A black-necked replica. Photo: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty/The Wire Science
- This ground report is the first of two about a community’s religious beliefs and their role in conservation, explored through the community members’ lived experiences.
- The people of the Monpa belt of Arunachal Pradesh revere the black-necked crane as a reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, and protect it and its habitats with religious fervour.
- However, the state government’s policies to protect the bird have left many of the region’s people, but especially the youth, in need of better social and economic protection.
Chug, West Kameng district, Arunachal Pradesh: It was as if we had stepped inside a perfect-picture postcard. All around us, fields of wild cosmos flowers stretched, their stalks swaying to a gentle breeze moving through the valley, in sync with paddy squares in shades of blonde, against the soft mid-morning sun.
Not far ahead, there were patches of red chilli and star anise, brought from a forest nearby, being sun-dried on the rooftops and front yards of the modest dwellings of the villagers. Podgy pumpkins sat on some roofs too. A stubby wild horse was spotted grazing on the fallow grassy patches.
The melding of these picturesque, natural and bucolic sites arguably make Chug in Arunachal Pradesh’s West Kameng district a veritable utopia every October-November – one of the hidden gems that the nature-rich Northeast of India has to offer to a visitor.
On an October day when we reached Chug – located about 15 km away from the nearest town of Dirang – the silence of the valley was pierced by the Buddhist hymns chanted by lamas (monks) with intermittent blows from the traditional long pipes. The entire valley was draped in a sense of divinity and common purpose.
Most residents of the three villages that comprise Chug valley – men, women, children belonging to the Monpa tribe – were at the local gompa (monastery) that day, gathered there to listen to the lamas reading out aloud stanzas from a holy book identified for us by the village elders as Boom Chakra Lacca.
Those chants, read aloud every October end, are of immense significance to rural life – not just in Chug alone but in the nearby Sangte valley as well.
“You have come to the Gompa on an auspicious day. Starting today [October 25], the chants by the lamas will go on here for three days in a row before the holy book is carried on the shoulders by them to each household for blessing,” Chug gaonbura, or the village head, Krong Di filled us in on the details of the ritual on the front yard of the monastery, holding a cup of tea mixed with yak butter. “It takes about at least a week to complete the round. Villagers would follow the book in their traditional outfits. Only after the ritual is completed shall the villagers put their sickles on the ripe dhaan kheti [paddy] in the fields.”
The gompa stands atop a hillock overlooking patches of ripe paddy criss-crossing the Chug valley, populated by some 300 households. “Can you spot three shades of the paddy from here? This is because each is a different rice variety. The darkest of them is our local red rice, which we have traditionally eaten,” Krong Di continued.
“Like all our villagers’ fields, Krong Di’s patch of paddy also lies there,” said Nima Tsering, a gaon panchayat member, standing next to the gaonbura.
That day, some 15 km from Chug, a similar harvesting ritual was on at the house of the village head of Sangte, yet another picturesque stretch of the West Kameng district. When we reached the door of gaonbura Pasang Tsering at 9 in the morning, the local lama had already left his house after the puja.
“We have both Buddhist followers and believers of the local religion, Donyi Polo, in the Sangte area,” Tsering told us. “Depending on the belief of each household, the lama or the bhon-pu1 is called that day for puja in every household. We have about 189 houses in Sangte. By the time the priests finish the rituals in every house, it will be sunset.”
He offered us a plateful of a dish made of roasted broken rice for the ritual. “This is made of the new harvest. A day is decided by the lamas for the farmers to go to their fields to bring home a few bunches of paddy so that they can prepare this prasad2 for the god today. We are staunchly religious, and the first harvest has to be offered to the Buddha.”
From the next day, the people were to take their sickles to their crop and harvest rice for their food
For the devout Monpa of Chug and Sangte, the ritualised start to the annual paddy harvest is concomitant with another deep religious belief that also binds the community together.
