Meghalaya, the Abode of Clouds, is a state in the northeast region of India. About one-third of the state is forested.Meghalaya experiences the two seasons, of winter and monsoon, and is characterized by a cool climate throughout the year. The Cherrapunjee-Mawsynram belt in the southern slopes of Khasi Hills records the heaviest rainfall in the world. Numerous rivers flow through Megahalaya, although none of them are navigable, due to rocky beds and strong currents.
The sacred groves in the state cover an estimated area of about 10,000 hectares. Most of the major sacred groves are located on the catchment areas of important rivers and streams of the state. About 60 of them, with an area of about 6,500 hectares are located at the source of perennial streams.
Predominantly tribal, the original inhabitants of this state are Khasis, Jaintias and Garos. Khasis and Jaintias trace their ancestry to the Mongolian race, while the Garos belong to the Tibeto-Burman race. Their cultural trails and ethnic origins remain distinctive, mainly due to their geographical isolation. The Khasi language spoken here is believed to be one of the few surviving dialects of the Mon-Khmer family of languages, in India.
The tribal communities of Meghalaya have a tradition of environmental conservation based on various religious beliefs, which have been passed on from one generation to the other. Based on these beliefs, certain patches of forests are designated as sacred groves under customary law and are protected from any product extraction by the community.
In Meghalaya, the traditional religion in the East and West Khasi Hills districts is Niam Khasi or Seng Khasi, and in the Jaintia Hills district is Niam Tre. According to traditional beliefs of the region, a forest deity resides in the sacred groves.
For example, labasa is the name for the god of the Mawphlang sacred grove, described by interviewees as taking the form of a tiger or leopard. There is a strong belief that this deity inhabits the sacred grove and offers protection to the community. Similarly, Basa or Ryngkew Basa is the sacred grove deity, which is benevolent and provides for the wellbeing of the people in the village. In general, protecting a sacred grove is a form of respect for its deity.
It is an unpardonable crime to cut down trees or even pick flowers and fruits from these sacred groves except for cremation and religious purposes, that too, with the permission of the ‘Lyngdoh’ (Priest).
These sacred groves are divided into three categories, depending on the places where they are located. In places ruled by the Lyngdoh (Priest) the sacred groves were called Law Lyngdoh. In place where the traditional religion (Niam trai) plays a major role, the sacred groves were called ‘Law Niam’ and in places where the village is ruled by a village Headman, the sacred groves were called ‘Law kyntang’.
All these sacred groves have the same status although their names are different. These sacred groves are closely related to the social and cultural life of the people and a number of rites, rituals and religious ceremonies have been associated with them.
These sacred groves are very rich in biological diversity and harbor many endangered plant species including rare herbs and medicinal plants. The sacred-groves, which have been preserved since time immemorial, are in sharp contrast to their surrounding grasslands.
These groves are generally rimmed by a dense growth of Castanopsis kurzii trees, forming a protective hedge, which halts intrusion of Pinus kasia (Khasi pine), which dominates all areas outside the sacred groves. Inside the outer rim, the sacred groves are virtually Nature's Own Museum. The heavily covered grounds have a thick cushion of humus accumulated over the centuries. The trees in every sacred grove are heavily loaded with epiphytic growth of aroids, pipers, ferns, fern-allies and orchids. The humus-covered grounds likewise harbor myriad varieties of plant life, many of which are found nowhere else.