Envis Centre, Ministry of Environment & Forest, Govt. of India

Printed Date: Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Sacred Groves

 

 | Types of Forest    | Sacred Groves    | Mangroves   |

       

  The sacred groves of Kerala are the remnants of evergreen forest patches, protected and conserved based on religious beliefs and a great repository of many endemic, endangered and economically important plant species. The study reports revealed that floristic diversity indices of the sacred groves of Kerala are equal or nearly equal to the forests of the Western Ghats. It is also revealed that these isolated patches are self-sustainable ecosystems function as a bioresource centre and closed system for the nutrient and water cycles for the nearby areas. 

           In Kerala it was the common practice among Hindus to assign a part of their land near the Tharavadu or house as the abode of goddess Durga or Serpent God Naga or Shasta and the place is called Kavu or Sarpakavu. Sacred Grove represent the major effort to recognize and conserve biodiversity (ethnic diversity) traditionally. The age old system of every village having a temple, a tank and associated sacred grove explains the ancient method of water harvesting and sharing and may be considered as the backbone of village economy. People were prohibited from felling trees and even removing a twig was considered as taboo. Some of the trees such as Borassus, Alstonia scholaris, Antiaris toxicaria, Hopea parviflora, Strychnos nux-vomica, Ficus religiosa etc are being worshipped in many sacred groves. On a rough estimate Kerala has about 1500 sacred groves which are distinct and unique in biological diversity. Most of the sacred groves represent the relics of once gregarious and abundant low lying evergreen forests of the WG. Only very few are reported from the foothills and the high ranges. The size of the sacred grove in Kerala varies as small as one cent to 20 or more hectares. The available inventory on sacred grove indicates that maximum number of such areas is distributed in the northern districts of the state henceforth called Malabar. The vegetation in the undisturbed groves is luxuriant and with multi layered trees mixed with shrubs, lianas and herbs. The ground is humus laden and abundant with fungus and ferns. The floristic composition is highly influenced by exposure to anthropogenic pressures, cattle grazing, edaphic and climatic variations. 

           The common tree species found in the sacred grove are Artocarpus hirsutus, Mesua ferrea, Vateria indica, Hopea parviflora, H ponga, Alstonia scholaris Mimusops elengi, Hydnocarpus pentandra, Holigarna arnottiana etc. The lianas include Strychnos colubrina, Anamirta cocculus, Tetracera akara, and Acacia intsia. Shrubs are represented by Ixora nigricans, I. bracteata, Chassalia curviflora etc. The seasonal plants such as Geophila reniformis, Borreria sp., Naregamia alata, Centella asiatica, Aerva lanata, Adrographis paniculata, Biophytum sensitivum, form the ground vegetation. In southern region of the state, Members of the mangroves swamps like Myristica fatua var.magnifica, M.malabarica, Hydnocarpus spp and Eugenia spp are found in the poorly drained sacred groves. These species are known to develop high profile humidity in the surroundings that promote luxurius growth of undergrowths. 

           The animals found in the sacred grove are of two types, those which inhabits the groves like snakes, frogs, lizards and other lower group of organisms and higher group of fauna who nests and dens there and those who visits the grove temporarily for food, shelter etc. Sacred groves act as an abode for many rare, endemic, endangered species and economically important plants of fruit bearing and medicinal properties. Apart from conserving biological diversity, sacred groves that are situated in the middle of the human habitation are responsible for conserving water and soil. This is evident from the perennial nature of ponds, wells and tanks, which are situated near the sacred groves. The fertility of the agro-ecosystems is very high due to the humus and nutrients generated in the sacred groves.

           The major threats to the existence of sacred grove in Kerala are the disappearance of old joint family system and partition of family properties along with changing socio-economic scenario. In most of the cases the Kavu and surrounding areas will be handed over to a generation who has no faith or less faith in keeping the integrity of the Kavu. In such instances either the Kavu will be totally denied or some time only the deity will be retained and big trees and associated habitat will be totally converted for other purposes. In some cases symbolic representation of grove is allowed to remain by preserving the oldest and largest tree in the grove.

