Sacred Groves

In Kerala it was the common practice among Hindus to assign a part of their land near the Tharavadu or house as the abode of goddess Durga or Serpent God Naga or Shasta and the place is called Kavu or Sarpakavu. Sacred Grove represent the major effort to recognize and conserve biodiversity (ethnic diversity) traditionally. The age old system of every village having a temple, a tank and associated sacred grove explains the ancient method of water harvesting and sharing and may be considered as the backbone of village economy. People were prohibited from felling trees and even removing a twig was considered as taboo. Some of the trees such as Borassus, Alstonia scholaris, Antiaris toxicaria, Hopea parviflora, Strychnos nux-vomica, Ficus religiosa etc are being worshipped in many sacred groves.

On a rough estimate Kerala has about 1500 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 WG. Only very 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. The available inventory on sacred grove indicates that maximum number of such areas is distributed in the northern districts of the state henceforth called Malabar. The vegetation in the undisturbed groves is luxuriant and with multi layered trees mixed with shrubs, lianas and herbs. The ground is humus laden and abundant with fungus and ferns. The floristic composition is highly influenced by exposure to anthropogenic pressures, cattle grazing, edaphically and climatic variations.

The common tree species found in the sacred grove are Artocarpus hirsutus, Mesua ferrea, Vateria indica, Hopea parviflora, H ponga, Alstonia scholaris Mimusops elengi, Hydnocarpus pentandra, Holigarna arnottiana etc. The lianas include Strychnos colubrina, Anamirta cocculus, Tetracera akara, and Acacia intsia. Shrubs are represented by Ixora nigricans, I bracteata, chassalia curviflora, etc. The seasonal plants such as Geophila reniformis, Borreria sp., Naregamia alata, Centella asiatica, Aerva lanata, Adrographis paniculata, Biophytum sensitivum, form the ground vegetation. In southern region of the state, Members of the mangroves swamps like Myristica fatua var.magnifica, M.malabarica Hydnocarpus spp and Eugenia spp are found in the poorly drained sacred groves. These species are known to develop high profile humidity in the surroundings that promote luxurius growth of undergrowths.

The animals found in the sacred grove are of two types, those which inhabits the groves like snakes, frogs, lizards and other lower group of organisms and higher group of fauna who nests and dens there and those who visits the grove temporarily for food, shelter etc. Sacred groves act as an abode for many rare, endemic, endangered species and economically important plants of fruit bearing and medicinal properties. Apart from conserving biological diversity, sacred groves that are situated in the middle of the human habitation are responsible for conserving water and soil. This is evident from the perennial nature of ponds, wells and tanks, which are situated near the sacred groves. The fertility of the agro-ecosystems is very high due to the humus and nutrients generated in the sacred groves.

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. In such instances either the Kavu will be totally denied or some time only the deity will be retained and big trees and associated habitat will be totally converted for other purposes. In some cases symbolic representation of grove is allowed to remain by preserving the oldest and largest tree in the grove.

The second major threat is the anthropogenic activities and cattle grazing. As the demand for land is always high in Kerala, the shrinkage of grove was one of the inevitable causes. Encroachment has resulted in the shrinkage of some of the largest Kavu in Ernakulam and Kannur districts. In some cases the old trees in the Kavu may be uprooted by natural calamities and this will be taken a reason for reducing the area of Kavu in certain cases. Cutting of trees for temple and associated purpose had also been reported from some areas. Since the very locations of these virgin ecosystems are in the middle of the people, cattle grazing, collection of dry leaves , firewood is a common phenomenon in Kerala.

