Sacred Groves, A Symbiotic Relationship Between Man and Nature

Sacred Groves, A Symbiotic Relationship Between Man and Nature

On March 21st, we celebrate the International Day of Forests, a day to celebrate the dense green canopy that houses a happy ecosystem of flora and fauna. India is home to many forest covers and thus many wildlife sanctuaries, national parks, mangroves and more.  Apart from these, there are certain areas that are highly protected and conserved by the local communities dwelling in the forest. Some are so protected that there is no entry to the general public. These areas are known as Sacred Groves. 

Although they are just a piece of land physically speaking, they are associated with deities, rituals, and taboos. Sacred groves link the present society with the past in terms of biodiversity, religious, cultural and ethnic heritage. 

There are around 100 to 150 thousand sacred groves in India. Sacred groves possess an immense amount of wealth and values- ecological, biological, historical and cultural. This is why the National Environment Policy of India stated that the ancient sacred groves must be treated as possessing “Incomparable Values”. 

However diverse the dense forests of the Western ghats, or the bamboo forests in the eastern coast, or the tropical forests in the south or the dense Himalayan forests maybe, each of them are held sacred. Bharata is one country that has always seen divinity in the smallest of the species, and hence nature worship is an integral part of our existence. 

Fortunately, due to the centuries of preservation by the communities who live in these sacred groves, some of the rarest species of flora and fauna are preserved. Every sacred grove has a presiding deity who is believed to protect the beings of the groves. The community people believe that trees are the abode of Gods and Goddesses. They also perform annual rituals and ceremonies to please the deity and to ensure the well-being of the community. This traditional worship indicates the symbiotic relationship between man and nature. 

Many indigenous communities have lived and continue to live in harmony with wildlife populations. The knowledge these communities preserve can be applied for centuries to come. They understand the global concerns and have solutions to it. The concept of sacred groves can be traced back to these communities, who knew the dire need to preserve the green cover in their pristine form by dedicating them to either their ancestral spirits or to specific deities. Due to this, sacred groves still possess a diverse gene pool that cannot be found in other forests and ecosystems anymore. 

Today, they are the last refuge for endemic and endangered plant and animal species. They are storehouses of the rarest medicinal plants that are valuable not only to the residents of the forest but also to the medical pharmacopoeia. A study conducted in the sacred groves of Andhra Pradesh showed that the local communities use various species of medicinal plants for common diseases and disorders. The Chilkigarh sacred grove in Midnapore district of West Bengal contains about 105 medicinal plants, of which 12 are threatened outside of the sacred grove. 

With respect to water conservation, there are many small water bodies within these groves. Also, the vegetation in the groves have the ability to absorb rain water, store it and release it during drought or the drier periods of the year. 

The presence of sacred groves has also provided services such as reduction in soil erosion, conservation of soil, maintenance of the water cycle, preservation of groundwater, and natural dispersion of seeds of useful species. These are some of the many benefits that sacred groves provide. 

In Karnataka, it is known as Devara Kaadu, in Tamil Nadu, Kovil Kaadu, Dev Van in Himachal Pradesh, Garamthan in West Bengal, Orans in Rajasthan, Law Niam in Meghalaya, Than in Assam, and so on. The Bishnoi tribe in Rajasthan believe that all living beings have the right to live and share resources. They never fell trees or kill animals for their sustenance. The leaves, fruits and branches that drop down from the trees are used for food, fodder and fuel. The Khejadi tree is the most valuable tree found in the Orans of Rajasthan. 

The Devarakadu of Karnataka have shrines dedicated to various deities. Coorg has plenty of sacred groves scattered around. Although they are mini forests, some span across hundreds of acres. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) designated Coorg as the “Grove Capital of the World”. The principles that the Devarakadus demonstrate are a far more complex relation between man and nature. 

Some groves in Coorg are privately owned, while the majority of them are under the State Government. Some of the temples that are associated with the Devarakadus are the Rameshwara temple, Padi Igguthappa temple at Kakkabe, Katakeri village in Made and more. The deities include Maramma, Bhadrakaali, Durga, Ayappa and so on. 

In the North-east, there are many well-protected forest patches. Meghalaya, Manipur, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh are some of the states where sacred groves can be found. In Arunachal Pradesh, Buddhist monasteries are associated with the groves, and managed by the Lamas and Mompa tribes. In Assam, the forest-dwelling tribes such as Bodo and Rabha maintain the tradition of sacred groves known as Than. Sacred groves found along the plains of Brahmaputra valley in Assam are associated with the Vaishnav temples like Shankara Deva Mathas. 

Communities adhere to strict rules to ensure that the area is well-protected and to also not incur the wrath of the presiding deity. It is believed that if the rules of the sacred groves are not met, it can lead to punishment that involves death, or disease to the community or to the crop and more. 

Unfortunately, many of our practices have often been derided as being superstitious and hence sidelined. If a minute of thought is given to them, one can benefit from the plethora of knowledge that it has to offer. Beliefs, taboos, and cultural practices within the groves are the constructive tools that help conserve them, while deriding these very beliefs is leading to their deterioration. 

Rapid urbanisation, changes in religious beliefs, over-population, uncontrolled in-flow of visitors, and soil excavation studies have resulted in the slow destruction of sacred groves. In an interview with the Late Vaidya PK Varrier of Kottakkal Arya Vaidya Pharmacy, Aparna Sridhar mentioned the shortage of herbs and ingredients faced today for Ayurvedic medicines. Sacred groves fortunately preserve some of the most exotic and rare species of herbs that are required to make concoctions that might not have been prepared for a long time.  

Bharata views everything as sacred and this is why we have the best of everything that the global population is in awe of. On this International Day of Forests, we hope and pray that these sacred patches of land continue to live on for the years to come and their knowledge inspires the rest of the world towards preservation of the green cover.