Sacred Groves – Revisiting an Indigenous Eco-conservation Practice

jahera
Pic - Jahera [Sacred Groves] from Mayurbhanj, Odisha

Sacred groves are groves of trees and have special religious importance within a particular culture. These comprise of patches of forest or natural vegetation ranging from a few trees to forests of several acres, that are usually dedicated to local folk deities or ancestral spirits. Preserved over the course of many generations, sacred groves represent native vegetation in a natural or near-natural state and thus are rich in biodiversity. They harbour many rare species of plants, amphibians, birds, animals, insects, reptiles etc., in the natural food chains and food webs, that are often endemic to the region. Sacred groves thus conserve local biodiversity and are an important cog to address the issues of changing weather variabilities and climate change, which are impacting the survival of many species on the earth.

Sacred groves feature in various cultures throughout the world. They were important features of the mythological landscape and cult practice of Celtic, EstonianBalticGermanicancient GreekNear EasternRoman and Slavic polytheism. They also occur in locations such as India, Japan, and West Africa. The Lakota and various other North American tribes regard particular forests or other natural landmarks as sacred places. Singular trees which a community deems to hold religious significance are known as sacred trees. Interacting with different communities globally, other than the Indian subcontinent, informed us that the tradition of the sacred grove, has been widespread in many cultures. There have been instances where trees and forests either took on symbolic divine significance, or magical totems or representing superlative forces such as courage, endurance or immortality.

Sometimes, a particular tree was considered sacred because of association with a holy individual, saint or prophet – examples like the tree under which the Buddha received enlightenment and the tree used for the crucifixion of Jesus and above all in various religious rituals trees upon which prayers or offerings are hung in many different cultures. Examples are, peepal or ashtavattha (Ficus religiosa or sacred fig) tree in India and Nepal, and the Christmas tree, a custom whose present form evolved in Europe in the nineteenth century. Similarly, in the Shinto religion of Japan, which sanctifies nature, the Sakaki (Cleyera japonica) is especially sacred. Examples also include the Central Eastern Rainforest Reserves in Queensland, Australia, considered as sacred by the Aborigines; the Horsh Arz el-Rab (Forest of the Cedars of God) in Lebanon; the forests of Mount Kenya in Kenya, held as holy by the inhabitants; and a sacred grove still used by priests in rice ceremonies in the mountain rice terraces of Luzon, the Philippines.

‘The Sacred Groves’ of India are fragments of native forests varying in size, are communally protected, with a significant cultural and religious connotation for the protecting community. The existence of sacred groves in the Indian subcontinent dates back to an ancient pre-agrarian hunter-gathering era. Varying in composition these correspond to green patches of woodland dot the landscape of India from bamboo groves on the eastern coast to clumps of trees in the northwestern deserts, and from jungles in the tropical south to dense Himalayan alpine forests in the north. Yet they share an important commonality: they are all held sacred.

India has a long tradition of nature worship, and that ancient practice continues even today, through the veneration of forest groves. These sacred groves are protected by local communities through social-cultural traditions and taboos that incorporate spiritual and ecological values and serve as rich relationship between human thought and the forest world. India’s sacred groves vary considerably in size and composition. Some contain only a few trees, while others are hundreds of acres in size. Sometimes groves overlap with larger forested areas, while others exist as islands in open plains or desert. Even their names vary from region to region. Most sacred groves in India are associated with the almost 40,000 endogamous groups within the Hindu caste system and other major religions such as Buddhism and other animistic religions. This is in accordance with the concept of leaving native strands standing in regions around the world.

Origin of the sacred groves

sacred-groves
Pic – Devi Kantabaunsuni, Koraput, Odisha (Sacred Groves)

Many indigenous communities set aside sanctified areas of forest and establish rules and customs to ensure their protection, believing trees to be the abode of Gods and ancestral spirits. These rules vary from grove to grove but prohibit the felling of trees, the collection of any material from the forest floor, and the hunting of animals and birds residing within the groves. The community believes the presiding deities administer punishment, often death, to individuals who violate the rules, and sometimes to the entire community in the form of diseases or crop failures. As a result of such protective restrictions and beliefs sacred groves become important hotspots of biodiversity having been preserved over countless years across generations. These transform into the last refuge for endemic and endangered plants and animal species in areas where rampant deforestation and development is in vogue. They become storehouses of native plants to village communities as well as modern pharmacopoeia. They retain wild relatives of crop species that can help to create newer cultivated varieties. Sacred groves are protected forests by indigenous communities with unparalleled fervor.

