In Arunachal, tribal taboos are conservation devices

By Sweta Daga

“My Naba (father) always says you can’t challenge nature. If you challenge nature, you are asking for trouble. When you see a river and think, it’s so low, I can easily cross it, the next time you need to cross the river, it will rise and swallow you; nature is always stronger than you. You can have no ego with nature,” explains Tine Mena, a woman from the Idu Mishmi tribe in Arunachal Pradesh.

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Tine is the first woman from the Northeast to climb Mount Everest. She is also the daughter of Buge Mena — popularly addressed as Naba — one of the most respected tribesmen in the Mishmi Hills, known for his skills as a hunter.

While growing up Tine was dragged on hunting expeditions, crying throughout the trips. Sitting next to her now 70-year-old father, she teases him and says, “Naba would not care if I was in pain or hungry. I couldn’t make a sound in the jungle. Sometimes he would just disappear and I wouldn’t know what to do.”

Stories of his hunting exploits stretch back six decades. There is a legend about his single-handed fight with a Himalayan black bear. Tine points to a prominent scar on Naba’s face. “Most people think this is a dimple, but this is where a bear clawed Naba.”

“When I was in my late 20s… I went hunting right before the monsoon when the jungle is full of berries,” Buge begins.

“Sometimes after gorging on berries, the bears just fall asleep on the trees. Once, I saw five bears sleeping on one tree — two were sleeping on the lower branches and three were on top. I shot four of them,” Naba says.

“But I was only able to carry back two of the bears. I stopped in a friend’s village to rest and share the meat. When I arrived at his house, an old woman ordered me to take the meat away. She seemed angry.”

“A stillborn baby had been born in that house. We are not supposed to bring jungle meat into a house where someone had died, but I had not known. I left immediately, but I knew I had broken a ghena.”

A ghena is a taboo, and breaking it has consequences.

“A few months later, I went back to the jungle… Suddenly I heard heavy breathing behind me, and (a) bear attacked me. I was absolutely terrified. She threw me to the ground with a strength I had never felt before. She mauled me with her huge claws — I thought I was going to die.

“After 5-10 minutes of struggling, I pushed her off with all the strength I had. I don’t know how it happened, but even the bear was surprised! She left… There was a big hole in my cheek and when I went to drink water, it came out of that side of my mouth.

“I managed to find people who helped me, but I knew this happened because of my ghena.”

In Arunachal, there are dozens of tribes and sub-tribes. The Idu Mishmis are dwindling; numbering about 12,000 people. Their lives are profoundly shaped by rituals, myths and taboos. Referred to as ghena, these restrictions provide ecological balance for the Idu tribe.

Ghenas can function as an intricate conservation device. Large animal killings demand various personal sacrifices, usually for at least five days. The hunter is not allowed to sleep with his wife, bath, eat garlic or salt, or wash clothes. Even if you only eat the meat from the jungle there is a penance.

An important ghena applies to tigers, the apex predator in the region. Tigers can only be killed in self-defense, or if one has turned into a maneater. If a tiger is killed otherwise, the ghena attaches not just to an individual but the whole village, and all of them suffer, making the protection of tigers a collective responsibility.

Ghenas ensure that the Idus continue to respect the ecosystem they inhabit because it remains at the forefront of their mind.

Hunting is a big part of Idu life. Hunters would go out into the jungle for months at a time. The practice supplements kitchens, and during it the Idu also collect medicinal plants. Children go hunting as it enables them to learn about nature and imbibe traditional knowledge that generations before them have cultivated.

Ghenas require people to think twice about hunting. Buge is an exceptional hunter and in the Idu community he is a legend, but even he has suffered the consequences of breaking ghena and disrespecting nature.

Buge reduced his hunting after the bear attack, but in spite of that, all his sons died over the course of his lifetime. He thinks this is because of his ghena of hunting too much.

As Arunachal Pradesh opens to the world with increasing development and tourists coming to see its natural beauty, it is at risk of becoming another destination hotspot, with pressure on ecological resources.

Naba wonders what will happen to the next generation. Many of them are not interested in the Idu ways. He is seeing things rapidly change before his eyes. “If people stop going into the jungle and lose their connection, how will we keep our balance?”