Sacred groves have existed in India from time immemorial as patches of densely wooded areas, venerated on religious grounds. Sacred groves have preserved many rare and endemic wild plant species, many of which hold potential benefit to man in medicine, agriculture and industry. In fact, sacred groves represent the ancient Indian way of in situ conservation of genetic diversity. Reverence for all forms of life human, animal or plant, characterizes our ancient thought and continues to this day as a legacy laced with spirituality, humility and recognition of the importance of the elements and nature. Sanctity attached to places where nature shows her bounty was both spiritual and secular. These places were considered 'sacred', as Gods were supposed to bless them and naturally their protection was considered an obligation on the part of the society. Thus many a sacred grove has been preserved as sustainable resources, ensuring the basic capital in tact. These sacred groves are therefore valuable gene pools and the first major effort to recognize and conserve biodiversity.

Most sacred groves harbored perennial water source and hence formed the vital support system of many villages. The age-old system of every village having a temple, a tank and associated sacred grove explains the ancient method of water harvesting and sharing.

To quote Dr. M.S. Swaminathan:
Unlike, a botanical garden where a wide range of trees and plants are collected and cultivated for the purpose of education and enjoyment, the sacred groves are one method of expressing the gratitude of human families to the trees which sustain and support life under a given agro-ecological condition.

Religious, Cultural and Historical Background

Sacred groves have been reported from many parts of the world where mostly tribals live and practise shifting cultivation eg. Mexico, Ghana, Nigeria, China, Syria, Turkey etc. In India they are known from Himalayas, North-East India, highlands of Bihar, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Locally they are known variously as "Sarana" (in central India), "Devrai" and "Deviahate" in Maharashtra, "Devarkadu" in Coorg, 'Orance' in Rajasthan, "Kavu" or 'Nagavanam' in Kerala, "Nandavana" in Tamil Nadu, "Sidharavanam" in Karnataka, "Kavu" in Andhra Pradesh. In some cases the tallest tree in the grove is worshipped in the belief that it is the incarnation or abode of god.'Trees such as Borassus flabellifer; Alstonia scholaris. Antiaris toxicaria, Hopea parviflora, Strychnos nux-vomica, Ficus religiosa etc. are being worshipped in this way.

One significant aspect is that being mini forests, these kavus abound in large stately trees which have grown into full size. Right from vedic period due to fetishism, trees have become objects of veneration. In vedic literature, there are references about amulets prepared with plants to ward off evil spirits and cure diseases. Similarly there are specific trees mentioned for planting and preservation. The "Sthala Vriksha" concept common in South India, is actually an ancient form of conservation of certain important species, mainly trees. Each temple is associated with a "Sthala Vriksha" which is linked to the deity. The leaves of Aegle marmelos (Bilva or Koovalam) are usually used for worshipping Siva and flowers of Cassia fistula to adorn Vishnu. Usually sacred groves have one or more 'Sthala Vriksha'. These are protected and worshipped for their sociological, medicinal and social importance. Common examples of such species are Peepul (Ficus religiosa) neem (Azadirachta indica) maruthu (Terminalia paniculata) Kanikonna (Cassia fistula) and Bilva (Aegle marmelos).

Present Status

On a rough estimate, Kerala has about 1500 sacred groves, distinct and unique in biological diversity. Some of them are just relics of a once-gregarious vegetation. In fact the area varies from one cent as in some nagaru kavus to more than 20 hectares in Iringole Kavu, 'Kunnathurpadi kavu, Payyannur (18.211 ha) and Theyyottukavu, Kannur dist. (16.187 ha) are two other large Kavus in Kerala. A complete inventory of the sacred groves of Kerala is not available.

The sacred groves are spread throughout the lowlands of Kerala extending up to the foot hills. There are a few groves in the high ranges of Idukki and Wayanad districts. As a general rule, they are confined to lower elevations. Districts like Thiruvananthapuram, Kollam, Pathanamthitta, Alappuzha, Thrissur. Kozhikode, Kannur and Kasaragod have maximum number of groves.

Flora and Vegetation

The general floristic composition and physiognomy of vegetation of the sacred groves are typically like the low level evergreen forest. The vegetation in undisturbed groves is luxuriant and comprises several stories of trees mixed with shrubs. Lianes and herbs. The ground is humus laden and covered with litter. Macro-fungus are abundant, so also ferns. Whenever there is a water body algae and water plants grow gregariously. Floristic variations have occurred in many sacred groves exposed to human and animal interferences and climatic and edaphic changes.

