All across India, communities preserve groves of trees as sites of worship. Terracotta figurines are lined up at the base of rosewood trees to warn visitors to tread lightly. Temples stand tucked behind thick, leafy branches of forbidden forests. Single banyan trees associated with a deity shade the earth below with a canopy cover that protects the surroundings. Ancient taboos at burial sites preserve plants that have gone extinct elsewhere. These sacred groves range in size from the plot of land surrounding a single tree to hundreds of hectares. Over 4,000 sacred groves are officially protected, but some people estimate that up to 150,000 community-guarded groves may exist.
Other parts of the world also contain sacred groves, but India currently appears to have the highest number of them. The forms of worship, protection, and ownership of the sacred groves are as varied as the cultures of India. To understand India’s cultural diversity, it helps to consider the number of languages spoken there. In a country that is just over a third of the total size of the United States, there are 22 official languages. As many as 1652 mother tongues were spoken according to the 1961 census. Though this number has nearly halved, the language diversity still remains high. When dialects are considered, the number of languages swells to 2500.
Sacred groves are protected by people practicing similarly diverse forms of religious worship including major religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity. In addition, many forms of nature-worship in India are specific to different ethnicities, clans, and castes. Some local beliefs protecting sacred groves may have originated from ancient pre-agrarian times. The names of the groves themselves vary from region to region. They’re called Pavithravanams in south-eastern Hindu areas of Andhra Pradesh, while they’re called Gumpa Forest Areas in the northern Buddhist parts of Sikkim.
Sacred groves can help us expand how we think about conservation because there is no definitive ‘system’ of nature-worship in India. Yet, when viewed collectively, the benefits for the preservation of biodiversity in the region are immense.
Sacred groves in India are protected by communities which can range from a pan-India recognition to much smaller assemblages of private owners of an ethnicity, caste, clan, or family. Due to communal beliefs and taboos, people are restricted from tampering with the forest at these sites. In some places, communities use the forests for festivals and allow for minimal foraging and resource use. In other areas, taboos prevent anyone from even removing a leaf from the ground. These varied forms of preservation derive from their local communities’ cultural identities and traditional beliefs, which often include an awareness of the ecological benefits that the forests provide to the community.
Some areas are considered sacred precisely for their location near streams or lakes, thereby protecting the watershed. The nearby water supplies remain clean because the soil-binding root structure of the trees purifies the aquifer and prevents soil erosion in the vicinity. The soil remains nutrient-rich and fertile thanks to the forest’s root mat. Like all forests, the groves also provide carbon-sinks that regulate the surrounding micro-climates and support diverse plant and animal life. In terms of biodiversity, sacred groves contain rare endemic and threatened species of plants and animals that have become extinct elsewhere. Many of the plants preserved in the groves also have medicinal uses that can be protected from over-harvesting.
My own country, the United States is currently struggling to preserve its national parks due to changes in levels of protection by the government. The laws guarding national parks are being weakened due to economic pressure. Preservation of these areas also depends on ideological support from the general public, often susceptible to the influence of commercial lobbyists who lack strong ties to the natural areas.
In contrast, the Indian communities that preserve sacred groves have local identities and traditions that support the preservation of the groves. These communities are bound by a belief in keeping their natural sites of worship pure and sacred. As local owners of the land, the community members sustain this longstanding protection through self-determined principles, that vary based on different communities’ needs. The sacred groves of India provide an excellent model of a decentralized, local form of preservation that remains as diverse as the religious and cultural identities of the people preserving these sites. These are important insights as they help us recognize the significance of traditional beliefs for nature preservation.
This is not to say that sacred groves are completely free from external pressures. Studies have noted how sanskritisation, or the spread of temple-worship, has reduced the influence of nature-worship in India. Likewise other threats associated with the market-economy including urban development, deforestation, invasive species, overgrazing and over-harvesting put sacred groves at risk. Increased recognition and support for the importance of these groves and the religious beliefs that support their protection could help reduce these threats.
