Studies on conservation oriented totem and taboos in the ethnic groups of greater Mymensingh region of Bangladesh



Mitra, B.B.* and Kabir, M.M.**




**Professor, Dept. of zoology, Jahangirnagar University, Savar, Dhaka, Bangladesh





Totem and taboo play a major role in biodiversity conservation. Totem usually means the animal or plant that is preserved or conserved by the members of a particular social group. Taboo means the prohibition of an act or the use of an object or word under pain of punishment. Originally it is a Polynesian word. Generally it is used as sacred or dangerous, unclean and forbidden meanings. The paper presents some conservation oriented totem and taboos from four districts of greater Mymensingh region of Bangladesh which are strictly involve in the life of ethnic communities. There are 11 species of animals and 6 species of plants have been recorded in this paper in the context of taboo. This paper presents also that 24 species of animals and 27 species of plants are related to the conservation oriented totem in the research area.




Taboos are unwritten social rules. It can protect the species and habitat. Generally we can call this food taboo. It bears the mechanisms that are it provides total protection of some biological communities, habitat patches and the species at their specific stages of life history. It leads the indigenous biological conservation. As for example food taboo provides a total protection of species. General food taboos, on the other hand, comprise a total prohibition of species as food at all times. This is referred as specific-species taboos. Species are protected through specific-species taboos because they play a role in religious and cultural belief systems (Douglas, 1966).In reality, it may be almost impossible to separate the belief systems from practices and traditional ecological knowledge systems. Knowledge, practices and beliefs tend to intermingle among traditional peoples (Gadgil et al.1993).

In this research 11 species of animals and 6 species of plants has been recorded as taboo. Among them 13% are threatened and 2% are vulnerable. There is also a widespread taboo on hunting during the mating season of animals. Hunters belonging to several communities in Cachar, Assam, do not kill deer during March-May, when pregnant females are present in the herd. Most of these hunters also observe taboo on killing the leader of deer herd or a sounder of wild boar, as it is believed to be bestowed with supernatural powers, and hence killing it is considered a sin.   Again, although many people eat herons and egrets, hunting is banned during the nesting season, and their nests which are common sights on the bamboo groves of most villages, are never disturbed. The killing of certain animals is taboo among certain groups. For instance, several ethnic groups in Cachar, Assam, who practice hunting, do not kill the crow, the owl, the vulture, the elephant and certain snakes, while a group of Muslim trappers do not trap or kill the parrot, the owl, the monkey and the jackal.

Various plants and animals related to different clan’s totem of different ethnic group.  In an idu Mishmi folk tale (Elwin, 1958), the sparrow enjoys the right to take as much paddy as it wants from the fields, as it is believed that the sparrow taught the art of cultivation. It seems plausible that as the sparrow often came in large flocks to eat paddy, there was a possibility of people killing sparrows indiscriminately, treating them as pests. This oral tradition, therefore, served to provide some amount of protection to this bird by projecting it as a benefactor of the Idu Mishmis. A similar belief is nurtured by some nomads of Assam, who practice traditional medicine extracted from plants, sell medallions made of various animal parts such as pangolin scales, and trap small birds for consumption. These people never kill the sparrow. This type of totem has found in this present documentation. During the study 24 species of animals and 27 species of plants have been recorded. In context to the nation threatened status 3% of the animals are vulnerable, 3% are endangered and 8% are critically endangered.

The present study was conducted in the ethnic community Dalu, Hodi, Rajbongshi, Khatrio Barman, Koch, Hajong, Mandi of Sherpur, Tangail, Mymensingh, Netrokona district of greater Mymensingh region of Bangladesh.


Study Area


Zoo geographically, Bangladesh is located at the interface between the Indian subregion and Malayan subregion of the oriental region, thus homing a very impressive, diverse and abundant wildlife with a small area of only 1,44,054 He has to support a human population of more than 90 million, which makes her one of the most densely populated country in the world. So it leaves very small room for the wildlife conservation and management activities. Among the varied habitats of Bangladesh are 8300 km sq of rivers, canals and streams; 1828 km. sq. of brackish water, 794 sq. km. of ponds and tanks and 2930 of wetlands which are the abode of wildlife.The importence of local peoples participation in the development programmes is now being increasingly emphasized in the policy papers of both the govern ment of the less develop countries as well as by the foreign donor agencies that support the development programmes. Accordingly, the policy planners at both levels realized the need for including the ethnic communities in the development projects.There are 120000 hectres of sal forest in Dhaka, Rongpur,Mymensingh, Tangail, Dinajpur and Rajshahi districts. Madhupur sal forest is situated in the Tangail district. Between 15000 and 20000 Mandi people and approximately 1000 Khatrio Barman people live in this forest.



The study is based on both primary and secondary sources of data. The secondary data was collected from literatures, visual media and others. The primary survey was conducted using questionnaire method through formal and informal discussions.

Detailed interviews were conducted with households for detailed assessment of natural resource use pattern and conservation.


The method used in the present study is as follows:

1. Primary data collection: Mainly the head of the family, his profession, details of the use of plants and animal species and ethnobiological knowledge were recorded in this study. This was done by the participation of local people .On the basis of the primary data field visits, interviews and group discussions were planned.

2. Field visits: Field visits became essential to study the diversities, which reflect the peculiarities of the sacred groves.

3. Group discussion: The data collected from individuals and families were discussed and verified through group discussions. The new aspects from the group discussions were recorded. The user groups which are commonly seen in villages, like farmers, agricultural labourers were separately meet with. Their conditions problems, management options, endangered species, the species which are in use, the present and future conditions of the species were discussed.

4. Case study: To document the sacred groves case study method is applied.

Interviews were also recorded in a tape recorder. In addition with interview, photograph was also taken for documentation.

Key informer was selected by asking local people. Socio-cultural profile of the people was recorded for the assessment of natural resource management by ethnic community.


Results and Discussions


Dalu community in greater Mymensingh region, believe that Gallus gallus breaks the sleep of Krisna so they do not eat it. Acridotheres fuscus is a wild bird not domestic, so they donot hunt.Because of the Corvus spledens is like to seem a scholar so they do not hunt.

Pavo muticus is the bearer of Kartik, so they do not hunt this animal. In Hodi people of greater Mymensingh region of Bangladesh Canis lupus, Centropus sinensis and Capsychus saularis have social restriction to eat. Anis aureus and Caprimulgus asiatisacus in Rajbongshi and Coracious bengalensis in Khatrio Barman are also social restricted to hunt. In Hajong people Calamus guruba, Drynaria quercifolia and Erianthus rivannae are tied inside the house to drive out evil spirit. Koch people use the paste of rhizome of Kaempferia galangalto protects children from evil spirit and Blumea sp also use to protect this. Mandi people use leaf juice to protect children from baw batasi.Mandi people worship Felis chaus locally called Brimni Mengong name of the worship is Mengong middi, Sus scrofa locally called oak sacrifice to Susumi saljong, Gracula religiosa locally called Moyna believe that she is the spirit of Mandi daughter, Elephas maximus locally called aati, name of the worship is aaticella middi,Canis aureus locally called sebal, name of the worship is sebal middi, Dicrurus paradisus locally called Medagongrek, social believe that they are also their habitant and culturally they perform chambil missa (dancing like Rhesus macaque).In Hajong community Anser indicus use in Nikni dao worship and Caprocornis sumatraensis use in Muila worship. Koch people use Gallus gallus in Churabude worship, Columba livia use in Lamne wai Melanochelys trijuga and Crocodylus porosus use in Bastu worship. Acridotheres tristis, Acridotheres fuscus, Athene brama, Appus affinis are the symbol of deity in Hodi community.


Table 1. Animals use as taboo through conservation Local /common name Scientific name Traditional Practices Community
1. Murag/Red jungle fowl Gallus gallus Breaks the sleep of Krisna so they do not eat it. Dalu
2. Shalikh/ Mayna Acridothers fuscus Wild bird not domestic, so they donot hunt. Dalu
3. Kaak/ Crow Corvus splendens Like to seem a scholar so they do not hunt. Dalu
4. Mayuar/ Peacock Pavo muticus is the bearer of Kartik, so they do not hunt this animal Dalu
`5. Hatee/ Elephant Elephas maximus locally called aati, name of the worship is aaticella middi, Dalu
6. Ram kutta Grey wolf / Canis lupus have social restriction to eat Hodi
7. Shial/ Jackel Canis aureus have social restriction to eat Rajbongshi
8. Choto ratchara/ Indian nightjar Caprimulgus asiaticus are social restricted to hunt Rajbongshi
9. Kanakua/ Greater coucal Centropes sinensis have social restriction to eat Hodi
10. Doel/ Oriental magpie robin Capsychus saularis have social restriction to eat Hodi
11. Nilkantha/ Indian roller Coracious bengalensis social restricted to hunt Khatrio Barman