Top canopy is represented by species like Artocarpus hirsutus, Vateria indica, Hopea parviflora, Hopea ponga, Alstonia scholaris etc. Second storey consists of Macaranga peltata, Mimusops elengi, Hydnocarpus wightiana, Holigarna arnottiana etc. Common lianas are Strychnos colubrina, Anamirta cocculus, Tetracera akara, Acacia intsia etc. Chassalia curviflora, lxora nigricans, Ixora brachiata are constituents of the shrubby layer. The ground layer is usually formed of seasonal members as, Centella asiatica, Aerva lanata, Andrographis paniculata, Biophytum sensitivum. Common climbers are Calamus spp, Anamirta cocculus. Strychnos colubrina, Calycopteris floribunda etc. Other climbers commonly found in these groves belong to Vitaceae. Menispermaceae. Asclepiadaceae and Apocynaceae. Total parasites like Cassytha filiformis and semiparasites like Loranthus spp, are also common. Common constituents of the shrubby layer include species like Memecylon umbellatum, Pavetta indica, Chassalia ophioxyloides, lxora spp etc. The ground layer is usually thickly populated with species which prefer humus and love shade. Along with a few angiosperms, ferns, Selaginellas and many macrofungi like species of Agaricus, etc. occur. Dead trunks of fallen trees harbor a variety of Polyporales. especially species of Fomes and Polyporus as is common in Iringole Kavu.

Typical evergreen elements of the tree layer of these sacred groves are Artocarpus hirsutus, Hopea parviflora, Mesua ferrea, Vateria indica, Ficus spp etc. There are also a few semi evergreen representatives like Fagraea ceylanica, Murraya exotica, Samadera indica etc. A few deciduous and semideciduous members also are seen. Semideciduous representatives are species of Cinnamomum, Syzygium cumiini, Litsea spp, Mangifera indica etc. Mallotus philippensis, Dillenia pentagyna and Trema orientalis are some of the deciduous species.

Semi-evergreen representatives are found among the undergrowth also, common members being Pavetta indica, Curcuma aromatica, Nephrolepis spp etc. Epiphytic orchids like Vanda spathulata, Vanda tessellata, and Bulbophyllum spp are also common.

Some characteristic morphological adaptations accompany the members of the sacred groves. Broad prominent buttresses are seen in most of the trees like Ficus spp, Hopea parviflora etc. which attain enormous heights with tall bole, the branches confining to the top most region

A very interesting constituent of the sacred groves is represented by members of the typical mangroves swamp found in poorly drained regions of South Travancore with a very long rainy season. Common members represented are Myristica magnifica with prominent dense stilt roots, Myristica malabarica. Hydnocarpus spp. Eugenia spp. etc. These members are known to develop a high profile of humidity in the surroundings their presence in certain groves is justified as they promote luscious growth of undergrowth mostly members of Araceae, Urticaceae. Zingiberaceae, Acanthaceae etc The exact physiological implication behind this high humidity is not experimentally proved, though it may be ascribed to very high transpiration rates of the leaves of these trees.

Fauna

Animals associated with sacred groves are of two categories. Those which inhabit the groves and those which visit them. Snakes of different categories, frogs, lizards, millipedes, termites, ants earth worms, and snails form a very important component of the sacred grove ecosystem. Termites, ants and earth worms play an important role in the make up of the soil. Many birds like crows, kites, owls, herons, mynas, parrots, humming birds etc. nest in these sacred groves. Bats, humming birds and insects like mosquitoes, wasps, honey-bees, butterflies and beetles seem to be closely connected with pollination mechanism of various plants. Monkeys, most of the birds, rodents like rats. mice. bandicoots, squirrels, mongoose, hares which are also inhabitants of these sacred groves help the plants in dispersal of seeds and fruits.