The black-necked crane
The sizeable black-necked crane – Grus nigricollis, but ‘Thung Thung Kamru’ to the locals – is, with its typical red crown and a patch of black on its neck and back, believed to embody the sixth Dalai Lama, Tsangyang Gyatso. He was born in the 17th century in the Monpa stronghold of Tawang, which is contiguous to Kameng. His house, situated in the Urgelling area of Tawang close to the India-Tibet border, and still stands as a revered reminder to the community of a Monpa lama’s high place in Tibetan Buddhism.
A man with a literary bent, the Sixth Dalai Lama had once penned a eulogy for the bird when he first sighted it, and compared it to the Buddha. That poetic rendering instilled in his followers a reverence for the bird. Then as today, seeing a black-necked crane is to see the Dalai Lama reincarnated, visiting their ancestral land to bless them with fortune.
Once the paddy is cleared off the fields, the Monpa wait for the Thung Thung Kamru to land on those patches, as it is expected to every year.
“Aside from thriving on the strings of paddy that fall on the fields while harvesting, they also feed on a worm that is commonly found in the marshes around the paddy stumps,” Tsering said. “These worms thrive there because of the [red] rice variety that we grow. They stand on the paddy stumps.”
These Asian alpine cranes breed on the Tibetan plateau, typically spend summer in the Chinese provinces of Xinjiang, Yunnan and Tibet and, in winter, migrate to the warmer climes of Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh. They arrive in the latter parts around November and return to China in spring.
In India, black-necked cranes are protected under Schedule I of the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972 – the highest level of protection afforded by the law.
These birds used to visit the higher reaches of the Northeast and Jammu and Kashmir, particularly eastern Ladakh, but today birders expect to find them mostly in the Monpa-dominated Chug, Sangte and Zemithang areas of Arunachal Pradesh.
In a bid to preserve the bird, together with its religious significance, the Buddhist-dominated Ladakh Union territory, newly created from Jammu and Kashmir, declared the black-necked crane to be its state bird last September.
Religious beliefs for conservation
It’s a common belief in Arunachal Pradesh that the black-necked crane doesn’t visit other parts of the state because Arunachali tribes hunt wild animals and birds for food and for sports – while the Monpa, with their spirit of non-violence, don’t.
Indeed, the bird isn’t hunted either in the Monpa-populated Chug and Sangte valleys of West Kameng or in neighbouring Tawang’s Tawang and Zemithang valleys. People in the Monpa belt are also the only ones to religiously abide by the Arunachal Pradesh government’s state-wide ban on hunting wild animals and birds.
“Like the Monpa residing in the lower mountain ranges close to Assam – Chug, Sangte and Dirang – paddy is not our staple; buckwheat and finger millet are,” the village head of Zemithang told us when we visited. “These are two crops you will find in our fields, which are also at much higher altitude. But we follow the same Buddhist belief, of causing no harm to any animal or bird.”
This is why, in his words, the Thung Thung Kamru graces the wetlands of Zemithang as well.
In 2015, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) created a “dedicated specialist group to work with the major religions of the world as well as diverse spiritual traditions, from those nurtured by indigenous people to new generation systems that draw on psychology and eco-theology to improve life.”
The group’s genesis was the result of talks at the 2012 IUCN World Congress in South Korea. There, members resolved to work with faith-based outfits and networks to achieve the body’s mission. According to the IUCN website,
“Venerable Do Beop Sunim, a distinguished Korean Buddhist monk, lambasted delegates for making compromises with the world’s environment and sustainability, as well as praised and honoured everyone in the IUCN for having committed their lives to the well-being of the planet and all who call this home”.
The specialist group, led by Liza Zogib, has since been working with experts from Africa, the Middle East, Asia and the Pacific, but is yet to expand its efforts to communities in India.
The village chief of Zemithang said their people support the government’s hunting ban “because it supports our concept of maya [mercy and love] for all things living in our dharma.” He added, “The Monpa of our area are called Pang-cheng Monpas, which essentially means those who have discarded the sin (pang) of taking the lives of animals and birds. We don’t even fish in our rivers.”
