In God's Garden

This place is inviolate, said the little girl who was our guide of her forest village Supegaon. It was noon in the middle of summer. We were forbid from eating any karvanda once we crossed into the boundary created by tall trees along the edge of browning fields. The girl informed us that we have entered the God’s abode – locally called devrai – and everything was silent save for the leaves that crumbled under our feet. The ambiance of this place was cooler than the fields that surrounded it, and we were silent not out of choice but by an involuntary hush that settled upon us. I’ve still not come to explain the effect devrai’s have on people. Perhaps it is psychological, perhaps just natural. But the fact rooted in the keepers of the devrai is that the silence is because of the Gods that dwell here: the protectors of the village, and the belief is shared almost uniformly throughout India. Ecologists today call it sacred groves, the most ancient community-based conservation initiative, and it is the most aesthetic, untouched – and inviolate – garden ever recognized by man.
The lush sacred groves as seen from the barren fields
Sacred groves are locally called by various names as one traverses the length and breadth of India. They are called Gumpa in Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim; Than or Madaico in Assam; Sarna or Devlas in Chattisgarh; Devkot, Matikot, or Devsthali in Madhya Pradesh; Devrai in Maharashtra; Kovil Kadu in Tamil Nadu; and Garamthan, Harithan, or Sabitrithan in West Bengal. According to Pandey & Rao (2002), sacred groves are of three distinct types – traditional sacred groves where a village deity resides, such as a tree spirit; temple groves where a temple rests in a forest area, and groves around burial or cremation grounds.

We were exploring a sacred grove in Maharashtra, near Phansad Wildlife Sanctuary, for its biodiversity. From a tiny wasp that rested under a leaf to the Collared Scops Owl that shyly gazed at us from its hollow, everyone living here was at home, perhaps because they were God’s beloved guests, but more so because they were in the only nearest wooded area unscathed by human activity. The sacred groves are the original landscapes of an area now locked from all sides by a sea of agricultural fields. They form a pool of biodiversity richer than the surroundings.
A sacred grove temple in Supegaon near Phansad Wildlife Sanctuary
A small temple is usually built around a chosen sacred rock or a community of rocks with an interesting history, and sometimes stone-carved idols of the monkey-god Hanuman crushing the devil under its foot or the idol of the calm Lord Ganesha or Shankar rests by the shade of a tree. These areas are therefore inviolate, and nothing from fruits or flowers to fallen leaves and wood can be brought from it without angering the gods. In other words, a sacred grove is where conservation gets the undivided attention of God.
One of the shrines in the sacred grove of Revandi village, Sindhudurg
This simple belief has a profound impact on the entire nature conservation scenario of India. Over 10,192 sacred groves have been officially recorded by researchers (Khan et al 2008), with experts estimating the actual number between 1,00,000 to 1,50,000 (Malhotra 1998, Deb & Malhotra 2001). India is probably the only country to dedicate so many forest pockets to the Gods. These Gods, according to the belief, control the forces of nature; protecting the village from flood and drought, from plague and famine. This therefore signifies not only the strong religious bond with one’s culture, but also a strong bond with nature by realizing the ecological significance of forests through spiritual ways.
The sacred grove of Revandi is a sanctuary of many giants
Scientists today identify sacred groves for their intrinsic values as a rich gene pool, often amidst a pool of monocultures growing all about it. It serves as a respite for a number of animals from bees to leopards. It forms a sanctuary for pollinators which pollinate our crops and trees, and for other animals such as snakes that primarily feed on animals such as rats which are pests in our agricultural fields. It channels rain, restores groundwater, and acts as a breathing lung. It is the only resilient entity in many of the regions where genetic diversity is dominated by crops susceptible to diseases. And there are immeasurable extrinsic values to sacred groves, too.
The Adavali sacred grove rests alongside Adavali river in Sindhudurg, and has a large temple surrounded by ancient Arjuna
trees that stand as sentinels between the river and the temple.
Simply put, an extrinsic value is said to be a value of something for the sake of something else. The extrinsic value of sacred groves for us is a combined value of its psychological impact on us. It keeps us in touch with our ethnic heritage, inculcates respect for forests out of respect for Gods. Researchers from University of Michigan and the University of Edinburgh support the idea that spending time in green spaces reduces stress and brain fatigue (Reynonds, 2013; Hamon, 2008). Several researchers have proven the calming effect of nature on us, and have even suggested regular interaction with nature with a simple walk in the garden. Recognizing both these intrinsic and extrinsic values of sacred groves centuries ago is therefore worthy of praise.
The sacred grove of Kurne village in Ratnagiri is guarded by a hollow giant
“A stream of clear waters emerges from the dense thickets of this hill and skirts around to vanish deeper still into other thickets. We decided to stand here, still, absorbing the shy and curious creatures of the sacred forest. There’s a lone Red-vented Bulbul singing in the valley, a Black-hooded Oriole calling in front of us, a gang of Flowerpeckers and Sunbirds dancing amongst the boughs of a large mango tree. Under its shade, a little butterfly and a small wasp sip on nectar.
The grand old tree with a hollow is very old, we’re told. It was to be felled to make a way towards the temple, but some goodhearted soul let it live, and now it stands with its large arm forming an arch over the entrance to this sacred grove. If the gods dwell, they sure dwell here.” – My experience in the sacred grove of Kurne, written in 2012.
And yet, we know very little about the existence of sacred groves. Perhaps we have outgrown our ancient heritage. One of the crucial incidents for losing touch with the God’s gardens was the introduction of urban gardens in India: those thinly trimmed grasses surrounded by an artificially shaped hedge, and exotic trees of little value to bees and birds. Slowly, these well-managed areas took over our perception of gardens, and although they contributed a little intrinsic and extrinsic value to nature, they were more appreciated for their aesthetic values.
Erythrina indica adorns its coral flowers along the edge of the sacred grove of Supegaon village
One of India’s gifted naturalists, Mr. Madhaviah Krishnan (1912 – 1996), had expressed his views concerning the immaculate sterile gardens of our cities as “hideous and patent symmetry”, in an essay in a weekly column “Country Notebook” in The Statesman, Calcutta, in 1954. He wrote:

