By Eleanor A. Sangma
The skies are clear as we move away from the town, the chill of winter palpable in the air. As concrete melts into forests of Daribokgre, one can witness hills dotted with the lilac hues of Sambanguri (Siam weed) and low hanging juicy oranges all along the route.
Daribokgre is a village located at the base of the Nokrek National Park, which is home to the mother of all citrus fruits – the Citrus indica (commonly known as Indian Wild Orange). Several rare species of citrus have been found in the hamlet. Locals and tourists alike flock to the area in winter to relish the sweet Nokrek oranges… a treat to the human senses in all possible ways.
While the discovery of Citrus indica was mere happenstance, it has led to the park being declared a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 2009.
A National Citrus Gene Sanctuary (NCGS), covering an area of 47 square kilometres, has also been established with the aim to preserve rare varieties of citrus such as Citrus macroptera (Melanesian papeda), Citrus aurantifolia (keylime) and Citrus grandis (pomelo) along with Citrus indica.
Indian wild orange is similar in appearance to the common sweet variety, with a bumpy rind and sour taste. Mostly used for medicinal purposes, it takes on a deep orange-red colour when ripe.
In the local tongue, the wild orange is known as me.mang narang, literal translation of which would be ‘citrus of the spirits’.
But, what’s in a name, you ask?
Names, in a way, provide a glimpse into the belief systems of a community. Some names, of sentient along with the inanimate, carry stories passed down through generations and a past that clings on to the present in some ways. Me.mang narang is one such example.
History rings with the names of ancestors who were instrumental in establishing the A.chik tribe in the land that they now call home. Abong Noga, leader and king, is an unforgettable personality for the tribe. He is one of the first to have settled at Nokrek, which is the highest peak in Garo Hills.
In search of a place to put down their roots, Abong Noga and his wife Silme Doka had led their subjects up the hills and finally made Nokrek their home. They quickly rose to wealth and power. The king ordered or encouraged (accounts differ as is often the case in oral tradition) his subjects to start pursuing different professions, eventually leading to the establishment of hereditary occupations for the different sub-tribes.
The Duals were in charge of fishing, catching crabs, rearing parrots and growing rattan palms; the Matchis grew millets and raised pigs; Atongs were responsible for carving dug-out canoes; Chisaks led the preparation of bamboo shoot and domestication of cows while the Am.bengs took care of rice and cotton plantations and jhuming activities.
According to A.chik folklore, all the animals under Abong Noga’s care had become seriously ill one day. Disheartened, the king prayed to the gods. It is said that the old gods lived in peace with humans back in the day. The tribe believes that these deities communicated with them through dreams, which acted like a doorway between the two worlds. The gods, after having heard his prayers, came to him in his dream and instructed him to feed crushed wild orange to the sick animals. Their health fortunately improved due to the
fruit and since then, the wild orange has been known as me.mang (spirit) narang
The name seems to imply that the fruit saved the animals from eventual death,
from being spirited away to the other realm.
Me.mang narang trees are smaller in height, growing up to about three to six
Oral traditions say these trees used to be as tall as the orange trees, and Abong Noga would often pluck the fruits for his beloved wife. But as fate would have it, the king died before his wife and passed on to Balpakram, the land of spirits. Pondering on the life he led, he lamented over the fact that his wife would no longer have anyone left to pluck fresh wild oranges from the tall trees. To remedy this, Abong Noga came back in his spirit form and planted the shorter variety of the fruit. Legends say this is the reason why the trees are of short stature.
As a tribe that has followed in their ancestors’ footsteps for generations, the A.chiks continue to use me.mang narang in traditional medicine. From treating jaundice to stomach related problems, the fruit has varying uses for both man and animal. The rind is used to treat poisoning, while the powdered form of the fruit comes handy in curing smallpox.
Whether as food or medicine, it was a fruit that generations of the A.chik tribe is believed to have survived on. In order to offer this sacred fruit, the same protection it provided our ancestors, the rare variety of oranges is being domesticated by the nearby communities in their own homes. From the wild of nature to cosy house gardens, people now have better access to the tree – a piece of our past at home.