Chokho Pani : Religion-Environment Interface

Himalayan Consensus SummitBlogLeave a Comment

Religion has long been a significant part of the varied socio-cultural practices enacted in the Darjeeling and Sikkim Himalaya. However, religious practice in daily life is perceptibly different and more diverse than the scripturally and institutionally regulated forms, sometimes even being contrary to them. These “cross-cultural explorations and comparisons of different religious imaginations of nature” prevalent in Darjeeling are neither strictly outside codes and cannons nor within. These are negotiated in terms of observances and practices in the ecological context in which they are carried out. Mostly these are accepted, adopted, and adapted both at the individual and community levels. This is more conspicuous in terms of water usage, as a public good and as a critical ingredient in the day-to-day religious practices.
In recent times, certain castes and ethnic groups that constitute the Nepali community have begun asserting their respective cultural values, practices, institutions and norms, fearing that these are being eroded. In the process, many everyday practices of the past have once again become the focus of community attention in the form of ‘revival,’ ‘reform,’ or even survival.
The Business of Water
The water supply system of Darjeeling municipality comes from the catchment area of the Senchal Wildlife Sanctuary built in 1910 and 1930. A rapid rise of the population and a huge tourist influx puts tremendous stress on the water supply, especially for drinking water. Even in peak monsoon, Darjeeling experiences serious water crisis. There are more than 32 natural springs in Darjeeling town . These springs are community managed with open access provisions, and individually managed with restricted access. Individuals and families survive with very little water and the same water is utilized for repeated functions.
Scarcity of water has led to the marketization and privatization of water. Darjeeling today has a thriving water business, with a fleet of 105 trucks plying three or four trips a day carrying 5500 to 6500 liters of water on each run. Each truck load of water is sold at an average of Rs. 1000 per truck.
Chokho Pani
Different religious and ethno-cultural groups express the ever pervasive presence of sacredness of water. through the concept of chokho pani, meaning pure, sacred, or clean water. It usually refers to fresh and flowing water from a spring or a small rivulet. Its sacredness is intrinsically ingrained in oral traditions as well as religious texts and practices, where science is to a large extent secondary and faith is primary. The purity of such water derives from its connection to gods of major religions, to a local deity or spirit, or even to the sanctity of a particular location. chokho pani is used in rituals, prayers, and offerings on a daily basis, and also in the ceremonies related to birth and death.
The concept of chokho pani includes an indigenous practice that conserves water sources by planting specific plants and protecting green cover around its source. In Darjeeling town, people offer chokho pani fetched from nearby springs and also from the municipality system. The reverence for this water is so strong that it can be used in times of ritual as a replacement for Ganga jal, or even holy water used by the Christian population. Over the years, as the scarcity of water in Darjeeling became widely prevalent, people have begun compromising on the quality of chokho pani, to now include any potable water. They still call it chokho – without bothering to verify the water’s source. This ultimately undermines the value of true choko pani collected from Darjeeling’s springs.

Role of Samaj
Despite the rapid socio-cultural changes, a traditional community institution known as a samaj is working to maintain some of the older practices, while focusing on both social welfare and environmental conservation, including water management. The samaj has a long historical context. Samaj today are predominantly geographical entities, mostly crisscrossing administrative villages. They come together and serve the community and families living within a samaj in times of need: births, sicknesses, marriages, deaths, disaster management, and conflict resolution. There are over 150 samaj in Darjeeling town itself.
The samaj also throw light on the fragile interplay and complex interconnections between everyday religion and environmental sustainability in the Himalaya. These samaj have evolved based on the needs of the new environmental situation, where different religious groups, ethnicities, and castes live in relative harmony. They have broken barriers and restrictions by reworking traditions. The samaj exhibit an amalgamation of various religious traditions at the individual family and community levels. The diversity of beliefs is seen in the varied use of chokho pani at Darjeeling’s springs.
Many samaj have installed idols and sacred images at the springs and hold religious ceremonies regularly. Every spring is also associated with naga, sacred snakes that live in the sub-surface, that in Hindu beliefs are known as patal. Naga like a clean environment, so it is essential to pray to the naga and offer them milk. The association of water sources with naga in Darjeeling prevails irrespective of the ethnic community one belongs to.
Everyone believes in chokho pani as it connects all life, yet it has no demonstrated collective social presence. It is a silent observance and private expression, mostly at individual and household levels. Interestingly, many of the springs and other water sources are choked with household and commercial waste. Most of the time, the same chokho pani is used to wash away the waste of Darjeeling. Jhora (waterways) are where people roll their waste down the hill, thereby affecting and polluting springs in low lying areas. Downstream of the springs, temples and houses also have waste flowing in the jhora. This contradiction arises as the waste management system is inadequate and unscientific in one of the oldest municipalities of India. Here, chokho pani is directly polluted by human actions, yet no one is willing to take up collective waste management action,
This means that the strong belief in the sacredness of waters is gradually waning in the quickly changing urban locale of Darjeeling, thereby compromising on polluted water sources and waterways. The co-existence of the sacred with the profane is conspicuous and real. People explain this contradiction and compromise as being the result of rapid urbanization, failed governance, a lack of space, and increasing negligence of civic duty among the people. This was never the case in Darjeeling before, which was once celebrated as the Queen of the Hills.
Silent Adaptations
In many situations, rituals and beliefs are being adapted. A Lepcha commented that “Lepchas use bamboo, banana leaves and spring water for their prayers. My parents want to continue the prayers but I do not see the completeness of the prayers when we do not have access to …… (Because of this) we still go to the confluence of Teesta-Rangeet rivers once a year to offer our prayers. A third generation resident stated “Bengali funerals end with a bath but since the spring in the crematorium in Darjeeling cannot be depended upon to have continuous flow of water , a water tanker follows the funeral procession so that we can have a bath at the crematorium after the cremation”. Another person observed that “we require flowing water to cleanse ourselves at the time of mourning, but since we do not have a spring or river nearby we attach a pipe to a tank uphill and use that water as flowing water to cleanse ourselves during the 13 day mourning”.
These comments reiterate how Darjeeling town, with its mix of cultures and religious practice, is adapting to water stress and concept of Chokho pani.

Mahendra P Lama

[This excerpt is based on the article co-authored with Roshan P Rai and published in the 2016 issue of HIMALAYA. Lama is at present a High End Expert in Institute of South Asian Studies, Sichuan University, Chengdu, China]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *