Indian Journal Of Traditional Knowledge Vol. 8 (1), January 2009, pp 35-40

Indigenous knowledge and practices of Thengal Kachari women in sustainable management of bari system of farming

Madhumita Barooah* & Ajit Pathak

Department of Agricultural Biotechnology, Assam Agricultural University, Jorhat 785 013, Assam


Revised Received 01.12.2008; Received 04.10.2008

The Thengal-Kacharis, belonging to the Boro-Kachari ethnic groups are one of the most ancient inhabitants of Assam with rich tradition and cultural history. The bari or homestead gardening has had great significance from the point of conservation, consumption and management of biodiversity. Women of this community have played a key role in sustainable use of bari bioresources through various practices and knowledge systems that have been passed from generation to generation. In the paper, the crops diversity and their arrangement in a Thengal Kachariís bari along with some the traditional practices followed in sustainable management of bari- bioresources have been discussed.

Keywords: Thengal Kachari, Bari, Northeast India, Bioresources, Traditional knowledge, Traditional farming, Preservation

IPC Int. Cl.8: A01K, A01N3/00


The Northeast region of India is a land of diverse people each with their own cultural tradition and nature-linked celebration. The Thengal-Kacharis are one of the many small ethnic communities belonging to the Indo-Mongoloid race with mythical ancestry. They are a clan of the Bodo-Kachari ethnic group. Thengal-Kacharis are one of the ancient inhabitants of Assam and have rich cultural history. The community is believed to have derive their name Thengal from an ancestor, who is said to have ascended to heaven leg foremost1. It is also speculated that the community served the Ahom Kings and wore a uniform consisting of a long shirt or thenga shirt touching their heels which might have led to the name Thengal2. Being one of the oldest inhabitants of this region, the Thengal-Kacharis have evolved various practices in conserving and sustaining the bioresources. Women of this community have played a key role in sustainable use of bioresources through various practices and knowledge systems that have been transmitted through generations.

The bari system of farming has evolved over the years in the Northeast India and has had great significance from the point of conservation, consumption and management of biodiversity. Bariís connote an operational unit in which a number of crops including trees are grown with livestock, poultry and/ fish production for the purposes of meeting the basic requirements of the rural household. These are ubiquitous landscape components in a Thengal-Kachariís home. The bari in such household lies alongside to the main household. A batchor or gate leads to the main house through a long footpath. A typical homestead comprises of extended family houses, vegetable and horticultural gardens, trees, bamboo shrubs, threshing grounds, livestock/poultry sheds, and ponds.



The study was carried out on the Balijan gaon (No. 1), Jalukoni in the Jorhat district of Upper Assam. Interview schedule of a questionnaire was used to collect information from the rural women. The questionnaire was divided into four sections. Sections A dealt with the demographic variables, section B with the crops grown in the bariís, section C solicited information on the role of women in bari farming, while, section D solicited for information on the Indigenous Knowledge (IK) used in management of the bari. The sample consisted of 30 women. Data were collected from the respondents by personally interviewing them using a pre-tested questionnaire. Simple analysis of the data was carried out.


Results and Discussion

Majority (80%) of the respondents was married, 15% were unmarried and 5% widowed. This is expected as all respondents were adults and majority was around the age of 30-80 yrs old with experience and knowledge in running the household. The distribution of respondents according to educational level showed that 60% have gone through some formal education and 40% had no formal education. Among the literate, 58.2% had primary education and only 1.8% had secondary level education. The life expectancy of the women is 72.9 yrs. The age of the first child bearing is 16 yrs with an average number of 4.9 children per household. All the respondents stated that their main activities were home duties.


Structure and patterns of crops and their arrangement in Bari

Years of observation and experimentations have allowed the women of this community to develop a general bari structure with considerable diversity and flexibility that facilitates production of the major livelihood necessities. They have managed to select crops that are co-adapted and that give aggregated benefits. The baris have been designed to allow optimal harvest of solar energy through the strategy of fitting phenological classes and life forms together in space and time, and through niche diversification techniques. Multiple crops are present in a multi-tier canopy configuration. The leaf canopies of the components are arranged in such a way that they occupy different vertical layers with the tallest components having foliage tolerant to strong light and high evaporation demand and the shorter components having foliage requiring or tolerating shade and high humidity. Although the baris exhibit a general pattern, each garden is unique in its spatial and temporal structure, crop mix and arrangement, and overall design. Some crops are always planted in regular patterns, while others are planted wherever space is available.

Crop diversity is highest near homes and reduces with increased distance from the house exhibiting only few species at the extreme end of the garden. There is a small area encircling the main house that shows the maximum crop diversity usually represented by only one or two individuals thus allowing the maintenance of many species within a small space. Fragrance plants, spices, medicinal plants, vegetables, and others are observed in this zone. This part of the bari is easily accessed for instant use as fresh vegetables, herbs and condiments and as such under the direct domain of women, who take responsibility for the propagation, management, harvesting and post harvest operations of the produce.Banana, plantains, citrus were commonly present in the second zone while the third zones mostly exhibited arecanut, jackfruit and other tree species. Bamboos were ubiquitous in the baris. The list of crop plants commonly observed in the surveyed baris is presented in Table 1. Pisciculture is the common practice in these households. Fishes are generally reared in dugout ponds behind the main homestead. Traditional homestead gardens have been major sources of household requirements. An earlier study reported the home garden system of Cachar district of Assam3. Four vertical layers in home gardens in Sri Lanka were also reported4.


