Ecosphere Children

Sacred woods

Thousands of years ago humans lived in jungles that sustained them, providing both food and shelter. They lived in harmony with the wildlife, respecting their space. They neither hunted for sport, poached, burnt, nor cut down huge swathes of forest land.

They venerated nature, because they realised the grave importance of forests, and worshipped trees and animals. In the core of the forests, they nurtured sacred groves — groves of trees that have religious importance. Many of these sacred groves exist even today.

In our country, there exist about a 1,00,000 of these sacred groves. They are more commonly known as devrais. Each devrai has either a temple, shrine, monastery or a burial ground representing the sanctum sanctorum (the Holy of Holies, a place where few people are allowed to go). Hunting and logging are strictly prohibited inside a sacred grove. In some sacred groves, it is taboo to even cut a living branch. Thus, they form a haven for all kinds of wildlife — a biodiversity hotspot while elsewhere their numbers may be dwindling owing to deforestation or hunting. Each devrai has its own presiding deity.

In Goa, the sanctum sanctorum for the deity of one of the devrais is believed to be inside a termite mound. In some other sacred groves it is the naag or serpent that is worshipped as a deity.

Since devrais are protected areas of forests, they serve as an effective method of conservation of wild flora and fauna. Moreover, in India, there are various indigenous tribes that live in sync with wildlife. Among them the Bishnois deserve a special mention. For the Bishnois, conservation of nature and wildlife is their religion. In the arid regions of Rajasthan, they manage sacred groves called orans where there are forests of Khejri trees and large populations of antelopes like the blackbucks and chinkara roam.

The Bishnoi religion took form in the 15th century when Guru Jambeshwar, was greatly disturbed by the destruction of the environment and acted. He laid down the 29 tenets of the Bishnoi religion (Bishnoi means 29). The religion lays great emphasis on protection of all nature.

Looking back

The fierce adherence to this religion by the Bishnois was proved sometime in the 17th century by a young Bishnoi girl, Amrita Devi who gave her life to save the Khejri trees in her home ground. The King of Jodhpur who happened to be the ruler of the land at that time, ordered the Khejri trees to be cut to build a palace. Amrita was alarmed when she saw the king’s men arrive with axes. She hugged one of the trees in the hope of stopping them. But since the soldiers were on the king’s mission, they heartlessly axed Amrita as well as the tree! Seeing this, the other women from the surrounding villages followed her example of chipko or hugging of trees. The soldiers refused to relent and there was a massacre of not only the trees, but also of more than 340 women, all of whom laid their lives for the trees. When word about this mass killing reached the King’s ears he was full of remorse and stopped his men. The palace was never built and the people of Rajasthan began worshipping the Khejri tree with even more fervour.

Today, Blackbuck roam freely in Bishnoi villages. Sick animals are tended to by the people there and orphan calves are even nursed.

Can we, in our capacity, conserve our forests and animals?


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Printable version | Sep 24, 2021 2:59:35 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/children/sacred-woods/article29373303.ece

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