Intrinsic wisdom for enduring nature

Observations and learning on traditional knowledge system from Northeast India

Artwork by Abhishek Chauhan.
Teaser Image Caption
Artwork by Abhishek Chauhan.

Traditional knowledge systems are local knowledge systems specific to a particular geographical context, explicit to a particular society and culture. They can be seen as a framework for local decision making for natural resource management, agriculture, settlement, housing, healthcare, handloom and handicraft. Traditional knowledge systems provide a source of ecological, economical, social, technological and philosophical learning for practitioners and act as signifier and metaphors. In the contemporary context, with the challenges of changing perspectives of geo-environmental conditions, they often could be considered as one of the sources for alternative ways to face such challenges. There is scope to learn collectivism, mutualism and minimalism, apart from acquiring ideas for adaptations and resilient development. Accordingly, traditional knowledge gets a distinct focus in contemporary discussions and it is approached through steps of de-learning, relearning and new learning. However, the state of wellbeing, identity, right and autonomy of holders and practitioners of traditional knowledge is in doldrums with challenges cropping up with fear of exploitation of their knowledge by others. This situation also prevails for the indigenous peoples of Northeast India.


‘Traditional knowledge systems’ developed through people’s interface with nature and the environment. The process started when groups of ancestors undertook the initiatives to develop a cultural landscape over a natural landscape. It was then transferred to different generations by oral and visual transformation processes. In course of time, traditional knowledge system has developed knowledge around ecosystem and ecology, which can be looked at as ‘traditional ecological knowledge’. It is also evolved with technological solutions for ‘natural resource management’, through different production and construction processes, which can be looked as ‘traditional technological knowledge’ and above all it is always framed with certain values and ethical frameworks, which are called ‘traditional value and ethics’[i] These three domains together create the path for a ‘way of life, which can be viewed as: “Way of life = sum (traditional ecological knowledge+ traditional technological knowledge+ traditional value and ethics)”. It has been designed over space and time in a natural resource management system, agricultural system, settlement, food system, health system, artifacts and dress, communication system, governance system, and many more to form the foundation of culture and belief systems.  Each of such practices is coded and framed through its own language or dialect. So, every native language and dialect of traditional knowledge system practitioners is a repository of such knowledge systems, which creates a continuum and endurance among the generations. Furthermore, the diversity of languages and dialect has an existential correlation with biodiversity. This means that where biodiversity exists, the diversity of language and dialect also exists and is embedded within traditional knowledge system. Therefore, traditional knowledge system is an outcome of the influence of nature–culture relationship, which is the means for wellbeing of nature and human beings.

Northeast India – interconnection of place and people

The Northeast of India, covering an area of 262,379 square kilometres (sq km), comprises eight states of India. The entire region has a diverse geo-physical background with 60 percent of its total geographical area being hilly terrain (Eastern Himalayas and Northeastern Hills) and 12 percent plateau; the rest 28 percent are plains[ii]. It is rich in diversity of flora and fauna, which is the abode of many endangered, threatened and range restricted species at the confluence of the Indian, Indo-Malayan and Indo-Chinese bio-geographical realms. It also exhibits intermixing of the Himalayan and peninsular Indian elements. The region has two sub-centres of the Indo-Burma centre of plant origin in the world, viz., the Eastern Himalayas and North Eastern Hills[iii]. The Northeast is geologically sensitive with fault line, a tectonically originated fracture or break on the ground where the probability of occurrences of earthquakes is high. There are 11 major agro-climatic zones in the region[iv], which represent alpine, sub-tropical, temperate characteristics along with rain shadow areas. It is experienced with the perennial occurrences of natural disasters, including weather and climate related anomalies and climate induced disasters[v]. 

