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Vol. 18 No. 3 - July 2012

Sacred Groves: A Religious Platform for Biodiversity Conservation

By: Priyanka Agnihotri, Harsh Singh & Tariq Husain*

One of the critical issues on the national and global agenda is the need to preserve biodiversity for future generations while trying to understand and document the indigenous knowledge of resource management practices. Religion, being a powerful instrument for convincing people, has always been used for meeting the desired objectives of the society. The various religious philosophies have contributed significantly in the conservation of forests, biodiversity and landscapes by promulgating customary norms, practices and beliefs. Some prominent live examples of traditional and cultural forms of biodiversity conservation still exist and are in practice, which include sacred groves, sacred species and sacred landscapes. Sacred groves are the religious practice of conserving biodiversity with strong beliefs, customs and taboos and are treasure house of rare and endemic species. Everything within these groves is under the protection of the reigning deity of the grove and the removal of any material, even dead wood or twig is a taboo (Gadgil & Vartak, 1976). Such groves still exist in many parts of the world and represent relict vegetation of the locality, preserved in its original form with minimal disturbance. Preservation of these groves, though on the pretext of religious beliefs, is of importance for conserving germ plasm that is otherwise under threat from human interference (Khiewtan & Ramakrishnan, 1989).

The concept of sacred groves is still relevant and exists today, especially in many parts of Mexico, Ghana, Nigeria, Syria, Turkey and Japan (Gadgil & Vartak 1976). In India, they occur in Western Ghats, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Meghalaya, Karnataka, etc., and found in variety of habitats from scrub forests of Thar Desert (maintained by Bishnois), to rain forests of Kerala in Western Ghats, Himachal Pradesh in the North and Kerala in the south are specifically known for their large number of sacred groves. India has the highest concentration of sacred groves in the world. Estimates suggest that there might be between 1,00,000 and 1,50,000 sacred groves around the country (Malhotra et al., 2007) and named differently in different parts of India such as Law lyngdhoh in Meghalaya, Kovil kadu in Kanyakumari, Dev bhumi in Uttarakhand, Kavu in Kerala, Sarna and Deorai in Madhya Pradesh, Oran in Rajasthan, Jaherthan and Garamthan in West Bengal, Deovan in Himachal, Ummanglai in Manipur, etc. The existence of such undisturbed pockets is mostly due to certain taboos, strong beliefs, supplemented by mystic folklores.

Services of sacred groves

Biodiversity in sacred groves: The sacred grove is kept in a comparatively undisturbed condition, due to faith and regard of local people and the belief that the sylvan deities would be offended, if trees are cut, flowers and fruits are plucked. The vegetation composing the sacred groves is very different from that of the surrounding areas of the region. Many of the sacred groves are studied in different parts of India, with a general focus on diversity of plant species. Hariyal Devi and Tarkeshwar sacred landscape are one of the examples of rich heritage of plant diversity situated in Garhwal Himalayas. About 372 species are found in Tarkeshwar sacred landscape and more than 100 species are found in Hariyali sacred landscape. Kabi sacred grove in North Sikkim has 241 species of plants in a 3 km2 area. Jamir and Pandey (2003) studied plant species diversity of three sacred groves in Meghalaya and found 395 species, 14 % of which were endemic. 83 species are reported in Nakuleshwar sacred grove from Kumaon Himalaya (Singh et al., 2011). Tiwari et al. (1998), studied 79 sacred groves in Meghalaya, ranging from 0.01 to 900 hectares in size and found that the species diversity was much higher than in disturbed forests. In addition, the species Myristica magnifica and Pinanga dicksoni are now mainly confined to a Myristica swamp in a sacred grove of Uttara Kannada in northern Karnataka.

Rare and endemics plant species from sacred groves: A number of studies have emphasized that many sacred groves are repositories of rare species. Haridasan and Rao (1985) have reported at least 50 endangered and rare species in sacred groves of Meghalaya. Kunsteria keralensis, a climbling legume, reported from a sacred grove in southern Kerala, is confined to that sacred grove (Mohanan and Nair, 1981). Belpharistermma membranifolia, Buchanania lanceolata and Syzygium travuncorium are rare species found only in some sacred groves of Kerala. Mohanan also discovered a rare species of cinnamon, Cinnamomum quilonensis, in some of the Kavus of Alapuzha district in Kerala (Unikrishnan, 1995).The Kallabbekan sacred grove in Kumta taluk, Karnataka, over 50 ha. in extent, despite being in the midst of arecanut-spice gardens of a populated village, is rich in endemics like wild nutmegs (Myristica malabarica), Cinnamomum malabathrum Garcinia gummi-gutta and wild pepper. Petiveria alliacea, an endangered medicinal plant has been reported from sacred grove of Kanyakumari (Sukumaran & Raj, 2008). In Kodagu district of Western Ghats, sacred groves were found to protect some threatened tree species such as Actinodaphne lawsonii, Hopea ponga, Madhuca neriifolia and Syzygium zeylanicum, which are not found elsewhere.

Micro-climatic habitats: Several taxa exhibit remarkable microhabitat-specific nature which can be attributed to the local environmental conditions and sacred groves provide excellent micro-climatic conditions for the luxuriant growth of those plant species which are not present in the surrounding areas at the same altitude. Changes in the microhabitat often induce noticeable damping effect on the dominance of one taxon in that area which sometimes account for its disappearance on one hand and simultaneous emergence of another species, since many species are highly sensitive even to the smallest changes in the environmental conditions. For example in Haat Kali sacred grove, Hedera nepalensis and Smilax aspera are found frequently on trees of Cedrus deodara and provide shelter to other life-forms. Microstylis acuminate, an orchid grows gregariously in moist and humus rich soil of the grove.

