Sacred Groves: Traditional Beliefs Of Environmental Protection

Asim Mudgal
Asim Mudgal
Asim Mudgal is an aspiring writer creating space for self-development and inclusivity.

A sacred rainforest grove surrounded by paddyfields in Kodagu, Karnataka (Souce: Wikipedia)

Nature and the worship of natural resources have been part of India's tradition for ages. Nature worship has long been a part of ceremonial heritage practice in Indigenous communities around the world. They believe the universe has gifted them this opportunity to be closer and more loyal to biodiversity, which brings them home and livelihood. Traditionally, they have developed some ritualistic practises and made themselves associated with nature preservation, one of which is commonly known as Sacred Groves

Sacred Groves: Beliefs, Tradition, and Values. 

Sacred Groves are patches of natural vegetation or tracts of virgin forest rich in diversity, protected by local communities for their beliefs centred around religious practises or taboos that such places are homes to deities who protect us from natural calamities. Furthermore, these patches have been home to many natural threatened and endangered plant species. Also, Sacred Groves are home to vegetation, including climbers, herbs, shrubs, and trees, with the presence of a village deity inhabiting them, aside from the water sources. Traditionally, every sacred grove has its own tales, folklore, and stories shared over generations to generations, abiding with cultural faith and beliefs. Hughes and Subhash Chandran (1997) define sacred groves as "segments of landscape containing trees and other forms of life and geographical features that are delimited and protected by human societies, believing that preserving such a patch of vegetation in a relatively undisturbed state is necessary for expressing one’s relationship to the divine or nature."

Sacred Groves: Rituals, Practices, and Traditional Names

The View of Sacred Groves in Kerala (Source: ENVIS Center, Ministry of Environment & Forest, Govt. of India) 

Deodar Devban grove in Himachal Pradesh, India. Source: Wikipedia

As per an estimate, India comprises about 100,000 groves with varied names as per the regions. In India, these are distributed in the Himalayas, North-East India, and the highlands of Bihar, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala. Locally, these are known as Sarana (in central India), Devrai and Deviahate in Maharashtra, Devarkadu in Coorg, Orance in Rajasthan, Kavu, or Nagavanam in Kerala, Nandavana in Tamil Nadu, Sidharavanam in Karnataka, and Kavu in Andhra Pradesh.

In Tamil Nadu, the Sacred Groves is dedicated to Amman, the goddess of fertility and good health, as well as Ayyanar and Karuppuswamy, two of the most worshipped deities. Traditionally, people do not cut or pluck any vegetation, fruits, or flowers from the said sacred space, except in the case of medicinal purposes. 

Eventually, sacred groves became a part of the forest management system harbouring lakes or ponds. As signified by the by-products that it produces, Further, Rajasri Ray, MD Subhash Chandran, and TV Ramachandra at the Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, put forth research that shows water conservation is perhaps the most well-documented ecological service provided by sacred groves. 

In the research, the ecologists stated that the high groves of the Western Ghats and the Himalayan region are important for their soil and water conservation activities. Additionally, they are beneficial for local inhabitants in terms of less soil erosion, preventing flash floods, and providing a supply of water in the lean season. Similarly, the desert groves of Rajasthan, commonly known as orans, provide important livelihood support for local people, added Ray, Chandran, and Ramachandra. In the northeastern state of Manipur, there have been 166 sacred grooves reported that harbour 173 plant species representing 145 genera and 70 families. Similarly, the Sacred Groves of Assam are locally known as Dikhos by the Dimasa community. The sacred groves in Jashpur and Surguja districts are known as Sarna and Mandar, and the local tribal communities protect them on the strength of traditional beliefs. Apart from that, Sacred Groves provide vital requirements in daily life, such as fuel, food, construction materials, water, medicinal herbs, edible plants, etc. 

The Sacred Groves of Kerala, commonly known as Kavu, are situated mostly in the northern districts of Kannur and Kasaragod. Also, it was a common practice among the people to assign a portion of the land on which they built houses to the serpent god Naga or goddess Durga. In the report published by the C.P.R. Environmental Education Center (CPREEC), there were around 1000 small and large groves in the Kannur and Kasaragod districts alone. However, with time, they are diminishing. A noted bird watcher and environmentalist, C. Shashikumar, has mentioned 576 groves in the region. Kerala's groves are home to lots of birds, both endemic and migratory. In 2015, they discovered 107 bird species from 48 families and 17 orders while studying 15 major sacred groves in Kannur and Kasaragod districts. Furthermore, 25 per cent of the bird species were forest birds, while the remaining 17 were migratory birds. in the year 2004, Sashikumar had identified four species of endemic birds. Among the four species, he reported the presence of two species, the grey-headed bulbul and small sunbird, in sacred groves of north Kerala.

[Source: Deep N. Panday, Indian Forest Service, India]

Sacred groves in the Aravallis and Vindhyas of Rajasthan can be classified into three major groups. The first group includes groves located near the village and close to a water source. Such groves are also at the top of small hillocks in the Aravallis, where people worship Bheruji, Bawsi, and Mataji. Khanpa Bheruji, Kukawas Bheruji, Badi Roopan Mata, and other such sites in Udaipur include Khanpa Bheruji, Kukawas Bheruji, Badi Roopan Mata, and others.The second group of groves is dedicated to Lord Mahadeo. Traditionally, the vegetation of the entire watershed is protected by groves. Simultaneously, large trees and a water source are the main characteristics of these groves. Water sources developed as open step wells (Bawdi) can be found at Ubeshwar Ji, Kamalnath, Gautmeshwasji, Taneshwarji, and Jhameshwarji. The third type may be a single tree. In the Kotra forest range, several large trees of Ficus benghalensis have been seen that look like groves because of the development of aerial and prop roots. Historically, the tradition of protecting peepal, gular, and bargad trees is not only found in Rajasthan but also in other states of India, including Bihar, Jharkhand, etc. The tradition is also reported in other Asian and African countries.

Sacred Groves: Conditions and Preservation

In recent years, Groves have been facing problems and pressure like area shrinkage, resource extraction, alien species invasion, fragmentation, degradation, and changing environmental and social structures. Supposedly, fragmentation is created by population pressure, biomass requirements, and agriculture. Further, it leaves significant areas exposed, altering the flora and fauna cycle and leading to the removal of valuable species. 

Eventually, lots of areas have been cleared for developmental projects, and even sanctified spaces are losing their sanctity. As we ensured the safeguarded Grove resources proved to be an exceptional cultural and traditional environmental management process, many international and national bodies are working towards its safety. Specifically, academic research, the forest department, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and local committees. Activists across India advocate the enforcement of the 2006 Forest Rights Act, which reinstates community rights to manage neighbouring forests.