Forests of Ancient Beliefs

Sacred groves, encountered in different parts of India, are one of the oldest forms of conserving natural forests.

From ancient times, people in India have perceived the divine at serene spots in nature, from trees to mountains, caves, and rivers, etc. These beliefs are poetically conveyed in the Brhat Samhita, a 6th century CE text that states, “The Gods always play where lakes are, where the sun’s rays are warded off by umbrellas of lotus leaf clusters; where rivers have for their bracelets the sound of the flight of curleys; where groves are near rivers, mountains, and springs.”

Reflective of this philosophy are sacred groves across India that embrace multi-species trees and multi-tier primary forest. These groves speak of the reverence towards trees by local beliefs and practices, their protection by communities, and of the traditional vegetation in a particular area. “If there is one biodiversityrelated cultural phenomenon cutting across the length and breadth of India, it is that of the sacred grove,” says Dr Yogesh Gokhale, Fellow, The Energy and Resources Institute, New Delhi. “One encounters sacred groves across India, especially where there are indigenous communities. The estimated number of sacred groves in India is more than 2,00,000 and are nurtured on private and community lands, as well as reserve forests.”

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Beliefs and conservation

Givers of fruit, medicinal herbs, timber, shade and more, trees had an important place in primitive society, and the origins of sacred groves are traced to that period of human evolution. “In the hunter-gatherer stage of primitive society, each clan had sacred locations that included rocks, water bodies and trees where tribesmen kept their sacred hoards. In totemic religion, plants and animals were considered as totems, and being regarded as spiritual ancestors, they were protected as sacred. The practice of planting and protecting a particular tree or grove was adopted by agricultural and pastoral societies. Thus, agricultural societies predominantly have sacred species like peepal, and groves for the village deities, whereas tribals practice totemism in addition to these traditions,” he explains.

Sacred groves are typically rich in local plant and tree species, and often become last remaining Above: The sacred grove in Tarkeshwar patches of old growth forests and associated biota. These pockets of forests are called by different names in different regions such as devrai in Maharashtra, kavu in Kerala, deovan in the Himalayan regions, than in Assam, gumpa in Arunachal Pradesh being linked to monasteries, law kyntang in Meghalaya, sarna in Central India, oran in Rajasthan and kovil kadu in Tamil Nadu. They were dedicated to local deities –such as Vanaspati Devi at Bhimashankar Sanctuary in Maharashtra, where a simple stone is worshipped as a goddess and devotees offer green bangles, coins, betel nut, cloth, incense sticks, turmeric, and thread.

Many sacred groves emerged from or are entwined with historical events. For instance, the Buddha was born in a sacred grove, attained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya, Bihar, and delivered his first sermon at the Deer Park in Sarnath. The Hariyali landscape, lying between 1,500 and 2,800 mt in the Chamoli district of Uttarakhand, is protected on account of an ancient myth. Hariyali Devi worshipped here was Yogmaya, the sister of Lord Krishna, who replaced him in the cell of his parents when he was born. When King Kansa threw her against the wall fearing the prophesy that the child would kill him, she transformed into a bolt of lightning and came to reside at Hari Parvat (green mountain), and was since known as Hariyali Devi.

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Natural gene pools

On account of ancient legends and taboos on disturbing vegetation, patches of forests were protected from denudation thus gifting future generations’ dense pockets of traditional forests rich in diversity. As protection meant preserving all the natural life in that pocket, it resulted in the preservation of an entire ecosystem embracing different tree species and the creatures that were sustained by them. Most sacred groves do not allow the use of forest produce. In some sites, minor produce – such as fruit or honey from bee hives may be sourced. However, even this is regulated by different factors- the produce may be removed only after seeking the blessings of the forest deity, or it may be removed during a particular season, ensuring that the ecology of the forest patch is not affected.

Sacred groves often stand out in a landscape as islands of greenery, home to rare, endemic and endangered species of flora and fauna. “Folklore, rituals and taboos that were entwined with the sacred grove, encouraged the use of resources in a sustainable manner. This conserved the rich and dense biodiversity of a region. For instance, there are 98 plant species in the Hariyali landscape and these comprise 52 species of herbs, 26 species of shrubs and 21 tree species making sacred groves an important natural gene pool reservation,” Gokhale adds.

Sacred groves preserve a body of beliefs that has been passed down through generations. Changes in religious and cultural practices and the pressure on land have impacted these pockets of vegetation. Conserving these sites is paramount, and is possible through greater awareness, participation of people and government, and strengthening beliefs in traditional conservation practices.

Gokhale stresses that most importantly, sacred groves provide a continued reminder that human cultures and biodiversity have evolved together, and the encouragement of this symbiotic bond is a key element in an ecologically and socially secure future.

written by: Brinda Gill

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