The six villages of Zemithang revenue circle in Pengcheng valley – Shoktsen, Lumpu, Muchut, Kharman, Kelengteng and Zemithang – are a short distance from the India-Tibet border and are about 90 km from the district headquarters of Tawang.
Krong Di, the head of Chug, told us that there’s no question of the Monpa harming black-necked cranes because of its spiritual significance. Those ‘outsiders’ who do harm the bird inside Monpa territory are liable to pay a stiff fine.
“About ten years ago, a man from the Tani belt of Arunachal Pradesh working on a road project in Chug had killed one of the birds wintering on our paddy fields,” Krong Di recalled. “The villagers compelled the police to arrest that hunter; no chargesheet was filed in the case but as per our village’s rules, he was freed after paying a hefty fine of Rs 50,000. Since then, we have recorded no such cases.”
In Sangte, no person is allowed to get within 50 metres of a black-necked crane wintering on a paddy field. “Any violation will attract a 5,000-rupee fine,” gaonbura Tsering said. “But I have not recorded any case of fine yet.”
In Zemithang as well, there are seasonal restrictions to encourage the bird land by the river Nyamjang Chuu, its winter home in the area. “There is no hunting here, so we have not spelt out any specific fine for killing the bird or any other animal,” the Zemithang village head said. “The Pengcheng valley is also home to some other animals, particularly the red panda, the barking deer, porcupines and the wild boar. The boars regularly damage our crops, still we let them be.”
The Zemithang circle officer also orders the suspension of sand mining and stone crushing activities by the river, which passes through the valley, he added.
Daniel Mize, a zoologist at the Centrally-funded Rajiv Gandhi University in Itanagar, has been studying the black-necked crane’s wintering patterns in Arunachal Pradesh. And he didn’t hesitate to say the Monpa’s religious beliefs were helping conserve the endangered cranes.
“In the 1950s, as many as 27 black-necked cranes were sighted in the Tani valley of Arunachal Pradesh,” Mize said. “It is considered the highest recorded number at one go in our state to this day. However, the Tani people are traditionally hunters. The last recorded sighting of the crane in good numbers in that belt was in the 1970s, and we know why.”
He showed us a soft copy of a photograph by an unknown photographer. It featured a village head in the Tani belt holding a black-necked crane he had killed. “Since the photograph is in colour, it could well be in the 1980s or so,” Mize said.
He added that he’s conducted 12 workshops on the importance of protecting what he called Arunachal Pradesh’s “extremely rich” biodiversity – undiminished even after widespread hunting. “Most new species that India is discovering are from Arunachal Pradesh,” Mize continued. “I hold up that point to our villagers, tell them they should take pride in it, but we need to spread more awareness among the common people to be able to appreciate it more.”
He believes religion has held the Monpa in good stead to this end.
However, not all Monpa are guided by their religious beliefs, and the quest for political power remains a considerable challenge.
For example, in 2011, under the ‘Save Mon Region Federation’ (SMRF), the Monpa organised a mass movement to protect the black-necked cranes’ wintering sites, based on their religious convictions. The movement was led by monks of the Tawang monastery, the largest Buddhist monastery in India.
They were opposed to the state’s decision to set up at least 13 large hydroelectric-power projects over Tawang’s faster rivers, including the Nyamjang Chuu in Zemithang – in addition to the 30 smaller dams that already operate in Tawang.
By extension, the 50,000-strong tribal community was opposed to the most powerful political and business family among them, the Khandus. That all three legislators of the assembly constituencies of Tawang district – Zemithang, Mukto and Tawang – have belonged to the Khandu family speaks to their influence and the significance of opposing them. The incumbent chief minister, Pema Khandu, is from the same family and represents Mukto.
The government had decided in 2007 that the state-owned National Hydro Power Corporation and some private players would construct the dams.
