Asia’s sacred groves survive because they provide spiritual and practical benefits; with thanks to a flying monkey god
Who has the answers to conservation conundrums? Goverments with their laws, or local people with their traditions?
As a conservationist I have spent years encouraging governments to establish protected areas through legislation. Unfortunately, many modern conservation areas fail because they don’t have community support. A classic example is the system of Project Tiger reserves in India, several of which are, according to Madhav Gadgil of the Indian Institute of Science, “threatened by discontented local tribal people.” Local communities argue that the Delhi-based conservation-wallahs value animals more highly than they do people.
Recognizing that externally-imposed protected areas can only work when local people support the concept, many people in the conservation movement see the need to encourage rural communities to respect reserve boundaries. More importantly (and infinitely more difficult), we Europe-based conservation-wallahs try to figure out ways to give villagers that vague concept called “community empowerment”, a phrase which is a current buzzword among western conservationists. Unfortunately, as noble as it sounds, “community empowerment” still smacks of outside influence which is, justifiably, resented by many people in the developing world.
I find it ironic that some of the most successful Asian conservation programs have, in many cases, already cut out the middle man — in this case the government. Sacred groves, or “life reserves”, as one Indian villager describes them, survive today without benefit of government gazettement, without government nature wardens, without government education centres and sometimes even without government goodwill. Primarily Hindu or Buddhist-oriented, sacred groves flourish because they serve people’s physical and spiritual needs. Unlike the current view of “empowerment”, which often means that the people who really hold the power grudgingly give up a tiny slice to their poorer cousins, sacred groves reflect a refreshing view of nature for the people, by the people.
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I first noticed the sacred grove at Perumbavoor, an hour east of Cochin in the south Indian state of Kerala, as a hazy green mound perhaps two kilometers distant. I stood on a busy road, where traffic blew exhaust fumes past the offices of Decent Cargo Movers, the Ruby Coold [sic] Bar and Creative Computer Services, whose sign announced: “Kick off your headache, we got the solution.”
The entrance to the forest itself is at the end of a makeshift cricket pitch, brown with dust and abuse. The air cleared as I entered the ten hectare sacred grove, which is one of the last remnants of virgin forest outside the national park network. Birdsong replaces motorcycle squeal.
I went there with Forest Range Officer N.C. Induchoodan, who pointed out medicinal plants in the grove that are used in Ayurvedic medicine to treat diabetes and asthma, fevers and hypertension, malaria and infections. He described these forest drugstores as “God’s own pharmacies.”
How could a chunk of tropical rainforest survive in one of the most densely populated corners of one of the most densely populated countries in the world?
The answer depends on whether you ask the question from a western or an Asian perspective.
Using Cartesian, logical analysis, one might conclude that sacred groves exist because they form important watersheds, they provide breeding ground and shelter for wildlife, they are situated on ancient trade routes or historic settlements, they provide timber for rebuilding in the event a castrophic fire destroys a village and, of course, because they contain medicinal plants.
However there are other factors at work, some of which force a western mind to perform mental acrobatics.
“Three thousand years ago this whole region was forested,” observes Mr. M. Prakash, the priest of the Perumbavoor temple and a devotee of Durga, Siva’s consort and a supreme goddess who reigns in the grove. “Inside the temple — no, you can’t go in there — is a stone that people say is in the image of Durga. This stone miraculously bled when some women who were cutting grass accidentally hit it with their sickles. From that day the women worshipped the rock, and people believe that the trees here are the hair of the goddess. Nobody has disturbed this area since, since cutting the trees is the same as hacking the body of Durga.”
What should one make of this? I asked Mr. V. Rajendran, a newspaper agent who worships almost daily in the Perumbavoor grove, what might happen to someone who upsets Durga, an ancient incarnation of the Earth Mother Goddess, the consort of Lord Shiva, who also appears in Hindu mythology as Parvati or Kali.