Role of women in maintaining Bari farming

Results of the study indicate that women were the principal managers of bari.Women held deep knowledge on growth habit and utility of each plant, and they devised to allocate plants to make full use of limited space adjusting such plantís tolerance as against water logging, shade, direct sunshine, and drought. The plants were used for various purposes such as food, medicinal, sericulture, fuel, timber and cash crops. Although the men perform heavy tasks like hoeing and bed establishment, fence building, pond digging and tree harvesting, the women managed the day-to-day maintenance tasks like weeding, providing scaffold to climbers and creepers, pest and disease management and harvesting of produce like vegetables, spices and picking leafy vegetables, medicinal plants including processing, seed selection and storing. About 90% of the post-harvest operations of the bari produce was performed by women. They were also the primary caretaker of the livestock and poultry. Many of the elderly respondents who were no longer physically active continued to play an important role in passing down traditional knowledge, especially their understanding of the care and use of indigenous plants and pest control measures to the next generations.


Knowledge & practices in sustainable management of Bari-bioresources

The Thengal-Kacharis have an intimate relationship with nature and have evolved various rituals and taboos in harvesting and consumptions of produce from the baris. These have implications in sustainable use of resources. Bamboos are never


Table 1 ó Some common plants in the surveyed Bari



Local name


Areca catechu



Masticator, timber, leaf for fencing

Artocarpus heterophyllus



Fruit, vegetable, timber, fodder, cash crops, agricultural implements

Terminalia chebula



Silk worm rearing

Mangifera Indica



Fruit, timber

Garcinia cowa Roxb.



Fruit, medicine

Baccaurea sapida




Emblica oficinalis




Spondias pinnata (L.f.) Kurz.




Dillenia indica L


Ou tenga

Fruit, medicinal, small timber

Aquilaria malaccensis Lamk.



Fragrance oil

Melocanna baccifera (Roxb.)




Musa sp



Fruit, religious, cash crops

Musa balbisiana


Bhim Kol

Fruit, religious purpose

Citrus limon (L.) Burm.



Fruit, medicinal, cash crops

Citrus maxima



Fruit, fuelwood, cash crops

Citrus medica L. Citron Jamir



Fruit, medicinal

Citrus reticulata Blanco



Fruit, cash crops

Capsicum annuum



Spice, cash crops

Alocasia indica


Man Kosu


Colocasia antiquorum




Curcuma longa L.



Spice, cash crops

Zingiber officinale



Spice, cash crops

Benincasa hispida


Chal Kumra


Lagenaria siceraria




Cucurbita maxima


Ronga lao


C. minimum


Dhan Jolokia


Momordica cochinchinesis


Bhat kerela


Luffa acutangula.






felled on Tuesday and Saturday as well as on every new moon day. Rattan is also not harvested on these days. The reason behind this practice is to promote judicious utilization of these important resources. Banana inflorescence is a popular vegetable in this part of the region. However, it is also not harvested on Tuesdays and Saturdays. The respondents also stated that they do not pick Diplazium esculentum (Dhekia) Ė leafy vegetables during the onset of autumn. The plant begins to sporulate for onset of a new cycle and an abstinence from plucking the leaves would be way to allow propagation. Fish is not consumed during the monsoon months as it is the fish breeding season and the practice ensures the survival of egg laying fishes. Many of the vegetables belonging to the cucurbit families and green leafy vegetables are not harvested during the forenoon. The respondents sated that they do not enter the bari or pluck betel vine leaves during the menstrual cycle. It was also a taboo to pluck Ocimum sanctum leaves by women. It was observed that many of the plants are worshiped or have been given religious importance. Sijou Goch (Ephorbia nerifolia) is considered as to be a holy tree by the Thengal-Kacharis. Similarly, other trees like Musa balbisiana (banana), Ficus religiosa (peepul), Ficus bengalensis (banyan), Mangifera indica (mango), Ocimum sanctum (sacred basil), Cynodon dactylon (Bermuda or durva grass), Aegle marmalos (wood apple) are also associated with many religious rituals.



Table 2 ó Traditional practices of crop cultivation and management by Thengal Kachari women





Plant selection

Seeds are selected and collected from healthy, heavy bearing mother plants showing good characteristics

Ash gourd, ridge gourd, bitter gourd, coconut, arecanut, pumkin, leafy vegetables,

Good planting material for propagation

Planting time and method

Planting during full moon

Banana, Areca, coconut

Believed to ensure clear fruits

Planting during rainy season


Ensures availability of water

Salt is also applied to the soil during
seed planting of fruit trees


To felicitate easy penetration
of the roots.