The Northeast is also rich with its socio-cultural diversity, principally in the context of indigenous communities. More than 150 major indigenous groups and sub-groups inhabit the region, speaking more than 200 languages and dialects[vi]. Each one of these groups has its own cultural way of life with a repository of traditional knowledge. In the above perspectives, the traditional knowledge practices among all these communities vary with their geo-ecological conditions. However, in each case, every community designs and develops its own way of life with the principles of adaptation with nature in the process of developing a cultural landscape over a natural landscape. So, the traditional knowledge systems of each of the communities is very rich in traditional ecological knowledge, which vividly reflects in its spatio-temporal framework of design and decision making, e.g. adaptation of own natural resource classification systems – reflected in the traditional land use classifications and also in traditional calendar systems for planning day to day activities with seasonal perspectives. It is overt with diversity of agricultural systems, food systems, along with adaptation of values for nature and elements of nature. Notably, every such practice is coded in its respective language or dialect so there is specific namefor each practice. It is basically the own system of observation, classification, experimentation, analysis and interpretation of the peoples or communities, which can be considered as indigenous methodological framework for developing information and knowledge and skilling of a community. Thus, it has a strong base of logical reasoning for developing their own viewpoints. Such logics are based on the approaches, which are similar to contemporary fuzzy logic[vii] approach. In this case, indigenous practitioners observe and analyse the relativeness, comparison, commonness and prevalence with references to their mental map developed through experiential learning. Furthermore, based on such learning, empirical trial has been carried out, which is repetitive in nature and such empirical observation further strengthen the inferences drawn for decision making. Therefore, in contemporary inquiry about ecology and ecosystem, traditional knowledge systems are considered as important source of information for predictive modelling approaches to know about bio-resources (its distribution, status etc.) and ecological services[viii].

Perceiving and believing - nature

The perpetual interface of the people with nature developed the former’s belief systems around the latter; the focus was on eternal connection with nature, which was considered supreme. This shaped the tradition of nature worshiping. These practices are echoed in day to day practices and occasional ceremonial practices. As a result, sun, moon, sky, mountain, hills, forest, rivers, lakes, different plants and animals become sacred. For example, the Khasi ethnic group of Meghalaya, sharing its border with Bangladesh, upholds an eco-theandric vision of reality where God, Nature and Human form one single and indivisible entity. Earth is honoured and idealised as ‘Meriramew’, literary meaning Mother Earth. Likewise, the Khasis also believe in mountain or hill spirit (Lei Lum), river spirit (Lei Wah) and water spirit (Lei Umtong)[ix] [x] [xi]. Similar practices are observed among the Tangkhul Naga, an ethnic group living mainly in Ukhrul district of Manipur along the Indo-Myanmar border areas. They have also included mountain spirit (Kaphung Kameo), river spirit (Kong Kameo) and spirit of the forest (Khara Ngahong Kameo) into their beliefs[xii]. Such nature-centric beliefs are also reflected in totemic practices of different communities, which are related to their clan system and kinship. For example, among the Karbis, one of the major ethnic groups living mainly in the Karbi Hills of Assam, an integral part of Kaziranga-Karbi-Anglong landscape of the region, the racket tailed drongo (Vojaro), hornbill (Vo-Terrang), woodpecker (Voleng), monitor lizard (Chehang), pangolin (Karpu) and crab (Chehe) are amulets of different clans and sub-clans[xiii]. There are also examples of kinship relationship with wildlife. The Idu-Mishmis of Dibang Valley in Arunachal Pradesh considerthe tiger as their brother. They believe that tiger and man are born from the same mother[xiv].  These beliefs echo the traditional values around nature and wildlife among the indigenous communities.

Such values are symbolically entwined with different folk and cultural practices like the folk festivals of Bhatheli (an area based celebration during spring season participated by all the caste and class people of the village or cluster of villages) in the southern part of old Kamrup district of Assam and Bah-gosaiutsav of SaraniaKochari of Assam, where bamboo is symbolised as God, a sign of productivity[xv]. These approaches of appreciating, learning and worshiping the nature lead to biomimicry in textile and handloom practices of many indigenous communities of the Northeast, particularly in the aspects of colour selection, developing motifs and in turn development of dress codes[xvi]. These practices, together embalming the environmental ethos and ethics, offer a new path of nature conservation. Hence, observation of tradition with an attitude of learning may accentuate the tip offs for enduring nature[xvii].

Traditional knowledge systems and natural resource management

Traditional practices of landscaping and waterscaping by indigenous communities of the Northeast reflect the rich ecological knowledge systems, where they adopt the management regimes relating to forestry, land use, agriculture, animal husbandry and host of other primary and secondary livelihood activities[xviii]. These practices exhibit terrain conditions and watershed property in designing their activity spaces, which support sustainability of ecosystem services (e.g. quality of soil, land, water, food, fodder, fuel, fiber, medicine, material for building and cultural practices).

