Guardians of the grove

Sacred groves in India are fragments of forest dedicated to folk deities. Local communities protect such groves as they worship nature and derive spiritual value from them. The number of sacred groves have, however, been reducing due to urbanisation and socio-cultural changes. Motivated by the rising economic value of land, sacred groves have been cleared for commercial purposes. The spiritual significance of the groves has also been diluted because of loss of faith amongst the younger generation and the gradual assimilation of animistic tribal communities into mainstream Hinduism. As these groves have been protected for a long time, their disappearance is cause for great concern because of the loss of ecological and evolutionary information they have been preserving.

Ballullaya and colleagues conducted a study to understand the cultural and environmental perspectives of local communities with respect to the preservation of sacred groves. They focused on two regions of the Western Ghats in India–rural Kodagu in Karnataka and urban Kasaragod in Kerala, both of which contain many sacred groves. People living near these groves were interviewed to understand their views on the benefits and threats associated with the groves, as well as ways of maintaining them. The perceptions of local communities were found to significantly influence the management and conservation of sacred groves. In rural areas, the persistence of groves was attributed to strong cultural and religious beliefs, whereas in urban areas, it was due to an understanding of environmental benefits and use value. The conservation success of the groves was also dependent on the mode of governance, as community-managed groves had greater forest cover and lesser degradation than reserve forests managed by the Forest Department.

Recognizing the ability of communities to preserve sacred groves for their environmental significance, the researchers recommend complementing religious drivers with environmental understanding to ensure the survival of these groves. This would act as a safeguard for the groves in the context of evolving religious and cultural beliefs. To do so would require educating people on the environmental value of these sacred spaces, while also encouraging the preservation of traditional belief systems. In addition to this, they call for robust policies to ensure the protection of sacred groves by empowering local communities to manage them.

Photographs: Wikimedia Commons,

Further Reading:

Ballullaya, U. P., K. S. Reshmi, T. P. Rajesh, K. Manoj, M. Lowman and P. A. Sinu. 2019. Stakeholder motivation for the conservation of sacred groves in south India: An analysis of environmental perceptions of rural and urban neighbourhood communities. Land Use Policy 89: e104213.

This article is from issue


2021 Mar