To date, there has been no comprehensive surveys or data of sacred groves in India, so their exact number and area are unknown. In Odisha, the sacred groves are found in primarily in the hilly and forested districts. In Mayurbhanj, sacred grooves are called “Jahera”. Indigenous people revere such sites and perform their religious rites in the Jaheras. They do not cut any trees or plants in the Jaheras. However, the number of sacred groves has diminished in many other districts like Koraput, Kalahandi, Kandhamal etc. The Western Ghats that runs along India’s west coast, through the states of Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala are some of the world’s biodiversity “hotspots.” Its ecosystems include tropical wet forest, mountain evergreens, moist deciduous forest and scrub grassland. An estimated 2,000 plant species and 300 vertebrate species inhabit this region like nowhere else. Karnataka harbors nearly 1,500 sacred groves, which are most commonly called devarakadus or devarkans. In view of the known presence and pattern of distribution of sacred groves in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa, Uttaranchal, Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal, for which detailed inventories are not available. The total number of sacred groves in India is likely to range between 100,000 and 150,000.

Distribution of sacred groves in India

Sacred groves are scattered all over the country, and are referred to by different names in different parts of India. Sacred groves occur in a variety of places – from scrub forests in the Thar Desert of Rajasthan maintained by the Bishnois, to rain forests in the Western Ghats of Kerala and Karnataka. Himachal Pradesh in the north and Kerala in the south are specifically known for their large numbers of sacred groves. The Gurjar people of Rajasthan have a unique practice of neem tree (Azadirachta indica) planting and worshipping as abode of God Devnarayan. Thus, a Gurjar settlement appears like a human-inhabited sacred grove. Similarly, Mangar Bani, last surviving natural forest of Delhi is protected by Gurjars of nearby area. 14,000 sacred groves have been reported from all over India, which act as reservoirs of rare fauna, and more often rare flora, amid rural and even urban and sub urban settings. Experts believe that the total number of sacred groves could be as high as 100,000.

A form of holy Sacred grove found in Manipur. There are more than 365 Umang Lais, affiliated to the ancient religion of Sanamahism, which exists in various regions scattered across Manipur since ancient times. Interestingly, Manipur stands 8th rank among all the Indian States and 1st rank for North East India, for having highest number of sacred groves across the country.

Reported Number of Sacred Groves in India

StateNo. of Documented Groves
Andhra Pradesh750
Arunachal Pradesh58
Assam40
Chhattisgarh600
Gujarat29
Haryana248
Himachal Pradesh5,000
Jharkhand21
Karnataka1,424
Kerala2,000
Maharashtra1,600
Manipur365
Meghalaya79
Orissa322
Rajasthan9
Sikkim56
Tamil Nadu448
Uttaranchal1
West Bengal670
Total13,720

Source: Indian National Science Academy, New Delhi & Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Manav Sangrahalaya, Bhopal.

Significance of sacred groves

Pic – Kontabaunsuni Deity, Damanjodi, Koraput, Odisha

Traditional uses

Interrelationship between the human beings and plants and animals in their ethnobiological surrounding is very revealing. One of the most important traditional uses of sacred groves was that it acted as a repository for various Ayurvedic medicines. Other uses involved a source of replenishable resources like fruits, honey, spices and fodder. However, in most sacred groves it was taboo to hunt or chop wood. The vegetation cover helps reduce soil erosion and prevents desertification, as in Rajasthan. The groves are often associated with ponds and streams, and meet water requirements of local communities. They sometimes help in recharging aquifers as well.

Modern uses

In modern times, sacred groves have become biodiversity hotspots, as various species seek refuge in the areas due to progressive habitat destruction, and hunting. Sacred groves often contain plant and animal species that have become extinct in neighboring areas. They therefore harbor great genetic diversity. Besides this, sacred groves in urban landscapes act as “lungs” to the city as well, providing a much-needed green cover.

