What is a sacred grove?

The dictionary can provide hints. More clues can be had from travelling to the sacred groves themselves.

According to Webster’s New World dictionary:

1 consecrated to or belonging to the divinity or a deity; holy
2 regarded with the respect or reverence accorded holy things; venerated; hallowed
3 set apart for, and dedicated to, some person, place, purpose, sentiment, etc. "sacred to his memory"
4 secured as by a religious feeling or sense of justice against any defamation, violation, or intrusion; inviolate adj.

1 characterised by adherence to religion or a religion; devout; pious; godly
2 of, concerned with, appropriate to, or teaching religion "religious books"
3 belonging to a community of monks, nuns, etc.
4 conscientiously exact; careful; scrupulous

This is another word worth adding to our vocabulary:
n., a small, isolated area that has escaped the extreme changes undergone by the surrounding area, as during a period of glaciation, allowing the survival of plants and animals from an earlier period.

Each region has its own name for it — kavus, ka law kyntang, devarakadus, orans, sarnas. Each region has its own needs for it. Some scientists club them together as refugia. Others call them relic-forests. By design or by default, they are
line.jpg (2953 bytes)remnant patches of native vegetation surviving in their natural form. But what is the natural form of vegetation in India? How long back in time does one have to go to find the definitive true forest?

Before finding answers to such questions, it could be worthwhile to spot India’s sacred groves on a map. But that would raise even more questions. What are the common principles that hold a patch of khejadi trees in Rajasthan safe and also ensure that a village in Mizoram maintains a patch of a sub-evergreen vegetation as a safety forest. Are there any shared principles that hold a lonely sacred grove in Cherrapunjee, Meghalaya and a small privately protected kavu, home to a small reservoir of medicinal plants, in the Western Ghats of Kerala, together? Perhaps there are.



Himachal Pradesh: One alpine wonder
The Chhakinal watershed in Kullu: nine hamlets; 322 families; 21.5 per cent land demarcated as sacred; each hamlet with its own sacred grove; one common and well-protected area called Nagoni sacred forest. Above the tree line: a 5 ha alpine meadow kept sacred, though not protected. Nagoni holds a large number of species over a small area. The smaller groves closer to the hamlets cannot sustain many species. Sowing, harvesting and migration is undertaken only after a sacrifice is made at the sacred grounds.

Rajasthan: Of rural designs
The Bishnois in Shekhala village, 95 km northwest of Jodhpur city, define land-usage to meet their frugal needs. The sacred grove is central to this system:

Land use Common grazing land Sacred area Private  grazing land Agricultural land Afforested area 
Fuel wood 40 10 46 2 2
Small wood
20 0 80 0 0
Fodder/grazing 30 20 38 10 2
other extracts
5 40 40 15 0
Water 0 15 0 0 0
Note: all figures are in percentage of total demand

Madhya Pradesh: Baiga property
At one time, only members of the Baiga tribe were allowed to collect deadwood from the sarnas — the sacred groves. Exploitation of these groves for individual benefit was prohibited. In some sarnas today, trees are leased to villagers for collection of sal seeds. Researchers say the sarnas have, of late, been opened up for extraction of non-timber forest produce as the other forests nearby have been denuded and diminished.

Sikkim: Logic at great heights
The highlands of Demojong below the Khangchendzonga peak are the most sacred site for the Sikkimese Buddhist. The region has a number of glacial lakes that feed, besides others, the sacred river Rathong Chu. Any human activity here, it is believed, spells disaster for the region.

Assam: Ancient tradition
The forest dwelling tribes of the Bodo and Rabha in the plains and foothills of western Assam have an ancient tradition of groves which are locally known as than. Karbi Anglong district has about 40 sacred groves. The Dimasa tribe of Haflong district maintain groves, called madaico, measuring about one acre each. Vaishnavite monasteries have also preserved numerous sacred groves.

Manipur: A secular idea
The Gangte tribe in Churachandpur district of Manipur earlier believed spirits and deities reside in sacred groves. where lopping was disallowed. With the advent of Christanity they cut down many of these groves but soon realised how imperative the groves are to their agriculture. They regenerated the degraded patches, now calling them, to go along with their new faith, just ‘safety forests’. Their agriculture is now restored to health.

hallowed woods

Kerala: Biodiversity hotspots
Numerous groves, locally known as kavu, are associated with the ancestral places of worship for the Namboodiri, Nair and Ezhava castes. Many kavus dedicated to the popular god Ayyappa welcome members of all castes and even religions. In coastal regions, it is usually the goddess of smallpox and other epidemic diseases who is the patron deity.

These groves are a veritable sanctuary of flora and fauna. Scientists have found 722 distinct species of flowers in just 761 of Kerala’s 2,000 groves. These groves serve a macro-ecological function. The thick forest and litter cover ensures water retention, effective root networks and transfer of heat. They also act as micro-watersheds of freshwater systems used by local communities. The snakes keep a check on the rodents.


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