This photo essay originally appeared in Yes! Magazine on January 08, 2016. Article and photography by Rucha Chitnis (@RuchaChitnis)
In northeastern India’s mountainous state of Meghalaya, youngest daughters inherit the land—and the ancient food heritage of their mothers.
At sunset, Bibiana Ranee sets out to gather wild edibles for dinner from the surrounding forest. She returns with bright bunches of greens. Jarainand jali are washed, sliced, sauteed, and served with a hearty pork stew, with raw tree tomato on the side. Ranee, 54, is proud of her ancestral roots: She’s a member of the Khasi tribe, which nestles high in the mountains of Meghalaya, a state in northeast India. All three major tribes of Meghalaya—Khasi, Garo, and Jaintia—are matrilineal. Children take the surname of the mother’s clan and girls inherit traditional lands—the youngest daughter typically receiving the largest share.
To reach her home in the village of Nongtraw in East Khasi Hills, Ranee must make her way down a steep mountain via some 2,500 meandering steps. Her front porch is adorned with rosy hues of amaranth, an ancient grain cultivated for more than 8,000 years. “When I was five years old, my mother took me to the fields,” Ranee says. “I learned about the foods in the fields and the forest from her.”
Across India, indigenous women step up to the plate in myriad ways: In Meghalaya, indigenous women are keepers of the seeds that form the foundation of their food sovereignty, a conscious choice by small food producers to define their unique food systems and culture. Indigenous women are also holders of traditional knowledge that enables them to gather medicinal plants and wild edibles in the surrounding forests, and gives them deep understanding of the ecology.
Rucha is a San Francisco-based photojournalist and writer, whose stories highlight the power, dignity and counter narratives of women and grassroots movements. Her photo essays explore how women of color, indigenous peoples and farmers are reclaiming their stories, debunking the dominant victimization narrative and are shaping their futures and destinies by promoting women’s and indigenous rights, racial justice and people-centered resiliency efforts. You can read her published stories and photo essays at A Woman’s Lens. Follow her on Twitter: @RuchaChitnis.