Mirza Zulfiqur Rahman, PhD (Visiting Research Associate, Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi, India)

Banner image (above). Three young girls walking to school during light rain (slap-boi-ksi), in Mawlynnong village in Meghalaya, one using an umbrella to protect against the rain, one deciding if she should use it or close it, and one walking without an umbrella, almost oblivious to the rain. All of them are enjoying the rain and each other’s company. (Photo: Mirza Zulfiqur Rahman)

The monsoon currents that drag rains in from the Indian Ocean reach high into the easternmost fringes of the Himalayas in Northeast India. It is these rains that bring the Himalayan river-systems to life. After arriving in Northeast India, monsoon clouds bounce between the Patkai ranges and the eastern Himalayan ranges, and the ensuing rains nourish the various communities, sustain the forests, and shape the landscape through flows and floods. Anthropogenic interventions across the transboundary Eastern Himalayan landscape, coupled with climate change events, have cumulatively disrupted such natural flows, and annual floods, natural to this water-abundant environment, are increasingly catastrophic for riverine communities.

This post will look at how Indigenous communities in Northeast India use a variety of languages and imaginations about rains across their shared transboundary landscape. They record the changes in the patterns of rains in their community lives through their vernacular depictions of monsoon rains, in the face of extreme climate-change events.

Gathering Clouds, a dramatic prologue to the rains; somewhere near Guwahati, Assam. (Photo: Mirza Zulfiqur Rahman)

Frogs, Goats, and Rhinos: Rain in Assamese

I start with a personal story, set in Dibrugarh, Assam, a sleepy town literally drenched in the monsoon rains for several months of the year. The setting for the story is the banks of the mighty and meandering Brahmaputra river. This river is fed by its many northern tributaries flowing down the eastern Himalayan ranges and southern tributaries flowing from the rolling Patkai ranges. There, in the 1990s, my schoolmates gave me the nickname ‘bhekuli’—Assamese for ‘frog’—as I seemed to have an uncanny ability to predict when it would rain. The mesmerizing sounds, or what was referred to as the constant ‘tur-tu-rai’ of the army of bhekulis living in the ‘pukhuris’ (ponds), ‘khaals’ (natural drains) and ‘beels’ (wetlands) enveloped the nights, and upon hearing them, people would declare the advent of rains.

The rains usually came. My nickname stuck.

Feet of the frog, in the water. I always make it a point to dip my bare feet in the water, whenever I visit a water body of any kind, however cold the water may be. (Photo: Mirza Zulfiqur Rahman)

In the Assam plains, particular types of rains are described in terms of their intensity. One type of rain is known as ‘sagoli-kheda-borokhun’—goat-chasing-rain. Goats scurry into their shed to escape the rain, while people continue to move about. I used to describe the increasing scale of rains in Assam by starting with light-intensity ‘goru-kheda-borokhun’ (chasing cows), and medium-intensity ‘manuh-kheda-borokhun’ (chasing people) rains. The heaviest, though, was ‘gor-kheda-borokhun’—the rain that chases away even the one-horned rhinos of Assam. There are popular expressions in Assamese, which Nagaon-based poet Sabreen Ahmed refers to as ‘pithaguri borokhun,’ meaning rain with the same intensity as pounding rice into flour. The imagination of communities in the water-abundant environment of Northeast India brings a many-layered understanding of rains.

A rain-washed landscape from Nagaon, Assam, with ponds and wetlands in the foreground and background, where the frogs live. (Photo: Mirza Zulfiqur Rahman)

Angry River Spirits and Shifting Rains

Over the decades, there have been significant changes in patterns of monsoon rains in Northeast India, leading to extreme and catastrophic floods, as well as spells of drought. The croaking of frogs in the dark night has become less frequent, as ponds have degraded and filled up, while wetlands have been drained. Local communities in Assam have resorted to customs such as frog-marriages to appease the supposed envoys to the rain-gods, to restart their croaking matches, when drought-like situations persists. Similarly, the Idu-Mishmi community in eastern Arunachal Pradesh appeal to their traditional ‘shamans’ or priests, to invoke the rain-spirits to bring ‘ayyo’ or ‘ayyoyo’ (the Idu-Mishmi word for rain) on time, and to end the unusual long spells of rain when they fear the occurrence of a catastrophic flood.

