Amazing Eco-Traditions from India


by Muriel Kakani



Ladakhi houses are designed with traditional eco-latrines. They consist of a small room with a hole in the floor. Below is another room where the human excreta accumulates. Earth and ash from the kitchen stove are added to stimulate chemical decomposition and reduce offensive smells. Once a year, during the summer, the latrine is emptied and its contents, the best and cheapest fertiliser one can think of, are spread in the fields. Animal dung in the stables is also used as fertiliser. In this way, Ladakhis have maintained the fertility of the soil and grow bountiful crops in a cold desert. 


The goncha is a traditional costume of Ladakh. It is a calf-length overcoat tied around the waist with a cummerbund. The goncha is not only a symbol of Ladakhi culture, but a highly practical piece of clothing. It is a thick and heavy garment designed to protect the body from extreme cold as well as painful falls on the ice. People usually have two gonchas - a new one for special occasions and a second one for everyday use. The everyday goncha is usually dyed maroon using a traditional vegetable dye extracted from the madder plant. The goncha is made of goat's wool that is spun and woven in local households. Villagers typically spin and weave during the coldest months. Spinning with whorl-less hand spindles called phang is a constant activity for men and women alike. Women spin the finer sheep's wool for clothing. Men spin the coarser hair and wool of goats and yaks, which is used to make blankets. Men also do most of the weaving.


One of the most popular events in Maharashtra is the Patra pooja or worship of leaves. Practised in a lot of villages, this ritual has contributed to the protection and propagation of plant biodiversity. Some of the plants used in these poojas are Mangifera indica L (mango), Achyranthes aspera L (prickly chaff flower), Calotropis gigantea (crown flower), Ficus religiosa (peepal), Ficus racemosa (cluster fig tree), Ficus benghalensis (banyan), Aegl marmelos (bael), Michelia champaca (champa) and Jasminum grandiflorum (chameli).



The Warli tribe has lived in the forests of the Sahyadri Mountains in northern Maharashtra since time immemorial. The forest is their source of nourishment and livelihood. In the dry season, when there is a shortage of cereals, the Warlis go deep into the forest and dig out tubers from there. They have learnt the art of cooking these tubers by removing the poisonous substances the tubers contain. During the monsoon, the Warlis live on the wild plants and herbs freely available in the forest. The Warlis also pick a wide variety of nutritious, tree-ripened and delicious wild plants. Interestingly, when the Warlis pick plants, they follow a set of rules that prevent the over-exploitation of a species.



The Sahyadris in Mahabaleshwar, situated at a height of 1,372mts in the northern Western Ghats, receive the highest amount of rainfall in this part of India. For the villagers inhabiting the forest, to stay dry is a real challenge. In this unhealthy climate where nothing escapes the attack of fungi and other decomposers, residents of Mahabaleshwar protect themselves from the monsoon rains and cold by insulating their homes in a cloak of wild grass.

To make the grass panels, wooden poles are placed in a rectangle to form the outline of the panel. Then the grass is spread on the canvas. Two types of grasses are used - Kulum and Gavat. First, a thin protective layer of Kulum is spread across the canvas and then this is lined with a thick layer of Gavat. Gavat (Andropogon annulatus) is one of 51 endemic grasses growing on the slopes of the Western Ghats. The grass is harvested in December and dried. The grassy panels not only protect the villagers from water infiltrations and mould growth, but also from the cold.



To survive in the inhospitable climate of the Thar Desert, rural Rajasthanis have homes that are perfectly designed to protect them from the sizzling heat, bitter cold and strong desert winds.

Huts called jhumpas and are built with mud, a versatile building material that insulates against heat in the summer and cold in the winter. The thatched roofs and the absence of windows also contributes towards maintaining a cool atmosphere inside the habitation. These desert huts are usually circular in shape as this enables them to withstand the high velocity of winds.

Apart from being perfectly adapted to the desert's extremes of climate, jhumpas are very eco-friendly as they use local resources and are cost effective.



