Kerala also known as Gods Own Country, is located on the southernmost tip of India on the Malabar Coast and embraces the coast of Arabian Sea on the west and is bounded by the Western Ghats in the east
The state of Kerala with its wide array of topographical features such as coastlines along the Arabian Sea, hills of the Western Ghats, valleys, and abundant water-bodies has tropical climate. The natural vegetation of Kerala comprises 3,872 flowering plants including 900 plants of great medicinal value. The forested regions with an area of 9,400 km² comprises tropical wet evergreen partly-evergreen forests with thick undergrowth in the lower and mid altitudes, tropical damp and arid deciduous forests in the middle altitudes plus mountainous subtropical and temperate (shola) forests in the precipitous hills.
On a rough estimate Kerala has about 644 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 Western Ghats. Only 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.
Sacred groves (Kavus) are patches of forests or natural vegetation that are usually dedicated to local folk deities and protected by local communities or Families because of their religious beliefs and traditional rituals that run through several generations. Kavus of north kerala are mainly “Theyya kavu” belonging to the mother-goddess in many cases. These kavus are very much associated with theyyam Festivals.
In the olden days, almost Kerala ‘Tharavad’ (homesteads) had sacred groves dedicated to the serpent Gods and goddesses. The fear of the unknown and religious beliefs ensured the flourishing of these green spots.
The origin of the ‘Kavu’ could be traced back to pre-historic times. Kerala had been geographically isolated in the distant past, due to the barrier created by the Western Ghats, covered with impenetrable tropical rain forests. The inhabitant believed to have been of Dravidian origin. They worshipped mother –goddess (‘Bhagawathi’) ,Serpent god (‘Nagam’), Hunter –gods (‘Sasthappan’).
Brahmins controlled temple, but in most of the ‘Kavus’ rituals were performed by different communities of the village. Usually no one entered the ‘Kavu’ during days other than those of worship or during the festival. Cutting trees, collecting firewood, leaves etc. were strictly forbidden. People believe that any kind of disturbance will invoke wrath of the gods, resulting diseases, natural calamities, failure of crops and even death.
There are many myths, legends and faith associated with the sacred groves of Kerala. The deities in the sacred groves are at times represented by some trees like Alstonia scholaris, Adenanthera pavonina, Hydnocarpus pentandra, Commiphora caudatum, Caryota urens, Holarrhena antidysenterica, Strychnos nux-vomica, Ficus tinctorius, Mimusops elengi, etc.
A stone slab installed at the base of the tree is the altar on which the offerings including the animal sacrifices are made. These trees are also considered to be the abode of ancestral or natural spirits and demons. The sacred groves owned collectively by the villagers are mostly dedicated to Lord Ayyappa and called as “Ayyappankavu‟ or “Sasthamkavu‟ and to Goddess Bhagavathi called “Bhagavathikkavu‟ or “Ammankavu‟. One interesting feature about “Ayyappan Kavu” is the freedom to enter this sacred grove to offer worship irrespective of the caste or creed.
Sacred groves owned by the tribal communities are dedicated to “Vanadevatha‟, the Goddess of the forest, or to natural spirits or demons or ancestral spirits. The fishermen caste -“Dheevara‟ or “Araya‟ also maintain sacred groves in the coastal areas of Kerala. These groves are called “Cheerma‟ or “Cheerumba‟ and the patron deity is “Cheerma‟. “Cheerma‟ is the Goddess of smallpox and other epidemic diseases.
The sacred groves owned by families are mostly dedicated to Snake God (Naga) or Goddess or both, hence, known as “Nagakkavu” or “Sarpakkavu”. Sacred groves of the tribal inhabiting near and around the forest areas are known as „Madankavu‟ or „Yakshikkavu‟. The sacred groves of North Kerala are mostly associated with Goddess whereas the sacred groves of South Kerala are associated mostly with snake worship. Many sacred groves associated with Siva temples also have serpent Gods.
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.
The second major threat is the anthropogenic activities and cattle grazing. As the demand for land is always high in Kerala, the shrinkage of groves is inevitable. Encroachment has resulted in the shrinkage of some of the largest Kavu in Ernakulam and Kannur Districts.