Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
Enchanted gardens : June 04, 2000
Rich pockets of green
Director (Environment Education), WWF-India, New Delhi.
Many traditional societies all over the world revered and worshipped nature and considered certain plants and animals as sacred. Some communities also followed the practice of setting aside certain patches of land or forest as "sacred groves" dedicated to a deity or village God, protected and worshipped. In India sacred groves are found all over the country and abundantly along the Western ghats and the West coast and in several parts of Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Orissa and Himachal Pradesh.
According to Madhav Gagdil (1985), "Sacred groves ranged in extent from 50 hectares or more to a few hundred square metres. Where the network of sacred groves has remained intact till recent times, as in the South Kanara district of Karnataka, one can see that new formed islands of vegetation ranging in size from small clumps to a hectare or more, and originally covering perhaps five per cent of the land area. This has contributed to the preservation of trophical biological diversity, for we are still discovering new species of plants which have disappeared from everywhere else in these sacred groves."
Sacred groves in different states are locally known by different names. In Kerala there are hundreds of small jungles dedicated to snakes called Sarpakavu (sarpa meaning snake and kavu meaning jungle). There are the Ayyappan kavus dedicated to Lord Ayyapan, the most famous of which is Sabarimala, visited by millions of devotees every year. These areas have protected many rare and endangered species, including valuable medicinal plants. In Maharashtra, the sacred groves are known as deonus and are found in the Western ghats region. Known as samas in Bihar, such groves are seen in the Chotanagpur regions, established by the Munda tribe as abodes of their godly spirits. In the arid regions of Rajasthan there are many sacred groves, variously called as Oraans, Vanis, Kenking. The Bishnois of Rajasthan have also been responsible for preserving the habitats of the Khejadi tree (Prosopis Cineraria). There are many well preserved sacred groves in Meghalaya where the local people believe that the spirits of their ancestors reside in these groves (Ramakrishnan, 1996).
In spite of the depletion of forests in many parts of India, some sacred groves still remain intact, conserving rich biological diversity. The maintenance of sacred groves is an example of a traditional practice that has contributed to the conservation of nature, though in a small measure. There are also examples of sacred ponds attached to temples in many parts of India. Some of these have been responsible for the protection of certain endangered species of turtles, crocodiles and the rare fresh water sponge.
Many plants and animals are considered sacred from historical times. Examples are the peepul tree (Ficus religiosa) banyan tree (Ficus bengelenses and khejadi tree which where traditionally revered and, therefore, never cut. More than a hundred such species of trees are considered sacred. These include sandalwood tree, betel nut palm, coconut tree, juniper, champak, lotus and tulsi. Such traditional and cultural attitudes, though based on religious faith, have made significant contributions to the protection and propagation of various species of trees and plants in India.
The growing demand for land and natural resources, rapid urbanisation and pressures of population growth today threaten the preservation of these sacred groves. Consistent efforts are required to conserve these pockets of rich biological diversity. WWF India has initiated action to develop a national sacred groves conservation programme including the preparation of an inventory of these groves and document their biodiversity to undertake education and awareness programmes and to develop strategies for the rejuvenation and conservation of sacred groves. One of the outcomes of this project is the documentation of the sacred and protected groves of Andhra Pradesh published by the Andhra Pradesh State Offices of WWF India. WWF-India's Vrindavan Conservation project started in 1993 is yet another attempt in this direction.
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