Table 2.  Animal use as totem through conservation

Sl no Local name / Common Name/ English name Scientific name Traditional practices Community
1. Sebal/ Jackel Canis aureus locally called sebal, name of the worship is sebal middi Mandi
2. Gilbi/ Rhesus macaque Macaca mulatta chambil missa (dancing like Rhesus macaque Mandi
3. Jada/ Rock python Python molurus liver use for growing strength of body Mandi
4. Madagongrek/ Greater rocket tailed drongo Dicrurus paradiseus locally called Medagongrek, social believe that they are also their habitant Mandi
5. Moyna/ Hil myna Gracula religiosa believe that she is the spirit of Mandi daughter Mandi
6. Oak/ Wild boar Sus scrofa locally called oak sacrifice to Susumi saljong Mandi
7. Achak/ Indian wild dog Cuon alpinus Meat use as medicine for ulcer Mandi
8. Brimmi Mengong/ Jungle cat Felis chaus locally called Brimni Mengong name of the worship is Mengong middi Mandi
9. Tao/ Red jungle fowl Gallus gallus Sacrifice to deity CHURABUDI and MISI SALJONG Mandi
10. Kobutor/ Rock pigeon Columba livia necessary for Jatra mukut worship Koch
11. Kochop/ Pond tortoise Melanochelys trijuga symbol of deity ‘earth’ Koch
12. Kumir/ Salt water crocodile Crocodylus porosus symbol of deity in bastu worship Koch
13. Brimni damok/ Serow Capricornis sumataensis Sacrifice to muila deo (deity) worshiping Hajong
14. Rajhans/ Bar headed goose Anser indicus Sacrifice to Nikni dao Hajong
15. Hati/ Elephant Elephas maximus symbol of deity aati sela middi Mandi
16. Raj dhanesh/ Great hornbill Buceros bicornis symbol of deity Hodi
17. Bhat shalikh/ Common myna Acridothers tristis symbol of deity Hodi
18. Jhuti shalikh/

Jungle myna

Acridothers fuscus symbol of deity Hodi
19. Khuruley pencha/ Spotted owlet Athene brama symbol of deity Hodi
20. Ababil/ House swift Appus affinis symbol of deity Hodi
21. Go-bok/ Cattle egret Bubulcus ibis symbol of deity Banai

Table 2. Plants use as taboo through conservation Local

/ Common name

Scientific name Uses/Activities Community
1. Kaemferia galenga protect children from evil spirit Koch
2. Blumea sp protect children from evil spirit Koch
3. Calamus guruba are tied inside the house to drive out evil spirit Hajong
4. Drynaria quercifolia are tied inside the house to drive out evil spirit Hajong
5. Erianthus rivannae are tied inside the house to drive out evil spirit Hajong

Table 4.  Plant use as totem through conservation

Sl no Common name/Local name Scientific name Traditional Practices Community
1. Narkel Cocos nucifera worship ingredients Hodi
2. Jatrofa bicolor worship ingredients koch
3. Tulshi Ocimum americanum worship ingredients koch
4. Pales Butea monospora worship ingredients Hajong
5. Tula Bombax ceiba worship ingredients Hajong
6. Musa sapientum worship ingredients Hajong
7. Borassus flabellifer worship ingredients of Jolkuri middi Mandi
8. Banyan tree Ficus religiosa worship ingredients Mandi
9. Saccharum spontaneum worship ingredients of Bagoba -Burumbi Mandi
10. Vigna sinensis clan’s totem of nokrek Mandi
11. Ashok Saraca indica worship ingredients Rajbonshi
12. Butea fronodsa worship ingredients Rajbonshi
13. Melia azadirachta worship ingredients Rajbonshi
14. Musa balbasiana worship ingredients Banai
15. Tomal Diospyros Montana worship ingredients Barman
16. Colocasia esculenta worship ingredients Barman
17. Wood apple Aegle mermelos worship ingredients Barman
18. Mohua Madhuca longifolia worship ingredients Barman
19. Joba Hibiscus rosa-sinensis worship ingredients Barman

One of the religious beliefs of Banai people is that Bubulcus ibis is the symbol of deity.Diospyros montana, Colocasia esculanta, Aegle mermelos, Madhuca longifolia and Hibiscus rosa-sinensis are the worship ingredients of Khatrio Barman community. leaves of Borassus flabellifer is used in the religious worship Jolkuri middi, Ficus bengalensis and Ficus religiosa use in the bagoba burumbi worship,and Vigna sinensisis the clan totem of nokrek in Mandi society.

Stem of Jatrofa bicolor used in a religious worship named Hudum wai or Hodom worship,and Ocimum americanum use as worship ingredient in Koch community.Bombax ceiba and red flower of Butea monospora are used in Hailla Dao worship in Hajong people.In Rajbongshi Saraca indica, Butea frondosa, Melia azadirachta use as worship ingredients. Musa balbisiana use as worship ingredients in Banai people.

In fact this is the first work in Bangladesh in this title. So there are no steps of institutions to conserve biodiversity by awerning traditional ecological knowledge. Because of the drastic loss of biodiversity in Bangladesh, it is necessary to give priority of traditional conservation practice.




Thanks to Hajong Aswani Kumar Roy ( Defulia,Mymensingh),Janik Nokrek (Chunia ,Modhupur ,Tangail),Semanto Kumar sinha (Sherpur),Biswaswr Banai(Dhubaura,Mymensingh),Jugal Keshor Koch (Jhenaigati ,Sherpur),Special thanks to forest department of Bangladesh for permission to do this work.




Douglas, M. 1966. Purity and danger: an analysis of concepts of pollution and taboo. Praeger, New York, USA.

Gadgil,M.,Berkes,F.and Folke, C. 1993.Indigenous Knowledge for Biodiversity conservation.Ambio.22(2-3)152-156.

Elwin,V. 1958. Myths of the North East Frontier of India, North East Frontier Agency, Shillong.



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