Traversing Auspicious Woods
Back in August 2018, highly typical of the Amboli weather, it was pouring cats and dogs. My batchmates and I were ardently working on the field with our teacher when I saw a quaint forested area dominated by Ironwood trees (Memecylon umbellatum), peeking from behind a temple. Noticing my inquisitive eyes, my teacher introduced me to the concept of a sacred grove. For the first time, it wasn’t just the green vegetation which captivated my attention. I was also intrigued by the distinct amalgamation of culture and ecology. In this modern era, where no religious ceremony is devoid of glamour, this passive conservational tool of habitat protection through simple worship enamours me.
Eminent scientist, Dr Madhav Gadgil defines sacred groves as, “patches of a primaeval forest that some rural communities protect as abodes of deities”; and every time I ponder over this, I realise that there cannot be a more apt definition which could explain this concept better!
Worshipping and respecting mother nature is certainly not unfamiliar to us Indians. But this concept originally also existed worldwide. Perhaps, sacred groves originated after the introduction of agriculture, when forests were pushed back to create fields. This had an adverse impact on the fertile soil and water resources and led to the realisation of the need to protect forests. Consequently, patches of remaining forests were dedicated to a deity and were thus worshipped and protected. The groves were later wiped out from Europe after the establishment of Christian churches and are today observed only in parts of Middle-East, Africa, and Asia. Even in India, prior to 2002, sacred groves were never recognised as a vital conservation practice. It was only, after the amendment, in the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 that these patches were lawfully given the status of protected areas under the category of community reserves. Today, there are around 14,000 sacred groves from all over India, which are formed by diverse religious beliefs.
In the heart of Amboli village, Maharashtra lies a closed canopy forest named Lingachi Rai. This forested patch is attached to a temple constructed for the Shivalinga God, and the resources within the forest are considered holy. The local communities, associated with the groves (Devrai in local language), believe that they an ancestral spiritual connection with nature, and the people consider themselves to be the protectors of the forest. The utilisation of these resources from the sacred groves is highly restricted. There is a belief that if one happens to trespass for procuring any forest produce, the wrath of God can cause deformity to the trespasser. This strong belief and bonding with the sacred grove have in turn maintained the forested patch undisturbed for more than a century. Fortunately, permissions from the local community enabled me to visit this Devrai, making it an unprecedented experience.
As I walk down the memory lane, I almost instantaneously recollect my feet sinking into a few inches of moist leaf litter over the soil. Enamoured by the aura, I threw a glance to gauge the obvious multi-storeyed vegetation enfolding. The forest was adorned with gregarious trees, embracing the lianas and epiphytes, and to me, it was a picture-perfect evergreen forest patch. At that instant, I could not begin to imagine the possible existence of the countless species of invertebrates. Engrossed in the charm, a sudden voice reverberated in my ears, “ …and these trees have an obligatory dependency on frugivores for their germination.” I then quickly noted down in my field diary- ‘Litsea floribunda (yellow clustered flowers, endemic to the Western Ghats) dispersed by hornbills’. The complex vegetation structure that Lingachi rai has endured for the longest time has led to a rich and diverse fauna because of an enlarged niche created for roosting, nesting, and feeding. Right from a simple leaf litter mattress which might appear to be futile for some, every component in that forest has contributed to forming an ecosystem. For instance, while the leaf litter enhances percolation of water into the soil, the peculiar vegetation has bestowed the area with endemic, rare and threatened fauna from the Western Ghats such as the Amboli toad, Malabar gliding frog, and purple forest crab. Even charismatic species like leopards, Indian gaur, and sloth bears have been documented within the Devrai. The grove has been blessed with several medicinal plants such as hill turmeric (Curcuma pseudomontana) and chebulic myrobalan (Terminalia chebula) which act as valuable gene pools. The sacred grove as a whole is the sole remnant forest patch in the man-made grassland and passively protects the biodiversity from the neighbouring Ghat, thus serving as a forest fringe. Apart from Lingachi rai, other Devrais such as the Sadachi rai, Mahalingachi rai, and Hiranyakeshi are the prominent sacred groves of Amboli. But over-exploitation of resources from the sacred groves have led to a minimal disturbance as opposed to the undisturbed and intact Lingachi rai.
