An Ethnobiologist Lends an Ear to Tradition

Monika Panchani is involved in the study of influence of local deities in the protection of the Great Himalayan National Park.


Monika Panchani. Credit: Aashima Dogra/TLoS

People in rural Kullu, are bound to the forests and importantly their protection through their local deities [demigods] along with the rule of law. The fear of god is helping conserve the biodiversity of the national park,” Monika Panchani said, concluding her presentation on her most recent work on the influence of local traditions in protecting of the Great Himalayan National Park.

The end of Panchani’s presentation signaled the beginning of the question and answer session. It started with the shaking heads of the two senior scientists, both male, chairing the scientific show-and-tell at Him Science Conference. They were both making the same point; they protested that relying on traditional knowledge for any conservation efforts would be a “step backwards”. A discussion ensued between them, with Panchani trying to get a word in unsuccessfully.

The five minutes reserved for Q&A with Panchani, an opportunity for her to defend her research, were hijacked as the rest of us looked on, slightly irked. A classic example of sexism happening in professional spaces, I thought. As many women would testify, and some have in The Life of Science project, female voices are being muffled with interruptions, undue judgement and apathy across the country.

Later, Panchani sat down for a chat with me, where she spoke at length about her life and her research.

Part time scientist, full-time lecturer

Local scientific conferences like this one in Himachal are a familiar territory for Panchani. She participates as a delegate in as many as possible, each time presenting a review of her recent observations in biology and society that are often published as conference proceedings.

Hailing from the Kullu valley, where the Himalayas start to get steep and snowy, she is now a professor at the Government Degree College, Bassa, in Gohar district, close to the princely city of Mandi. “At present, there is lots of work related to my college so I can’t do an elaborate scientific study. I can only focus on small topics which I find convenient along with my job.”

“In the college, I teach many biology related subjects. There is genetics, applied zoology, medical zoology, parasitology, biodiversity, environmental biology, management of environmental biology. There are so many subjects to cover as we follow the semester system through the year.”

Her motivations reflect the eagerness of students and faculty from these far-flung institutes to break through the veil that separates them from ‘mainstream science’.

Things are looking up for Panchani’s college. In recent years, hers and a few other local colleges have been making efforts to join forces and transform together into a cluster university under the RUSA (Rashtriya Uchchatar Shiksha Abhiyan) by the central government. “RUSA would create new universities through upgradation of existing autonomous colleges and conversion of colleges in a cluster,” the scheme’s website states. Grouping under university status will bring research facilities and scholars into these colleges.

This is very good news for faculty members like Panchani, primed to take up research projects. The efforts are already bearing fruit, Panchani indicated. “At work, I realise every day that there are so many projects that we can give the students relating to environment and society. Ours is still a degree college so we are not supposed to have research students [Ph.D.] yet… but from this year we can mentor M.Phil students.”

Her motivations reflect the eagerness of students and faculty from these far-flung institutes to break through the veil that separates them from ‘mainstream science’.

The journey into ethnobiology

Panchani started her scientific journey in 2006 at the Himachal Pradesh University in Shimla. “It was an epidemiological study [the study of disease incidence and distribution] of mental retardation and cancer patients. I collected the data from surveys with both kinds of patients. It was a complex comparative study, going through different kinds of cancers, genders, age and different problems/symptoms observed in the mild-moderate-high scale of delayed development in mentally retarded children, mainly Down syndrome.” This work provided a realistic snapshot of public health in Himachal.

It often happens that scientific discussions, especially relating to climate change and conservation, go far into problem-solving without considering our ‘humanness’, encompassing variables like language, culture and society. This fact hits hard in Panchani’s reasoning. Somewhere along the way she decided to add people science into the mix as lacklustre biology did not offer real-world solutions.

“I changed my focus to society. Then I chose some subjects involving environment and women.” She elaborated, “‘Ethno’ relates to individuals and their society. The study of the dynamics between people and plants is called ethnobotany; the study of animals in relation to people is ethnozoology.”

After some studies on empowerment of women in Himachal and the impact of primary child healthcare on lives of women like this one published in International Journal of Research Studies in Biosciences, Panchani felt it was time to drop all the baggage and head completely into the ethnobiology of the geography that she knew best. “I have shifted to environment issues in combination with cultural practices. I’ve been studying the influence of local deities in Himachal, specifically some villages in Kullu.”

Panchani is busy putting together a research proposal to the University Grants Commission based on her preliminary observations in conserved forests in Kullu. “Without financial assistance and collaboration with other scientists, I won’t be able to finish this project.”

Culture’s role in environment protection

Kullu – sometimes called the Valley of Gods – lies between 1,600 meters and 6,000 meters above sea level. Over there is the Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP), spread out over a thousand square kilometres. This area is home to several species of animals and plants found nowhere else, making these mountain forests and meadows a critical part of global biodiversity. In 2014, the GHNP was given the status of a World Heritage Site.

Side by side with the snow leopards, blue sheep, white oak, alpine, lichen and hundreds of medicinal plants, live many gods. In 1999, when the area became a national park, thousands of people moved out into the surrounding buffer zone, but they left their gods behind.

Every Dussehra, locals go into the forests to pay their respects. The rest of the time they leave the forest and the gods alone. Kullu’s people take pride in the number of demigods they pray to; each Panchayat has its own local deity. The GHNP has been called a conservation success story, and we owe this is to the local deities, according to Panchani.