But in April 2011, after the monks took their opposition to court, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) suspended the Nyamjang Chuu project, worth Rs 6,400 crore, and said in its order that the Uttar Pradesh-based steel conglomerate, L.N.J. Bhilwara Group, had overlooked the project’s impact on the wintering habitat of black-necked cranes.
The order also said the environment clearance for the project didn’t acknowledge that the project site would encroach on the bird’s nesting sites.This win was the result of the SMRF’s continuous awareness drives across the district – including rallies and protests at public hearings organised by the administration.
Even after the NGT’s favourable verdict, the SMRF continued to fight to have work on the mega-dam projects suspended in the rest of the district. Its members cited Tawang’s fragile ecosystem and the effects of climate change on eco-sensitive zones.
In 2016, two protesters belonging to the SMRF were killed by police firing and the monk leading the movement, Lobsang Gyatso, was arrested and thrown into Tawang jail, leaving the religious community in shock. Soon after getting out, Gyatso had told The Wire, “The NGT’s decision to suspend work on the project [in Zemithang] has led those with vested interest in the state to suddenly look at us as a powerful enemy.”
To him, the police firing and his arrest were connected to the SMRF’s decision to file a public interest litigation petition against another hydroelectric power project in Mukto.
In November 2021, when The Wire caught up with Gyatso in Tawang, he had quit monkship and was leading an ordinary life. “The religious belief among the Monpa to save the bird is intact, but I am somewhat disillusioned because there is dirty local politics at play that keeps me out of the SMRF,” he said.
“We monks couldn’t have achieved it without the leadership of the devout local people of Zemithang,” he added. “They realised the religious significance of the bird and decided to come together.”
One such local person was Dijen Dorjee, a school teacher. “People are religious – still, we had to remind them then that it is also their holy duty to save the bird,” he said. “We had set up several awareness camps to galvanise public opinion.” Dorjee was associated at the time with the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF)-India, as a local point person for the bird’s conversation. “I am no more with WWF because I now work away from Kyalateng area, my home village.”
Kamal Medhi, of WWF-India in Assam, said, “SMRF gave the leadership then to take forward the religious aspect of the conservation movement, while we at WWF helped them with the critical inputs, the scientific know-how, to challenge the government’s decision legally.”
Faith: necessary, but not sufficient
According to Medhi, “People are religious but when the government or some powerful corporate lobby tries to push such environmentally unfriendly projects in the name of development, it is not easy for common people to take a call against it. These are remote areas, everyday life is hard.”
The locals are also taken in by the prospect of more jobs and better livelihoods, he continued, and don’t understand that development needn’t be “at the cost of the environment and their cultural and religious mores.”
Achieving this, he concluded, requires an organised movement.
The residents of Zemithang told The Wire Science that it was easy to understand why Medhi said what he did. Saving the black-necked crane is more than just saving a bird or respecting religious beliefs. It requires better social support and economic policies in the region.
Pakchok Tsering, a young man in the village associated with the WWF, said there are more vehicles on the village road than before, which also produce more noise than before in this wildlife-rich area. But he’s not exactly complaining.
“Modernity is bound to come to us – we also dream of a better life than our father’s generation because we know we can have it,” he said. “At the same time, the government needs to come forward to help us find a balance between how to adopt modernity and keep our environment and birds and animals safe.”
After all, it’s the specialty of our area. But the government is silent on that score.”
In late October 2021, days before the black-necked cranes’ wintering season was to begin, villagers heard the loud sounds of stones being crushed at a quarry by the Nyamjang Chuu river. Local youth were also mining zemi, or sand, from the river for work by the Indian government’s Border Roads Organisation and for construction work in Assam.
“It has become more and more difficult to stop these activities altogether because sources of livelihood are extremely limited here,” according to the village head. Wild animals regularly villagers’ crops, so when the river runs low, the villagers take to mining sand and lifting stones from the riverbed to “make some money”.
But they aren’t the only ones: “Some of the mining work is also carried out by politically connected local contractors, so it is not easy for us to stop them altogether.”
