Bamboo - A Curse and A Blessing For Mizoram

Once in every 48-50 years, almost the whole of Mizoram would rupture en masse with blossoms of a different kind - that of the mautak bamboo (Melocanna baccifera). And when the mautak flowers, Mizo old-timers say, mautam (bamboo death) follows close behind. Mautam means destruction, famine, disease, and even death, not only for humans but also for hundreds of animals.

The flowering of another bamboo, the thingtak (Bambusa Tulda) also brings about another bamboo death, thingtam.

The Mautam That Created Mizoram

The last mautam was in 2005-07. The devastation wasn’t as widespread as in earlier times because this time around the government was better prepared for such an eventuality.

So said Pi Zodinipuii, a lady originally from Aizawl, Mizoram's capital, but who now works in Shillong. She doesn’t remember the kind of destruction such as the one her father, Pu Zoliangthanga, talked about.

(Pi and Pu - short for Kapi and Kapu - are respectable terms in the Mizo language. Pi means Ma’am and Pu means Mr. or Sir)

That was back in 1958-59, the years of the great 'rat invasion' that destroyed every standing crop and all the jhum fields. It lasted for two years and there was so much of disease and other hardships as well. He was around 12 or 13 at that time.

“I saw how they came during the harvest season of 1958," said Pu Zoliangthanga. "Jungle rats crawling all over the place, some as big as cats. They devoured entire rice fields and left only stumps. In fact, they were so diabolically destructive that they ate everything they could sink their teeth into.”

Then when the bamboo seeds were exhausted they left for the jungle. There too, they devoured everything they could find until nothing was left. Then they died of starvation themselves.

“But we were left with nothing to harvest”, said Pu Zoliangthanga. “No food to eat, not even a scrap. So many died of hunger. For months we survived on roots and leaves from the jungles. Many had to leave their villages."

In fact, the mautam of 1959 triggered one of the most violent insurgencies in India's history. The government then refused to listen to the people's warning about the impending famine, death, and destruction when the bamboos start to flower, dismissing it as superstition.

It was then that Mizo leader, Pu Laldenga converted his Mizo National Famine Fund into the Mizo National Front and took to arms to fight the Indian State. The struggle lasted over two and half decades finally culminating in the Shillong Peace Accord of 1987 and the fortunate formation of the State of Mizoram.

Pu Ladenga became Mizoram's first chief minister.

Bamboo Flowering

(Photo source)

When The Bamboo Flowers - Season Of Dread

Massive though this phenomenon of mass flowering of bamboo is, it isn’t restricted to Mizoram. The neighbouring states of Tripura, Manipur, Meghalaya, and Nagaland are affected as well, though to a smaller degree.

Across the international border, the Chin State of Myanmar also suffers the same cycles of bamboo flowering and its aftermath. That’s because 40% of the forests in these territories are wild bamboo.

However, in Mizoram, where the mautak is the dominant bamboo species the flowering is more pronounced.

But is the bamboo flowering something of a remarkable phenomenon? Hardly so.

Rather, what’s notable is the spectacular phenomenon of the bursting into bloom of an entire species, all at the same time. In Mizoram that season is one of deathly dread.

Early Records

Few records were available about synchronised bamboo flowering in Mizoram. But each story tells about ecological onslaughts, the human insecurity, and the forced migration to safer places.

Ever since the first Mizos started to settle in and around the Lushai hills in about 1450 BCE, they experienced these natural phenomena that led to famine, disease, and death.

One record was about the destruction of the famous town of “Tualte” due to the mautam of 1861-63.

Twenty years later, the thingtam of 1881 affected about 60,000 people.

The Lushai chiefs of those days were always at war with one another. But during that period, the three Chiefs, Poiboi, Khalkom, and Lalhai, agreed to stop all hostilities to fight the famine. They sent men to Cachar to bring food for their people.

Still, they couldn’t succeed much. 15,000 people perished, it is reported.

When the British annexed Cachar in 1832 they came into confrontation with the Mizos but could not subdue them. For about 50 years the fierce Mizos fended off the Colonisers. It was the bamboo flowering of 1881 and the widespread destruction it brought in its wake that finally forced them to succumb.

The imperial government then had no choice but to initiate measures to stem the rat menace and mitigate the sufferings of the people. Even then, in 1925 more than 1,00,000 hectares of crops lay destroyed. It impacted over 80,000 families.

Worse, it also brought in deadly diseases such as bubonic plague, haemorrhagic fever, Hantavirus, Arenavirus, and Salmonella, among others.

The death rate was also high, around 5%.

The flowering of the mautak (M.baccifera) was reported in 1815, 1863, 1911, 1958-59, and 2005-07. The next mautam is expected in 2055-56.

The flowering of the thingtak (B.Tulda) was reported in 1785, 1833, 1881, 1929, and 1977. The next thingtam is expected in 2025.

Bamboo flowering
(Photo source)

What Happens When Bamboo Flowers

Flowering as we know it is a natural cycle in plants. From flowers come the fruits and ultimately the seeds. As the cycle continues, this ensures the survival of the species.

But the pattern of mass flowering in some bamboo species, however, is intriguing even to botanists. It doesn’t conform to the flowering order of other plants. Mass flowering is not common in the plant kingdom. Even in bamboo it occurs only in a few species.