Land categorisation for land use planning and management is vivid among the Dimasa[xix], Tangsa Naga, Tangkhul Naga[xx], Loi[xxi], Monpa[xxii] [xxiii] communities. The Dimasa community of Borail Hills of Dima Hasao district of Assam classifies land into six different categories. Three categories of forest (viz. Hadmsa, Hagra and Hagrama) play a critical role in maintaining ecological services to jhum (a slash, burn and shift agriculture practice in forest areas) plots, homestead areas and wet-paddy fields. Among the TangsaNagas in the PatkaiHill area of Tinsukia district of Assam lands are divided into zones: The core area is gimrouck (homestead), surrounded by hapkud (forest) and thereafter himsea(agricultural land), which is again surrounded by lingjung (woodland); so two natural vegetations cover the area in the village. This helps in maintaining ecological services through creation of watershed regimes. Similarly, among the Tangkhul Nagas of Manipur, a village has six categories of land, viz. naidakaphung (community forest), nadala (terrace field), hala (jhum), luira(jhum fallow) and kha (homestead area). It is noteworthy that in the cases of Dimasas, Tangsa Nagas and Tangkhul Nagas, traditionally forest is maintained as a village boundary, which creates an ecological continuum and cultural buffer with neighboring villages. 

In the case of Loicommunity of Manipur, land is classified as per topography: The hilltop is maintained as succession of natural vegetation called as ‘pamlow’, the next category of land in the slope is ‘inkhon’ used for homestead development. This is followed by ‘fawren’, an area of high quality of soil with biomass and moisture, which is used for agriculture. The next slopeanganpow”, isarable land, but its productivity is lower than fawren land. ‘Tawthehi’, which is the marshy area, is located at the bottom of the slope. Here, topography and slope conditions are considered by the traditional practitioners to define land characteristics that determine decisions for land uses. 

In the case of Monpatribe of Arunachal Pradesh, land resources possessed by a family are both from the father’s and mother’s side. Usually these are agricultural lands locally called as ‘khreimapas’ but based on the mode of transfer names change, where father’s lands are called ‘phasui’ and the lands transferred from the mother are called  ‘masui’. There are practices of transferring land to both son and daughter. Phasui land is usually transferred from father to son and masui land is transferred from mother to daughter. It is a gendered dimension of access to land resources through traditional institutions of land ownership. Moreover, the Monpa tribe of the district has two land ownership patterns, gosa (individual land) and maang-sa (community land). Usually land under individual ownership is used for khareisa(agriculture) and parmong (private forestry). The community land in turn is used for naa/ borong (forest) and bro-sa (pasture land). Community institutions of the respective villages collect fees (either as kind or cash) from persons from other villages collecting firewood from naa/ borong or grazing their animal in bro-sa. Such a defined management regime for natural assets using fees helps in managing conflict among the villages. It is noteworthy that forests are usually common in village land uses of indigenous communities of the Northeast India. Most of such forests are treated as community conserved areas as they play a very significant role in biodiversity conservation and maintaining ecological services[xxiv].

Moreover, in terms of natural resource management, waterscape practices vividly reflect the strong traditional practices of irrigation, water harvesting and management among the indigenous communities of the Northeast. Such practices have a strong foundation on observational and experiential understanding of the environmental context of the locality and accordingly many indigenous communities of Northeast India design their structural interventions and associated management regime entwined with cultural ethos and practices. The ‘dong’ irrigation practices of Bodo community in the ‘bhabhar’ zone in the foothills of the Bhutan Himalayas and ‘longsor’ irrigation of Karbi community in rain-shadow zone of Karbi-Anglong are two examples of adaptation to environmental challenges based on collectivism. The bhabhar is a zone with boulders, stone and sand where water percolates faster creating surface water crisis. Here, the Bodo community adopts the dong system–developing ‘bandh’ (checkdam) with wooden triangular baskets, filled with boulders and standing on tripods. Such baskets are placed in rows along the main stream of the river to divert water and channelize it to man-made conduits that help in holding surface water and distributing through the canal system.  This practice has been quite successful in Subankhata in Baska district of the Bodoland Territorial Region of Assam. Located on the foothills bordering Bhutan, Subankhata has managed to supply water to its 36,000 inhabitants and their agriculture through dong system with the cooperation of its 95 villages and 13 management committees. This is an example of water collectives and water governance based on traditional knowledge based practices[xxv] [xxvi]. On the other hand, longsor in the rain-shadow area of Western Karbi-Anglong is developed on a landscape approach, by restoring hill streams. Here hill top catchment areas are conserved as sacred forest, the intermediate slope is used for agro-forestry and water from the stream is transferred through bamboo pipes to the paddy fields. Some of the bamboo piped water is used for drip irrigation in between. It is an example of traditional drip irrigation[xxvii].  

