The sacred groves are today at risk and their ecological role is barely known. (The forests protected by deities, April 4). Several rare plant species are found only in these undisturbed patches of vegetation that are considered sacred. Many wild relatives of crop species, essential for improving cultivated varieties, are preserved here. A new species of frog, Philautus sanctisilvaticus, was reported from the Amarkantak sacred grove in Madhya Pradesh.
Sacred groves are also associated with perennial water bodies and serve as a valuable source of water supply in the dry season. Transpiration from the sacred groves’ vegetation would increase atmospheric humidity and reduce temperature in the immediate vicinity, producing a favourable microclimate.
Terracotta images of horses, tigers, elephants, bulls, dogs, etc., and snake stones are given as votive offerings in groves all over India, a unique unifying Indian phenomenon. Animal sacrifice is a more recent phenomenon, alien to the original concept of sacred groves. Earlier, only images of animals were created out of clay and offered to the deity. But traditional belief systems are now regarded as superstitions. Modernisation of temples within the groves, developmental activities such as roads, power lines, agriculture, large dams, urbanisation and government projects are destroying groves.
Nobody in India had tried to restore a sacred grove. The first grove was taken up by CPR Environmental Education Centre (CPREEC) in 1993 in Paavupattu, a village near Tiruvannamalai in Tamil Nadu, where we planted a mere 1.5 acres with no fencing, after an agreement with local people that they would protect the grove and prevent grazing. To our surprise the restoration survived.
That was the beginning. We then expanded our efforts all over Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. We would ask the local people why their sacred grove had deteriorated. The reason was either wood felling, agricultural expansion, excessive use of pesticides and fertilisers in the surrounding fields or water scarcity. We would then ask them whether they wished to preserve their natural heritage. Then the elders of the village would tell us what the original plants were in the grove during their childhood and we would make an effort to find those saplings and replant them. Today, Paavupattu has grown from 1.5 acres to 150 hectares of forest.
Simultaneously, we would desilt and revive the local waterbody. By restoring the grove and desilting the waterbody, the water level would rise in the entire village. We thus got the cooperation of the villagers and were able to take this further.
Later, we decided that we should create our own sacred grove. The first-such grove was in a small village called Nenmeli, two hours south of Chennai. We planted five acres in the first year, then added another five acres every year. Today, the entire hillside is thick and lush with greenery, while wildlife—birds and predators, including a rare leopard—have returned. Small wildlife —foxes and jackals, several varieties of birds, hedgehogs, deer and peacocks— has returned to all the groves. CPREEC has restored 53 sacred groves till now.
We supported our restoration with a variety of other endeavours. We would train women in income generation programmes. All the labour for our restoration efforts came from the villagers. Simultaneously, we also organised exhibitions in different parts of Tamil Nadu about religion and the environment, seminars and conferences, surveys and documentation of the ecological traditions of India and research projects, such as the preparation of a management plan for sacred groves and ecosystem service assessments. Our ENVIS website on the “Conservation of the Ecological Heritage and Sacred Sites of India” documents India’s sacred traditions to protect the environment. We have collected and published the Ecological Traditions of fifteen states of India—with the others to be covered soon—to record our traditions for all time.
We have taken a lot from nature and this is a very small way we could give back what we owed her. Today there are NGOs in other parts of India doing the same work with our advice, and state governments are supporting the conservation of sacred groves to increase forest cover. This is the people’s response to climate change, a low-cost localised way to green the environment.
Many sacred groves have been destroyed by commercial forestry operations. Human activities such as collection of dead wood, biomass, fruits, vegetables and herbal plants, branches and green leaves for goats, creation of footpaths, cattle grazing, mining of sand and clay and brick-making are affecting their survival. The violation of cultural norms and taboos no longer carries consequences. Invasion of exotic weeds is another serious problem, while conflicts among grove managers have also resulted in the loss
Since Vedic times, Indians have regarded plants and animals, rivers and lakes, mountains and seeds, as sacred and worthy of protection. People protected the groves to express their reverence for the sources of their survival. We must protect this great heritage.
Historian, environmentalist and writer based in Chennai