Originally a small hill ceremony, Maiti Andolan is now a global movement to save nature. Planting a tree on the occasion of a wedding, the mountain villages of Uttarakhand have shown how to celebrate a happy occasion and protect the earth.
Chamoli district, Uttarakhand: The wedding ceremony is over and the newlyweds now proceed to the glowing young bride’s home and plant an orange sapling in the courtyard. The simple ritual has all the pomp and grandeur of a state function and meets with murmurs of approval from the guests gathered there.
Young girls from the village, including the bride’s friends, make a beeline for the groom, cajoling and badgering him until he surrenders the contents of his wallet.
With whoops of triumph, the lasses collect the spoils of war and flee. But their intentions are honorable. The money will not be splurged for their own personal pleasure, but will go into a fund meant for the uplift of underprivileged girls and for environment conservation efforts.
Kamlesh Chaudhari, 38, of Bainoli village in Chamoli district, has attended many such weddings and fondly remembers her own in 2002, when she planted an orange sapling outside her house along with her new husband.
Originating from the premise that the meeting of two souls in the holy union of marriage could be made more memorable by planting a tree on the auspicious day, newlyweds in the villages of the mountain state of Uttarakhand began planting saplings immediately after the wedding ceremony.
It was a symbolic gesture as the sapling would grow into a big tree and become useful to all, thus expressing the girl’s gratitude to her parents and to the land where she was born.
This tree plantation initiative, called the Maiti Andolan, has established itself as a workable solution for environmental protection as well as promoting the welfare of girls.
The word “Maiti”, explains Kamlesh, is derived from the word “Ma it”, which is Kumaoni for a married woman’s parental home. It is, however, more commonly known as “Maika”, the home of a girl or the place where the girl is born and where her parents live.
“In our hill villages, Maiti holds a very emotional meaning for the daughter, not only from the place’s physical point of view, but also for its prosperity and preservation of the place’s resources,” she says.
“When I visit my parents, I am so happy to see that the orange sapling I planted has now grown into such a big tree and is giving so many fruits to my parents and other villagers.”
The seeds of the Maiti movement were sown at Gwaldam in Chamoli district in 1995 and very soon whole-heartedly embraced by the women of the area. The brainchild of Kalyan Singh Rawat, a Biology lecturer at the State Inter College in Gwaldham, the movement in its initial days saw active participation of women from Garhwal’s Pinder Valley and Kumaon’s Katyur Valley at the time of weddings.
The women were responsible for the formation of “Maiti” groups consisting of young women and girls. Every unmarried girl of the village plants a useful sapling at home and looks after it.
At weddings, the bride, along with her groom, plants a sapling to mark the occasion. The importance of the ceremony lies in the fact that it is mentioned in the wedding invitation cards. The groom donates an amount after the tree plantation ceremony. The money thus collected is saved in a fund that goes on increasing with each marriage and it is spent on the upkeep of the plant and other environmental activities as well as for the welfare of poor girls.
Rawat points out that as the sapling has been planted by a girl, who leaves the village after her marriage, her entire family develops emotional attachment for the plant.
“In such a scenario, a long life of the plant is guaranteed. By this small but meaningful gesture, a married couple ensures a better environment for their children, a fact that they become aware of as soon as their first child is born.”
Rawat recalls that when he had initiated this tradition in 1995, he had never imagined that it would become so popular in such a short span of time.
“Uttarakhand has always been known for its beauty and natural resources, but because of rampant development we have not been able to keep alive our natural cultural identity,” he observes.
Hill women, he stresses, are the strength and backbone of their family as well as the larger community, and through the Maiti Andolan ~ essentially a women-centric movement ~ they are promoting environmental protection and catalysing social change.
“There is a reason for calling this revolution Maiti. Women are more active and energetic than men and are emotionally connected to their parental home. Besides, instinctively, they are more concerned about the future. So, by planting a sapling at the time of their marriage, they not only leave behind a precious memory, but play their part in safeguarding Mother Earth,” he notes.
Under the initiative, many villages have developed and nourished their own Maiti Vans (forests).
