Green fading away to dull grey

Increasing pressure on land, Sanskritisation of deities has led to destruction of Kerala’s sacred groves. During the 1950s, there were around 10,000 sacred groves in Kerala while at present the State has just around 1,200. Under the enormous pressure for land, the groves have been converted into commercial spaces

Updated - May 05, 2023 07:15 am IST

Published - May 04, 2023 07:53 pm IST - KOCHI

Gulikan theyyam at a sacred grove in Kasaragod.

Gulikan theyyam at a sacred grove in Kasaragod. | Photo Credit: Thulasi Kakkat

Despite the summer showers, it is hot and sultry during the day and Perumbavoor town in Ernakulam with its milling crowds, slow-moving traffic, and noisy and dusty environs is a tough place to be in at noon.

Yet, Iringole Kaavu, barely 10 minutes away, feels magical. It is as if the monsoon went into a slumber at the sacred grove and woke up a bit too late. The weather feels cooler by a degree or two, birds chirp and flit from one branch to another, and the sunlight is heavily filtered by the dense foliage before it touches the ground. Under a leaf or a fallen twig, one can also spot earthworms wiggling their way through. The hustle and bustle of the town almost feels alien at Iringole.

The 25-acre sacred grove, one of the largest in Kerala, is home to 185 species of flowering plants, 95 species of butterflies, and 55 species of birds, as per a report by the Kerala Forest Research Institute (KFRI).

Sadly, sacred groves such as Iringole, which had more than 50 acres of area; Kammadam Kaavu at Bheemanadi village in Kasaragod, sprawling over 56 acres; Theyyottu Kaavu in Kannur, around 40 acres; and Thavidisseri Kaavu, around 50 acres at Peringome Vayakkara in Kannur, are fast losing ground in the State.

“During the 1950s, there were around 10,000 sacred groves in Kerala while at present the State has just around 1,200,” says N.C. Induchoodan, former Deputy Conservator of Forests, who has done extensive studies on sacred groves in Kerala.

Ecological role  

Sacred groves or kaavu are patches of forested land that are protected by beliefs based on religion or local folklore.  They are remnants of local forest types that previously covered an entire region, explains E. Unnikrishnan, environmental activist and the author of Utharakeralathile Vishudha Vanangal, a book on sacred groves across northern Kerala.

“The groves found in lowlands differ from those found in coastal areas. For example, Theyyottu Kaavu and Kammadam Kaavu in northern Kerala are remnants of lowland evergreen forests, whereas groves such as Edayilakkad Kaavu in Kasaragod supports flora and fauna found in coastal lands and Thekkumbad Kaavu in Kannur consists of mangrove forests,” says Mr. Unnikrishnan.

These green tracts of land often have water sources such as ponds or rivulets flowing or originating within them, which, other than recharging the groundwater plays a huge role in creating ecosystems that sustain rare flora and fauna.

A sacred grove in Kasaragod.

A sacred grove in Kasaragod. | Photo Credit: Thulasi Kakkat

A case in point is Kammadam Kaavu in Kasaragod, which has five brooks flowing through it and acts as a habitat for leeches that are otherwise found on forested grounds.

Another example is Ponnakudom Kaavu at Thevakkal in Ernakulam, home to rare flora such as Syzygium travancoricum (Vathamkollimaram), a medicinal plant, and Vateria indica (white dammar), a tree, the resin of which is used for making incense sticks, candles, and soaps. Both these are marked as threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

“Sacred groves form critical habitats that support a variety of ecological services. For instance, birds and snakes found inside groves act as predators for pests such as rats that destroy crops,” says T.V. Sajeev, Chief Scientist at KFRI.

Besides these, groves play a vital role in microclimate management, provision of clean air, enrichment of soil with vital nutrients, and are home to a variety of crop pollinators, he adds.

“Rare medicinal plants and wild varieties of plants such as nutmeg and black pepper can be found in sacred groves, thus helping in gene pool preservation,” says M. Rajendraprasad, senior scientist, Jawaharlal Nehru Tropical Botanic Garden and Research Institute, Palode, Thiruvananthapuram.

The pond at Kallil Bhagavathy Temple near Perumbavoor town in Ernakulam. Such waterbodies inside sacred groves play a crucial role in recharging groundwater. 

The pond at Kallil Bhagavathy Temple near Perumbavoor town in Ernakulam. Such waterbodies inside sacred groves play a crucial role in recharging groundwater.  | Photo Credit: Adarsh B. Pradeep


The prime reason for the destruction of sacred groves is the Sanskritisation of deities and the subsequent concretisation of the shrine. The forests surrounding sacred groves have become mere appendages to Aryan gods and are often sacrificed to construct concrete structures such as parking spaces, buildings, and auditoriums for modern temples.