Cultural practices and art forms

A large number of distinct local art forms and folk traditions are associated with the deities of sacred groves, and are an important cultural aspect closely associated with sacred traditions. Ritualistic dances and dramatizations based on the local deities that protect the groves are called Theyyam in Kerala and Nagmandalam, among other names, in Karnataka. Often, elaborate rituals and traditions are associated with sacred groves, as are associated folk tales and folk mythology. Sacred groves help to define the cultural identity of the communities. They are also closely linked to the politics and economies of their communities, and their legal status and management vary among regions and individual villages. Some groves are associated with and managed by separate caste/indigenous community groups within a community, some by a village as a whole, and some by neighboring districts within a larger geographical area. There are also large “pan-Indian” groves that involve people from many parts of the country. In some groves, all forms of resource extraction are strictly prohibited, while in others people may collect material such as fallen branches and leaves from the forest floor or fruit from the trees.

Religious beliefs and practices

Typically, sacred groves in Indian-origin religions are associated with the concept of a presiding deity. Often these sacred deities are numerous nature spirits and guardians associated with HinduJain and Buddhist deities, such as nature spirits known as Yakshas (numerous nature spirits), Nāgas (serpent guardians) and guardian tutelary deities (like ayyanar and amman) are also known. There are over 1000 deities associated with sacred groves in the states of Kerala and Karnataka alone. In many groves, villagers perform annual rituals and ceremonies to appease the presiding deity and ensure the well-being of the community. It is also common for people to make individual offerings, often in the form of terracotta figures, in exchange for wishes such as good health or harvest or the birth of a child.

Biorepository

The sacred groves are important repositories of biodiversity in terms of flora and fauna that have been conserved by local communities in a sustainable manner. The groves are often associated with water bodies, ponds, streams or springs which help meet the water requirements of the local people. These water bodies help replenish and recharge the aquifers. This directly leads to protection of biodiversity in aquatic flora and fauna. For Example – Khecheoprai Lake in Sikkim.

The sacred groves may be the unintended biorepository for many plants, animals, insects and other creatures that have not yet been known to mankind. Limited access to humans would have helped to presereve the conditions needed for the survival of minute organisms that would have been sheltering under the older trees. While destructions of  forests is being expected to be compenasted by re-afforestation, the flora and fauna aasociated with older trees, may find their sole survival in these sacred grooves where hollowed out trunks may be their enviable refuge. Simialrly the sacred groves may contain many slow growing species that would need several decades to grow and reproduce successfully. These groves also harbor natural species of lesser economic importance to mankind but with an important role in the ecosystem.

Sacred groves maybe the last resort to revive the original composition of forests in and around them through the spread of native species. In an era of expanding monocuture systems and plantation types of forestry, sacred groves are the last hope to preserve the original architecture of the living world in a region.

Maintaining ecological balance

Sacred groves often include water bodies such as ponds and streams, that act as source of water in drier climates. The undergrowth that covers the floor of a groves can absorb water during rainy seasons and release it during times of drought as well act as a source of organic content as it consists of annuals and biennials. Trees also improve soil stability, prevent topsoil erosion and provide shade for schizophytes and act as anchors for epiphytes.

Interactive and dynamic spaces for issue-based discussion and influencing

While acknowledging the risk of sacred groves creating discriminatory socio-cultural practices, in the later period these spaces evolved to be dynamic and lively spaces of organising and mobilising communities around social issues, religious taboos and practices, human rights, multilevel institutional and social interactions and contestations. These were also demonstrated spaces for intersectional interactions of tradition-modernity, indigenous, state, and institutional processes as well as interface and promotion of progressive ecological governance aspect. Moreover, Forest governance too has acquired an intercultural and inter-relational characteristic, where diverse social, political, and cultural processes are considered while evolving village planning, policy discussions, and creative institutional formations.

Current challenges

The rapid march of modernization over the past century has depleted India’s sacred groves and altered the traditional social systems that have protected them. Threats to the Sacred groves include urbanization, high human interference, faulty silvicultural practices by Forest Department, extreme weather variabilities and climate change, over-exploitation of resources (like overgrazing and excessive firewood collection), and environmental destruction due to religious practices. Other threats to the sacred groves include invasion by invasive species, like the invasive weeds Chromolaena odorataLantana camara and Prosopis juliflora. The threats to sacred groves differ as much as the regions and groves themselves.