Here are a few examples showing the variety of different regional beliefs protecting sacred groves in different Indian states. All of the information below has been adapted from this summary.
In Himachal Pradesh, in the north, strict taboos that stem from local myths and legends protect roughly 10,000 areas in the thick forests of deodar, kail and oak with occasional spruce and silver fir trees. A suitable habitat for large mammals, leopards, barking deers, ghorals, black bears, hares, wolves, and other animals roam these sacred groves. All of the major deities in the state have their own groves and this organization structure supported by temple management committees and biradari panchayats (caste councils).
The 730 Pavithravanams of Andhra Pradesh in south-eastern India are particularly threatened by development. They are dedicated to Hindu gods and goddesses and local deities such as Shiva, Rudrakoteswara, Hanuman, Saraswathi, Thimmaraya swamy, Gangamma, Nagadevatha and Akkamma. These groves contain fruit trees and trees with attractive wood such as black plum, tamarind, mango, jackfruit, neem, beechwood and pipal.
Just to the south of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu is known for the terracotta figures that are given as offerings in its sacred groves. Often in the shape of a horse, it is offered to “Ayyanaar, the village kaaval kaaran (watchman) at the shrine of the mother Goddess.” This is so that he may watch over the village. Almost every village in this region contains a sacred grove: a total of 1261 have been reported. Plants with medicinal properties grow abundantly in these groves as do many other plants:
Commonly found species in the plain groves are species such as crab’s eye, white babool, Siris, white cutch tree, Indian persimmon and ebony; in the coastal groves are the wild lime, iron wood tree, alangium, capper bush, indigo wodier; in the groves of the Eastern Ghats: Indian mesquite, east Indian walnut, poison nut, tamarind, ebony, persimmon; and in the groves of the Western Ghats: kurinji, white marudah, cycas, rudraksha, Indian black plum, champak and rosewood.
Karnataka to the west of Andhra Pradesh contains roughly 1470 sacred groves that are rich in biodiversity because of the stratification of size and ownership of the groves. Smaller groves known as Kans are entirely protected, while larger groves known as Devarkadu/Devarkan provide sustenance and resources to the community, while preventing deforestation.
Jatakappa, Bhutappa and Choudamma, Mailara, Bhairava and Govardhan are some of the deities to whom these groves are dedicated. The following species are commonly found in the sacred groves of Karnataka – Crab‟s eye, Sage leaved alangium, neem, pipal, pithraj tree and powder-puff
Mizoram is a state of India that borders Myanmar Burma and its sacred groves are known as Ngawpui. The Mizo people have strong spiritual beliefs in the unity of life in nature, the protection of geological features such as streams, rocks, and hills, and the sacredness of trees. However, when the region converted to Christianity, many sacred forests were felled to build churches, though this did not entirely alter their underlying beliefs. The sacred groves, bamboo reserves, and reafforestation efforts in Mizoram are beneficial for preserving the region’s genetic biodiversity.
Sikkim, a predominantly Buddhist region situated between Nepal and Bhutan, contains 56 documented sacred groves known as Gumpa Forest Areas that are managed by Lamas. The holiest site for Sikkimese Buddhists lies below the Khangchendzonga peak where it is believed that human activity will bring disaster.
Cho Chuba, Loki Sharia, Guru Padmasambhava and Rolu Devi Than are the deities to whom these groves are dedicated. The commonly found plant species are Cupressus, silver oak, tooni, thotnay, aiselu, tusare, like sanu khari and ruk saro.
For further reading, check the following links:
- Sacred Groves of India — An Overview
- Cultural and Ecological Dimensions of Sacred Groves in India
- Barking Up The Right Tree: The Fascinating History of Tree Conservation Movements in India
- Sacred Groves
- C.P.R. Environmental Center, Chennai
- Significance of Sacred Groves in Biodiversity
- Sacred groves of India — A plea for continued conservation (1974)
- Sacred Groves, the Biodiversity Hotspots
- Traditional Ecological Knowledge, Biodiversity, Resilience and Sustainability