The focus of national forest policy, whether in colonial or post-independent India, has always been commercial exploitation. Thus, all attempts at reforestation have tended to favour planting commercial species with little thought to the communities who have traditionally depended on mixed forests for their basic needs. The Forest Rights Act of 2006 brought with it a long-due corrective by recognizing the role of traditional forest-dwelling communities, both tribal and non-tribal, in protecting the forest and using its produce sustainably. The law secured their rights to its usufruct and defined their role, through gram sabhas, in forest management.
Among the most successful examples of forest preservation, especially of old growth or ancient forests, are India’s sacred groves. They are usually small copses or clumps of mature trees that have deep spiritual and cultural significance to local communities that worship and protect them. Today, in the context of extensive deforestation and catastrophic species loss, these small enclaves have become valuable as bio-reserves, stores of biodiversity that are a source of indigenous plant and animal species. They must not just be protected but used as the core around which old growth and mixed forests are revived alongside the commercial forests, which the forest department so lovingly nurtures.
These ancient ‘micro’ forests have acted as the pivot in the relationship between Man and Nature in traditional communities. Several cultures and religious beliefs are inextricably bound with them and faith in their power often remains so strong that any act of interference with the forest ground, such as felling of trees, removing forest minerals and other resources or hurting any kind of life form within the forest, is considered a taboo. This project examines the role of sacred groves in the preservation of biodiversity and the protection of our forest wealth.
During one of the visits at Keshav Hedge’s house, he mentions about changing the deity’s position in the forest and taking her to the other side, sometime during Diwali. “She needs to be kept pleased,” he explains, flicking off the skin of the areca nut he holds in his hand. He looks up sometimes, his mind far away, but returns to look down at the areca nuts, his fingers peeling the nuts briskly.
Keshav Hedge’s family is among the 13 Hedge families who live alongside Devakadu (Forest of the Gods) on the northern side of Bilgi, a village located some 13km away from the taluk headquarter, Siddapura. The family has been watching over the groves for almost five generations, worshipping there and providing their services to the Nagadevi or Nagmata (the serpent goddess).
Most of the forests and the sacred groves (within or around them) are looked after by certain indigenous groups of people (who are defined under S 2 (a) of the Forest Rights Act, 2006 as ‘forest dwelling Scheduled Tribes’), in some cases the nomads too, who have been living in the forest for generations. These groups of people have depended on the forest and its resources, such as seeds, fruits and timber, thus making the forest an integral part of their livelihood. This dependency has made them deeply protective of the forests, such that some even believe in the existence of ancient spirits who safeguard life within the grove. Narayan Hedge took us to a solitary tree on the outskirts of the forest, explaining that the tree has been like a part of their family since generations, “We celebrate Champa Shrishti, as we believe in the presence of Narayana. This tree is very old, and that is why it produces the maximum amount of oxygen.” He believes that the tree helps sustain life.
It is their faith that has helped preserve the sacred groves which provide such a rich canopy of many old, endangered species of trees. The act of protecting the forest land, under the cultural influences of religion and community, can be taken as a model for future preservation of forest land. It serves two purposes of bringing people together for a common cause and maintain the balance trees and other life forms.
A Brief History
The Western Ghats saw the earliest settlements of humans during the Paleolithic or the Old Stone Age, sometime around 10,000 years BC. The Mesolithic period or the middle ages saw the transition from hunters to gatherers. This period soon saw the dispersing of the settlers into various indigenous groups who gave shape to the earliest practices of agriculture taking shape in Uttara Kannada. While paddy cultivation was a common form of agriculture, ‘hakkal’ or shifting agriculture became a popular practice during the period in the area. The practice majorly involved slash and burn technique, which was considered suitable for the fragile soil. However, due to its inconsistency the practice led to the inevitable loss of a few species. It could be said that this was the time when awareness to preserve nature began to take its toll upon the settlers. Certain patches of the forest, which were supposed to be left untouched, were known as ‘kans’. With the emerging civilizations and growing forest land, the ‘kans’ gradually merged with the other regenerating forests, such that it became difficult to distinguish one from the other.
The ‘kans’, which are often compared to the ‘kavus’ of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, were considered sacred by the pre-Brahmic peasant society, and cutting down of trees were soon considered to be a taboo. While, with the advent of civilization, the ‘kans’ became more Brahmanized, several primitive cults such as snake-worshippers became popular among the people living around or close to the ‘kans’. Thus, began the tradition of nature worship.
