Once found in plenty across the country, sacred groves have shrunk in many places due to rampant encroachments, the spread of invasive species, and unfettered human interference.
“We had a lot of sacred groves, not only in south India, but also in the northeast,” notes S. Theodore Baskaran, a well-known conservationist and former trustee of World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) India. “But many of them have been destroyed. Only a few are left, and these must be protected,” he says.
In Tamil Nadu’s arid northern Villupuram region, the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR & CE) Department, which administers 1,500 temples in the Villupuram and Kallakurichi districts, has embarked on a project to protect these forest patches by recreating sacred groves. Along with nature enthusiasts and volunteers, the Department has now launched a campaign to maintain and protect these fragile ecosystems, which are vestiges of the past and recreate them on temple lands.
“Every temple has a Sthala Vriksham (sacred plant) and that denotes the importance given for plants and trees in the ancient days. A lot of these forest patches are found in Villupuram, Cuddalore, Puducherry, and the Coromandel Coast. While they are being protected in a few temples, the groves have been shrinking in size in others due to anthropogenic activities and the need is to protect them,” a senior official of the HR and CE told The Hindu.
The campaign began recently with the distribution and plantation of saplings at the Sri Manjaneeswarar Ayyanar temple at Kilputhupattu near Marakkanam in Villupuram district. Out of 110 acres of land owned by the temple, 35 acres are sacred groves.
The saplings were collected from Uyir Moochu, a nursery of the Indigenous Biodiversity Foundation (IBF), a Puducherry-based non-profit organisation near Morattandi in Villupuram district.
“Ayyanar temples are very important vestiges and relics of Jainism. Ayyanar, Karuppusamy, and Muniandi were part of the Jain pattern of gods. Ayyanar was very important in the pantheon of Jains. Though there are a lot of debates over this, it was part of Jainism,” points out Mr. Baskaran.
“A mapping exercise identified as many as 115 plant species including medicinal plants in the sacred groves in Kilputhupattu. The temple has around 110 acres of land and the idea was to phase out invasive species like eucalyptus and replace them with native species found on the Coromandel coast,” an official in the HR and CE Department explains.
According to the Environmental Information System (ENVIS), Puducherry, there are 163 sacred groves on the Marakkanam-Puducherry-Cuddalore stretch. A study on 15 sample groves reported 252 plant species belonging to 176 genera, 62 families, 136 taxa and six lianas.
Apart from the rich species diversity, the groves also host species of some of the last remaining repositories of critically endangered Tropical Dry Evergreen Forests (TDEFs). IBF has identified 88 rare, endemic and near-threatened plant species found in TDEFs for conservation.
Some of the native species of trees found in the sacred grove in Kilputhupattu include Kaatu Pinnai ( Garceniaspicata), Karungali ( Diospyros ebenum), Sokkalai ( Aglaia elaeagnoidea), Vaalsura ( Walsura trifoliolata), Veera Maram ( Drypetes sepiaria), Kaatu Naarthai ( Pamburus missionis), Kaatu Elumichai ( Atalantia monophylla), Netti ( Polyalthia suberosa) and Kanu Pala ( Manilkara hexandra).
“At Kilputhupattu, the HR and CE Department has put in place restrictions to protect the groves. People don’t wear footwear and during festivities, even a twig is left untouched. The locals bring their own twigs to make Pongal and no wood is taken from the sacred groves for fuel,” an official says.
Mr. Theodore Baskaran adds, “Kilputhupattu is a unique sacred grove and needs to be protected. When I last visited the Kilputhupattu temple before the pandemic, it was used as a dumping ground for garbage, and no one took care of it. I wrote to the Department and brought this to their notice. I am now happy that they are taking this initiative,” he says.
“We travelled the length and breadth of the Coromandel coast over the last one-and-a-half years and collected seeds of over 80 rare, endemic and endangered species found in sacred groves and Tropical Dry Evergreen Forests (TDEF) in the Eastern Ghats,” says S. Vimalraj, a naturalist who is part of the initiative. “The germination of species found in sacred groves is very slow and the trees grow on their own. The Uyir Moochu nursery is purely a conservation initiative, and the idea is to increase the forest cover in the State,” he added.
According to IBF founder K. Raman, the focus is on recreating sacred groves as well as small patches of temple lands, which have a rewilding potential. “The initiative at Kilputhupattu is an example of good conservation practice. The groves remained untouched so far due to religious beliefs and support several plant and animal species,” he says.
“We will be working with the HR and CE Department to strengthen the bond that the local communities shared with the sacred groves and ensure their involvement in the conservation plan,” he adds.