a confluence of two distinct streams of religious thoughts, which in spite of retaining their separate identities, did not come into conflict, and instead synthesized a worldview saturated with 'ecophilia' and deep ecological ethical realizations.


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Table 4: Fish and other animals taboo during specific periods, occasions, or in different Meetei clans.
Animal(s)Nature of taboo
Mystus cavasius (fish)Not consumed during April-May
Clarias batrachus (fish)Not consumed during May-June and December-January
Osteobrama cotio (fish)Not consumed during June-July
Bagarius yerrelli (fish)Not consumed during July-August
Botia spp. (fish), crabsNot consumed during August-September
Macronacthus aral (fish), ducksNot consumed during September-October
Wallago attu (fish)Not consumed during October-November
Monoptera spp. (fish)Not consumed during November-December
Esomus donricus (fish)Not consumed during January-February
Puntius spp. (fish), turtles and tortoisesNot consumed during February-March
Lepidocephalus berdmorei, Labeo rohita (fish)Not consumed during March-April
Turtles and tortoises, Brotia costula (snail), Macrognathus spp., Bagarius spp. (fish)Not consumed by the Ningthouja clan
Brotia costula (snail), Macrognathus spp., Bagarius spp., Channa morulius, Mastacembalus spp., (fish), egg and meat of many animalsNot consumed by the Khuman clan
Field ratsNot consumed by the Khabanganba clan
Passer domesticus (Sparrow)Not consumed by the Moirang clan
FrogsNot consumed by Meeteis, as it prevents entry to heaven
All animalsNot consumed during their mating season(s)
All animalsNot consumed by pregnant women
All animals including fishNot consumed for 12 days after the death of a family member
All animals including fishNot consumed on the day of the death every month for one year
All animals including fishNot consumed on the death anniversary
All animals including fishNot consumed on the Meetei New Year Day by some clans

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