The forests protected by deities  

Since ancient times, undisturbed patches of vegetation have been dedicated to folk spirits. These sacred groves are mini biosphere reserves

Published: 04th April 2019 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 04th April 2019 01:22 AM   |  A+A-

amit bandre

India has a long tradition of conserving nature by giving it a spiritual dimension. There is a symbiotic relationship between the biophysical ecosystem and socio-economic institutions. Culture and environment are complementary yet dynamic. The various cultural connections are expressed through myths and religious practices that celebrate plants and animals, forests, rivers and mountains that are essential for existence. Sacred groves are mini biosphere reserves and the most important conservation tradition of India. 

An undisturbed patch of vegetation on the outskirts of a village or part of a forested area dedicated to local folk deities or ancestral spirits and protected by local people through taboos incorporating spiritual and ecological values are called sacred groves. They are storehouses of remarkable biodiversity, and are home to unique plants, and myriad birds, reptiles and other animals.

They are the last repositories of rare and endemic species and are remnants of primary forests left untouched by the local inhabitants and protected by them with the belief that their deities reside in these forests. Sacred groves may range from five trees to several thousand hectares.

Cutting of trees, breaking branches, collection of firewood, and grazing and hunting of animals are strictly prohibited. Collection of honey, deadwood and medicinal herbs are sometimes allowed on a sustainable basis. Areas associated with cultural rituals such as rain-making and appeasement of disease-carrying spirits are also considered as sacred groves. The groves are associated with Hindu temples, Buddhist and Jain monasteries and occasionally Islamic dargahs.

In the groves, the rich plant life helps retain subsoil water. A small pond or lake also helps maintains the water table. All vegetation in the sacred groves comes under the protection of the reigning deity of the grove, which is a reservoir of rare fauna and flora amid rural and even urban settings. Transgression of any taboo is believed to cause crop failure, sickness in the family or to livestock and invites punishment by the villagers. The taboos, rituals and beliefs associated with the groves, supported by mystic folklore, have been the prime motivating factors for preserving them in pristine condition.

Unfortunately, sacred groves have no legal protection. Around 14,000 sacred groves have been reported from all over India, but experts believe that the total number could cross 1,00,000. Some of the most famous groves are in the Western Ghats and Meghalaya. They have different names in different states. In Tamil Nadu they are known as swami sholai or kovil kaadu. 

What made communities demarcate a patch of trees as sacred, and create taboos for its preservation, including bans on tree felling, hunting and even the removal of dead leaves and fruits? The myth associated with each grove reveals the ecological reason why it was worthy of preservation. Indigenous societies sustained spiritual relationships with the physical environment that sustained them, a relationship that ensured the protection of the grove.

The orans (from aranya) of Rajasthan are protected by the Bishnois. The khejri tree is essential for the desert ecology. The Indian gazelle and blackbuck are essential for the survival of the khejri. The migratory Demoiselle crane survives on the khejri. Thus their Guru Jambhoji declared the khejri and blackbuck were to be protected with one’s life, leading to the martyrdom of 363 villagers in 1730.    
Trees in groves provide habitat and food for many species that help to control the pest population in the agro ecosystem and promote regeneration of tree species by dispersing seeds, besides facilitating cross pollination of many plant species.  

Sacred groves are a storehouse of medicinal plants. A grove of trees in Perumbavoor, Kerala, covering about 25 acres, contains medicinal plants to treat almost every ailment. The rich medicinal plant life was obviously the reason for endowing the grove with sacredness, to ensure that it was protected and not harvested to oblivion. The sacred groves of Manipur contain ecologically valuable species like Albizia lebbeck and Ficus glomerata, which conserve a high amount of minerals in their leaves.

Within forests of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, a patch of about 500 acres are preserved as the fiefdom of Waghdeo or Waghoba the tiger god, who presides over the sacred groves of Central India. By preserving the groves deep within the forest, the lair of the tiger, the top predator is protected. Today the area is being fought over by industrialists, who want to tap its enormous resource potential, and tribal communities who have preserved the forest and the tiger, a keystone animal.

In Tamil Nadu, flying foxes or fruit bats are revered as seed dispersers in the groves of banyan trees in Puliangulam, Keelarajakularaman, Srivaikundam and Ramanathapuram, all near Madurai. The huge banyan trees are protected by the belief that Muniyandi will punish those who fail to protect the bats. The Todas of the Nilgiris who are dependent on their milk-producing buffaloes ensure sufficient grazing land for them by earmarking grazing lands, such as Mukurthi National Park located in TN’s Nilgiris District. 

The importance of sacred groves in nature conservation has increased after the declaration of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Community-based conservation initiatives are one of the prime agendas for CBD for which the sacred grove tradition can be portrayed as a 
role model.


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  • Swa

    THank you.
    1 year ago reply
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