Some years ago, after villagers noticed the cranes circling the area but never landing, thanks to these activities, they urged the local circle officer to issue a stop order. Yet the black-necked cranes come in fewer numbers every year. “In 2017, because of sand and gravel mining, no bird showed up. We heard the cranes didn’t land in Chug and Sangte too that year,” the head said. “In 2019, I think only one bird was spotted in our area.”
In 2020, three birds landed but took off again after some people got too close to click pictures.
“Being religious, people generally follow the government order, but they also ask how long they will have to do it without the government making any alternate arrangement for their livelihood during those months.”
The state government has also kept the Zemithang circle out of Tawang’s tourism circuit, taking ecotourism out of the picture as well.
At the same time, it has been building a children’s park by the Nyamjang Chuu. The Wire Science spotted a number of people working at the site. One worker said the park was being built at the behest of the local MLA, Jambey Tashi, who is also a businessman and a close relative of the chief minister.
“We can’t say whether such development is good or bad to us in the long run,” the worker added. “We don’t know any other way to protect the habitat of the bird or the other wild animals in our area, apart from sticking to our custom of abstaining from hunting and fishing as per our religious beliefs.”
The cranes aren’t landing
In late December 2021, locals sighted at least eight cranes in the Zemithang wetlands. One of them told us it was probably the result of COVID-19: “since not … many outsiders are visiting Zemithang and there is relative silence.”
Still, the village chiefs of Zemithang, Chug and Sangte are worried about the bird’s dropping numbers in the area – and squarely blamed the government.
Fewer birds are visiting the area in winter – but in a darkly comical twist, even these visitors aren’t being allowed to land for a long list of reasons.
For example, around a decade ago, “the state government began supplying villagers free ration of rice and also promoted a different variety to push up production. The result: the free rice was not enough for the families, so they had to farm, but the rice variety that was being promoted for more harvest didn’t suit our lifestyle,” the head of Zemithang village said. “We are used to the red rice, so people began falling ill gradually.”
Some also began growing maize as a cash crop – But this meant “the cranes began skipping our fields because the worms they feed on were not there.”
So the villagers slowly returned to growing red rice – but the change in cultivation pattern had an effect: no black-necked cranes visited Sangte from 2009 to 2013.
The Sangte gaonbura blamed power-lines for preventing the birds from landing in their village in 2016.
In Chug, gaon panchayat member Nima Tsering also blamed power-lines – as well as the “menace of feral dogs” that chased the birds away. In late November, the Chug gaonbura said he was upset with Chief Minister Khandu and Union law minister Kiren Rijiju for visiting Chug with a large entourage to promote tourism.
“This is the wintering season of the cranes in Chug. Much as I appreciate the government’s interest in promoting tourism in our village, we must also be careful why our village is special,” he said. “A VIP comes with many vehicles and people; there were so many people and so much noise that day, I wonder if we will have any crane landing here this season.”
He also complained about the National Institute of Mountaineering and Allied Sports, a government institute in Dirang. Members of the institute trained to paraglide around the skies of Chug in the winter. “This has to be suspended for some time for the birds to land in our valley,” he said.
In Zemithang, with help from the WWF, several parts of the Pengcheng valley have been fenced and electrified (through solar power) to keep wild boars and porcupines out of farms. The village head has said this has made a difference.
“Our initiative was to safeguard traditional crops in mountain areas, and which is now working well,” according to Medhi. “This need is directly linked to the food security of the people of the remote areas.”
He said the Tawang district administration has similarly fenced areas in more than ten villages – as has the West Kameng district.
The non-government sector is helping the locals adopt measures that will allow conservation activities to continue. But, Medhi added, “The government still has to play its role – of charting out a policy in consultation with the stakeholders so that those at the forefront of the conversation of these birds have a sustainable means of livelihood and can also protect their religious ethos.”
This report was funded by a Fellowship for Environment Journalists (FEJ) grant of the US-based Society of Environment Journalists (SEJ).