We are our stories
Stories, storytelling and environmental attitudes
Oral tradition is the oldest form of passing down human experiences from one generation to another. Traditionally, it has been at the core of all societies. There is not one culture in the world where oral literature has not preceded written literature. Stories and storytelling have been at the forefront of every evolving society providing new generations with an ever-increasing pool of experiential knowledge tried and perfected by preceding generations of community members, shamans and medicine people. They transmit social values and spiritual philosophies, inform about history, describe complex scientific wisdom and environmental knowledge, and further conservation ethics. The ways in which traditional stories are linked with us and the world around us are, perhaps, unfathomably deep.
Stories open up vast areas of re-evaluating our attitude towards the natural world. Very often, they provide clues to address challenges related to complex environment and sustainability issues. Tribal folklore has much to offer in this respect, with much of the belief system of indigenous groups around the world still rooted in shamanism and nature worship. Take the case of people in the Eastern Himalayas who speak the Kiranti group of languages—a family of Tibeto-Burman languages. Oral narratives influence attitudes towards the environment and their conservation ethics. While much of the traditional narratives of the Kirantis are now lost, their tradition of storytelling, especially the sacred lore, Mundums and rituals associated with it, continue to instil practical ideas of living in balance with nature. Mundums are recited lyrically by shamans of each Kiranti tribe at events associated with nature or during a socially important ritual.
During Ubhauli (also called Sakela or Sakewa), celebrated for around 15 days in April-May, members of Kiranti-speaking communities do not fish because their sacred narratives forbid them from doing so. Ubh-auli indicates the beginning of farming season and coincides with the northward migration of birds. It is interesting that fish swim upstream to lay eggs at this time. During Ubhauli, shamans recite the sacred Mundums which describe the origin of Kirantis, the story of their ancestors and their spiritual place in the natural world. Prayers are offered to rivers, mountains, rainbows, land and animals.
One sacred narrative in the Mundum of the small Koinch tribe (belonging to the Kiranti group) lays down that a member of the tribe can cut a tree to build a house provided he plants 10 trees as a token of gratitude to Mother Earth. Their belief that higher knowledge enters various plant species as transcendental energy (thung in their language) after leaving the body of a shaman (poibo in their language) prohibits them from mindlessly cutting certain varieties of fern (which have medicinal properties), bamboo and cane. This is yet another example of how oral narratives influence the cultural attitude of a community towards environment.
Other stories in the Koinch Mundum describe ethical concerns pertaining to hunting: killing pregnant animals is forbidden and the Koinch pray for forgiveness to animals wounded in a hunt. People of the tribe regard the porcupine as their foster mother—in one story, she breastfeeds a Koinch chief. For this reason porcupines are seldom hunted by the people of the tribe.
The Paniyar tribe of Nilgiris in Tamil Nadu, one of the oldest tribes of India, was once nature worshipper. Amalee, the tribe’s last surviving shaman, describes how his people never harm tigers. According to Paniyar legends, tigers were once guardians of forests. Paniyar tribesmen often take remains of animal hunted by the tiger as a sign of respect for the animal. Amalee also says the pepper tree is at the heart of the Paniyar’s nature worship tradition. People of the community do not walk into a grove of pepper trees lest the tree appears in their dreams and asks them what brought them to the grove. If a Paniyar tribesman does walk into the sacred territory, he or she must offer something and seek forgiveness.
The environmental content and narrative forms of traditional stories can vary from culture to culture. But the values garnered after listening to each story are something no modern system of education can provide.
The storytelling tradition of the Lepcha tribe is unique in educational content and worth highlighting. Every aspect of the natural world is expressed as a human form in Lepcha stories. Perhaps the only tribe to worship the legendary mountain half-human, the Yeti, Lepcha’s traditional stories are replete with environmental knowledge. Even complex social issues are addressed using elements from nature. In some stories the flea and lice are described as husband and wife. Some lyrical narratives portray the beginning of the entire Himalayas. For example, some stories begin with a soft song that says, “This story is of a time when Konchen Chu (Mt Kanchenzonga) was as small as a musk deer’s tooth.”
Many researchers (from anthropologists to environmentalists) look at traditional wisdom, folklore and conservational tools within oral traditions, but very few have turned to them for understanding environmental history. Oral tradition embodied in traditional stories is also a repository of environmental history. They describe the changes and calamities in the natural world. Lepcha folklore describes how the world was once flooded and how Tendong Hill (bordering Darjeeling and Sikkim) saved the tribe by offering refuge. Till date, the tribe celebrates the Tendong Rum Faat in August to mark their great escape.
While it makes tremendous sense to revitalise such traditions and build crossovers with the modern psyche, we may have begun too late. Today, most traditional cultures are facing the risk of getting lost. This would mean complete extinction of their vast wealth of insights and experiences. The loss is even more acute if we consider the fact that many cultures have not been documented. Another critical area that poses a significant challenge is the loss of ethnic languages in which traditional narratives are told. With researchers pointing out that every hour two languages die, the task at hand is huge and, perhaps, a battle already lost.
In 2011, Sangdup Taso, the last Lepcha shaman to conduct an 800-year-old ritual, died of heart attack leaving behind a mere 48-minute recording. His demise ended an invaluable piece of cultural history. Amalee, the last shaman of the Paniyar, says, “If we do not have our stories, what do we have? How will we know that the tiger is our great guardian? How will my grandchildren know that these Blue Mountains are our homeland? How will we know who we were?”
Much time has been wasted in making the scientific journey from considering such traditions superstitious and narratives insignificant pieces of primitive cultures to scientifically relevant. The only question now is: do we have enough time left to learn and pass on the knowledge embodied in these traditions to our children?”