           The second major threat is the anthropogenic activities and cattle grazing. As the demand for land is always high in Kerala, the shrinkage of grove was one of the inevitable causes. Encroachment has resulted in the shrinkage of some of the largest Kavu in Ernakulam and Kannur districts. In some cases the old trees in the Kavu may be uprooted by natural calamities and this will be taken a reason for reducing the area of Kavu in certain cases. Cutting of trees for temple and associated purpose had also been reported from some areas. Since the very locations of these virgin ecosystems are in the middle of the people, cattle grazing, collection of dry leaves , firewood is a common phenomenon in Kerala. Sacred groves have existed in India from time immemorial as patches of densely wooded areas, venerated on religious grounds. Sacred groves have preserved many rare and endemic wild plant species, many of which hold potential benefit to man in medicine, agriculture and industry. In fact, sacred groves represent the ancient Indian way of in situ conservation of genetic diversity. Reverence for all forms of life human, animal or plant, characterizes our ancient thought and continues to this day as a legacy laced with spirituality, humility and recognition of the importance of the elements and nature. Sanctity attached to places where nature shows her bounty was both spiritual and secular. These places were considered 'sacred', as Gods were supposed to bless them and naturally their protection was considered an obligation on the part of the society. Thus many a sacred grove has been preserved as sustainable resources, ensuring the basic capital in tact. These sacred groves are therefore valuable gene pools and the first major effort to recognize and conserve biodiversity.

           Most sacred groves harbored perennial water source and hence formed the vital support system of many villages. The age-old system of every village having a temple, a tank and associated sacred grove explains the ancient method of water harvesting and sharing.

 

Why to Conserve Sacred Groves?

          Protection of the environment and life supporting systems are interwoven with conservation of biological diversity. Sacred groves represent this all-embracing concept and practice of ancient Indian way of in situ conservation of genetic diversity. Sacred groves, in general act as a nursery and store house of many of the local ayurvedic, tribal and folk medicines. Fruits of Artocarpus, Syzygium, Salacia, Phyllanthus, Mangifera, Buchanania, Carissa, Garcinia etc. are eaten by birds and animals (mostly nocturnals) in the sacred groves.

           As an ecosystem, the environmental significance of the sacred groves is a matter well forgotten. In fact, they even help in soil and water conservation besides preserving its rich biological wealth. The ponds and streams adjoining the groves are perennial water sources. These are the last resorts to many of the animals and birds for their water requirements, especially during summer. Sacred groves also enrich the soil through its rich litter composition. The nutrients generated thus are not only recycled Within the sacred grove ecosystem but also find their way into the adjoining agroeco systems. In spite of the very high land to man ratio, these groves have been thriving, which naturally shows the very high reverence and importance some people attach to these sacred groves. At a time when evergreen forests have been dwindling at an alarming rate in the Western Ghats, preservation and management of these sacred groves are unavoidable, for each of this is a treasure house of rare species, germplasm collection of all the plants in an area, and abode of rare, medicinal and economically important plants. 

 

Some suggestions for the conservation of sacred groves:

 

  • Take an inventory of all the sacred groves of Kerala. Department of Science and Technology, Government of Kerala can take the initiative and fund a project taking of course the assistance of the willing institutions, coming under its care.

 

  • Government may encourage the owners who are willing to conserve their groves by giving them incentives in the form of maintenance grants or awards.

 

  • Create awareness in the public about the importance of these groves and the necessity for their preservation through mass media like All India Radio and Doordarshan.

 

  • Enforce total ban on felling of trees and poaching of birds and animals in sacred groves.

 

  • Preserve the rare species found in sacred groves in seed banks of various institutions or develop embryo/tissue culture of these rare species and make then available in enormous numbers so that they are no more endangered.