Sacred groves comprise patches of forests or natural vegetation – from a few trees to forests of several acres – that are usually dedicated to local folk deities or tree spirits.
While staying at a friend's property in the Northern Rivers area of New South Wales recently, I was happy to find a circular planting of trees around an old large central Morton Bay Fig tree. The property owner had planted this patch of rainforest under the guidance of local experts about 15 years before. I found the space enchanting. It felt as if this circle of forest was home to some very happy forest spirits. I was careful not to enter very often, just once in a while to meditate, however I felt drawn to be near the forest and used to circumambulate the area and chant mantras as I walked. The owner of the property planted this forest with the intention of it being a sacred place, to bring back and appease the nature spirits of the area and to give them a safe haven to abide. I named this little bit of forest a 'sacred grove', never having heard of the phrase before. However, on researching the words I found out about a tradition of sacred groves around the world and particularly in the state of Kerala, Southern India. Salini Bedford
Traditionally a Sacred Grove is a place to deepen your relationship with Mother Earth and your personal spirituality. By coming to sit and spend time near/or in a sacred grove we can witness the ecosystem at work, the family—the birds, lizards, insects, the ponds, trees and plants. We can begin to experience the oneness of all creation. Sacred Groves are a microcosm representative of the entire creation and in them we can find our true Mother, Mother Nature. For some it is difficult to conceptualize Nature as our Mother, but through connecting with sacred groves it can become much easier. When we go near a sacred grove we should be peaceful and quiet—a silent witness to all we see. It should be like we are walking near a room where our grandmother is sleeping. We should be careful not to disturb anything. When we have this respectful attitude, the Mother will reveal Herself to us.
In India, sacred groves are found all over the country and abundantly along the Western Ghats in the state of Kerala. Although, there has been no comprehensive study on the sacred groves of the entire country, experts estimate the total number of sacred groves in India could be in the range of 100,000 – 150,000. Kavus; (as they are called in Kerala)are prevalent by other names throughout India—Dev in Madhya Pradesh, Devaraee in Maharashtra, Jogmaya in Rajasthan, Lakyntang in Meghalaya…and many other cultures in the East and the West, have similar traditions. For thousands of years, the kavus in Kerala have helped maintain the balance of the ecosystem.
Today many kavus are in danger and of course this is a tragedy, not only are kavus a means for people to worship Nature as a manifestation of the Divine, but also a means to protect biological resources, act as sanctuaries for flora and fauna (especially ayurvedic herbs), provide oxygen to surrounding area as well as provide deep groundwater reserves. These spaces are protected by local communities because of their religious beliefs and traditional rituals that run through generations.
The degree of sanctity of the sacred forests varies from one grove to another. In some forests even the dry foliage and fallen fruits are not touched. In some traditions people believe that any kind of disturbance will offend the local deity, causing diseases, natural calamities or failure of crops. For example, the Garo and the Khasi tribes of north eastern India completely prohibit any human interference in the sacred groves. While in other groves, deadwood or dried leaves may be picked up, but the live tree or its branches are never cut. For example, the Gonds of central India prohibit the cutting of a tree but allow fallen parts to be used.
In ancient India, the planting and nurturing of trees in sacred groves was a highly evolved practice. Indian sacred groves are sometimes associated with temples / monasteries / shrines or with burial grounds (which is also the case in the Shinto and Ryukyuan religions in Japan). Typically, such groves reflect with the concept of a "presiding deity (God)". While most of these sacred deities are associated with Hindu gods, sacred groves may have Islamic or Buddhist origins or even smaller local or folk religions and may be highly important in religious rites, festivals and recreation.
Ecological Significance of Sacred Groves in India
- Conservation of biodiversity – The sacred groves are important repositories of floral and faunal diversity that have been conserved by local communities in a sustainable manner. They are often the last refuge of endemic species in the geographical region.
- The groves are often associated with ponds, streams or springs, which help meet the water requirements of the local people.
- Soil conservation - The vegetation cover of the sacred groves improves the soil stability of the area and also prevents soil erosion.
Threats to existing Sacred Groves in India
The threats vary from one region to the other and even from one grove to the other in a local area but the common threats identified are:
- Disappearance of the traditional belief systems, which were fundamental to the concept of sacred groves. These systems and their rituals are often considered mere superstition.
- Sacred groves in many parts of the country have been destroyed due to rapid urbanization and developmental interventions such as roads, railways tracks, dams including commercial forestry. Encroachment has led to the shrinkage of some of the largest groves in the country.
- Many groves are suffering due to the transformation of the primitive forms of nature worship into formal temple worship.
- Invasion by exotic weeds.
- Pressures due to increasing livestock and fuel wood collection.
A GreenFriends program for the protection and propagation of sacred groves began in Kerala in 2004. GreenFriends have since held a number of seminars in various places throughout Kerala explaining the significance and importance of Sacred Groves. The people who attend these seminars are then entrusted with the job of further proliferating understanding regarding the value of the groves. They are also asked to draw up action plans for establishing more sacred groves in their areas. Another goal of the program is to catalogue the currently existing sacred groves in Kerala.
How to Build a Sacred Grove
In essence, a sacred grove is a temple—a natural temple where the deity worshipped is the temple itself. Anyone can establish a sacred grove. It's a matter of setting off a wooded area with the intention that it not be trespassed upon, even by yourself. The sacred grove is like the sanctum sanctorum of a temple. If necessary you may make some natural fencing around your grove by planting small shrubs etc. Ideally it will have a pond, but it is not absolutely necessary. You may inaugurate the sacred grove with a small prayer. Amma says that "It is only important that the words should come from your heart, as they are the language that Nature understands."