Sacred groves of the Western Ghats are shrinking, and their deities being Sanskritised

These traditionally housed local folk deities and involved folk traditions but this has changed now

December 23, 2017 04:30 pm | Updated December 24, 2017 08:18 am IST

A theyyam ritual inside a sacred grove in Kasaragod

A theyyam ritual inside a sacred grove in Kasaragod

His curved machete tucked into a wooden holder slung across his waist, Rudra Gowda leads the way through areca plantations and paddy fields. Our destination, tucked away in the forest near Hukli village in Karnataka’s Uttara Kannada district, is a tiger god’s lair. “Our huli devaru (tiger god) protects us,” says Gowda. “We do not know how old he is, but we have been worshipping him for a century at least.”

The jungle draws near. It is so dense, the trees seem to merge into each other. Footwear is not permitted. And we step in, barefoot. A wild world unfurls. The carpet of moist, darkened fallen leaves is surprisingly springy and soft. Racket-tailed drongos call in a loud symphony. Invisible cicadas compete with their relentless chirping. Forty-foot-tall evergreen trees blot out most of the light with their canopies.

We make our way down a steep slope. A stream gurgles over giant tree roots. On its bank a stone tiger — less than a foot tall — stands propped up in an unkempt clearing. Two coconuts, blackened by the monsoon, lie at its feet. Beside the stone is a smaller bell-metal figurine with exaggerated tiger-like features and a long tail, one paw raised in blessing over a little metal elephant.

“This is our huli devaru ,” says Gowda softly. “We have immense faith in him. We do not disturb him by collecting anything from his forest. If rules are broken he will visit the village, calling loudly.”

The huli devaru, which Gowda and his Kare Vokkaliga community revere, resides in a kan, or a sacred grove, — a forest patch dedicated to specific deities and protected by local communities. This practice of conserving forest patches in the name of faith is common across many parts of India, including the Western Ghats.

Animal and human

Here, sacred groves are believed to be at least two millennia old; they are called kaavu in Kerala, devaru kadu in Karnataka’s Kodagu district and devrai in Maharashtra. Deities can be animal or human: tigers, serpents, gaur, gods and goddesses, including Ayyappa and Durga. Trees in the Iringole grove in Kerala’s Ernakulam district, for instance, are considered sub-deities of the main goddess, Vanadurga (forest Durga).

A sacred grove in Alappuzha.

A sacred grove in Alappuzha.


“No harvesting of any resource is allowed here. A few years ago, an outsider felled some trees for his farm, but his agriculture did not do well. He soon succumbed to ill health,” says resident Manikandan P.U.

Most groves have similar stories steeped in superstition and myth. In north Malabar, the colourful and fierce Theyyam ritual is symbolic of the forest god, who comes once a year to bless the villagers in the kaavus of Kasargod, Kannur and Wayanad districts. Under this blanket of faith, there is a distinct acknowledgement of the services that these forests provide.

Goddess Chowdeshwari protects the four-acre Chowdi kan next to his house, says farmer Subbanna L. Hegde in Nilkunda village in Uttara Kannada. The kan is a treasure trove of medicinal plants, including sarpagandha (Indian snakeroot Rauvolfia serpentina ) and ekanayaka (a woody climber), which they harvest for common ailments, he says. The Kare Vokkaligas of Hukli also turn to the forests for medicine and have a nati vaidya (local physician), who has the right to harvest medicinal plants for local use. “This forest is home to the last swamp in the village, all others have been encroached by settlers,” says Hegde.

“The swamp ensures that water levels are maintained in wells and streams; our areca and paddy fields depend on this. So we will not let anything happen to this kan .” The nearly-one-acre Devakulangara kaavu that Mohanan Pilla’s family has been tending to for generations, near Azheekal village in Kerala’s Kollam district, has two ponds in it, one of which is deep and never runs out of water, he claims.

In 2015, scientists at the Centre for Ecological Sciences in Bengaluru’s Indian Institute of Science studied water dynamics near a sacred grove that had primeval vegetation (such as old evergreen trees), and a disturbed, heavily-extracted non-sacred forest in northern Karnataka. They found that farmers in valleys downhill of the grove could cultivate water-demanding plantation crops like areca nut, while farmers near the non-sacred forest could cultivate only monsoon-fed paddy. “Open wells in houses near the grove had consistently higher water levels than those near disturbed forest,” says M.D. Subash Chandran, one of the authors of the study.