As an ecosystem, sacred groves help in soil and water conservation besides preserving biological wealth. The ponds and streams usually adjoining the groves are perennial water sources. Many animals and birds resort to them for their water requirements during summer. These groves are good repositories of humus, which is formed by litter decomposition. The nutrients generated in the groves find their way into the adjoining agroecosystems like paddy fields, tapioca and rubber plantations.

The floral diversity of these groves is very high. It is also interesting to note that particularly some members are represented in most of the groves.

Major Threats to the Sacred Groves

1. Disappearance of the tharavadu system

In olden days, when joint family system (tharavadu) was in vogue, maintenance of kavu was easy. Same is the case with the temple trusts; many temples were owned by ancient big families. As the families declined in wealth and power, due to various reasons, especially following partition, the fate of sacred groves was at stake. In many instances the whole land was sold to others who may not have any faith in the religious practices. In some cases this resulted in the clearing of groves and shifting of the presiding deity to some well-known shrines like Pampummekattu mana (Thrissur district), Mannarsala and Vettikot (Alappuzha district) and the Peralasseri (Kannur district).

In many cases, the presiding deity is still worshipped but without grove. The original tree cover is removed and new temple constructed. All the rituals are performed but in a modified form. This is mainly to minimize the extent of area meant for the purpose. The land thus carved out is utilized for cultivating economic crops. Thus tapioca, rubber, coconut etc. are planted extensively in temple premises, replacing the virgin sacred groves.

In some cases symbolic representation of grove is allowed to remain by preserving the largest and oldest tree in the grove (Eg: Nagaru kavu in Nedumangad) and removing all other vegetation. All rituals and offerings are followed as in the case of a grove. Trees such as Ficus religiosa, F. benghalensis, Borassus flabellifer, Strychnos nux-vomica, Alstonia scholaris, Antiaris toxicaria, Hopea parviflora, Aegle marmelos etc. are the main trees allowed to remain.

2. Grazing, poaching and other antisocial activities

Even in those groves which are more or less intact cattle grazing has destroyed many fringe species. This is very common in most of the groves. Vandanum Kavu (Alappuzha district) is a typical example, where destruction due to elephants from the nearby temple is rampant. Removal of rare medicinal plants, canes, bamboos and firewood and poaching of birds and animals are other harmful activities causing degradation of kavus.

3. Changing socioeconomic scenario

The land reforms in Kerala enabled a large section of the society to own a minimum piece of land. If the newly acquired land was a "Sarpa kavu" and the owner was not having any other piece of land nor any resource to spend on kavu rituals, he resorted to the destruction of the Kavu using it for some "material" benefits. Religious beliefs and taboos are no more practiced by a good section of younger generation and hence they do not possess the awe and reverence to these sacred groves.

Many groves of economically and medicinally important plants are no more the treasure houses of these plants. Over exploitation of its resources and the mounting pressure on land have caused severe environmental degradation in Kerala. The habit of planting trees for its medicinal value or scenic beauty has given way to have more profitable cash/plantation crops. In many a case the Kavu has been replaced even for house construction.It is worthy of mention that many sacred groves owned by Devaswom Board are preserved better as in Vadakottu Sastha Temple Kavu (Neyyattinkara) Indalayappan Kavu, (Nedumangad) etc. Other examples are Kolani Kavu (Thodupuzha) and Iringole Kavu (Perumbavoor). Examples of complete destruction are Pambummekkattu Kavu (Thrissur district). Of course most of the sacred groves are preserved partially.

Why to Conserve Sacred Groves?

Protection of the environment and life supporting systems are interwoven with conservation of biological diversity. Sacred groves represent this all-embracing concept and practice of ancient Indian way of in situ conservation of genetic diversity. Sacred groves, in general act as a nursery and store house of many of the local ayurvedic, tribal and folk medicines. Fruits of Artocarpus, Syzygium, Salacia, Phyllanthus, Mangifera, Buchanania, Carissa, Garcinia etc. are eaten by birds and animals (mostly nocturnals) in the sacred groves.

