Turtles Are Our Ancestors

In our second report from the mountains and forests of India, we go to Assam with Shrishtee Bajpai to hear the story of the sacred Hajong lake and the origins of the Dimasa people. As a researcher into decolonial methodologies, she writes on how Indigenous storytelling is a key to a  reconnection with the living speaking Earth and valuing its extraordinary biodiversity.
is a researcher-activist from India. Her current research focuses on radical alternatives, Indigenous worldviews, traditional/customary governance systems, bioregionalism and rights of nature. She is a member of  Kalpavriksh, Vikalp Sangam (Alternatives Confluence) in India, Global Tapestry of Alternatives and Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature.
It was a tender cool morning in December but I was restless. I opened the window to see the light outside but it was still dark. I slipped back under the warm blanket but couldn’t sleep in anticipation of going to ‘the lake’. 

Soon it dawned clear and the rose-coloured hue of the sky spread over the paddy fields. We started walking from the village through the fields to the shaded wall of trees, from the light to the shadow. The topmost branches were molten with sun and the frost crunched underfoot. Exactly half a white moon hung in the clear sky while the morning was so alive with bird song that it seemed the forest itself was singing. A sweet smell of mud and bamboo filled the air. 

During my  last two visits to the Dima Hasao district of Assam for a project on decolonial methodologies, I heard many stories of Hajong lake. Intrigued by its mysteries and the stories of its origin, I was finally here. The lake is known to be a habitat for rare turtles and tortoises in Assam and believed to be ancestors of the villagers. 

As we walked through the forest in dim light, I took a while for my eyes to find birds in the dense tropical broadleaf forests. I could see their movement but as soon as I looked through my binoculars to find them, they were lost.  Slowly, my eyes started to adjust. As we walked ahead, I found scarlet minivets, gold fronted leafbird (chloropsis) , bluethroated barbet, blue-eared barbet, coppersmith barbet, common kestrel, racket-tailed drongo, and many warblers among others. Bit by bit, a patch of lichen, a beard of moss, a 200-year-old banyan tree, and two-foot fungus revealed themselves. 

Moving through the forest, I finally saw the green shimmering water. The delicate sun rays were falling on the lake making their way through the mist that rested on the top of the lake, while a thick forest canopy surrounded it. I started to walk around the side of the lake and nothing seemed to move inside or outside it. No fish, no turtles, no movement of water. There was an eerie stillness. A stillness that calms you but makes you uneasy in the gut. 

The Turtle Worship site near Hajong lake

As we moved forward, a huge tree stood looking like a being with trunks reaching the sky and  the canopy so large that it seemed endless. Right below the tree roots, there was a small tin shed temple with tortoise miniatures at its entry right below to mark the presence of species in the lake. Looking at this tree in its full magnificence, living in deep time, as an abode to spirits, stunned me. I kept regarding it in awe.

In that moment of wonder, leaves at the topmost branches moved rapidly. Long, brownish hands leaping from one branch to the next and a little black face with distinct white eyestripe was staring at me when I looked through my binoculars. It was Hoolock gibbon mother and child who were inhabiting that tree along with numerous other birds and creatures. Hoolock gibbons are Asian ape species and currently under the Threatened species list of International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). They are found only in forest environments, are important seed dispersers, and depend on a contiguous canopy. Cutting down forests directly impacts their existence. Similarly, their disappearance directly impacts the forests and other species.

Hoolock Gibbon

For a while, we sat there looking at two pairs of whistling teals and hoping to catch a glimpse of rare turtle species. Gibbons continued to make their characteristic hu, hu, hu with pitch going louder with every note. The mist on the lake by that time had dissipated, the sun was sharper and birds were very active but still there was no sign of turtles. By noon, we had to make our way back to the village. I was despondent but was looking forward to hearing the story of the lake in the evening as promised by Gopendra Kemprai, an indigenous Dimasa elder from Hajong village who invited us to his home for dinner. 

