Indigenous traditions around the world have been mindful of the need to care for the environment in order to ensure the continuation of life on our planet. Their cultural beliefs and practices can often be found emphasising on a way of life that premises itself on the idea of co-existence. These are of great importance today when witnessing adverse weather patterns and massive biodiversity loss. The creation and conservation of sacred groves is one such practice. An attempt is made to appreciate the significance of sacred groves to the many questions on sustainability and climate change we are faced with today.

The concept of a sacred grove is unique and mixed with religious beliefs, taboos, purity and environmental conservation. This idea has been found to exist across the world and has been an important feature in ancient Greek, Roman, West African, Japanese, Chinese and Indian mythology. Diverse cultures have recognized it in different ways with each one having their own sets of rules and practices to govern them. In India sacred groves can be found in many parts, especially in the Western Ghats, central India and the North-East of India particularly around regions where indigenous communities are concentrated. They are known by different names by each ethnic group.

A sacred grove is a small patch of land with a few particular types of trees and creeping plants growing around it. Local community keep the area untouched and treat it as a holy place. They devote it to their local deities and ancestral spirits. Every sacred grove has its own legend and lore in the oral tradition of the communities that has been handed down through stories and songs over centuries and generations. The people hold a strong belief that any activity that will destroy their sacred grove will invite the wrath of their gods and will culminate into a disaster. Thus they protect them as a part of their community custom. They believe that their gods will bring upon them good fortune if the sacred groves were looked after.

Socio-cultural Hub
In many places, single trees are often protected with the same sacredness the groves with a patch of land are protected. In North India, many communities devote single trees as sacred and nurture them as their community tree. According to the central government database, the state of Maharashtra has the most numbers of sacred groves in India. Southern states like Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Kerala have sacred groves too. Ajeevali sacred grove of Pune and Devarai groves are the notable groves in Maharashtra. Kovil kadu of Tamil Nadu, Iringole kavu and Elavancode Kavu of Kerala and Devara kadu in Kudak district of Karnataka are the prominent sacred groves in the Southern India.

Alathara Sacred Grove, located in the border of Trissur and Malappuram Districts. Photo: Nabeel CKM

Along with religious beliefs, sacred groves have been central to the socio-cultural ideation of the indigenous communities. Various local festivals emerged in association with many of the sacred groves and people living near it continue to celebrate it with both religious and cultural fervour. Kodagu district of Karnataka is famous for its sacred grove festivals. These festivals are still in practice. Kodava, a dominant ethnic community in Karnataka, hosts this nine days sacred groves festival. In Northern India, dedicated trees are recognized as social centers for congregations. Local people assemble under the canopy of these sacred trees as a natural meeting point. It serves to hold village meeting and community events. Weddings too are sometimes held under these community trees. In many cultures, sacred groves are considered as a symbol of justice. It is under these trees that community leader and other members assemble to hear and resolve disputes between individuals.

Rich Biodiversity
The practice of the worship and reverence of sacred groves has an ecological dimension too. Modern environmental scientists and academicians have observed sacred groves to be rich in biodiversity.  Being an area with trees and plants that has been left untouched by human beings for centuries, it is obvious that many species of flora and fauna could exist undisturbed in these patches. The ecological dimension of the sacred groves with an inherent idea of biodiversity conservation represents a deep sense of co-existence.

Reports show, different species of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and a variety of butterflies to be found thriving in these groves. As tracts of virgin forest which had been protected by local people, sacred groves have become a treasure of biodiversity where many rare flora and fauna, including endangered species exist.

Medicinal Storehouse
Today, it is observed that several medicinal plants that were previously endemic to the forest have disappeared and are only to be found in the sacred groves. The availability of these medicinal plants was at the foundation of locally developed and practiced medications. A recent research, with a special focus on the medicinal plants and their uses conducted in twelve sacred groves of Cuddalore and Villupuram districts of Tamil Nadu, listed out around 90 medicinal plants and their usages. Important findings were Indian mallow, locally known as Thuthi is good for piles. The leaves of Custard Apple (Sitha palam) for unconsciousness and eczema, roots of Indian Birthwort (Eswaramouli) for snake bites, leaf extracts of Madras Pea Pumpkin for jaundice and wild indigo roots for asthma are a few examples of their rich medicinal knowledge. A few rare species of medicinal plants are to be found in the sacred groves alone. These medicinal storehouses provide the necessary resources to help heal their body, wounds, and many ailments.

Structural Functions
Further, the structural functions of sacred groves were noticeable in the nearby areas. The vegetation helps to prevent top soil erosion and improve soil fertility. The relationship between sacred groves and the surrounding climate has been evident. Dark leaves of the trees allow for the maximum absorption of sunlight and for the effective transportation of moisture back into the air which results in a micro climate. The vegetation of a sacred grove interacts with the soil and water affecting the micro climate further. Not only does it cover the soil and prevent heat loss and radiation, but they also help to regulate the temperature of the soil, filters dust and other particles from the air and acted as windbreak and suntrap. Sacred groves also help the vicinity to adapt to its own cool and fresh micro climate. Even in dry seasons, they have found to manage a cool atmosphere. Literally, sacred groves are the reservoirs of the vicinity. Vegetation lets the rain water to get absorbed by the soil and to maintain the groundwater level. The groves are often seen in connection with ponds and streams. Thus, they play a priceless role in the completion of the local water cycle.

Sacred groves also help the vicinity to adapt to its own cool and fresh micro climate. 
Photo of Alathara Kaavu by Nabeel CKM

It is interesting to see how scientists and environmentalists now debate in conferences on a new climate economy, while the Indigenous communities have been aware of this and have lived in an organic natural economy since centuries. Sacred groves are only one way to understanding the perception that indigenous communities have towards sustainability and environmental conservation. They were wise in their use of natural resources. Their intelligence was layered in their rituals, customs, belief, taboos and festivals.

Rational discussions and scientific explanations must not forget the knowledge carried through generations by indigenous communities. Their cultural values, beliefs and entities of worship hold a deep sense of co-existence which is necessary for us to move forth in our present day world in sustainable ways.

Author: Nabeel CKM
Cover photo: Sarppa Kaavu: A sacred grove in Thrissur. Photo: Manoj K
Published on: June 5, 2017



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