Cultures all over the world had or continue to have sacred groves. Associated with local deities, popular saints and forest spirits, they were patches of wilderness (big or small) that were out of bounds for trespassers. Managed by local communities that endowed them with divine protection, these sacred groves featured in the myth and folklore of cultures as diverse as the Yoruba (of West Africa), Celts (of Britain), Norse (of Europe), Malays (of Southeast Asia) and Japanese (of the Far East).
The Dravidians of South India are no different. All states of peninsular South Asia have their own versions of sacred groves – Pavitravanalu (Telugu), Kavu (Malayalam), Kovilkadu (Tamil) and Devarakadu (Kannada). Nearby Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh and Odisha have terms like Devrai, Devgudi and Thakurma. Because of the immense respect local communities hold for such groves, they have turned into sanctuaries for rare plants and animals, many of which are found nowhere else.
Biologists have found South India’s sacred groves to be a treasure trove of rare and valuable herbs, and obscure endemic species. Several legends are associated with these sanctuaries. However, with increasing urbanization and changes in people’s attitudes towards nature and local customs, they are under increasing pressure. Many have fallen prey to hydroelectric projects, real estate development, mining and deforestation. Their disappearance might lead to the extinction of several rare species (known and yet to be discovered).
Hopefully, states like Kerala (on the very southwestern tip of South Asia) might be showing the way with programs to conserve them and their highly threatened residents. I will be writing more articles about the sacred groves of South India in upcoming posts, dealing with both their ecological and cultural significance.
Image Attribution: The image above from Wikimedia Commons, is an illustration titled ‘The Sacred Hindoo Grove near Chandod on the Banks of the Nerbudda’ by James Forbes (1749–1819). A Scotsman by birth, he was a prolific painter and writer. Forbes worked for the East India Company in while stationed in India, producing thousands of sketches and voluminous notes which would become the basis of publications such as ‘Oriental Memoirs’.