Thursday, 8 May 2014

Sacred Groves

                                                     Sacred Groves 
                                                  Article by Mr.M.Amritalingam

Amongst the many interesting beliefs and customs that evolved in India has been an extraordinary reverence towards nature in particular, and landscape in general.  Central among them are the sacred groves, dedicated to local deities and/or ancestral spirits. Thousands of these groves have been documented, storehouses of remarkable biodiversity, repositories of unique and rare plants and home to myriad birds, reptiles and other animal species. Sacred groves probably represent the single most important ecological tradition of ancient Indian culture.

In 1857, Brandis first described sacred groves. According to Fergusson (1971), sacred groves are believed to be pre-Vedic in origin. More recently, scientists like Gadgil and Vartak (1981) reviewed the presence of sacred groves in different states. There are about 13,270 sacred groves intact in the country, though certain estimates suggest that the total number of groves may be as high as one lakh.  In Tamilnadu, nearly five hundred sacred groves have been reported.

Sacred groves are called by different names in different parts of India: Deorali in Darjeeling, Law Lyngdoh  in Khasi Hills, Sarna in Central India, Mawphlong and Gomphas in North-East, Gamkhal, Nagvan in Manipur, Pengada in Gond, Jaher in Santal, Oran and Jogmaya in Rajasthan, Aravalli Hills, Van, Deovani, Deorai in Maharashtra, Sharanas, Dev, Samas in Madhya Pradesh, Kan, Dev Vana, Devara kade in Karnataka, Kaavu and Sarpa kaavu in Kerala and Koil kaadu and Sami solai in Tamilnadu 6 .

In the Hot Plains

It appears that the ancient deities of Tamil Nadu are the present deities worshipped in villages under different names, most found in intimate association with at least a small grove of plants. These are the sacred groves, dedicated to local deities and/or ancestral spirits. Thousands of these groves have been documented, storehouses of remarkable biodiversity, repositories of unique and rare plants and home to myriad birds, reptiles and other animal species. Sacred groves probably represent the single most important ecological tradition of ancient Indian culture.

Each grove is dedicated to the local folk deities and spirits (vanadevathai) and has folklore associated with either the deity or the grove.   The commonly found deities are Aiyanar (the guardian deity), Sastha, Muniyappa, Karuppuswami, Veeran (Kaaval Teivam or p rotective deity), Andavar (a powerful wish-fulfilling deity) and goddesses Selliyamman, Kali, Ellaikali, Ellaipidari, Sapta Kannis, Pechiyamman, Rakkachiyamman and Nagadevadhai (fertility and good health).  Among these, Aiyanar is the most worshipped deity. He is worshipped every Friday and also offered special pooja on special occasions.   

The sacred groves are apparently distributed around almost all the villages, and about 500 such groves dedicated to various male and female deities have been identified. Of these, 343 are dedicated to 93 male deities and the rest to 77 female deities.  Among the 77 female deities, Mariamman is common and worshipped in 14 sacred groves while Aiyanar is the common male deity, worshipped in 86 sacred groves. Most sacred groves are seen in Dharmapuri, Perambalur, Pudukkottai, Tirunelveli and Tiruvannamalai districts, the most number being in the Perambalur district.   

For biodiversity conservation: Sacred groves protect several valuable plant and animal species that may have vanished elsewhere in the surrounding environment, often including wild crop relatives and endemic and endangered species . In 1986, Meher-Homji first reported a grove in Puthupet near Pondicherry, a lush grove spread over 20 hectares that is a relic of a forest, housing 104 plant species belonging to 44 families; it is also a refuge of rare species like a cucurbit Stychnos lentiecellata, the insectivorous plant Drosera burmanii and a rare bone-setting plant Ormocarpum cochinchinensis.  The sacred groves in the Kanchipuram district protect rare species like Amorphophallus sylvaticus, Kedrostis foetidissima and an enormous banyan tree, while those in other parts of Tamilnadu are home to many other vanishing and uncommon species of flora and fauna. 

