The need to revive environmentalism in Meitei/Meetei cultural ethos

    06-Jun-2022
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Sanjoy Akoijam
It is that time of the year again when all of us experience a resurgence of environmental consciousness in our minds- the days leading up to and following World Environment Day. There are several programs to mark the same- panel discussions, symposiums, essay and drawing competitions, tree planting programs, bicycle rallies, cleanliness drives, etc. However, a majority of us seem to exhibit our care for the environment only when such international days are observed, or on other special occasions. A good number of people do it just for the sake of media mileage too. What is missing, and what is truly needed is a year-round effort to care for the environment- a quality only few people seem to possess in the present day.
We Meeteis/Meiteis do not have to look far to instill the spirit of environmentalism in us. Our ancestral traditions and world view are dotted with examples of environmentalism. Our ancestors strongly believed in preserving the sanctity of the natural environment, and several of our beliefs, practices, myths and folktales testify to this fact. For instance, water bodies were regarded as sacred abodes of deities and were regularly cleaned. Dumping of waste materials and other polluting activities in community water bodies were avoided. During rituals and ceremonies like Umang Lai Haraoba, Apokpa Khurumba, etc the deities were always called upon from nearby water bodies by the priests and priestesses. It was not just water bodies that were regarded as sacred, but other parts of the natural environment like forests, groves, hills, soil, etc too. A majority of our deities have their abodes in forests and hills. Due to their presence, the surrounding areas were regarded as sacred and few dared to disturb the natural environment around such areas. As a result of such practices, the biodiversity boomed and several species of flora and fauna thrived. There was also a heavy emphasis on cleanliness of one’s self and one’s surroundings.
Elaborate rituals were conducted annually as an integral part of the agricultural cycle and other occasions. The Umang Lai Haraoba was performed with the aim to give thanks to the presiding deities of the area for ensuring abundance of natural resources and to pray for continued abundance of such resources for the survival and continuity of the human race. There were special rituals too before cutting down of trees and other activities that were seen as ‘intruding’ into the sanctity of nature. The earth was regarded as a mother, and humans and all other life forms on it were regarded as her children. The story of Poubi Lai (a mythical serpent that appeared in the Loktak Lake and terrorised the people of the erstwhile clan kingdoms of Moirang, Luwang and Khuman) could be regarded as one that warns of the devastating consequences of overfishing and resulting harm to water bodies. I believe that our ancestors realised the importance of keeping a balance in the natural environment around us, and thus over hundreds of years developed a world view where environmentalism became embedded in our culture and beliefs.
Fast forward to the present day, and we are faced with a stark contrast in our attitude towards the environment. Majority of the water bodies in the Manipur valley, especially rivers and drains are clogged with garbage and sewage. It was heartbreaking to witness never-ending piles of garbage being pulled out of drains and other water bodies recently, through the initiatives of some newly elected MLAs in the Imphal area. River banks are littered with garbage too, and despite the efforts of the authorities to curb unauthorised dumping, it has continued. Untreated sewage finds its way to several water bodies. During floods, the garbage and sewage are carried by floodwaters into residential areas. Rivers that flow into the Loktak Lake also carry with them unwanted garbage and sewage, leading to large scale pollution of the lake and resultant loss of biodiversity. The irony is that the lake is venerated as ‘Loktak Ema’ (Mother Loktak) by the Meiteis. Several wetlands in the Manipur valley that used to be lifelines for local populations have disappeared over the past century and many are at risk of disappearing. Forest cover in the valley region has also reduced drastically due to increasing population and rapid urbanisation. Forests in many hill ranges located in the valley and surrounding the valley have also not been spared. All this and other factors have led to changes in the local climate, frequent flooding, landslides, soil erosion, etc. The changes in climate threaten to jeopardize the agricultural cycle, which still forms a major part of our local economy. The changes in climatic conditions could also lead to increased prevalence of communicable diseases that were hitherto considered as minor in our state. Also for many, cleanliness has been relegated to an “occasional affair”. Meanwhile, have our traditional rituals and ceremonies stopped as a result of this? No.     They are still performed in the present day, but it has all become very superficial, with little consideration of their inner meanings and true essence. Glitz, glamour and a race to show off personal wealth have dominated our rituals and ceremonies in recent times. A glaring example is the ever increasing trend of glamorisation of our Lai Haraoba rituals and performances. The true essence of the rituals have been often pushed under the carpet, with the focus more on venue decorations and glitzy attires of attendees, many of whom are anxious to show off in front of people and media at large. Everyone will be aware of the local debate- “Lai Haraorira, Mee Haraorira?” (Is it Merrymaking of Gods or Merrymaking of Men?). Only a few villages and areas in the Manipur valley still uphold the true essence of Lai Haraoba in the present day.
Meitei society at large has become more and more individualistic due to the rapid progress of urbanization, globalisation and modernisation. We are moving further and further away from the group/community feeling that guided the actions of our ancestors in the past. Our ancestors not only respected the sentiments of their fellow humans, but also that of the natural environment, which they believed was part and parcel of their existence. For us in the present day, we can forget about respect for the environment, because a majority of us have little to no regard for our fellow humans too. The “We” feeling in our collective mentality is gradually being replaced by an “I” feeling. Why else would we be so unconcerned by all the garbage and sewage we are dumping into our water bodies, by the loss of vegetation in our surroundings, the unequal distribution of resources, etc?
On the lines of the philosophy of ‘Deep Ecology’ propounded by the late Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess, we should realise that the natural environment is not there to just simply meet our needs, but we ourselves are equal members of the natural environment like all other life forms  on earth. This is a worldview possessed by several non-western traditional societies around the world. We cannot keep on exploiting the environment and treating it like a separate entity that has no connection with our own existence.  We Meiteis need not look at the ‘shallow’ movements for environmentalism that have emerged in the West; we simply have to rekindle in our minds, and in the minds of our young and upcoming generations, the flame of environmentalism that burned in the minds of our ancestors. If we are successful in doing so, we can expect a sea change in our collective attitude towards the natural environment. Then, there would be no need to wait for World Environment Day or other special occasions to showcase our “love for the environment”.