How would like to visit the fabled kingdom of Narnia?
Yes, I mean C.S. Lewis's Narnia, or something close to that.
Well, if you happen to be in Meghalaya, take a breezy drive 24 km southwest of its capital, Shillong, to Mawphlang village. When you enter the village keep moving south-westwards to the hamlet's edge near where the trailhead of David Scott's trail begins.
On that edge, you will come by a sprawling meadow and next to it you'll see a rambling greenwood, a forest they call Law Lyngdoh, the sacred grove. Pass through the threshold and you’ll wonder if indeed you aren't in some such a place as Narnia!
Why is Mawphlang Sacred Grove Untouched Till Today?
There's something magical about Mawphlang's sacred grove. One feature stands out: its unique sylvan character, unspoilt through the centuries. A microworld exists there, an ecosystem of biodiversity that makes it outstandingly different and beautiful, and carries about it an aura of mystique.
To reach it you'd have to cruise down a highway that criss-crosses through a picture-postcard landscape of gently rolling hills and winding rivulets. But once you enter the sacred grove, the familiarity abruptly ends. A new kind of scenery greets you and the magic begins.
This is an ancient ground. Exclusive and stark in contrast to what you've seen outside it moments ago. The centuries did not disturb this place. The plants that stand sentinel came there from another age. They thrive in their own unique terrain and microclimate, never invaded by other plants species and never destroyed by man.
The citizenry of Mawphlang is very possessive about its sacred grove. In earlier days, religious functions used to be held there. Although sacrificial rites are now no longer practised, Mawphlang's citizens still consider the place the sacred abode of U Basa, its guardian spirit. They will not desecrate or despoil it. Because of this, so they believe, the forest retains its unblemished quality which makes it unique in the world of sacred groves.
Law Lyngdoh, U Basa's Sacred Territory
My cousin, Bah Omin, 85, is one such firm believer in U Basa’s reality. His house stands on land adjacent to the Law Lyngdoh. He also owns another piece of land, but he wouldn’t dream of building anything on it.
That land is U Basa’s corridor, he says. He passes through it. Whoever owns that land should never use it to build any permanent structure. If the diktat is disobeyed, at some point in time some calamity such as cyclonic storms or 'kyllang' will take place. Everything in the storm’s wake will collapse. One can only grow plants and raise livestock on such land.
If U Basa is so strict about his territory does it mean no one can go into the forest? No, it doesn't. Anyone can visit the forest but with a clean heart and mind to enjoy its environs, not to destroy or desecrate it. The rule is clear: enter with respect and reverence and pluck nothing to bring it out of the sacred grove. Not even a leaf, a twig or a seed. Anything found in the grove is of the grove, it doesn’t belong outside. Do not desecrate it in any way. That includes desisting from urinating or defecating. All these acts are sacrilege that will invite the wrath of U Basa.
But how, you ask, will U Basa who is unseen, and probably a myth, exact punishment on anyone who desecrates? A well-known story from 1970 that still does the rounds illustrates the case in point.
U Basa's Wrath: Story From 1970
A platoon of army men came on a picnic to the sacred grove. As they were given the necessary permission, they were also briefed about the dos and don'ts. But after their day's fun, they couldn't resist picking up the plenteous deadwood that lay about. They thought these would make great firewood for their mess and home kitchens. They collected as much as their truck would allow space for.
The local guides warned them again that they were showing no regard. U Basa would be displeased and they would suffer in some way or the other.
The soldiers paid no heed, justifying that it was only deadwood which would go waste anyway. They loaded their truck and boarded it, all set to go.
But the truck wouldn't start. The mechanic checked and found everything was in order. Then why would the truck not start? They spent the next half an hour working on it. To their consternation, the truck still refused to start!
Exasperation now gave way to alarm. But the locals could understand it was a sign from U Basa and told the platoon commander so. By ignoring the warning, they were showing disrespect to U Basa. Taking anything out of the grove was taboo. If they didn’t return the wood to the forest, they would face even worse consequences.
Unnerved, the commander barked orders to his men to return every piece of deadwood to the forest. The job was done. The driver turned on the ignition. The engine gunned to life without a hitch. The soldiers, every man jack of them, immediately fell prostrate on the ground, seeking the forgiveness of U Basa. They were lucky to escape without more serious consequences, said the locals. They could have even faced illnesses and even death.
Now that incident really happened, cousin Omin said, but whether it was U Basa’s doing that the truck wouldn’t start is a moot question. Still, the fact remains: the great secret of the sacred grove of Mawphlang’s continuing dynamism is because of these taboos.
Wisdom of the Ancients: Lessons for the Moderns
We now see how the ancient thinkers moved in the direction they did and built for posterity a treasure that's neither replaceable nor exchangeable. They passed unto us their precious indigenous knowledge system about nurturing our forests: by preserving and advancing what nature has given us, through walking together with her. This is how we can continue enjoying all of nature’s benefits.
The Mawphlang sacred grove may be only a minuscule forest but it teaches us one valuable lesson: if we take care of nature even in small measures, it rewards us beyond measure. These rewards come to us in well-charged groundwater reserves, perennial streams, timely rainfall, pure air, great animal habitat and above all, plentiful food.
Our ancestors understood these values and put taboos to preserve them. But Taboo or no taboo, planting a food forest and caring for it is within our reach and need not be large scale. Even a few hundred square feet can give us rewards beyond imagination.