The Khejri tree (Prosopis cineraria), also known as the Shami tree, is the state tree of Rajasthan. The Khejri is a small, evergreen, thorny, aridity-loving tree that thrives in the desert. It belongs to the Leguminosae (beans) family and has the ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen (N), a key element which is essential for plant growth and plays an important role in improving soil fertility.

The Khejri tree provides people with food (sangri beans), fuel, fodder, medicine and timber. Being the lifeline of the desert, the tree is called the Kalpavriksh–the tree that fulfils all wishes–and is hence considered sacred.



The Thar Desert receives an average annual rainfall of less than 10 inches. Yet, thanks to the Khadin system, an ingenious water harvesting technique, agriculture has been made possible in the heart of the desert.

The Khadin system was designed by the Paliwal Brahmins of Jaisalmer in the 15th Century. The system is based on the principle of conserving rainwater for agriculture. The main feature of the Khadin system is a rocky hillock or upland (catchment area) from which rainwater runs off into a sloping agricultural field below. The field is surrounded by a long earthen embankment to conserve maximum rainwater runoff within the farmland. After the first rains in July, the water - saturated Khadin soils are ready for crop production. The main crop grown using this system is bajra.



People in West Bengal use a lot of jute in their daily lives. Jute needs alluvial soil to grow and West Bengal, with its alluvial deltas and weather, is an ideal place to grow jute. Jute is an annual plant that is grown exclusively for its eco-friendly, vegetable fibre. It is the second most important fibre after cotton. It is a cash crop, which is harvested four months after sowing and needs very little fertiliser or pesticide. It is also 100% biodegradable and recyclable.

Jute fibre is extracted after retting. The retting process consists of bundling jute stems together and immersing them in a river or other low-running water. This softens the plant's tissues. The fibre is then separated through a process called stripping. The stripped fibre is then washed in clean water and made into bundles that are allowed to dry under strong sunlight.

Jute has many uses, domestic as well as industrial. People in West Bengal use jute for various purposes including making ropes and twine. Villagers also wear clothes made out of jute!



In Bengal, jaggery is called nolen gur and is used as an alternative to sugar while preparing Bengali sweets. There are two types of jaggery - sugarcane jaggery and palm jaggery. Palm jaggery is obtained mainly from two types of palm trees: the palmyra palm tree also called Toddy Palm (Borassus) and the wild date palm also called Khajur (Phoenix sylvestris). To create jaggery, the sap of the palm tree is tapped. The tapping season lasts from November to February. A single wild date palm tree can yield 20 to 25kgs of jaggery in a season. The upper part of the trunk is incised to let the sap run out. Some container, such as a gourd or a matka (clay pot), is used to collect the draining sap. Tapping trees is a labour intensive job and requires indigenous knowledge and skill to guarantee the survival of the tree. Once collected, the sap is boiled for hours in huge kadais. The concentrated liquid is then poured into moulds to dry. Depending on the mould used, the jaggery comes in different shapes - round flat discs, cylindrical blocks, round balls or half spheres. In Bengal, these chunks of black jaggery are called patali gur.

The Mowalis are the honey gatherers of Sunderbans in the Bay of Bengal. In Bengali, 'Mou' means 'honey'. They have been harvesting honey from the wild honeybees since time immemorial. The Mowalis collect the honey of Apis Dorsata, the Giant Rock Bee. It is the largest honeybee species in the world and measures close to 1inch in width. Rock bees usually construct huge combs that are 2 to 3mts in size and hang from a thick branch of a tree or a rock cliff. Apis dorsata is the most common honeybee in India and it contributes nearly 75% of India's total honey production.

In the month of April, teams of 6-7 honey collectors get ready for their jungle trip. During the expedition,  the Mowalis live on a boat with a stock of food supplies like rice, salt and oil. Before leaving for the expedition, they make offerings to the Goddess Bonbibi to invoke her protection. Mowalis possess techniques of bee management that are sustainable. They harvest honey only when the combs are filled and they never cut the entire bee comb to ensure a fast recovery for the bee colony.


Muriel Kakani is an author and illustrator of book series called 'Ecological Tales from India'