Heavy rains in Roing, headquarters of the Lower Dibang Valley district of Arunachal Pradesh. This town is at the foothills of the Eastern Himalayas, inhabited by the Idu-Mishmis. (Photo: Mirza Zulfiqur Rahman)

Jibi Pulu,  an Idu-Mishmi community leader and environmental activist who I interviewed in September this year, told me how particular types of rains are meant to shed leaves of trees, aid in flowering, and signify the advent of migratory birds in the verdant forests of Dibang Valley. He lamented that the local Idu-Mishmi community members are no longer able to predict the types of rains, or when they will occur, largely because of the depletion of the forest cover, climate change, and other anthropogenic interventions.

Idu-Mishmi elders consider the increasing slaughter of animals and the cooking of meals on the dry riverbed by day-picnickers, common during the winters, to be inauspicious and to anger the river-spirits. They see this as the reason for erratic rainfall patterns and extreme flooding events on the Dibang and its tributaries.

Rain in the Abode of the Clouds

Author Janice Pariat and social activist Angela Rangad refer to the popular expressions and imaginations of the various types of ‘slap’, or rain, in the Khasi language of Meghalaya. The state’s name literally means ‘the abode of the clouds,’ and it is indeed one of the wettest places on earth. They talk about ‘slap-boi-ksi,’ referring to light rain that deposits small lice-egg like beads of water in one’s hair; ‘slap-bniup-bniup,’ being a mild drizzle; ‘slap-bah’ being a heavy and long-lasting rain; ‘slap-kyrtiah,’ which is accompanied by the ‘eriong,’ an intense strong wind; ‘slap-mynsaw,’ being a heavy and dark rain signifying an impending danger; and ‘slap-bam-briew,’ referring to a type of rain which will not stop until it has taken a life. They speak of location-specific rains, such as ‘slap-Sohra’ referring to the intensity of rains in Sohra, also known as Cherrapunjee.

A bridge of living roots connecting Riwai and Nowhet villages in Meghalaya. Locals constructed this bridge shaping and guiding the roots of the Indian Rubber Tree (Ficus elastica) over the years across this raging mountain stream, impassable during the monsoon. This is an excellent example of intergenerational sharing, as the villagers who build the bridge, generally do not get to use it; it is for the next generation, as it takes decades to complete. (Photo: Mirza Zulfiqur Rahman)

The most interesting type of rain in the context of traditional knowledge and community understanding of rainfall patterns, is one which Pariat and Rangad describes as ‘slap-khyndai-miet-khyndai-sngi’, which is known to last nine nights and days in a continuous rhythmic pattern. My conversations during my travels to the villages of Meghalaya, along the India-Bangladesh border, have often brought this facet of traditional understanding of periodic spells of rains, often running into as many as 17 to 21 days. I experienced a 12-day period of rain in 2011. As I was on a motorbike, I could not leave the village in Meghalaya for that many days.

In subsequent visits, stories of such long-enduring rains have decreased considerably in the narratives of local villagers, signifying changing rainfall patterns.

Gathering Rain in a New Climate

The festival of Bohag Bihu, celebrated in Assam every April, as the advent of the Assamese New Year following the lunar calendar, is marked by a thunderstorm known as ‘Bordoisila’, accompanied by heavy rainfall and high intensity winds, and depicted in popular Assamese folklore as a female character who visits her maternal home during the festival. The conversations that happen just before and after Bohag Bihu, signifying the coming and going of Bordoisila to her maternal home, have focused in recent years on the changing patterns of thunderstorms during the month of April, and thus towards the depiction of climate change patterns. The timing and the intensity of Bordoisila mark the advent of the pre-monsoon rains, and towards a traditional community-based understanding of the patterns of annual monsoon rains.

The variety of linguistic expressions, traditional knowledge systems, and lived experiences of indigenous communities across Northeast India related to rains, climate change events, and annual waves of catastrophic floods needs to be gathered together in the context of environmental democracy and transboundary conversations. This will enable communities across the Eastern Himalayas and the rolling Patkai ranges to meaningfully navigate and participate in decision-making aspects on ecology, environment, infrastructure development, crisis communication, core aspects related to their daily livelihood. They realize changes in their environment and their ability to grasp the patterns of rain and pulses of floods, and hence it is critical to underline civil society engagement through such lived experiences and imaginations.

Majuli, Assam, one of the largest inhabited river-islands in the world, is shaped and sustained by the rains and the Brahmaputra river. (Photo: Mirza Zulfiqur Rahman)