Later I sat excitedly with my pen and paper at Kemprai’s home:  ‘We came from far off lands, possibly Mongolia, walking, running,and swimming our way and settling in areas of Dimapur and Maibong.’ he told me. ‘The legend goes that the Dimasas inhabited hills and slopes to the north of the Brahmaputra, and then gradually expanded through central Assam. Dimasa is from di, ma and sa, which mean “water”, “big/ great” and “son” respectively, so “the sons of a big river”’. 

He started his narration by lamenting the pain in his knee joints and how that affected his memory.  ‘I only remember 30 per cent of the entire story. Seventy per cent is lost,’  he said after gauging my excitement. While gently caressing his knees, as if that helped him remember, he then began:

The Dimasa king was called by the villagers for a ceremonial meal. The king came and was fed lavishly. His food was served on a big leaf which was thrown away with other leftovers after he finished. However, the next morning all the collected leaves were missing. It was nowhere to be found and everyone wondered if ‘we didn’t dispose of it off, where did it all go’. Several young people gathered and decided to confront whoever was stealing their food. They collected sticks and sat through the night. In the middle of the night, in the extreme dark, a bright light appeared. As their eyes adjusted to this light, a dragon stood shining bright in front of the young boys. They immediately tried killing it but couldn’t. They started throwing sticks at the dragon and one young boy pulled out a sword. He hit the dragon with the sword and cut it in half. One half of the dragon’s body disappeared into the forests and the other half moved the earth in a way that the village drowned and everyone in it too. 

The entire village drowned. The king, Raja Gobind Shundro Hasnam was taken to see it. He asked to see what was below the water and ordered that the lake be dug up. But whoever attempted the digging, died. Even the King’s son died trying.

Eventually, the spirit of the lake spoke through a medium and communicated that the lake is an abode to the spirit now and needs to be appeased. The spirit would protect the lake and live here while the humans had to offer their services in its upkeep. So, when villagers from lower Hajong village moved up here, they had to learn from their ancestors’ mistakes and performed several ceremonies to appease the spirits of the sacred lake. Since then, every year ceremonies are held near the lake.

Villagers and researchers working in the region also report other versions of the story. An alternative version goes:

Once upon a time, Hajong was a prosperous village but one day when the villagers caught an old python living in the village underground and killed it for the meat, the sin of killing the python became a curse and the village on that night sank into a lake. Those who had python’s meat became turtles and drowned. Except one old virtuous widow, who was cautioned in her dream to not eat the python meat and to leave the village. She later spread the news to other villages and told the misfortune of Hajong elders. Hence, it is believed that the turtles found in the lake are ancestors of the present day villagers.

There might be many versions of the story but the underlying current of  all of them is that the lake is sacred to people. A site of the human practice of sufficiency, of respecting the limits of extraction, of reverence. The lake since then has been protected and human interaction is dependent on the rules of relationship set by the protector spirit of the lake. No hunting is allowed, no tree cutting, no catching of turtles, no fishing unless ceremonies are performed, no loitering, no bathing in the lake, no use of water from the lake. These rules have to be followed to maintain a reciprocal co-existence among humans and more-than humans. This  is ‘horizontal living’ where humans are not above the rest of nature rather just one part of the larger ecosystem that they collectively inhabit. The protector deity is believed to be aggressive and ‘if disobeyed or if their home, the lake, is disrespected then the spirit possesses the humans and makes them mad,’ added Kemprai hesitantly as the evenings are usually avoided when  talking about the spirits 

No hunting is allowed, no tree cutting, no catching of turtles, no fishing unless ceremonies are performed, no loitering, no bathing in the lake, no use of water from the lake.

Hajong lake is about 526.78 hectares in size and has been declared a Biodiversity Heritage Site (BHS) under the National Biodiversity Act in India. This designation recognises the need of protection with the mandate of maintaining customary practices for tending and protecting them, and encouraging the preservation of traditional community knowledge. This offers a possibility to bring in customary knowledge, stories rather than just scientific designations.