As an ecosystem, the environmental significance of the sacred groves is a matter well forgotten. In fact, they even help in soil and water conservation besides preserving its rich biological wealth. The ponds and streams adjoining the groves are perennial water sources. These are the last resorts to many of the animals and birds for their water requirements, especially during summer. Sacred groves also enrich the soil through its rich litter composition. The nutrients generated thus are not only recycled Within the sacred grove ecosystem but also find their way into the adjoining agroeco systems.

In spite of the very high land to man ratio, these groves have been thriving, which naturally shows the very high reverence and importance some people attach to these sacred groves. At a time when evergreen forests have been dwindling at an alarming rate in the Western Ghats, preservation and management of these sacred groves are unavoidable, for each of this is a treasure house of rare species, germplasm collection of all the plants in an area, and abode of rare, medicinal and economically important plants.

Conclusion

Preservation of sacred groves is an important necessity in this era of dwindling forest cover; but the problem is difficult to tackle, as the number of sacred groves is many and the agencies in charge of them are diverse. Hence a common approach in all cases may not be feasible. However following are some suggestions to save the relics from total extinction.

1. Take an inventory of all the sacred groves of Kerala. Department of Science and Technology, Government of Kerala can take the initiative and fund a project taking of course the assistance of the Willing institutions, coming under its care.

2. Government may encourage the owners who are willing to conserve their groves by giving them incentives in the form of maintenance grants or awards.

3. Create awareness in the public about the importance of these groves and the necessity for their preservation through mass media like All India Radio and Doordarshan.

4. Enforce total ban on felling of trees and poaching of birds and animals in sacred groves.

5. Preserve the rare species found in sacred groves in seed banks of various institutions or develop embryo/tissue culture of these rare species and make then available in enormous numbers so that they are no more endangered.

Government may create a Cell for conservation of sacred groves on par with Western Ghats Development Cell with the assistance of different funding agencies of Government of India like the Department of Science and Technology, Department of Environment and Forests, Man and Biosphere, Department of Biotechnology etc.

Climbers common in sacred groves

  1. Abrus precatorius L.
  2. Acacia intsia W & A
  3. Ampelocissus arnottiana Planch.
  4. Anamirta cocculus (L) W&A
  5. Asparagus racemosus Willd.
  6. Calycopteris floribunda Lam.
  7. Cissus pallida L.
  8. Coccinia cordifolia (L.) Cong.
  9. Combretum latifolium Blume.
  10. Cyclea peltata (Lam.) Hook.f. & Thoms
  11. Dioscorea pentaphylla L.
  12. Gloriosa superba L.
  13. Gnetum ula Brongn
  14. Ichnocarpus.frutescens (L) R. Brown.
  15. Ipomoea alba L.
  16. Jasminum angustifolium (L) Vahl.
  17. Kunstleria keralensis Mohanan et Nair
  18. Mikania cordata (Burm. f) Robins.
  19. Morinda umbellata L.
  20. Moullava spicata (Dalz.) Nicolson
  21. Mucuna gigantea DC.
  22. Myxopyrum serratulum A.W. Hill
  23. Naravelia zeylanica (L) DC.
  24. Passiflora.foetida L.
  25. Piper longum L.
  26. Piper nigrum L.
  27. Quisqualis indica L.
  28. Sarcostigma kleinii W&A
  29. Smilax zeylanica L.
  30. Ziziphus rugosa Lam.

