-       M.Amirthalingam

India is a land of nature and natural resources.  It is also a land in which races have settled, and evolved unique interactions between themselves and nature and natural resources.  One of the significant outcomes of the interaction of people with nature is the extraordinary reverence towards nature in particular, and landscape in general.  One such tradition of nature conservation is the sacred groves.

Sacred groves are part of a landscape, often a forested ecosystem, with well-defined geographical features, delimited and protected by traditional societies through traditional institutional arrangements, often not codified, utilizing a whole set of myths and beliefs (Ramakrishnan et. al. 1998).  Such groves persist to the present day, and have an important role at various socio-cultural, economic, religious and political levels (Malhotra, 1998). Sacred groves were first described by Brandis in 1857, According to Fergusson (1971), sacred groves are believed to be pre-Vedic in origin. More recently, Gadgil and Vartak (1981) reviewed the presence of sacred groves in different states.  There are about 13,270 sacred groves in India.

Sacred groves are called by different names in different parts of India. In Tamilnadu, they are known as Koil kaadu and Sami solai. About five hundred groves have been reported from the state. The sacred groves are apparently distributed around almost all the villages, dedicated to various male and female deities have been identified. Most sacred groves in the state are seen in Dharmapuri, Perambalur, Pudukkottai, Tirunelveli and Tiruvannamalai districts, the most number being in the Perambalur district.  

This article provides an overview of the occurrence of rare, endangered and threatened (RET) plants in the sacred groves of Tamil Nadu.

Sacredgroves protect several plant and animal species valuable for food, medicinal and other uses (Ramakrishnan, 1998). Despite increased pressures, sacred groves shelter many plant and animal species which might have vanished elsewhere in the surrounding environment, often including wild crop relatives and endemic and endangered species (Swamy, 1997).  Meher-Homji (1986) first reported a grove in Puthupet near Pondicherry. 

 The Puthupet grove is full of green vegetation spreading over 20 hectares and is a relic of a forest housing 104 plant species belonging to 44 families. It is also a refuge of rare species like a rare cucurbit Strychnos lentiecellata, and the insectivorous plant Drosera burmanni and a rare bone setting plant Ormocarpum cochinchinense

A grove in the Kanchipuram district protects rare species like Amorphophallus sylvaticus,Kedrostis foetidissima,and also a huge 200 hundred years old banyan tree, that provides a shady atmosphere (Maheswaran, 1995). 

The sacred groves in the Perambalur district protect many of the rare endemic plants such as Manilkara hexandra, Aloe vera, Gloriosa superba, Cissus quadrangularis, Capparis deciduas, Gmelina asiatica, Chloroxylon swietenia, Commiphora caudate, Ficus microcarpa and Strychnos nux-vomica

Similarly, the Kandanur sacred grove in Sivagangai district supports a rare rattan species (Calamus sp.) which might otherwise have vanished from the local landscape. The sacred groves in the Kanyakumari district protect many of the rare endemic plants of the Western Ghats such as Antiaris toxicaria, Diospyros malabarica, Diospyros ebenum, Feronia elephantum, Butea frondosa, Garcinia cambogia, Sterculia foetida, Gnetum ula and Cycas circinalis (Sukumaran and Raj, 1999). 

The climax vegetation species in the sacred groves in the drier regions of the plains are predominantly Memecylon umbulatum, Chloroxylon swietenia, Albizzia amara, Glycosmis cochinchinensis, Capparis divaricatat, Gmelina asiatica, Atlantia monophylla, Terminalia catappa, Terminalia arjuna, Hardwickia binata, Santalum album and Aerva tomentosa.  

Sacred Groves Threatened due to Human Activities

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 Ayurvedic, Folk, Tibetan, Unani and Sidha medicine are affecting the ecology of many of our sacred groves.    In fact, the main reason for RET status of the plant species is due to over exploitation of the specific plant species.    

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. In order to conserve the biological resources, the sacred groves should be declared as an ecological heritage site and protect the genetic resources.

source:  Rare, Endangered and Threatened (RET) Plants in the Sacred Groves of Tamil    Nadu, Eco News, Vol. 16, No.2, and Pp.18-20.     


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