Bamboo clumps flower only once in their lifetimes. When it happens at the same time scientists call that phenomenon “gregarious flowering”. But most bamboo species flower sporadically, that is, not at the same time.

After flowering, the wind takes over to pollinate the flowers. In due course, the seeds form in huge quantities.

Next, the trees die en masse leaving the soil bare and desolate even as the seeds themselves take a few years time to regenerate into new plants.

During the time when clumps die an unprecedented ecological catastrophe occurs. Why?

Because of two reasons:

  1. After flowering, the plants die leaving the soil bare, exposed, and open to erosion. People and animals who depend on bamboo are now deprived of that source. Suddenly there’s a scarcity of material and food. The ecology is also damaged, the environment ravaged, and the livelihood affected.
  2. Rats (mostly the Rattus rattus species) began to infest and proliferate, attracted by the sudden abundance of bamboo flowers and seeds. The estrogen content of the seeds triggers the rats’ sexual activity, shooting the birth rate up four times over. Because of the plentiful food, the male rats who would usually eat their newborns now don’t. The rat population catapults even further up. And so gluttonous are these rats that in no time they consume whatever flowers and seeds they could find.

Then after they turn their attention to paddy and other crops and whatever is stored in the granaries. This goes on for a couple of years. They grow and multiply, sometimes beyond their normal sizes so long there’s food. Then when nothing more’s left to eat they starve to death.

And for the humans (and scores of animal species) that depend on bamboo for survival and security, the rat invasion means only one word: famine.

That’s the story in Mizoram during the mautam (and thingtam, when the rawthing bamboo flowers).

Experts speak on Bamboo Flowering

All species of bamboo produce flowers once in their lifetime. Scientists have been trying hard to understand this phenomenon and are still at it. Botanists call this 'monocarpic' flowering behaviour.

After the flowering comes pollination, fertilisation, fruiting and seeding. The old culms then die off to give way to a new crop.

But the nature of bamboo flowering is different from that of other plants.

Scientists are yet to figure out how this mysterious bamboo flowering happens. Some bamboos flower once in 40 to 50 years, others once in 120 years, and yet others once in 150 years. When flowering happens, in a few species the phenomenon is widespread. This is the 'gregarious bamboo flowering' we spoke about earlier when entire bamboo groves, hectare upon hectare, for miles and miles, is awash with blossoms all at the same time.

Then once the mass flowering ceases, mass death strikes. The plants wither en masse, leaving nothing but dead clumps everywhere, baring the soil for at least a few years until the seeds take to it and come out as new plants. It's like a mass suicide accompanied by a widespread disaster of the ecological kind.

The animals that depend upon bamboo are left with no food, such as the Chinese giant panda that lives solely on bamboo shoots. So they eat whatever comes their way. Rats especially feed on the flowers, fruits, and seeds of the bamboo.

Explains the late nonagenarian Padmashree Pu C. Rokhuma (1917-2016), an expert on rodent control on how so many rats suddenly appear at bamboo flowering time:

"In normal times male rats usually eat their young ones, thus controlling their proliferation. But during bamboo flowering and fruiting time the males turn to feed on bamboo fruits instead. While female rats continue to litter every 25 days, each giving birth to at least 12 to 14 young rats, the new brood again mature in 70 to 80 days. With no predators around the rats rapidly multiply at four times the rate." Bamboo, Wondergrass Of Mizoram Mautam or thingtam or not, bamboo is heaven-sent for Mizoram. It’s the one extremely useful resource that the state is never short of that’s also closely linked to people’s lives, work, and livelihood.

Of the 58 bamboo species found in Northeast India, Mizoram alone has 35 species 20 of which are indigenous to the state.

The main bamboo species are:

  • Mautak - Melocanna baccifera
  • Rawthing - Bambusa Tulda
  • Rawnal - Dendrocalamus longispathus
  • Phulrua - Dendrocalamus hamiltonii
  • Sairil - Melocalamus compactiflorus
  • Tursing - Dendrocalamus strictus
  • Phar - Sinarundinaria griffithiana

More than 30% of the state’s forest cover is bamboo and 90% of the bamboo is mautak.

Besides mautak, the rawthing species also flowers once in 48-50 years. Not at the same time but about 18 years apart. Its flowering brings about the thingtam.

Phulrua and Tursing are two examples of other bamboo species that also flower gregariously in Mizoram.

The Future Of The Bamboo Industry in Mizoram

Even after all the havoc that the flowering bamboo has wreaked in the state, the bamboo industry in Mizoram is still looming to this day. With over 57% of its total area under bamboo cover and over 2 dozen species of bamboo in existence, the bamboo industry in Mizoram had been an untapped potential for far too long.

Now, with government intervention and the increasing demand for bamboo products export, the state has seen a drastic growth in the erstwhile unutilized industry. The incorporation of the Socio Economic Development Policy (SEDP) in 2019 also proved to be a huge boost to the bamboo industry in Mizoram.

Bamboo is inexhaustible wealth in Mizoram, especially mautak. Renewable, sustainable, and eco-friendly. The state has also moved forward and set up the Bamboo Development Agency with a view to tap the vast resource. It would also help offset the bad effects of mautam.

Bamboo products make an amazing array: plywood, vinegar, charcoal, to name a few, apart from the traditional handicrafts … but a lot more is awaiting tapping. If Mizoram can navigate the mautam the sky is really the limit in the land where the bamboo flowers.

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