The groves in different geographical regions of India benefit communities in different ways. While groves in the Western Ghats and Himalayan region help in preventing soil erosion and flash flooding, those present in the deserts of Rajasthan supply water to the communities. Amongst the 14,000 recorded sacred groves in India, sacred groves from Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Sikkim and Mizoram are noteworthy. Tamil Nadu is known for sacred groves wherein terracotta figures in the shape of a horse are present. They are offered to “Ayyanaar” the village head so that he can become the protector of the village. A total of 1261 such sacred groves have been reported from villages of Tamil Nadu. Indian rosewood, White babul, wild lime and plenty of medicinal plants grow in the groves. Gujarat beholds 42 recorded sacred groves, each with diverse forest types viz. mangroves, freshwater swamps, and other tropical forests. Cotton tree, Bengal quince, neem tree, mango tree, Flame of the forest, Indian rosewood, banyan, and peepal are among the most commonly observed plants in the sacred groves. Mizoram’s people pray to the geological features such as streams, rocks, and hills within the sacred groves. The groves mainly comprise of bamboo trees. Sikkim, a predominantly Buddhist region has 56 documented sacred groves in which deities like ‘Cho Chuba’, ‘Loki Sharia’, ‘Guru Padmasambhava’, and ‘Rolu Devi’ are worshipped. The commonly found plants are cypress, silver oak, tooni, thotnay, aiselu, tusare, sanu khari, and ruk saro.
Sacred groves in general, provide ecosystem services such as refugia for rare and relict flora and fauna, maintenance of microclimate, soil quality, a constant hydrological cycle, control of wildfire, and natural seed banks. Another benefit is carbon sequestration, i.e. long-term storage of carbon dioxide or other forms of carbon which prevents the release of greenhouse gases and is thus a vital mitigation measure against global warming. Many-a-times it has also been observed that several medicinal plants which are abundant in the sacred groves are lacking in the rest of the forests. The other prominent advantages are reduction in habitat destruction and protection to viable populations of pollinators. Such intact ecosystems also maintain equilibrium and the diverse species regulate diseases. Sacred groves may also serve as corridor forests or in simple terms connecting routes for several birds, reptiles, mammals, and insects who could otherwise, be stranded in isolated vegetation fragments. Such corridors help to reduce inbreeding within a population and increase genetic variation. A great example of this is the Kathlekan sacred grove in Kodagu district of Karnataka, which is a unique ecosystem in itself, comprised of the endangered Myristica swamps, and is home to the largest population of critically endangered lion-tailed macaque. Besides, several other sacred groves in Kodagu, are refugia for the giant Asian honeybee, which nests in the groves and pollinates coffee plantations, the backbone of Kodagu economy.
Religious beliefs, myths and taboos have been key tools in the protection of sacred groves. However, when the primary focus shifts from conservation, the possibility of habitat degradation strongly increases. During several studies, a common trend has been identified, wherein the deity is initially present within the forest and is then gradually relocated to newly constructed temples over the years. Once the relocation occurs, protection of the forest becomes irrelevant to the people, and issues such as garbage dumping and pollution are frequently observed.
Today as the demand for land is rising, many local communities are averse to the idea of maintaining sacred groves, despite their religious significance. Traditional ways of resource management are now becoming dysfunctional due to Sanskritisation among young people. The most prominent activities such as an expansion of resorts, road-widening, and mining are taking a heavy toll in the protection of the sacred groves. Ecological services offered by sacred groves need to be brought into the limelight so that people realise that their conservation is crucial for sustenance. The state government forest department, Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), and academic institutions are taking active measures in the conservation of such groves. Local communities are also given incentives in the form of carbon credits and ecotourism to manage sacred groves. Researchers are only beginning to unfold the multi- faceted benefits offered by these pristine pockets, and one cannot overlook the benefits of protecting the sacred groves while talking about a sustainable lifestyle. In present times, where community conservation is one of the main aims for the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) on a global level, the practice of managing the sacred groves could be portrayed as a paradigm.
In fact, sacred groves are amongst the very few manifestations of positive anthropogenic intervention in biodiversity conservation! Scientists suggest the concept of ‘sustainable landscapes’ in combination with ecological economics as a powerful tool in protecting the groves. In such pivotal times, where rehabilitation of environmental health has become essential for human survival, the association of indigenous communities with nature will definitely turn out to be a blessing in disguise.