To plant banana seedlings, pits are dug at a
depth measuring a length a little more than the fingertip to the elbow joint of one hand


Good growth

Planting arecanut seedlings in the same
direction as it was in the nursery bed


Prevents trunk splitting

Soil management

Fallen tree leaves and farm refuse material are applied to the base of plants

Banana, Areca

Conserves moisture, increases soil fertility

Kitchen waste along with refuse water
are applied to plants


Increases soil moisture and fertility

Application of common salt

Coconut, banana

Increases fertility by supplying sodium that also substitute for potassium in potassium
deficient soil

Composted FYM, kitchen waste and farm
refuse are applied to plants


Increases soil fertility

Khori goch (Dhainsa)

Bari soil

Conserves moisture, increases soil fertility

Fish scales are applied to the base of plants

Vegetable of gourd family

Supply phosphorous

Fish cleaned water are applied to the base of plants

Vegetables and citrus

Moisture and fertility

Ash are applied to the base of plants

Banana, vegetables

Enhance nutrient status particularly, phosphorous


Pits are dug in the ground to collect rainwater
for irrigation during dry spells


Source of water during dry season

Earthen pitchers filled with water are placed in fruit orchards to allow gradual seepage of water from the pitcher into the soil.

Vegetable and fruit orchards

Maintains soil moisture and
also works as a humidifier for the environment

Crop protection

Wood ash is sprinkled on vegetable crops.


Wards off pest

Fish cleaned water are applied to the
base of plants


Wards of citrus trunk borer

Smoke is generated at the base of fruit trees

Jack fruit, mango

Prevents pest infestation
of fruits

Introducingpredaceous red tree ants
nest into fruit orchards


Ward off borer infestation

Common salt is applied to the base of plants


To ward of snails and slugs.

Lightening earthen ware lamps

Rice field

Wards of insect pest

Application of kerosene oil to the fruit
tree trunks


Wards off shoot stem borers.

Catapults and drum beating

Fruit orchards

Ward of birds and monkeys
that swarm the homestead during periods of fruiting/
crop maturity.

Women have developed a sustained interaction with the nature through their daily household chores. They depend on land and water for food and nutritional security, medicines, fuel wood, and other products that are used for household subsistence5. Such sustained interaction with ecological systems has enabled the women to acquire knowledge both about the environment and about the natural resource base and its uses. These knowledge and information about natural and biological resources and about the use of sustained practices and conservation techniques are nurtured and disseminated6. Conservation of the elements of biodiversity through various sacred uses of nature such as tree and/or animal worship, and observing taboos on harvesting and hunting of plants and animals is characteristic of many indigenous communities in India7-10.


Preservation and storage of produce and seed

Women are the seed preservers in agrarian society. Seeds of vegetables like lady finger, brinjal and chilies are removed from mature fruits and are kept above the fireplace called the dhua chang to dry and prevent pathogen attack. Seeds of gourd families like cucurbits, ash gourd, pumpkin, cucumber seeds are removed from ripened fruits and allowed to dry in the sun. They then stored within the bamboos. A small slit is made in one end of the bamboo and seeds are inserted into hung in one corner of the house. Paddy and sesame seeds are sun dried and kept for the next cultivation. Sweet potato, ginger, and other tubers are kept in the shady ground and preserved.

Vegetables such as sweet pumpkin and chal and sweet pumpkin, are allowed to ripen to the point where they know it can be stored for a year. These are then harvested and stored in the dhua chang till consumption.Surplus fishes are fermented to make Sukati for consumption during the lean season. Ripened cowa (Garcinia cow) are cut into slices, sun dried and stored for medicinal use. Similarly, chebulic myrobalan (Terminalia chebula), anola (Eblica officinalis) are also harvested; sun dried and stored as common medicine. Areca catechu nut is stored by burying them in the pits dug on the soil. The pits are lined with banana or palm leaves and filled with nuts and then covered with soil. This increases the shelf life of the nuts and they can be consumed till the next harvest season.


Traditional practices of crop cultivation and management

As with the other ethnic communities, the Thengal-Kacharis have also developed, evolved and nurtured a variety of practices associated with crop cultivation. Many of the practices have resulted due to the womenís observation and experiences (Table 2).



Northeastern India is a mega-cultural landscape with over a hundred linguistic ethnic groups, each with their own cultural tradition and nature-linked celebration. The region by the virtue of its location is also is one of the two mega biodiversity hot-spot of India. It has one of the richest repositories of genetic diversity11. This diversity is reflected in the bari system of cropping wherein the women take active role in managing and its sustainable use. The paper shows that the Thengal-Kacharis practice certain religious beliefs and rituals that are aimed at conserving nature by judicious use of bioresources and maintaining the ecological balance in nature. Baris provide vegetables, fruits, medicinal plants, spices, and even material for clothing, timber and other house construction materials. However, over the last decade, this traditional practice has considerably declined as tea plantations and agro-forestry that fetches higher remunerative have taken over. As a result the diversity of plants grown in homesteads has declined substantially, with negative effects on both people and the environment12.



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