He had an anecdote ready, almost as if he had been waiting his entire life for a strange foreigner to march into his holy forest and ask this question. We sat on a fallen metre-diameter tree trunk. Mr. Rajendran added that several years ago a man collected from the grove, without permission from the priest, seeds of the medicinal plant Vateria indica, used for treating chronic rheumatism and numerous other disorders. For ten years following his trespass the man was plagued by financial, medical and personal problems. Perhaps even more disturbing, after the intrusion the Vateria indica bushes in the grove refused to flower. The man ultimately repented by offering the goddess an amount of gold equivalent to the weight of the seeds he had stolen. Durga was appeased and nature’s balance was restored.
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The origin of most sacred groves is lost in time. I asked Vithal Rajan, chairman of the central Indian Deccan Development Society and formerly director of education and ethics for WWF International, how they might have started. “You find sacred places everywhere,” he explained. “Stonehenge, the Aboriginal songlines. They’re the meeting place of culture and nature.”
I am what I think. My grown-up western mind insists on asking “why?” Life would be so much simpler if I simply accepted the inexplicable. When I was a boy I believed in gardens filled with unicorns and sprites and goblins. I knew these special places existed — I saw them in my picture books. But as a boring adult I have to balance my Rousseau-like vision of gardens of innocence hidden, Brigadoon-like beyond the next hill, with a nagging Cartesian drive to understand. I’m not entirely happy with this schizophrenic approach, but, well, there it is. My left-brained side sought out Madhav Gadgil, of the Centre for Theoretical Studies, Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, and V.D. Vartak, of the Maharashtra Association for the Cultivation of Science, Poona, who are the acknowledged experts on Indian sacred groves, and who have catalogued more than 400 sacred groves in Maharastra state alone.
Mr. Gadgil and Mr. Vartak believe that sacred groves had their origins “in the hunting‑gathering stage of society, where they served to create the proper setting for cult rites, including human sacrifices.” They see a parallel between Indian sacred groves and the way in which ancient Greeks worshiped the goddess Diana and her forests.
Mr. Gadgil and Mr. Vartak also acknowledge secular reasons for establishing sacred groves, such as the preservation of a valuable plant which was relatively rare in the locality. They point out that a sacred grove of the water deities, Sati Asara, at Bombilgani (Srivardhan Taluka, Kolaba district), harboured a solitary, but thriving specimen of the liana known as gaidhari (Entada phaseoloides Merr.), used in treating cattle for snakebite. This was the only specimen of this species within a radius of 40 kilometres, and people came from considerable distances to this grove to ask the priest for a piece of the medicinal bark.
The role of sacred groves and water conservation has an unusual vehicle throughout the Hindu and Buddhist world — the naga. The naga is based on the king cobra, and symbolizes water; it guards the life-energy stored in springs, wells and ponds.
A signboard outside the Pambhumekkad Mana temple, 50 km east of Cochin, India, announces that this is a place of nagas, and the family of priests in residence obtains their religious power from serpents which flourish in an adjoining sacred grove.
“Garudas, like cosmic eagles, are the enemies of the nagas, but they don’t dare enter the compound,” advises Mr. J. Jathavedan, a quick-to-smile 22 year old priest. He excuses himself to greet an elderly woman in a white sari who has come to the door. He pours a bit of oil into her palms. She drinks it and offers a few crumpled rupees.
I ask what had happened. “She wanted holy oil,” Mr. Jathavedan explains. “The priests spend one night a year in the holy forest. It’s full of nagas, but none of us are ever bitten. We each carry a container of oil, which is sanctified by the snakes. We mix the new oil with a bit of oil a thousand years old.” He offers me some oil, and then a tastier “holy” treat — a “sacred” desert of rice pudding made with molasses, which had been blessed by the holy snakes. Can I enter the sacred grove? He laughs, shakes his head, and adds the Hindi equivalent of “the nagas would have you for lunch.”
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I sit with Bo Wan Kan, a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine in his village in the southern corner of China’s Yunnan province. We are in the hilly Xishuangbanna autonomous region which juts into Burma and Laos, and these forests offer a textbook example of how a sacred forestmeets people’s practical, left-brained needs as well as providing succor for their spiritual, right-brained dreams.
