(The interviews in this story were conducted in-person as a part of field research between October–December 2021)
India’s north-eastern state of Assam is more impacted by climate change than any other part of the country. When it comes to predicting the ways of rivers, rains and floods, observations of elders based on their traditional experiences and folk beliefs are still considered credible early warning systems in many villages, even when most villagers today have access to smartphones and weather applications.
Udhab Borah, 28, was among the first to begin using smartphones in his home village of Sumoni Chapori in the Jorhat district, about five years ago. This gave him access to various weather applications. “Though I do browse through their different forecasts on my mobile phone, or pause to hear the announcements made over radio and television, I still think that my village elders are almost 80 percent correct, in their weather predictions,” he says.
Nature’s signals for weather alerts
The village elders from Sumoni Chapori — Narayan Neog, Gajan Borah and Pradeep Neog — are known for accurately predicting impending rains, floods or cyclones. According to them, nature sends out her own signals to alert us about the upcoming calamities.
“Ame baan, kothale dhaan”, goes a popular adage in the village, says Narayan. Translated it means that mango flowers blooming in abundance herald floods for the year. While bountiful jackfruits appearing in the trees indicate a good paddy harvest ahead (lesser chances of floods).
“Animals around us are much quicker to sense the changing weather conditions and often behave in out of ordinary or erratic ways,” says Gajan. Years of observing some of these behavioural changes help them to predict the approaching natural calamities. He explains that if cows for instance suddenly become restless, start running hither and thither and go out of control, it is a sign of imminent rains and floods.
Pradeep further explains a popular folk belief based on the behaviour of cows at dawn, during their auspicious occasion of Goru Bihu (a festival dedicated to the care and worship of livestock). The head of the family enters the cowshed at the crack of dawn, to offer obeisance to the cows. If he finds the cows standing or restless, it is a sign that there will be a flood that year.
Worse still if there are dark (black) cows that are uneasy and jittery, this indicates the floods may be more severe than normal. However, on rare occasions, if the cows are found sleeping or even lying on the ground, it is time to rejoice, as it means there would be no floods that year.
But with the vagaries and impacts of climate change becoming more and more unpredictable, they admit that even the behaviour of the animals is becoming somewhat unreliable.
The villagers further believe that if the water level of the river Brahmaputra rises on a particular day of Ambubachi (another sacred occasion falling in the month of June, observed statewide), there would be floods for the rest of the year. On the other hand, if the river does not rise on that day, the floods would be less serious.
According to them, the uninterrupted croaking of frogs or the sudden appearance of trails of small ants in the soil also warns of heavy rain and floods. Further, if the water bodies are found to have no fish or less fish during the early part of the rainy season (April–May), there could be floods in that year.
“The behaviour of the rarely seen vultures also help us to forecast storms and cyclones,” says Rajib Morang, from Majdolopa village of Golaghat district. Vultures are known to build nests on top of tall trees, he explains. They can perhaps sense the approach of cyclones in advance and accordingly choose trees in safe locations to build their nests. So, easily spotting their nests indicates lower chances of cyclones.
Distant mountains and weather warnings
Rajib further points out thick dark grey clouds blanketing the sun and the sky, shrouding the horizon and distant hills are warnings enough that there is heavy rain on the upper reaches of the neighbouring states of Arunachal or Nagaland.
“We further observe the direction of the wind, the height of clouds, and their proximity to the mountains. These give us an idea on the state of rains and that of floodwater in the higher ranges,” he says. Accordingly, they are able to estimate the time within which the rainwater would tumble down the hills and flood the villages.
Community members dwelling on the hills also warn them when they experience heavy rains that might lead to flooding. “Normally we get about 24–36 hours in hand and this helps us to decide in advance the preparatory measures to be adopted — whether we can cope with it from our homes or would have to rush out with our essentials and cattle to higher lands near embankments,” he says.
Methods of preservation
These folk beliefs have been passed on as oral traditions among the villagers for generations. However, in an effort to preserve them, some enthusiastic educated youths in certain villages are also documenting them. Non-profits such as Balipara Foundation are interviewing and video recording the village elders to preserve their folk beliefs and traditional knowledge.
“We may find it difficult to establish these beliefs scientifically, yet they are found to be at least 75 percent to 80 percent correct”, says Ratul Mahanta, Professor in Economics from Gauhati University, working on climate issues with indigenous communities. According to him, these local communities have been living on the banks of the River Brahmaputra for generations. While co-existing with the local ecosystem and biodiversity, they have been observing the behaviour of the flora and fauna and accordingly adapting to the changing natural phenomena.
“All these aspects put together have shaped their local customs, indigenous knowledge and traditional wisdom, which enable them to predict the upcoming weather with a fair amount of accuracy,” he says. Most importantly the predictions of elders according to him help their fellow community members to prepare themselves in advance for the approaching weather disturbances.