Tambor Lyngdoh made his way through the fern-covered woodland – naming plants, trees, flowers, even stones – as if he were paying older family members a visit.
The community leader and entrepreneur was a little boy when his uncle brought him here and said these words: “This forest is your mother.”
This sacred space is in the village of Mawphlang, nestled in the verdant Khasi Hills in the northeast Indian state of Meghalaya, whose name means “abode of clouds.” On an overcast day, the forest, a bumpy 15-mile drive from the state capital of Shillong, was tranquil but for the sound of crickets chirping and raindrops rustling the bright green foliage.
The ground, carpeted by dead leaves and green saplings, was peppered with moss-covered sacred stones, which for centuries have served as sacrificial altars and recipients of chants, songs and prayers.
Mawphlang is one of more than 125 sacred forests in Meghalaya, and arguably the most famous one. These forests are ancient, virgin woodlands that have been protected by Indigenous communities for many centuries; comparable tracts have been documented in other parts of India and around the globe, from Nigeria and Ethiopia to Turkey, Syria, and Japan.
In Meghalaya, these forests represent an ancient tradition of environmental conservation, rooted in Indigenous religious beliefs and culture. For hundreds of years, people have come to sacred groves to offer prayers and animal sacrifice to the deities they believe reside there. Any form of desecration is taboo; in most forests, even plucking a flower or leaf is prohibited.
“Here, communication between man and God takes place,” said Mr. Lyngdoh, a descendant of the priestly clan which sanctified the Mawphlang forest. “Our forefathers set aside these groves and forests to signify the harmony between man and nature.”
Many of these forests are primary sources of water for surrounding villages. They are also treasure troves of biodiversity. Mr. Lyngdoh counts at least four species of trees and three types of orchids that are extinct outside of the Mawphlang sacred grove.
Today, climate change, pollution and deforestation threaten these spaces. They have also been affected by the Indigenous population’s conversion to Christianity, which began in the 19th century under British rule. Christian converts lost their spiritual connection to the forests and lore, said H.H. Morhmen, an environmentalist and retired Unitarian minister. Meghalaya is 75% Christian in a country that is almost 80% Hindu.
“They viewed their new religion as the light and these rituals as darkness, as pagan or even evil,” he said.
In recent years, environmentalists working with Indigenous and Christian communities as well as government agencies have helped spread the message about why the forests, invaluable to the region’s ecosystem and biodiversity, must be tended. Mr. Morhmen said that work is bearing fruit in rural communities.
“We’re now finding that even in places where people have converted to Christianity, they are taking care of the forests,” Mr. Mohrmen said.
Mustem village in Jaintia Hills is one example. Heimonmi Shylla, headman of the hamlet with about 500 households and a deacon, says almost all residents are Presbyterian, Catholic, or members of the Church of God.
“I don’t consider the forest holy,” he said. “But I have great reverence for it.”
It serves as the village’s source of drinking water and is a sanctuary for fish.
“When the weather gets really warm, the forest keeps us cool,” he said. “When you breathe in that fresh air, your mind becomes fresh.”
Mr. Shylla worries about climate change and insufficient rain, but he said there are plans to promote tourism and “make the forest greener” by planting more trees.
Petros Pyrtuh takes his 6-year-old son, Bari Kupar, to a sacred forest near his village, also in Jaintia Hills. He is Christian, but said the forest is an important part of his life; he hopes his son will learn to respect it.
“In our generation, we don’t believe it is the dwelling place of the gods,” he said. “But we continue with the tradition of protecting the forest because our ancestors have told us not to defile the forest.”
B.K. Tiwari, a retired professor of environmental science from North Eastern Hill University in Shillong, is heartened to see that conversion to Christianity has not disconnected the people entirely from the land.
“In the Indigenous religion everything is sacred – animals, plants, trees, rivers,” said Mr. Tiwari, who has studied the biological and cultural diversity of Meghalaya’s sacred forests. “Now, they may not feel any connection with the divine or spiritual, but as a culture, they understand their roles as the custodians.”
Donbok Buam, a native of Jaintia Hills who still practices the Indigenous faith, explained that in his village’s sacred forest, rituals are performed at the confluence of three rivers honoring the goddess Lechki, denizen of the forest and guardian of the village.
“If people have a problem or sickness or if women have trouble conceiving children, they go there and perform sacrifices,” Mr. Buam said.
Each forest has its own set of rules and taboos. In this forest, people can take fruit from the trees, but are prohibited from burning anything, he said. In others, the fruit can be plucked from the tree, but must be eaten in the forest. Deities are believed to punish people for disturbances.
Mr. Lyngdoh from Mawphlang is Christian, but he participates in the forest rituals, invoking the deities believed to appear as a leopard and a snake. He also sees the effects of climate change on forests in the area and noted the invasive birds, fungi-infested trees, and disappearing species.
In rural Meghalaya, the poorest people rely most on the land, said Mr. Lyngdoh, noting forests can be life-giving as well as economic engines, providing water and driving tourism.
“But above all, a sacred grove is set aside so we can continue to have what we have had from the time this world was created.”
This story was reported by The Associated Press.