Conservation of water resources: Larger sacred groves also have their own micro-climate which increases nutrient recycling, recharge of aquifers and act as a primary source of perennial streams. For example, in Nakuleshwar sacred grove of Pithoragarh district, Uttarakhand, the dense forest forms plenty of catchment for perennial water stream and provide essential requirement of water to the villagers and other people of the area.

Providing livelihood: Most of the sacred groves besides maintaining biodiversity provide a livelihood to the community they belong to. The local communities and the care takers of the groves have developed a rotation system of getting forest products by which all the families receive benefits during different time. Tree cutting is prohibited and only felled trees are taken away by the natives. Chamunda Devi and Haat Kali sacred groves in Kumaon Himalaya are one of the examples of sustaining communities around the sacred groves.

Sacred plant species

From pre-historic times, plants and animals are the part of our life. Some plant species are grown in sacred places because people thought that ancestors and deities reside in these plant species and protect their life. Plants are oldest creation of God on earth and the conscious about them is as the human civilization. Plant worshiping is one of the earliest religious trends since the time ancient. Numerous references are available in literature where plants are treated as to the abode of the gods. In the scriptures, these plants are mention of the Kalpa vrisksha and Chaitya vrisksha, indicating that worshiping of the trees is an Indian tradition. These plants are often grown along and within the temples and can be considered as “sacred plants”. Various religious ceremonies are based on these trees or plants. In India, there are many festivals, which are based on flora. Holy Basil (Ocimum species), Asoka (Saraca asoca), Banyan tree (Ficus bengalensis), Peepal (Ficus religiosa), Kela (Musa paradisica), Neem (Azadiaracta indica), Aam (Mangifera indica) and Beal (Aegle marmelos) etc., are sacred plant species in India. Many of them like the sacred basil and neem are multi-purpose medicinal plants. These culturally valued species are often ecologically important keystone species, which by their key role in ecosystem functioning contribute to support much biodiversity associated with it. Several studies were carried out in Almora district (Uttarakhand) on the religious or sacred plants (Sharma and Joshi, 2010). For example, Cedrus deodara is frequently seen in Jageshwar and Dhaula Devi sacred groves and is protected through religious beliefs, Quercus leucotricophora in Jhakarsham sacred grove, Pinus roxburghii in Gairar sacred grove, similarly, in Pithoragarh district, Rhododendron arboreum in Malay Nath and Narayan Swami Ashram sacred grove, Osmanthus frangrance in Thal Kedhar sacred grove, Cedrus deodara in Haat Kali and Chamunda (Hanera) Gangolihat, etc. Many ethnic, religious and cultural traditions are associated with plant species (folk music, dance, literature and poetry). In spite of this, these plant species play a significant role in our daily life. These species are used as a good fodder, fuel wood and timber, apart from the fact that they play a key role in nutrient cycling and conservation, as well as in ensuring water balance within the soil.

Threats to sacred groves

There are several key threats that have led to the degradation of groves in India, these are:

Developmental projects: Some of the sacred groves that fell under government-vested lands, were destroyed when townships grew. Rails, roads and highways have also taken their toll of many sacred groves. Others disappeared under mining and industrial operations. Still others were flooded by big dam projects. Such developmental projects have contributed greatly to the diminishing of the flora and fauna of these sacred groves.

Collection of biomass and medicinal plants: Collection of biomass like fodder, fuel and other edible plants are frequently done by local communities for their survival and daily needs and grazing of animals is major concern to the biodiversity of sacred groves. Ruthless destruction and overexploitation of medicinal plants which are abundantly found in the sacred groves is another factor for degradation of biodiversity within the grove.

Shift in belief system: Shift of beliefs systems have also led to a weakening of the conservation of sacred groves. In some cases, Hinduism has subsumed the sacred groves that were established for older folk deities. Moreover, in many countries local traditions are being challenged by westernized culture, which results in the loss of sacred groves and their cultural importance for future generations of local people. Diminishing traditional beliefs due to modernisation is another factor which effects their conservation.

Encroachment, Pilgrimage and Tourism: Encroachment in various sacred groves for agricultural practices such as coffee production in Kodagu sacred grove of Karnataka and heavy influx of tourism and pilgrimage play significant role in destruction of biodiversity. The biodiversity of Patal Bhuvneshwar and Haat Kali sacred grove are now degraded due to high tourism.

Conservation measures:

Sacred groves are managed by local communities since ancient time and protection through religious norms and taboo is excellent approach to protect these patches of virgin forests, however, in the absence of effective conservation management these sacred groves are facing challenges to hold the original plant diversity they have. Sacred groves serve as repositories of genetic diversity and are provided with comprehensive and rich ecological niche. Creating awareness among the inhabitants about the importance of invaluable genetic diversity and sustainable use of resources can lead to a secure future of these conserved patches. Government and international conservation agencies should support traditional institutions of sacred grove management, whether at family, community or even regional level. For effective conservation, it is important to respect community values behind such impressive conservation.

*Taxonomy & Herbarium Division, CSIR-National Botanical Research Institute, Rana Pratap Marg, Lucknow -226001, India, priyagni_2006@yahoo.co.in

This article has been reproduced from the archives of EnviroNews - Newsletter of ISEB India.

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