Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
From the publishers of THE HINDU
EARTHSCAPES: May 20, 2001
Biodiversity as a sacred space
The writer is a doctoral student working on forest management regimes and plant diversity in the Western Ghats of Karnataka.
Indian society is a bewildering mosaic of different traditions and cultures, ranging from hunting-gathering communities like the Jarawas of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, alpine pastoralists like the Gaddis of Himachal Pradesh, forest-dwelling agriculturalists like the Kanis of Kerala, modern cultivators like the farmers of Punjab, traditional shifting cultivators like the tribes of north-eastern India, and of course a range of urbanites.
Many of these societies or cultures have traditionally developed strategies of conserving and managing nature and natural resources. These strategies were highly congruent to the traditional lifestyle of the respective societies. In many parts of India, local people even now follow several such traditional conservation practices. They include totemism in which one or more species of plants or animals are protected as spiritual ancestors, restraint on hunting female animals, conserving certain species for rituals, keeping aside patches of forests and waterbodies in the name of local deities and so on.
The sacred conservation practices followed by local people have come into focus of late due to their importance for protecting several delicate ecosystems and threatened species, the explicit connections they show between cultural and biological diversity, and their potential of people oriented conservation efforts.
Foreigners who visit India often wonder how significant wildlife populations still exist amid such dense human populations. This can perhaps be partly explained by referring to the widespread traditions of protection and conservation, both at the level of species and landscapes.
A host of plant and animal species have been traditionally protected, and continue to be conserved in many parts of India. These could be totemic species, a practice in which tribals all over the world consider specific plants or animal or even rivers and mountains as their ancestors, and accordingly protect them. Examples include tigers by the Mushahari clan of the Bodo tribe in Assam, and Diospyros melanoxylon (Tendu tree) by the Gonds of Gadchiroli district in Maharashtra. Or they could be species of ritual importance. For instance, Hindu mythology prescribes Vratas i. e. ritual performances for respective deities like Ganapati vrata, Lakshmi vrata and Nitya Somawara vrata. These vratas need to be performed by using specific plant species. An interesting compilation by the Karnataka Forest Department describes 19 vratas and more than 100 plant species required for these.
Equally fascinating and significant has been the ancient tradition of conserving a local patch of landscape, or the whole landscape, as sacred. Forests, mountain peaks and hillocks, rivers and streambeds, ponds and grasslands are left aside or their use strictly regulated, due to faith or fear associated with the local deity.
Of these, the most well-known and celebrated are the sacred groves, patches of natural or near-natural vegetation, dedicated by local communities to their ancestral spirits or deities. Such a grove may consist of a multi-species, multi-tier primary forest, or a clump of trees, or even a single tree. These groves are protected through customary taboos and sanctions, with significant cultural and ecological implications; the protecting institution may be the priest, a temple trust, or the community as a whole.
Sacred groves are identified by different local names in different parts of India: kavu in Kerala; devarabana, devarakadu, nagbana in Karnataka; kovilkadu in Tamil Nadu; devarai or devarahati in Maharashtra; in central and eastern India they are jaherthan or sarana; deovan in western India and Himalayan States; in the north-eastern States the names differ from tribe to tribe. In Assam, for instance, the Dimasa call them madaico whereas the Bodo and the Rabha call them than. If there is one biodiversity-related cultural phenomenon cutting across the length and breadth of India, it is that of the sacred grove.
There are other sacred landscapes too that have had an equally important life in the culture of communities. Sacred grazing pastures, often a sparse woodland or a predominantly grassland ecosystem, are a popular practice in western Rajasthan. They are locally called oran. Orans account for eight to nine per cent of the desert area. In the villages of several Himalayan States, especially Uttaranchal and Himachal Pradesh, high-altitude meadows are an important grazing resource. These meadows have been used in regulated fashion traditionally by considering them sacred. In Uttaranchal these meadows are called bugyal, and in Himachal, rang. In bugyals people can graze sheep only after worshipping the local deity, usually during July-August. Similar practices are also found in Himachal Pradesh where the festival is called sonechang.
Finally, there are the sacred waterbodies. Portions of streams and riverbeds called machhiyal in Himachal Pradesh and Uttaranchal are protected because of their religious importance. No one is allowed to kill fish from these waterbodies. Fishing is allowed only at a specified distance upstream or downstream. One of the famous machhiyals is the stretch of the Ganga between Haridwar and Rishikesh. Riverbeds in the Western Ghats of Karnataka are also protected for fish at places like Sringeri, a pilgrim centre. Temple ponds in Kerala, Karnataka and Maharashtra too, are given protection for fish. In the Barak valley of Assam, ponds associated with mosques are considered sacred and fishing activities are totally or partially restricted due to religious taboos.
The future of the sacred
There is no doubt that sacred species and landscapes in India have taken a beating in the last few decades, and perhaps only survive as a fraction of their original extent. Cultural traditions have eroded under the influence of modernisation, dominant Hinduisation has wiped out a variety of adivasi cultures, the younger generation is not as spiritually inclined as their elders, governmental takeover of common lands has weakened community controls, and commercial considerations have undermined cultural and ecological ones. Yet, there may be 1,00,000 to 1,50,000 sacred groves and ecosystems spread across India, and they contain critical populations of some threatened species, provide important refuge to biodiversity that has been driven out of the surrounding landscape, and may serve as an important corridor between larger, officially protected areas. Most important, they provide a continued reminder that human cultures and biodiversity have evolved together, and that encouragement of such a link is likely to be a key element in an ecologically and socially secure future.
Table of Contents
Copyrights © 2001, The Hindu.
Republication or redissemination ofthe contents of this screen are expressly prohibited
without the written consent of The Hindu.