Nature worship has been an integral part of the human civilization. In an article, authored by Rajasri Ray, M D Subhash Chandran and T. V. Ramachandran, titled Sacred Groves: Nature Conservation Tradition of the Ancient World, sacred groves have been defined as ‘relic forest patches preserved in the name of religion or culture as observed in many societies.’ Apart from serving as a connection between nature and culture, sacred groves serve a deeper purposeful connection between the past and the present, the material and the symbolical.
As the symbolic representation of the connection across ages between the life forms on this planet, Sacred Groves are often considered to be a method of preserving biodiversity through ethnic diversity. Most sacred groves are usually protected by certain groups of people (mostly tribes), who have been residing around the forest since generations. While some of these settlers were recognized to be the lawful forest-dwellers, most of them were nomads who had been travelling and living by the forest resources since the pre-British era. Hence, the kind of worship that took place within the groves varied widely according to the group of people who were residing there.
While the permanent settlers, like Keshav Hedge’s family, gave the deities a form and a name (which were derived from Hindu mythology), the nomads on the other hand believed in the existence of a greater forest spirit. These groups did not always have the privilege of any social protection. The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 recognizes such groups and provides the rights to the Scheduled Tribes to maintain their utilize forest resources within the forest area. However, the Act compels some of the nomadic tribes to evacuate their settlements since they are unable to produce any record of their living in the forest ground for 75-years. It might seem that these nomadic tribes are being uprooted from the places where they have always belonged; but as Dilip Kumar, retd. Chief Conservator of Forests explains that the act actually keeps away any illegal encroachment within the forest land, “A lot of people have encroached within the forest land which has caused legal problems. However, the scheduled tribe people are allowed to have their claim.”
The forests hold a significant part in the lives of these tribal people. It serves as a traditional practice of living in harmony with nature. While some tribes have lived within the grove for centuries, others who have migrated to certain parts of the forest have build up their claim in the forest across generations. What is common for both is their very belief that the forest is an abode for divine creatures, hence should be left undisturbed. The beliefs vary across religion. For instance, the Hindus belief that every creature and plant is associated with a specific god or goddess who reside in the form of that creature or plant, whereas Christians and Muslims believe that humanity was send to Earth to look after Nature as God’s Creation. In fact, the ancient Vedas have several implications to nature conservation.
Like a Home
As sacred groves form an integral part of nature worship in several parts of India -such as, West Bengal, Jammu and Kashmir, Arunachal Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and the Western Ghats- the very practice of preserving the forest land and claiming cutting down trees as taboo, has acted in the favor of conserving nature. They have become home for several endangered species.
The sacred groves surrounding the Western Ghats, specifically, the ones in and around Siddapura in Uttara Kannada, have been the abode for several ancient specimens of various kinds of hosts, climbers and creepers. It has also acted as the habitat base for several arboreal species such as the lion-tailed macaque, which are considered to be an endangered species. Most sacred groves are also based upon Myristica swamps.
The tribal communities of Kalyanpur in Siddapura worship Kereamma, who is considered to be a lake goddess. The Kereamma (or Jattibana) grove in Kalyanpur surrounds the lake, where most people arrive to offer their prayers to Kereamma during Navaratri. Dr. N B Naik, a research assistant of Madhav Gadgil, who has been studying sacred groves for the past 25 years said, “The groves are integral when it comes to preserving endangered species. I have spent a lot of time reading these species, such as, Syzygium travancorium.” These evergreen trees, belonging to the Myrtaceae family, are few of the rarest species of plants that are found in the Western Ghats. Dr N B Naik mentioned that such rare species of flora are what construct the basic ecosystem of a sacred grove. “People come there during Navaratri to offer prayer to the goddess. But the other times of the year, they offer evening and morning prayers to the goddess to keep her happy.” The grove in Kalyanpur serves as home to one Vateria Indica which is considered to be a critically endangered species under the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species.
Keshav Hedge and his family have been looking after the sacred grove which is densely populated by a certain species called Semecarpus Kathlekan. Based on a myristica swamp, the grove is believed to be the home of the serpent goddess (Nagadevi), who is a female goddess. “She is a female goddess, she needs to wear ‘churis’”, Keshav Hedge’s mother explained. She wore the similar set of ‘churis’ (bangles), as the ones which hung upon the pile of earthen pots in the forest. The pile was made up in front of a stone slate which had serpent’s image engraved on it, and dark vermillion powder was smeared on the upper edge of the slate.
