“The breakdown of the joint family system spelt doom for Kerala’s sacred groves,” says Kannan CS Warrier, PhD.
An award-winning scientist at the Institute of Forest Genetics and Tree Breeding, Coimbatore, Warrier was recently conferred the National Award of excellence for outstanding research in forestry, including conservation of endangered sacred groves in the Alappuzha district of Kerala.
Sacred groves, also called kavu in Malayalam, are remnants of natural forests, seen on the premises of Hindu ancestral homes (tharavaad ). A portion of the land is assigned to house serpent god or Bhagavathi, Yakshi or Ayyappan.
“At the sacred groves in Alappuzha, there are many as 600 diverse species of plants in less than one square kilometre area. At the Silent Valley National Park, spread across 90 square kilometres, around 900 species of flowering plants have only been reported. That is the biodiversity potential of the groves,” adds Warrier.
The groves are treasure houses of rare species, and medicinal and economically important plants. Felling trees from these lands is considered taboo. “The groves are looked after by joint families who fear the wrath of the resident god. Emergence of nuclear families led to construction of new houses in place of ancestral homes, leading to their destruction,” he says.
Warrier made several personal visits and enumerated 1128 sacred groves in Alappuzha. His ancestral house at Haripad there has three of them. “The ponds in groves are a mini watershed, support an ecosystem, and recharge the water table. Wells in the surrounding areas never dry up.”
- The award is constituted by the Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education, the apex body for forestry research in India.
- Warrier has won the Kalaprathibha Award of the Kerala Agricultural University for five years
- He is also a recipient of Rolla S Rao Award constituted by the Indian Association of Angiosperm Taxonomy for the best research work in biodiversity conservation in India
- Warrier is also a musician. His classical composition Prakruthi Vandanam, an invocation on nature, based on Yajur Veda, sung by himself was released recently for the Ministry of Environment Forest and Climate Change
- He has composed music for the official theme song called Kadarivu (sung by the renowned playback singer P. Jayachandran) of the Kerala Forests and Wildlife Department
A bio-diversity assessment of the groves is important, says Warrier. “ It helps to know the soil’s potential and the kind of tree species it supports. You can easily grow a forest in the adjoining area. I have planted Neermaruthu , Chennelli , jackfruit trees, chanthanam , raktha chanthanam and more at the land next to my ancestral house to enrich the grove and facilitate more species to come up naturally.”
In India, there are over a lakh sacred groves across different states. “They go by different names like koyil kaadu in Tamil, oran s in Rajasthan, devara kaadu in Karnataka, and serna s in Madhya Pradesh. In Himachal Pradesh, people dust their clothes off when they cross the groves to ensure that they leave everything behind. Such religious beliefs strengthen protection measures. Just like the way we protect monuments like the Taj and charismatic animals like the tiger, we have to protect ancient sacred groves. They are a gene pool of critically endangered plant species.”
The award also recognises his research on Casuarina (savukku) trees.
Warrier has released three productive salt-tolerant clones of the casuarina tree, that are suitable for sodic soils for the first time in the country. The research is significant as over 6.73 million hectares of salt-affected lands exist in India.
“India is the largest planter of casuarina in the world. The tree pulp goes into the paper-making industry. Casuarina stems find use as fabrication material in scaffolding work, and are also used to safeguard banana plantations from wind. We came up with clones after 20 years of research,” he explains.
He is also working on clones of crook-free poovarasu (portia) trees. “It is referred to as the poor man’s teak: a big boon to the farmer.”
Warrier has given over 100 lectures on environment. He holds international webinars on sacred groves. “Dr C Kuhikannan, director of Institute of Forest Genetics and Tree Breeding, mentored my research. Some have destroyed the trees for money. In some places, only the idols were left behind. But, an old woman, Devaki Amma in Kayamkulam converted acres of her land into a man-made forest,” he says. “There is hope.”