This lake is known to be one of the few rare natural tortoise habitats in Assam and is home to a few varieties of hill terrapins (a rare species) and critically endangered freshwater black softshell turtle, Indian peacock softshell turtle, besides other major flora and fauna. This site also harbours threatened species like the critically endangered Chinese pangolin, clouded leopard, Asiatic black bear, fishing cat, capped langur, wreathed hornbill among others.

On reaching the lake you might wonder why the lake still shelters dozens of turtles. One obvious reason is that for centuries, Dimasas respected and protected the lake as an entity on its own. Respecting the limits of humans and what they can take, when they can take, how much they can take in accordance with the rules set by the spirits of the lake. They adapted themselves to the rhythms and moods of the rest of nature. Hajong turtles are not merely animals, they are beings, ancestors who must be respected and not killed. 

‘The spirit of the lake sometimes roams in the village and we are scared of it. We perform a ceremony every year in the month of August, Jubras to appease the spirits of the lake and seek penance for past actions,’ Kemprai says.  

Despite this reverence, village elders tell us that it is not quite the same as in earlier days: for most of the present generation killing a turtle means nothing. Over the last two to three years, incidents of poachers coming from faraway villages have also occurred. ‘The younger generation has just inherited  these forests and a beautiful lake. They haven’t worked hard for it. They see all these resources around and feel that they make money out of them. They are intoxicated by the outside world and its modernity. Once that intoxication is over they might realise how important nature is around us for our survival,’ says Kemprai while reflecting on rapid changes in worldviews of younger generations. 

To mitigate this growing disconnect and maintain the generation-old reciprocity, every year on the bank of Hajong lake a Tortoise/Turtle Festival is organised. This festival aims to create awareness among the villagers, as well as villages surrounding Hajong about the safety and  importance of endangered species. The larger intention is to keep narrating these stories so that the traditional knowledge is not lost because when these stories are lost, knowledge is lost and sacred sites are forgotten. 

Hajong lake

Storytelling – an art of decolonising 

Our times are defined by a story told us centuries ago. A story that says all humanity must pass through stages of progress. If they haven’t then they are not developed. They continue to be ‘uncivilised savages’. We need to tell other stories now: let the lost ones be retold, and create new ones. Stories that bring the rest of nature alive, of emergence, of memory, of loss, of creation, of the more-than human world. It is an epistemic as well as an ethical and political process. 

The story of Hajong lake and many such stories speak of life lived in relationships. They speak of reigniting the idea of nature being alive and in this realising our own aliveness. They speak of looking, listening, and being in this world in many diverse ways. In many ways articulating how climate change can’t be solved unless we fundamentally question the roots of crises we live in. And how our distorted sense of existence, as separated from the rest of nature, is what has brought us to this collapse. It calls for our actions to be place-based and responsible.  

As a society we need to begin listening, paying attention and offering space to people who are the keepers of these stories. The knowledge and worldviews of local communities are either used as a commodity, in isolation of custodians of that knowledge or sometimes completely absent from the corridors of power and decision making spaces. Nurturing decoloniality calls for creating spaces for people to share these stories and for us to recall our lost stories, create our own stories and discover the radical interconnectedness between our lives. 

But it also calls for us to ask: do we care where our food comes from? Do we care what species surround us or once did? Are we amazed at the journey bar-headed geese make while flying from the top of Everest to the eastern Himalayas? Are we ready to stand in solidarity with communities  when a mining company destroys the biodiverse forests, wiping out the entire living, thriving human and non-human community?  How can we tell different stories: mountains as keepers of knowledge, rivers as living beings, forests as community and humans beginning to understand and listen. We need to stay with the question: how can we challenge a culture that fundamentally rewards conquests of mind?


Dark Mountain: Issue 24 – Eight Fires

Our Autumn 2023 full colour edition is an ensemble exploration of the eight ceremonial fires of the year, celebrated in practices, stories, poetry and artwork.

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