Water is also used for local level energy application through chuskur (traditional water mill). It is an indigenous technique of the Monpa community of West Kameng and Tawang district of Arunachal Pradesh. Here, flowing water is used to power a traditional grinder for grinding millet, buck wheat, maize and barley grains. Water from streams and rivulets is diverted through a manmade conduit to the water powered mill. This traditional technology has a low carbon footprint and maintenance cost, and carries only the handprint of community knowledge and culturally tuned management system[xxviii] [xxix].

Also traditional practices of animal husbandry play a very critical role through collective management and individual visioning to ensure supply of food and material to households and villages. Such practices are reflected in ‘mesilakhor’ system of Rabha community in Goalpara district of Assam, where cattle of the entire village is managed by Lakhors, who are from the agricultural landless families. Their services are compensated by the rest of the farming families through payment of crops they harvest and based on the number of cattle they own. Similar approaches of cattle management are practised by the Dimasa community in Assam, when standing crops are in the field and among the Garo ethnic group ofMeghalaya, while managing pasture land in jhum fallow areas[xxx]. In the high altitudinal alpine zones of the region, trans-human practices are there for rearing of yaks and sheep, particularly among the Monpas of West Kameng and Tawang district of Arunachal Pradesh, where people involved in this livelihood are called Brokpa. It is considered as an occupational category in Monpa traditional system[xxxi].

There also are temporal perspectives of natural resource management practices, which are based on the traditional calendar system of different indigenous communities. Mostly, the lunar cycle is considered for developing a calendar system where months are defined with required natural resource management and agricultural activities. Such practices are very common among the communities like Dimasa[xxxii], Karbi[xxxiii], Mizo[xxxiv] and Adi[xxxv]. In all the cases, seasonality is coded with bio-indicators, considering phenological aspects of different flora (flowering, fruiting) and fauna (behaviour, activity). The seasons are defined for agriculture and festivals along with preparedness practices for adoption/risk reduction/resilience development with anomalies of weather, natural disaster, pest problems on agriculture and diseases. Therefore, the traditional calendar is also a tool for risk reduction, adaptation and resilient development.

Aforesaid examples are glimpses of some local ecological knowledge of the communities reflected in their natural resource management practices, where application of traditional technology is observed as in the case of dong, longsor and chuskur. In reality, traditional ecological knowledge, traditional technological knowledge, and traditional value and ethics work together, which ultimately frame the traditional way of life of the people and that emerged with cultural ethos.

Way to look forward in the context of overt challenges

In the midst of these centuries old rich and wiser ecological practices of traditional indigenous society, threats have emerged because of market based economic drivers, where ecological and cultural elements are converted to commodities and where defining market prices for everything is devaluing cultural ethos and ethics, dejecting the association of indigenous communities with nature. This is multiplied through growth focused development models, which superficially consider human and natural dimensions, without realising the involvement of the indigenous communities. The traditional knowledge based resource inventories are missing in such models. Over the period, such a modular approach of economic instruments emerged with policy and market failures regarding public goods and services have led to negative environmental externalities consequently creating conflict around natural resources[xxxvi], inability to pay proper care for the natural assets[xxxvii], displacing traditional knowledge through planned interventions for resource extraction, knowledge and culture based colonisation. The sad result has been a generalisation of everyone’s needs, without due consideration of geo-ecological context, social and cultural milieu.

To prevent its further destruction, the Northeast of India needs to be developed as a ‘Special Natural Economic Zone’[xxxviii], with all cares for forests and people[xxxix] [xl], based on the foundation of conservation livelihood[xli] and crafted on the principle of regenerative bio-economy considering the landscape as the unit of planning and operation. Such endeavour mandatorily needs to incorporate community owned business/ entrepreneurial models. Simultaneously, there is a necessity to introduce heritage education programmes, incorporating all the aspects of natural and cultural heritage of Northeast India for empowering the younger generation about their own knowledge system. Such heritage education programmes need to be designed on the principle of inquiry based integrated learning. Such processes may be able to create new ways to protect the identity of the indigenous communities of the region as well as activate a process for the wellbeing of the people and of nature.


