Sacred groves comprise of patches of forests or natural vegetation – from a few trees to forests of several acres – that are usually dedicated to local folk deities (Example – Ayyanar and Amman) or tree spirits (Vanadevatais). These spaces are protected by local communities because of their religious beliefs and traditional rituals that run through several generations.
The degree of sanctity of the sacred forests varies from one grove to another. In some forests even the dry foliage and fallen fruits are not touched. People believe that any kind of disturbance will offend the local deity, causing diseases, natural calamities or failure of crops. For example, the Garo and the Khasi tribes of northeastern India completely prohibit any human interference in the sacred groves. In other groves, deadwood or dried leaves may be picked up, but the live tree or its branches are never cut. For example, the Gonds of central India prohibit the cutting of a tree but allow fallen parts to be used.
CLASSIFICATION OF SACRED GROVES
- Traditional Sacred Groves – It is the place where the village deity resides, who is represented by an elementary symbol
- Temple Groves – Here a grove is created around a temple and conserved.
- Groves around the burial or cremation grounds.
(Source: Impact of Globalisation on culture of Sacred Groves by Pandey,A., and Venkata Rao, P.)
- Conservation of Biodiversity – The sacred groves are important repositories of floral and faunal diversity that have been conserved by local communities in a sustainable manner. They are often the last refuge of endemic species in the geographical region.
- Recharge of aquifers – The groves are often associated with ponds, streams or springs, which help meet the water requirements of the local people. The vegetative cover also helps in the recharging the aquifers.
- Soil conservation - The vegetation cover of the sacred groves improves the soil stability of the area and also prevents soil erosion.
DISTRIBUTION OF SACRED GROVES IN INDIA
In India, sacred groves are found all over the country and abundantly along the western ghats in the states of Kerala and Karnataka. Although, there has been no comprehensive study on the sacred groves of the entire country, experts estimate the total number of sacred groves in India could be in the range of 100,000 – 150,000.
(Source: “Cultural and Ecological Dimensions of Sacred Groves in India” by Malhotra, K.C., Gokhale, Y., and Chatterjee, S., 1998)
THREATS TO THE SACRED GROVES
The threats vary from one region to the other and even from one grove to the other. But the common threats identified are:
- Disappearance of the traditional belief systems, which were fundamental to the concept of sacred groves. These systems and their rituals are now considered mere superstition.
- Sacred groves in many parts of our country have been destroyed due to rapid urbanization and developmental interventions such as roads, railways tracks, dams including commercial forestry. Encroachment has led to the shrinkage of some of the largest groves in the country.
- Many groves are suffering due to ‘Sanskritisation’ or the transformation of the primitive forms of nature worship into formal temple worship.
- Invasion by exotic weeds such as Eupatorium odoratum, Lantana camara and Prosopis juliflora is a serious threat to some groves.
- Pressures due to increasing livestock and fuelwood collection.