This is the extreme south of China’s Yunnan Province (which boasts the world’s most northern tropical rainforest), where a rich mix of “minorities” follow traditions not dissimilar to those of their hill tribe cousins in northern Thailand, Burma and Indo-China. To the untrained eye, the sacred hills of Xishuangbanna appear indistinguishable from other forests that grace this land of green hills.
But to local villagers, the 400 “holy hills’ in Xishuangbanna are the homes of dragons. People here call them lung shan, or dragon hills, sacred forests which provide for people’s spiritual and physical well-being.
Doctor Bo and his patient sit on a bouncy split rattan platform at the back of his village house. He diagnoses the woman’s illness by feeling her pulse and sensing the flow of energy in her body. He asks a few questions and then unwraps some of the treasures of his personal pharmacy.
It is an unlikely pharmacoepia. Sawdust. Twigs. Crumbled leaves. Crushed roots. The dried head of a soft-shelled river turtle.
Bo Wan Kan, of the Dai tribe, one of the 23 Chinese minorities in Xishuangbanna, practices traditional medicine with plants and animals that he collects from the wild. Like 80% of the people in the developing world, the residents of the Dai village where Dr. Bo practices depend on traditional medicine for their primary health care.
Dr. Bo collects his medicinal plants from a nearby forest adjoining the “white elephant” sacred grove behind his home. He explained that the ten-hectare holy forest “provides the village’s life insurance.” It is a repository of medicinal plants which could be collected in an emergency if the supplies outside the forest disappear. Priests long ago recognized this role and built a “white elephant” temple on the site, representing Lord Buddha’s last incarnation before returning as a man. The presence of such a temple near a sacred grove fits neatly with Lord Buddha’s observation that “the forest is a peculiar organism of unlimited kindness and benevolence that makes no demands for its sustenance and extends generously the products of its life activity; it affords protection to all beings.”
Although poorly studied, the sacred groves of Xishuangbanna may contain important new natural pharmaceuticals. Dr. Pei Sheng Ji, director of the Kunming Botanical Institute and one of China’s leading ethnobotanists, has listed some 25 new drugs that have been developed from Chinese traditional medicines used by national minorities. About one third come from the minorities in Xishuagbanna. One example: From Tripterygium hypoglaucum, a plant used by the predominant Dai tribe, Chinese researchers have extracted a compound called triptotide hypolide, which is now prescribed by doctors throughout the country to treat rheumatism and arthritis.
The forest harbors wildlife, including many bird species which eat insects that would otherwise eat the villagers’ rice crops. The forest also acts as a watershed, ensuring a regular flow of clean water throughout the year — water used for washing, cooking, fishing and irrigation.
Pei Sheng-ji speculates on the origin of sacred groves such as these: “Like many early groups, the Dai associated the forests, the animals and plants that inhabited them, and the forces of nature with the supernatural realm. Proper actions and respect for the gods were believed to result in peace and well-being for the villagers. Improper activities and disrespect, on the other hand, incurred the wrath of the gods who punished the Dai villagers with a variety of misfortunes. Thus, the early Dai were encouraged to live in ‘harmony’ with their surroundings. The holy hill is a kind of natural conservation area founded with the help of the gods, and all animals, plants, land and sources of water within it are inviolable.”
I love the symmetry. Practical medicinal plants and emotional religious comfort. Yang and yin. Lingam and yoni. Day and night, light and dark, dry season and monsoon. The cycles of Asian life roll on, unhindered.
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If a community can have a sacred grove, why not a family? I returned to southern India.
“Yes, some things remain mysterious,” botanist N.C. Nair advises. “Even though this place is full of nagas they don’t harm people.”
We are in a private sacred grove in the Kerala town of Changanacherry. The Nair family claims the grove is a thousand years old.
The Nair homestead lies off a busy commercial street; the devotions of a meuzzein from a nearby mosque compete with the whine of a nearby sawmill. Cranes, an uncommon sight in this part of India, perch in the trees. They pay no heed to the woman who enters the 100 square meter grove, pushes away brambles and lights the evening flame in front of a knee‑high stone naga statue.