The Kandanur sacred grove in Sivagangai district supports a rare rattan species (Calamus sp.) which might otherwise have vanished from the local landscape while sacred groves in Kanyakumari district harbour many of the rare endemic plants of the Western Ghats. Sacred groves in remote areas do not usually shelter major mammalian wildlife species. However, sacred groves that form part of a continuous stretch of reserved forest, as in the hills, are home to several wild species. Apart from primates and minor mammals, sacred groves also have numerous bird, butterfly and bat species. However, there are as yet no detailed accounts or inventories of biodiversity in the sacred groves.

Taboos, rituals and beliefs: The taboos, rituals and beliefs associated with the groves, supported by mystic folklore, have been the prime motivating factors for preserving them in pristine condition. People believe that any damage to the sacred grove, harm to the fauna residing in it or felling of any tree may invite the fury of the local deity, causing diseases and failure of agricultural crops. Even taking a dry twig is forbidden in some. Therefore, many people will not even take dead wood out of sacred groves. 

Folklore plays an important role in conservation of sacred groves. Not only tribal people, the rural people also preserved the sacred groves by their traditional customs, rituals, ceremonies and folk-beliefs. Several stories depict various facets of life and culture of the people. The annual festival is celebrated in all the groves of all districts accompanied by community offerings of pongal and animal sacrifice. As against the animal sacrifice, Aiyanar who lives in a temple is happy with the offering of a coconut and pongal.

In all districts, offering pongal to the associated deity is either by individuals or by the community. Sacrifice of fowl, goat and sheep is offered to all the deities except Aiyanar . Pig is sacrificed to Karuppuswami in certain groves. In certain sacred groves, people fulfil their vows by tonsuring (shaving the head to make a ceremonial offering of hair to the god) or offerings of terracotta horses of various sizes are lined up in front of the deity within the sacred grove in the hope of a good harvest.  During the festival, the villagers organise a form of folk-art called terukoothu at night.

Managementof sacred groves: In the Western and Eastern Ghats, most of the groves are preserved by local communities or tribes, managed either by an individual family or trustees or community or a village head. The management decisions are taken collectively at a gathering of the entire village during the annual festivals in the sacred grove. The majority of them are maintained by the village communities under hereditary trustees.

Present threats to sacred groves: Our ancestors were well aware of the role played by sacred groves in the maintenance of the nutrient and water table.  Today, the fundamental concept of sacred groves is the traditional belief systems which were mere superstitions. Very few people of the older generations may be familiar with the rituals and taboos related to sacred groves.

Recent observations show that traditional rituals are still performed in accordance with the customary beliefs in the larger groves, but in smaller groves the traditional rituals are no longer performed or followed.  Due to modernization, urbanization and people's changing aspirations, the traditional values appear to be disappearing.  As a result, the violation of cultural norms and taboos no longer carries heavy consequences, and the sacred groves are becoming degraded.

Human activities such as dead wood collection, biomass gathering, lopping of tender branches and green leaves for goats, creation of footpaths, cattle grazing, mining of sand and clay, brick-making and collection of wild fruits, vegetables and collection of plant parts for medicine are affecting the ecology of many of our sacred groves. In addition, invasion of exotic weeds become a serious problem in the ecology of some sacred groves; the domination of alien species such as Eupatorium odoratum, Lantana camara, Prosopis juliflora and Hyptis suaveolens often threatens and depletes the local species. Conflicts among the sacred grove managers have also resulted in the loss of biodiversity in certain sacred groves 1.

Local people have conserved sacred groves out of religious sentiment. Humans and nature have co-existed without disturbing the environment in the past.  Such traditional practices have to be strengthened with appropriate scientific inputs for conservation

Nature is beautiful, always beautiful!           

(source : MAmrithalingam, 1998, Sacred groves of Tamil Nadu. A survey. CPR environmental education centre, The Ecological Traditions of Tamilnadu (Chennai :  CPR environmental education centre, 1997)

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