Kaavu theendiya kulam vattum — If you desecrate the sacred grove, ponds will dry up,” says an old Malayalam adage. “These are sacred-cum-safety forests,” says Chandran. “As lands began being cleared for agriculture, people realised that some patches needed to be left untouched. Sacred groves are museums of Indian cultural and ecological heritage.”

Apart from functions including carbon storage, nutrient recycling and soil conservation, these relic forests are also biodiversity-rich. In north Karnataka, some sacred groves are home to Myristica swamps, a threatened ecosystem. Deep in a swamp in the Chowdi kan , we spot one young tree of the critically endangered Semecarpus kathlekanensis . Discovered only in 2000 in Kathlekan (a kan in Uttara Kannada), less than 150 individual trees have been recorded in the wild so far.

A new genus and species of climbing legume, Kunstleria keralensis was also discovered in a sacred grove in Kerala. The critically endangered tree Syzygium travancoricum has now been discovered in kans too.

In Kodagu, sacred groves are crucial corridors for wildlife. Kathlekan is home to the largest population of the critically endangered lion-tailed macaque in southern India. Leopards and king cobras are common near Chowdi kan . Hegde says he has even spotted the endangered Indian pangolin here. Studies in Kodagu have shown that large groves are refuges for bees. Here, the giant Asian honeybee, which nests in these forests, is the main pollinator of coffee, the backbone of the Kodagu economy.

A lifetime to study

There are no comprehensive studies of the area under sacred groves across the Western Ghats. “There are hundreds of groves which have not been documented at all, it will take a lifetime to study them,” says Chandran. “Many tribal communities consider areas within forests to be sacred, but these are not even acknowledged as sacred groves.”

A sacred grove in Alappuzha.

A sacred grove in Alappuzha.


In 2014, researchers who set out to update the current status of documented groves in Kodagu found that many groves had shrunk in size. More than two-thirds of the smaller groves were not forested or could not be located.

Hoping to fill some gaps in the understanding of Kerala’s groves, the Institute of Foresters Kerala has set about mapping the locations of each grove, determining its ownership and inventorising tree species.

Preliminary results from the ongoing study indicate that 6,897 groves exist in six districts alone, says M.S. Nair, retired Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, who leads the project.

Sinu P.A., assistant professor at the Central University of Kerala, who studies biodiversity and socio-cultural norms in these forest fragments says that many family owned groves have been destroyed by the “lack of faith in old cultural beliefs, lores and myths among the youth, and the migration of outsiders to the neighbourhood who do not understand the cultural significance of groves.”

Marketable rituals

But a study that examined perceptions of grove-owners in Kerala’s Thrissur district in 2016 found that the religious perceptions that maintained sacred groves for centuries, “now provide both justifications and marketable rituals for cutting them down.”

These include accepted rituals such as kaavumaattam (shifting the deity to another location in the owner’s garden, where the grove is symbolically represented by a single tree); punaprathishtta (which restricts the deity to a single spot in the grove so that the rest can be felled) and ozhippikkal (expelling the deity to a man-made temple elsewhere).

Sacred groves traditionally housed local folk deities and involved folk traditions — including animal sacrifice — but this has changed now. A ‘Sanskritisation’ is evident, says Chandran. “The Karikan Amma (in the Karikan sacred grove near Honnavar) has now become Karikan Parameshwari,” he says. “Corporate gods have amalgamated all the folk gods.”

A sacred grove in Alappuzha.

A sacred grove in Alappuzha.


Several small shrines in Kodagu and Maharashtra are transforming into elaborate temples and roads are laid inside groves so devotees can be taken right up to the temples. Designated parking areas are not uncommon. In Kerala, the Mannarshala temple offers parking within its compound for at least 200 four-wheelers. An estimated 20,000 devotees offer prayers at the grove every week.

“The forests seem to be becoming less important than the temple within it,” says Anand M. Osuri, research associate with the Nature Conservation Foundation, who studied attitudes towards groves in Kodagu. During his research in Kodagu, when Osuri asked locals if reduction in area or conversion of dense forest into open, disturbed ones affect the cultural importance of a grove, only 14% of the respondents replied in the affirmative. “It is important to understand what this means for conservation,” he says.

Yet, deep in the forests, communities hold on to their beliefs. Kare Vokkaligas continue to value the forests as much as the gods who live in them. As we head back from huli devarukan , Gowda points to the network of thick tree roots snaking through the leaf-strewn forest floor. “These roots are as vital as the veins in our body,” he says.

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