Epiphytes and parasites common in sacred groves

  1. Acampe praemorsa (Roxb.) Blatt. & Mc Cann
  2. Bulbophyllum neilgherrense Wight
  3. Cleisostoma tenuifolium (L.) Garay
  4. Cymbidium aloifolium (L.) SW
  5. Dendrobium herbaceum Lindl.
  6. Dendrobium macrostachyum Lindl.
  7. Gastrochilus acaulis (Lindl.) Kuntze
  8. Luisia zeylanica Lindl.
  9. Polystachya concreta

Endemic plants of the Western Ghats common in the sacred groves of Kerala

  1. Artocarpus hirsutus Lam.
  2. Artocarpus integrifolia L.
  3. Blepharistemma membranifolia(Miq) Ding Hou.
  4. Calophyllum apetalum Willd.
  5. Calotropis procera R. Br.
  6. Cardiospermum halicacabum L
  7. Centella asiatica Urb.
  8. Coffea travancorensis W. & A.
  9. Colocasia esculenta (L) Schott.
  10. Curculigo orchioides Gaertn.
  11. Datura stramonium L
  12. Desmodium gangeticum DC.
  13. Desmos lawii (J.Hook .f. & Thoms) Safford.
  14. Dioscorea bulbifera L.
  15. Ecbolium viride (Frossk) Alston.
  16. Ervatamia heyneana (Wall) Cooke
  17. Eugenia sp.
  18. Eupatorium odoratum L.
  19. Evolvulus alsinoides L.
  20. Geophila repens (L) Johnston
  21. Glycosmis pentaphylla Corr.
  22. Grewia microcos L.
  23. Hemidesmus indicus R. Br.
  24. Hibiscus aculeatus Roxb.
  25. Holigarna arnottiana J.H.K..
  26. Holigarna beddomei J.H.K.
  27. Hopea parviflora Bedd.
  28. Hopea ponga (Dennst) Mabb.
  29. lxora brachiata Roxb.
  30. Ixora coccinea L.
  31. lxora lanceolaria Hook.f.
  32. Ixora nigricans R. Brown ex Wight & Arm
  33. Justicia simplex D.Don
  34. Kunstleria keralensis Mohanan & Nair
  35. Lantana camara L.
  36. Leea indica (Burm. E) Merr.
  37. Leucas aspera Spr.
  38. Liparis viridiflora Lindl.
  39. Litsea fioribunda (BI) Gamble
  40. Madhuca neriifolia (Moon) H. j. Lam
  41. Mallotus philippensis M. Arg.
  42. Melastoma malabathricum L.
  43. Memecylon edule Roxb.
  44. Memecylon heyneanum Benth.
  45. Memecylon utnbellatum Burro. F..
  46. Mesua ferrea L.
  47. Mimosa pudica L.
  48. Moullava spicata (Dulz) Nicolson.
  49. Murraya paniculata (L) Jacq.
  50. Mussaenda belilla Buch. - Ham.
  51. Mussaenda laxa (J.H.K) Hutch ex. Gamble
  52. Myristica malabarica, Lam.
  53. Naregamia alata W&A"
  54. Neolitsea zeylanica Meisn.
  55. Nothopegia colebrookeana (Wight) Blume.
  56. Ophiorrhiza tnungos L.
  57. Pandanus furcatus Roxb.
  58. Pavetta indica L.
  59. Psychotria curviflora Wall ex Roxb.
  60. Rauvolfia canescens L.
  61. Santalum album L.
  62. Sida carpinifolia L.f.
  63. Sida cordifolia L.
  64. Sida rhombifolia L.
  65. Solanum xanthocarpum Sch&W
  66. Stachytarpheta indica Vahl.
  67. Tephrosia tinctoria (L) Pets.
  68. Terminalia paniculata Roth.
  69. Torenia travancorica Gamb.
  70. Vateria indica L.
  71. Vernonia cinerea Less.
  72. Zingiber zerumbet Sm.
  73. Zizyphus oenoplia Mill.
  74. Zornia diphylla Pres.

In Kerala a love for nature even among people living in village and urban conditions is evident from the practice of preserving very small areas with all the natural plants and other animal undisturbed. Such natural units are preserved as part of the temple environment through out Kerala and they are called sacred groves. Some of the sacred groves extent to 35 ha. These sacred groves exhibit typical forest conditions and they are remnants of the natural forest once existed in those areas.