Travel Magazine

Gilding the Lily

By Kartix
To a first time visitor, like it was to me four years back when I came here, the landscape around the village may seem like a random hotch-potch of currently cultivated and regenerating shifting cultivation fields, palm, citrus and bamboo plantations and wet rice cultivation fields. A closer inspection however reveals a well-defined landscape with almost every patch, in fact, every tree and even a stream owned by a particular individual or a family or a clan in the village. Such is the intricacy of the landscape around an Adi village in the Upper Siang district in Arunachal Pradesh in north-east India.
Gilding the lily
One may even wonder, how a patch is demarcated in such a heterogenous landscape that seems to seep in from one landuse to another like in a painting made with coarse brush strokes. Thats where the lilies come in.
Gilding the lily
The Bomdo village is located close to the Siang river, the river flows around the village owing to the terrain. In late April every year in the Bomdo village in Upper Siang, eight species of cuckoos constantly call, often two or three of the calls overlapping, like cuckoo clocks that need no rewinding. This time of the year, the shifting cultivation landscape around the village features tiny spots of lilies flowering at the boundaries of individually owned patches. Flowering of this lily is also a trigger for the Adi community here to sow rice in their fields. The importance of this lily however goes beyond ornating the farming landscape or providing an indication to the farmers to sow their rice.
Crinum amoenum is a plant that is used by the Adis here to demarcate individual plots within a larger shifting cultivation mosaic. The plant is fire-hardy, is slow-growing and propogates through tubers. The plant, locally called Riksu Sodok (literally translated as a boundary ground orchid) is used to resolve boundary issues between shifting cultivators. The size of the tuber of the individual plant provides information regarding when it was planted and therefore how old the patch is, or who it belongs to. In the past, the local institution Kebang in the Bomdo village has resolved patch ownership issues based on the location and the age of the Crinum plant in the fields.

Gilding the lily

A newly cleared field with the Riku sodok flowering (photograph by Anirban Datta Roy)

There is much more detail to the way the Adis manage their shifting cultivation landscape. I just learnt last month that there is a fern that they retain in their fields since it leads to water retention. They clear all the trees and shrubs in a secondary shifting cultivation site but do not cut this fern. More about this and others soon! Watch this space!

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