“She is ashamed to tell you, but her family might get rid of the grove,” N.C. Nair confesses. “Their children have left home and the old folks find it tiresome to light the lamp each day and perform the necessary Hindu puja (religious ceremony) every six months. And they can earn good money by planting coconut trees where this sacred grove now stands.”
In the grove migratory birds sing. Just outside the grove cows graze between coconut palms. Evening prayers begin at the mosque.
“I would be sad if this sacred grove falls into the hands of non‑believers,” Mr. Nair says. “It would be lost. I am sad, but what else can I do?”
Madhav Gadgil and V.D. Vartak observe that private sacred groves, such as those of the Nair family, are the most threatened of all traditional conservation sites “because they can fetch considerable money in the short run for poor farmers,” when sold to merchants who want to extract timber or convert the trees to charcoal.
Conservationist Vijay Paranjpye urges that conservationists rethink the concept of protected areas. Instead of legislating wild areas as wildlife sanctuaries, he argues, which is largely a Euro‑American concept, it would be wise to instead provide legal protection to already established sacred groves. “These represent probably the single most important ecological heritage of the ancient culture in India,” Mr Paranjpye says.
Environmental researcher and economist Ajay Rastogi notes that sacred groves benefit from indirect legislation in several states, such as restrictions on felling and transporting certain tree species. While there is no special legislation for this category of nature reserve, sacred groves do seem to enjoy de facto protection. The demands of modern life and development may, however, place greater pressures on them in the future.
What is clear is that sacred groves and holy forests offer a valid conservation option. “There are many ways of respecting nature,” Vithal Rajan observes. “The skill is choosing the one that works best.”
Does that skill extend to manipulating traditional belief patterns and actually creating sacred groves?
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In this world of fast food, fast bucks and fast gratification, is it possible to speed up the normal process and deliberately create a sacred grove?
“We’ve created several in recent years,” notes M.A. Partha Sarathy, a Bangalore-based renaissance man who recently was awarded the UNEP Global 500 for his work in conservation.
He explained the process. “At one site in Karanataka state we took an existing forest patch and re-instituted it as a sacred site by putting up a sign that read “Devara Kadu“, God’s Forest.
“No, it wasn’t that easy. We gave the forest a bit of history and presented it the context of the local people’s common fear that powerful forest goddesses reside in such groves. I was surprised it worked so smoothly.
“You’ve also got to get the head man on side,” Partha Sarathy explained. “In this case the head man’s father had been cured of a serious illness by medicinal plants that came from this forest. He gave us his blessing to turn it into a protected site and the people went along with the idea.”
A ‘deification’ of a wooded area of which Partha Sarathy is particularly proud lies just at the outskirts of bustling Bangalore, a multi-faceted city of 4.5 million in Karanataka State known for its imaginative town planning, universities and rapidly expanding industry.
In the early 1970s an electronics factory on the outskirts of town cleared 80 acres of land to provide housing for its 22,000 workers. In the inevitable vacant lots which occurred, the company managers, all keen conservationists, planted thousands of seedlings. But, as one of the managers explains, there was a high plant-mortality rate because no one took on the responsibility to care for the trees. Some took away seedlings to plant in their own homes, and others ignored the remaining trees. What had been everybody’s business finished up as being no one’s responsibility.
“About that time India was converting from miles to kilometers,” Partha Sarathy explains. “We were able to buy the discarded tombstone-shaped stone mile markers for almost nothing. We hired stone carvers from out of town and asked them to carve Hindu religious symbols in place of the Roman numerals. We placed these new ‘deified’ markers next to some of the newly planted trees, and sprinkled them with kum kum, a red powder used in worship.
“Before too long we found people starting to treat these special trees with respect and to ‘worship’ them. Even more important, they watered the ‘deified’ saplings and the others as well. We seem to have created a ‘sacred grove’ out of a vacant lot.