In his paper, Sacred Groves and Sacred Trees of Uttara Kannada, Madahv Gadgil had mentioned, “Most of these sacred groves may be considered remnants of the climax evergreen forests natural to the region.” While most sacred groves consist of tropical evergreen trees, the deciduous forests often form the outer boundary of the forests. These areas are home to species such as Buchanania Ianzan (almonds), Salmalia Malababrica (silk cotton), Syzygium Cumini (jamun), and so on. The groves also support extremely heavy undergrowth and other shrub like species, such as Carissa Carandas (karanda), Glycosmis Pentaphylla (gin or orange berry), and also certain weed species such as Chromolaena Odorata (commonly known as the devil weed). There are also certain species, as pointed out by Gadgil, that are exclusively found within the sacred groves, such as Actinodaphne Malabarica, Diospyros Oocarpa, and Mesua Ferrea.
Doing away with S4.4.1 which states that any forests cover should not be treated as “a resource readily available to be utilized for various projects and programs”, the groves lose their freedom from interference as the privacy of these forest covers might be largely hampered. The National Forest Policy of 1988 strictly takes into account that any act of mining or construction which can cause damage to the forest growth should be under proper scrutiny. At the same time, the requirement to “repair and re-vegetate” the land should be taken into account. By ruling out this condition, the endangered species within the groves might be under serious threat.
Most of the endangered species within the groves can act as excellent genetic samples for the regeneration of certain species. As Dilip Kumar says, “These forests can be sources of genetic material for species generation. If the surrounding forest can be protected, then this kind of regeneration will be possible. They serve as important centers of propagation of material.”
According to the National Forest Policy, 2018, forest plantation is supposed to be more concentrated on commercially important species like teak, sal, poplar, eucalyptus, and bamboo (which has been de-classified as ‘tree’ under the Indian Forest (Amendment) Bill 2017). This could lead to further threat for the groves, as that the surrounding forests will face severe encroachment. Trees, like the banyan, which have been rooted within the groves for almost centuries, might under of peril of being stamped out. Such public-private partnership within the forest areas might also hurt the sentiment of the indigenous settlers who have had a deeper connection with the forests, through age-old relation with the deities.
Keshav Hedge’s brother, Narayan Hedge, who lives on the other side of the forest mentions, “We don’t touch the trees or the swamp. They have been there, they grow on their own. We don’t do anything with it. We only offer our worship.” He further explains that any kind of mishandling or mismanagement of the forest might anger the deity who resides within the forest. In this respect the public-private partnership might actually hinder the functioning of very integrity of the dwellers.
Probably, in regard to the sentimental believes and the sense of implied privacy of the sacred groves, S4.1.1 (f) which draws towards a more systematic documentation of the biodiversity might be more appropriate approach. This might help in keeping a check on ‘bio-piracy’. However, it is important to know what sort of modern techniques will be promoted in order to preserve RET (Relic, Endangered and Threatened) species.
Apart from supporting several endangered species and being the abode of faith and the deities, sacred groves too have an important implication in Ayurveda. Dr. Roopa Bhatt, faculty of Dhanvantari Ayurveda College, Hospital and Research Centre, Siddapura, says that several plants from the surrounding groves of Siddapura help make ayurvedic medicines. “The medicine is made here itself. Ayurveda is extremely useful for pregnant women” she said, while talking about the various implications of Ayurveda.
These tropical forests provide massive biodiversity of medicinal plants. Species such as Cinnamomum (cinnamon), Garcinia (tamarind), Pterocarpus (padauk, timber) and Vateria (damar), are known to serve both curative and preventive purposes as they have been used for various traditional drug formulations and home remedies. While on one hand the plants serve for various domestic purposes such as beauty treatment, health maintenance, and sometimes as a part of the morning diet (like tulsi), on the other hand they are also used to prevent deadly situations such as snake bites, birth diseases and post-birth care. As sacred groves are a more isolated affair, their concentration within the communal circles should serve as the initial stage of awareness regarding forest resource.
Dilip Kumar says, “The community must come to the front and spread awareness, but it shouldn’t be a commercial practice.” These practices carried out by communities across the world to conserve the forest as a form of the divinity not only helps conserve nature, but also maintains a certain harmony within the people of the community. At the same time, the groves act as a preventive measure against any kind of climatic despair such as soil erosion. The presence of ancient trees and the thick undergrowth helps keep the soil tight and avoids any kind of erosion which might result due to heavy rainfall and flood. They keep the water cycle in check, making sure that the plants and the other species receive sufficient amount of water.
In his poem Ecology, A K Ramanujan has not only spoken about the external impact of nature, but has concentrated more on the relationship between man and nature, with its foundation being at the recognition of the two’s distinct characteristic features. According to old myths, man came to Earth to look after Nature, God’s most beautiful creation. In turn, the Gods would take various earthly forms to protect man from a calamity. Sacred Groves stand on the very basis of this belief. Any kind of hindrance in this relationship will certainly to an irreparable disaster.