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[ix] Mawire HO (1981), “The Khasi Milieu.”, pp. 21-24, Concept Publishing Company

[xi] Shangpliang RM (2010), “Forest in the Life of the Khasi”, Concept Publishing Company

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[xv] Sarma JK (2016), “Saga of Bamboo God”,; retrieved on 05.04.2020

[xvii] Sarma JK ( 2016), “Dipping in to the past for the future”,’ retrieved on 10.08.2020

[xviii] Sarma JK (2015), “The past can be the future”,; retrieved 10.08.2020

[xix] Sarma JK (2007), “Traditional land use practices among the Dimasa of NC Hills, Assam: Issues of forest conservation” in Bhattacharya P. et al edited JFM of India on the crossroads Vol. II, Vikash, Jaipur, pp. 130-137

[xx] Sarma JK and Saikia R (2013), “IEKS and sustainable land resource management – a surveillance on the practices among the Tangsa Naga and Tangkhul Naga of North East India” Indian Journal of Traditional Knowledge, Vol. 12(2), pp.252-258.; retrieved 07.08.2020

[xxi] Das Gupta BK, (1984), “Agriculture among the Loi of Manipur” in “Agrarian Situation in India”, Vol.1, Edited by Chakravarty SB, Gosh BR and Danda AK, Anthropological Survey of India, Calcutta-14, pp. 95-98 

[xxiii] Singh RK, Sureja AK et al (2028), “Grazing and rangeland management: Trans-human adaptation by Brokpa community in fragile ecosystem of Arunachal Pradesh” Indian Journal of Traditional Knowledge, Vol, 17 (3), pp. 550-558., retrieved on 11.08.2020

[xxiv] Chatterjee S, Gosh S, Sarma J et al (2011), “Community conserved area in North East India: Some observations in Assam, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh”, Indian Forester, Vol. 137, pp. 48-61 

[xxv] Das B, Gosh S, Lahkar BP  et al (2014 ), “Traditional knowledge, ecosystem services and disaster risk reduction in Manas World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve, India” in “Safe Havens – Protected Areas for Disaster Risk Reduction and Climate Change Adaptation” edited by Radhika Murti and Camille Buyck, IUCN, Gland, Switzerland, pp. 56-62
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[xxvi] Sarma JK, “Water Bond” (It is about dong – a traditional irrigation system prevailing in the north bank of the Brahmaputra, particularly foothills areas of Bhutan Himalayas of Assam where Bhabar Zone and piedmont structure prevail.);

[xxvii] Sarma JK (2015),op.cit.

[xxviii] Sarma JK (2018), “Reducing carbon footprint: The Monpa have been doing it for ages by preserving traditional water-powered grinding technology –Chuskur”; retrieved on 10.08.20

[xxix] Sarma JK “ Chuskur –  traditional water mill”,

[xxx] Sarma JK (2016), “Traditional practices of livestock management in Northeast India”; retrieved on 10.08.20

[xxxi] Sarma JK (2016), “Brokpas – the Yak rearers”; retrieved on 10.08.20

[xxxii] Sarma JK (2007), op.cit.

[xxxiii] Teron R, Borthakur SK (2009), “Traditional Knowledge relating to use of flora and fauna indicators in predicting annual seasons among Karbi tribe of Assam” Indian Journal of Traditional Knowledge, Vol. 8 (4), pp.518-524

[xxxiv] Lalmalsantmzauva KC (2016), “Mizo Indigenous Calendar: A Source of Mizo Indigenous Knowledge and Identity”; retrieved on 10.08.20

[xxxv] Teegalapalli K , Datta A (2016), “ Shifting to settled cultivation: Changing practices among the Adis in Central Arunachal Pradesh, Northeast India”, Ambio, 45(5), pp. 602-612; retrieved on 10.08.20

[xxxvi] Sarma JK (2016), “Wetlands in Assam have become new conflict zones”; retrieved 07.08.2020

[xxxvii] Sarma JK (2016), “Common Property Resources – the Neglected Natural Assets”; retrieved 07.08.2020

[xxxviii] Sarma JK (2018), “An outlook to developing North Eastern Region (NER) of India as a 'Special Natural Economic Zone (SNEZ)'”
Natural_Economic_Zone_SNEZ; retrieved 07.08.2020

[xxxix] Sarma JK (2020), “Call for a special developmental agenda for the forest fringe villages of Assam”; retrieved  10.08.2020

[xl] Sarma JK , “Forest and people”,

[xli] Sarma JK (2020), “Conservation Livelihood: A Concept of Integrating Nature Conservation and Livelihood”; retrieved 07.08.2020


This contribution is part of Alternative Worldviews.