How the loss of a natural dye-producing plant initiated the idea of a village sanctuary

Oriental pied hornbill perched on a branch.

Oriental pied hornbill perched on a branch.

  • In 2018, the Tai-Khamyang Buddhist community in Assam established a community-led village sanctuary, Chala Village Sanctuary. The sanctuary has recently been expanded by an additional 30 hectares.
  • The underlying ethos of the village sanctuary is that the local people will ensure the protection and growth of the sanctuary and its wildlife and in return they will avail ecosystem services without harming the forest ecosystem.
  • The seed of the initiative was when a local community wanted to preserve a native creeper that is used to produce the natural dye to colour the robes of the local Buddhist monks.

On the bank of the horseshoe-shaped Safrai river in the Chala village of Assam’s Charaideo district, stands a lush evergreen forest of over 680 hectares. Nearby, the rectangular shaped structure of a 152-year-old Theravāda Buddhist monastery hunkers down, under the shade of some old-growth trees. Half a decade ago, the then chief abbot of the monastery, Venerable Sasanavamsa Mahathera, expressed how the area had lost its dense forest cover over time. Among what was lost was plants such as bhungloti which was used to produce natural saffron dye for robes worn by the Theravāda Buddhist monks.

The forests by the Safrai river had been the traditional source of bhungloti, a creeper that is mixed with the pith of the roots of jackfruit tree to make natural saffron dye for robes donated to monks every year on the Buddhist occasion of Kathina ceremony. The residents of Chala — most of whom belong to the Tai-Khamyang community and follow Theravāda Buddhism — were concerned about the loss of ingredients required to make natural dye.

“The art of dye-making has almost vanished,” says Ananta Shyam, 70, who once lived in the monastery as a monk. “Earlier people used to offer naturally dyed saffron robes to the monks. Now, it’s really difficult to get the creepers required to make natural colours. Even if you stumble upon one or two creepers here and there, that’s not enough to process dyes.”.

When Mahathera Bhante, as the abbot of the monastery was called, flagged the issue, the village residents strongly felt that they needed to do something to protect the remaining forests.

The late Sasanavamsa Mahathera (1927-2023), a venerated Buddhist monk and leader of the Tai-Khamyang community. He emphasised the importance of preserving the environment in his religious teachings. Photo by Bikash K. Bhattacharya.

On September 19, 2018, the local community in Chala and adjacent areas decided to form a ‘village sanctuary’ by combining three reserve forests that sit on the fringes of the village. With support from the local forest department officials, the community formally declared the sanctuary on January 13, 2019.

“Thus, Chala Village Sanctuary came into being,” says Pyoseng Chowlu, secretary of Chala Village Sanctuary Conservation Society, the village committee that looks after the sanctuary. “What’s unique about the initiative is that the management and guardianship of the forest rests with the villagers. It’s a people’s forest.”

Assam’s first village sanctuary

Located on a quiet edge of the Safrai river, Chala village was surrounded by biodiversity-rich dense forests until a few decades ago. In fact, the Tai-Khamyang word, ‘Sue La’, from which ‘Chala’, the present name of the village, is derived means ‘abode of tigers’.

Chowlu, who is a school teacher by profession, says that Chala Village Sanctuary is the first of its kind in Assam. “As far as we know, ours is the first village sanctuary in the state.”

Today the sanctuary is home to wildlife including the capped langur (Trachypithecus pileatus), leopard (Panthera pardus) and birds such as the oriental pied hornbill (Anthracoceros albirostris), hoopoe (Upupa epops), emerald dove (Chalcophaps indica), crested serpent eagle (Spilornis cheela), various species of woodpeckers and parakeets, jungle fowls, bulbuls, kingfishers, barbets, parrots, mynahs, thrushes, herons, storks and owls as well as reptiles such as the green viper (Trimeresurus albolabris), monocled cobra (Naja kaouthia), and monitor lizard (Varanus bengalensis) among others. In addition to being a haven for butterflies, the sanctuary also harbours rare nutrient-rich plants such as Gnetum gnemon and orchids such as Tainia penangiana, a species usually found at altitudes beyond 500 metres.

The Chala Village Sanctuary is home to wildlife such as leopard, capped langur, and oriental pied hornbill. Photo by Pyoseng Chowlu.

The original area of the sanctuary has recently been expanded with an additional 30 hectares of area, where the villagers have planted 20,000 trees.

Chowlu says the aim of the community-led reforestation effort is to ensure that village residents can avail ecosystem services from the sanctuary as they have done for generations without harming the forest. “Villagers can grow vegetables and do other short-term farming in the open areas of the forest. In return, they help in long-term planting and rewilding of adjacent areas,” he says.

The idea of village sanctuary also draws from the traditional bari agroforestry system of Assam. The bari is a patch of agroforest comprising naturally grown trees, bamboo shrubs as well as jackfruits, mango, citrus, banana and other fruits. “Here, every household has a bari forest alongside the main household. Therefore, people are naturally inclined to take care of forests. So once the people consider the community-owned forest as an extension of the bari, they would naturally care for the forest as their own,” says Amrit Shyam, a member of the Chala Village Sanctuary Conservation Committee.

He further said that the members of Chala Village Sanctuary Conservation Committee are also trying to popularise the concept of village sanctuary in the neighbouring villages.

Care for all beings

The key Buddhist doctrine of paticca-samuppada (dependent origination or interdependence) expounds that all phenomena, all beings are interconnected and that nothing exists in isolation. “The principle of paticca-samuppada advocates care for all beings around us including forest and wildlife,” says Lalit Shyam, a Tai-Khamyang Buddhist scholar and writer based in Jorhat. “Therefore, if a Buddhist cares for the environment, it earns him or her karmic merit. In fact, it is the duty of a true Buddhist to safeguard the environment.”

To drive home his point, the octogenarian writer cites Samudda-Vanija-Jataka, a canonical Buddhist story that underscores the environmental responsibility of humanity. “In this story we see a community living on an island being punished by the gods for having despoiled the island’s environment. The Buddha attempted to explain that it is the responsibility of the people to take care of the environment.”

Ananta Shyam, the 70-year-old former monk, says that most villagers in Chala believe that helping protect the environment will earn them merit. “This is one of the key reasons behind the villagers’ overwhelming support for forest conservation initiatives.”

Manas Pratim Shyam, 25, who regularly volunteers in patrolling the village sanctuary at night in order to check encroachment of timber smugglers, concurs. “It leads to accumulation of merit if I am able to help protect nature. It’s indeed good karma.”


Banner image: Oriental pied hornbill in India. Photo by Tisha Mukherjee/Wikimedia Commons.

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