“Many Dravidian gods have been Aryanised; what used to be Marutha, Madan, and Thampuran have now become Bhadrakali, Siva, and Vaidyanathan,” says Mr. Unnikrishnan.

Modernisation and destruction of forested lands can be more commonly observed in sacred groves south of Malappuram district; this general trend of decline in the extent of kaavu can be attributed to the withering away of beliefs in the local deity, he says.

Also read | Dance of the divine in sacred groves

At Kammadam Kaavu and Theyyotu Kaavu, there are densely forested areas where people are strictly forbidden, which is in contrast with what is seen even in Iringole Kaavu where people have been spotted roaming about even at odd hours.

A sacred grove that has undergone rapid modernisation is Kallil Bhagavathy Temple, around 10 km from Perumbavoor town. What was a Jain temple centuries ago is now dedicated to Goddess Durga and restricted to around 30 acres, of which nearly 15 acres have been converted to rubber and coconut plantations. Estimates suggest that there are still more than 80 species of flowering plants at the kaavu.

“Around 20 years back, the entire area was forested. There were foxes, rabbits, Asian palm civets, and monkeys. After we lost a lot of land to encroachment, we were forced to grow commercial plantations,” says K.C. Azhagan, an employee of the Kallil Pisharath Devaswom.  

Moreover, a considerable area of the grove has been converted into parking lots and stages for festivals. “The groves are seen as wastelands and chopped down to create facilities for the devotees,” says Mr. Unnikrishnan.  

“What we are witnessing is a loss of belief in the philosophy of sacred grove conservation,” says Dr. Induchoodan, and recollects how his grandmother used to scold him for pointing a finger towards a sacred grove; the belief was that it was disrespectful towards the deity. 

“Under the enormous pressure for land, the groves have been converted into commercial spaces,” he says.


With land becoming scarce and a highly valued asset, the property that is handed over to the next generation is mostly commercialised. With each generation, the parcel of land held by an individual decreases and those holding on to sacred groves find it a hindrance to commercial development. An astrologer is consulted, and a decision is made to perform kaavumaattam – shifting the deity away from the grove and symbolically installing  it elsewhere. 

“These rituals make it appear as if the deity has been pleased so that no one blames the practice. But the grove is lost forever,” says Mr. Unnikrishnan. “Many groves have withered away, and snake gods get symbolically shifted to temples such as Mannarasala in Haripad and Pambummekkatu in Thrissur,” he adds.

And those who decide to preserve the sanctity of the grove find it hard with lack of financial help and technical expertise.

One such grove is Thekkekara Kaavu near Valakom, Muvattupuzha, in Ernakulam district. It is a 1.5-acre virgin forest, which is believed to belong to Goddess Rakteshwari. 

“Let alone trees, we do not even use fallen twigs as they are considered as strands of hair of the Goddess. It is believed that she will unleash her wrath upon those who try to use her land for any other purpose,” says Sreejith M.N., member of the Medangaal Illam, the family that manages the sacred grove.

“With the nuclear family structure gaining prominence and the pressure for land on the rise, we may not be able to maintain the sacred grove as such,” he laments.

IFK study  

Due to the lack of comprehensive data on sacred groves across the State, the Forest department commissioned and funded a study that was carried out by the Institution of Foresters Kerala, a non-profit organisation consisting of serving and retired forest officials.

However, the study seems far from factual as at least four of the 10 large groves in Ernakulam listed out in the report do not possess any forested land. The study also goes on to list more than 10,500 sacred groves in Kerala, which seems distant from reality. 

Puthiyedam Sree Krishna Swamy Temple at Kanjoor and Valiyakavu Bhagavathi Temple at Kothamangalam, both in Ernakulam, though listed in the report as sacred groves with 1.5-acre and 1.9-acre land respectively, are full-fledged places of worship without any groves, but with offices and large parking lots.

Lesser-known sacred groves such as Mannadi Kaavu, which lies in a highly urbanised area and is just three-km from the Ernakulam Collectorate, must constantly battle the public perception of the area as patches of wasteland.

Iringole Kavu, one of the largest sacred groves in the State, near Perumbavoor town in Ernakulam.

Iringole Kavu, one of the largest sacred groves in the State, near Perumbavoor town in Ernakulam. | Photo Credit: Adarsh B. Pradeep

“We had more than 20 acres of forested land; it had been encroached upon by local people and for road work. Now people passing by in vehicles dump sacks of waste on the premises of the kaavu,” says Madhu S.R., member of the family trust that manages Mannadi Kaavu.

“It is said that mangroves, like kidneys of an organism, filter the water present in a region. Similarly, sacred groves are the lungs that purify the air,” says Mr. Unnikrishnan adding that ecological consciousness is the need of the hour.

“If one has, say, 20 cents of land, why not dedicate five cents for growing natural vegetation? The idea behind it is ecology; religion or beliefs could come later.”

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