Written by Karthik Teegalapalli, photographs by Karthik Teegalapalli, Anirban Datta-Roy & Wikimedia Commons.
To a first time visitor, like it was to me four years back when I came here, the landscape around the Bomdo village may seem like a random hotch-potch of currently cultivated and regenerating shifting cultivation fields, palm, citrus and bamboo plantations and wet rice cultivation fields. A closer inspection however reveals a well-defined landscape with almost every patch, in fact, every tree and even a stream owned by a particular individual or a family or a clan in the village. Such is the intricacy of the landscape around an Adi village in the Upper Siang district in Arunachal Pradesh in north-east India.
The Bomdo village is located close to the Siang river, the river flows around the village owing to the terrain. In late April every year in the Bomdo village in Upper Siang, eight species of cuckoos constantly call, often two or three of the calls overlapping, like cuckoo clocks that need no rewinding. This time of the year, the shifting cultivation landscape around the village features tiny spots of lilies flowering at the boundaries of individually owned patches. Flowering of this lily is also a trigger for the Adi community here to sow rice in their fields. The importance of this lily however goes beyond ornating the farming landscape or providing an indication to the farmers to sow their rice.
Crinum amoenum is a plant that is used by the Adis here to demarcate individual plots within a larger shifting cultivation mosaic. The plant is fire-hardy, is slow-growing and propogates through tubers. The plant, locally called Riksu Sodok (literally translated as a boundary ground orchid) is used to resolve boundary issues between shifting cultivators. The size of the tuber of the individual plant provides information regarding when it was planted and therefore how old the patch is, or who it belongs to. In the past, the local institution Kebang in the Bomdo village has resolved patch ownership issues based on the location and the age of the Crinum plant in the fields.
The Adis also seldom clear an interesting plant from their shifting cultivation fields since it is believed that the plant retains moisture in the fields. Locally called Asi Gebinyé (the one that brings water), Helminthostachys zeylanica has been reported as a medicinal plant from other sites. The fronds are reported to cure acute back pain caused by sciatica, and are also used as a laxative, intoxicant and painkiller whereas the rhizomes are used in treating dysentry, sciatica and malaria. However, the Adis retain the plant as they believe it helps their agricultural production by retaining soil moisture in the site and are oblivious to the medicinal uses of the plant!
Last year, the rains in Upper Siang district were relatively poor and the Bomdo villagers were concerned about their crop harvest. Then, a group of villagers went deep into the forest and cut a particular plant, locally called ‘alu layan’ which is believed to cause rain. For almost a month after that it rained continuously!
To me this worldview of a remote farming community within which different plants are used based on the community’s knowledge or belief systems tailored to the local needs is very interesting and I hope to document many more such adaptations.
This article first appeared in the July – Sep 2013 issue of ATREE’s Eastern Himalayas newsletter & can be accessed here.