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Sacred groves of India

India has a long tradition of prudent use and wise conservation of all resources that are useful to people. Forests have been the lifelines for forest-dwelling communities since ancient times. One method for conservation of this green resource was the creation of sacred groves, usually dedicated to a local deity. A traditional means of biodiversity conservation, these groves can be considered the ancient equivalent of natural sanctuaries where all forms of living creatures are given protection by a deity. No one is permitted to cut any tree or plant, kill animals and birds, or harm any form of life in this area. Ancient Indian texts have many references to sacred groves, for example, Kalidaasa’s Vikramorvawsiyam.

Today, there are only about 1000 square kilometres of undisturbed sacred groves, scattered in patches all over the country. Only the groves in the remote and inaccessible areas remain untouched. While religious taboo protected the groves near towns earlier, today they are protected with the means of barbed wire fencing or hedges.

The decline of sacred groves can be attributed to the change in social values and religious beliefs as a result of modernization and urbanization. The expansion of the market economy, which places heavy demand on resources such as timber, is another major cause. For most villagers, economics is easier to understand than ecology.

Sacred groves vary in size from a few trees to dense forests covering vast tracts of land. These groves are important today as they are banks of genetic and plant diversity that have to be preserved and sustained. These areas often contain species that have disappeared from the regions outside the grove. The extant groves are proof that the forests exist not only because there are regulations but also because there are traditions.

  • Shipin, about 12 km from Shimla, is believed to be the biggest deodar grove in this district and is home to trees that are hundreds of years old. Villagers who pass through the grove dust their clothes to make sure they do not carry anything belonging to the grove. Trees in the area cannot be cut or felled, and all deadwood found in the forest is used in the temple located in the grove. There are hundreds of such groves in Himachal Pradesh.
  • Sacred groves in the hills of Garhwal and Kumaon are mentioned in old Hindu scriptures like the Puranas. The largest known sacred grove is in Hariyali, near Ganchar in Chamoli District. Others include Askot, Binsar, and Gananath. In all these areas, fairs are held regularly and rituals performed. But the trees seem to have lost their religious importance in the minds of the people.
  • Some of the richest groves in the country are found in the Khasi Hills of Meghalaya, where almost every village is said to have had a grove, known locally as the law kyntangs. The largest of them are in Mawphlang and Mausmai. These groves are a storehouse of a large number of rare plant species. The local people believe that the forest spirit will kill anyone who damages the plants and other life forms in the groves. This has contributed greatly to the preservation of these forests.
  • In Bihar sacred groves, known as sarnas, are found mainly in the Chotanagpur region. These areas are not very large and consist of 2 to 20 trees. They are usually full of creepers, shrubs, and grasses.
  • The sacred groves of Rajasthan are the oraans of Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, and Bikaner, the kenkris of Ajmer, the vanis of Mewar, and the shamlat dehs of Alwar. The oraans cover the largest area, though their species diversity differs from area to area.
  • Maharashtra has about 250 sacred groves, known as deorais or devrais, in the districts of Pune, Ratnagiri, Raigad, and Kolhapur. These areas are full of a large variety of rare species with great biodiversity.
  • Kerala has about 240 sacred groves, known as kavus, where more than 3000 rare species of plants are found. The largest grove, spread over more than 20 hectares, is in Ernakulam District.

Sacred groves exist in other parts of the world too. In The Golden Bough, author James Frazer says that people have worshipped forests right from the Palaeolithic age, thereby preserving them. In ancient Greece and Rome stone walls usually enclosed these forests. Initially these forests began as open-air temples but even after huge temples were built they continued to be protected. Many of them contained streams and lakes that were also considered sacred, and no one was allowed to fish in them or pollute them. Such groves exist in countries such as Ghana, Syria, and Turkey. The survival of these groves depends entirely on the control of the community over the forest and the people. Usually these areas are designated as holy and dedicated to a god or a goddess.

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