Sacred groves in many parts of the country have been destroyed over the past century to make way for development projects such as railroads, highways and dams. In many places the government has ignored local communities’ customary management rights and allowed the development of commercial forestry operations or encroachment by people migrating from outside the community who do not respect traditional practice. Some “Pan-Indian” groves are burdened by large numbers of tourists and pilgrims.

The major obstacle to the continuation of this tradition is that sacred groves did not enjoy protection via federal legislation in India. Some NGOs and social activists work with local villagers to protect such groves. Traditionally, and in some cases even today, members of the community take turns to protect the grove. 

The forces of the modern world are depleting sacred groves and weakening the traditions that protect them. Fortunately, thousands of sacred groves remain and many villages continue to observe traditional practices. Moreover, in the face of degradation, conservationists and local communities are recognizing that traditional knowledge and sacred practices are important elements in the conservation and management of these ecological treasures. The emerging Threats to the groves include urbanization, and over-exploitation of resources. While many of the groves are looked upon as abode of Hindu deities, in the recent past a number of them have been partially cleared for construction of shrines and temples. 

Many groves are suffering what is called “Sanskritization,” the transformation of primitive nature worship into formal Hindu practice. This has led to the clearing of areas in groves to make way for temples and a shift in focus to idols rather than nature itself. While this practice may still have a positive impact in terms of dissuading deforestation, an interference into natural process does ensue.

Of greatest concern is the loss of traditional wisdom and practices brought about by the increasing presence of urban culture and an ever-expanding market economy, creeping into the hinterlands. These forces have led many communities to lose their unified identity, a key element of their conservation practice, and to destroy resources in their sacred groves in return for short-term commercial gain.

The way forward

  • Strict enforcement of the protected area category community reserves under the Wild Life (Protection) Amendment Act, 2002 has introduced legislation for providing government protection to community held lands, which could include sacred groves. This can be in the spirit of yesterday’s sacred grove is today a biosphere reserve, a natural heritage or a protected area – possibly a blend of ancient value system, traditional/indigenous knowledge systems and modern practices.
  • At the outset, there is opportunity to use traditional and customary approaches of sacrality of the nature and forms of sacred groves to take up the questions relating to ecology, local environment, democracy, governance, rights, equality, social justice, gender, indigenous people, conservation and culture and in advancing the participatory decision-making processes. This needs to be a multi-stakeholder engagement and responsibility where the indigenous communities, local governance bodies, civil society and private sector actors and the concerned Government line departments need to play an active role in conservation and preservation of the sacred groves.
  • Modern educational system, do not help the younger generations develop a respect for local traditions and beliefs with many viewing the traditional practices as superstitions and not nature friendly strategies. Fortunately, many conservationists and communities, along with government and nongovernmental organizations in India have realized that development, progress and modernity do not mean turning one’s back on tradition, but rather that traditional wisdom can and must be integrated into modern planning and development. The cause of protecting India’s sacred groves has been gaining attention and local and regional preservation efforts abound.
  • New sacred grove management plans aim to restore power to local communities. Sacred grove awareness campaigns in communities and schools propose to educate people about the value of biodiversity conservation, ecological services and to stimulate the revival of traditions. Sacred groves should be created as a common space not only for indigenous communities but can also include diverse social constituencies and thereby can form an alliance to assert and claim their collective and community rights.
  • Sacred groves give an important message to the modern world. “Every footstep of humans into a virgin forest is a wound on mother nature and would need time to heal. So, it is best to leave nature to herself as far as possible.”

Author:

Mr. Ravi S. Behera is a senior development professional, with 23 years of experience. Ravi is an alumni from MANAGE, Hyderabad and has worked with many international organizations. Ravi is engaged in providing Technical Assistance to INGOs and grassroots Voluntary Organizations in the areas of Food security and Nutrition, Regenerative Agriculture, Environment, Energy and Climate Change.

Dr Jagat Patnaik is a development professional, with 25 years of experience and currently working with an international development support organisation. In his career span, he has been working in the areas of poverty, development and human rights and also has contributed articles on topics of national and global importance.

Dr. Ranjit K. Sahu is an American laboratory and research specialist located in Virginia, USA. Dr. Ranjit is a freelance writer, artist, poet and story writer. He has over 18 years of experience in Biotechnology and biomedical research. His interests include education, environment, sustainability and health care systems and practices in the underprivileged regions of the world.

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