“After marriage when I came to my husband’s village, I found that many women were involved in tending to a large forest developed under the andolan. We have over 700 large and small trees in our van and I take pride in doing my bit to see that the trees are nourished,” says Kamlesh.
Shashi Chaudhari,42, also of Bainoli village, adds that the abundance of green cover in their van ensures that the villagers have ample fodder for their animals.
She is all praise for Kalyanji, who belongs to her village and who opened her eyes to the importance of preserving the environment for the future generations.
“Apart from weddings, we undertake tree plantation drives during the rains. With the money collected from wedding ceremonies, we organise environment conservation drives across different villages,” she states.
“A substantial sum is also kept for the education and wedding expenses of underprivileged and poor girls.”
The work of the daughters of the hill state is paying rich dividends. The trees planted under this movement have given a new lease of life to the Himalayan rivers and streams.
Within a few years the entire landscape of the village has changed for the better. The renewed and lush green cover in the mountains has led to a cleaner environment while the fruit and flower-laden trees have provided much needed relief to inhabitants of the villages.
According to Devaki Rawat of Bagoli village, the whole village becomes united in its efforts to prevent the sapling from dying and the society becomes stronger.
“Trees are like gold for the mountain people. They give us shade in summer and oxygen and water for our survival.”
Explaining the idea behind the movement, she says, “Trees are like our daughters. So we raise and nurture them with the same love and affection. When our daughters grow up and get married, we ask them to plant a fruit tree sapling, normally orange, in the village. Besides helping maintain a green cover, it’s a wonderful way to remember and cherish our girls.”
A Global Movement
From its humble beginning in 1995, the Maiti movement soon spread to other Indian states like Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Haryana and Gujarat and today it is observed in 18 Indian states.
The movement has also crossed the national boundaries by establishing itself in countries like Canada, UK, Nepal and Indonesia.
It is already a law in Indonesia that a man has to plant a tree before marriage.
Taking inspiration from their brothers and sisters at home, the vast population of Indians settled aboard have also taken up the ritual of planting a tree on a wedding very seriously.
In some cases where there’s no land available for plantation in cities, the newlyweds are sending the “assistance amount” to their native places and plantation is done on their behalf and a photograph dispatched to the couple as a memory of the event.
More than a lakh trees have been planted so far since the beginning of the Maiti movement while Maiti forests have come up in many regions of the Himalayas.
The movement has generated a lot of public awareness and tree planting is now done not only during weddings but on other occasions as well.
For instance, to mark India’s 50th year of Independence, each village in Uttarakhand had planted 50 trees, discloses Rawat.
“Then, in memory of the Kargil martyrs, villagers in collaboration with the Border Security Force had planted 1,000 trees in the district that has become an impressive forest known as Shaurya Van (Gallantry Forest),” he said.
In order to honour persons, organisations and agencies working in the field of environmental preservation, an award called the Maiti Samman has been instituted and more than two dozen people have been conferred with the award so far.
The Maiti group was again in the forefront when Asia’s tallest cheed (pine) tree, situated in the Tons valley of Uttarkashi district, was uprooted.
In a special ceremony to create environmental awareness among people, a sapling of a similar variety was planted in its place. Another key event has been the Vanya Jeev Jyoti Yatra , a trek organized thrice by the maiti groups to create and spread awareness for the preservation of wildlife.
These yatras were undertaken in association with the forest department on the occasion of wildlife security week.
Girls like Kamli from Nauti village have a new sense of self value and purpose, thanks to the andolan.
“Young girls in the villages are an integral part of this movement. We handle the Maiti fund and take good care of the saplings planted by newly married couples,” said the teenager.
“We are called the Maiti sisters and one among us is appointed as the head of the girls’ group. Through our efforts, we are creating extensive awareness about the need to preserve our forests and protect our natural resources.” Rawat added that through this extraordinary revolution, “we are reclaiming our forests and reforming our social outlook.
The number of saplings planted may not be huge, but the intent of planting them and subsequently tending to them has been an enormous success. And all this has happened without any government support or external donations.
The message of Maiti is plain : “For every happy occasion, plant a tree for a beautiful memory.”
(The writer is a freelance journalist.)