“If I had a five acre plot of outlying cultivation as so many ryots have, a stony field at the foot of a hill or the edge of the scrub that would gradually repay the effort of reclamation, I would not make the effort. I would abandon my field to weeds and shrubs, even help it actively to run wild, and count myself as much a patriot as the man who, by sustained toil, adds it on to the struggling agriculture of our grain-hungry country.
And if I lived in a mansion set in an immaculate garden, with lawns and smooth paths and every annual in place, or if I were in charge of a spotless city park laid out in a geometrical pattern and with ornamental trees in rows - why, then too I would let my garden or park run wild, in part at least, and encourage thick bushes festooned with greedy creepers and the rank undergrowth.
I would do these things from no sense of cussedness or ennui, but because in a small way I would be contributing towards a less sterile life.”
Although no mention of sacred groves is made in his article, I can see how clearly Mr. M Krishnan compared the idea of today’s gardens with the gardens of our past – the sacred groves, the gardens which were traditionally wild.
One of the streams that emerges from sacred grove of Kurne
Today, the number of recorded sacred groves reaches just over 10,000, and although no studies have been undertaken to assess the rise or fall in their numbers, it is for anyone’s guess that this number has only reduced. Those that stand, remain at the mercy of the Gods, and of the belief firmly rooted in the locals protecting this paradise. Pandey and Rao (2002) mention that the adoption of unclaimed lands as revenue lands under the government and the decay of traditional knowledge with the advent of modern schools, could perhaps be the reasons for the slow death of India’s sacred groves. How long would they stand is only a matter of time.
A stone-carved idol of Lord Ganesha greets us on the way to Sindola Fort.
I was surprised to see fresh flowers and a coin kept by the feet of the idol so early in the morning.
It is time to recall the wild heritage of our country, to appreciate and learn from the conservation initiatives of our ancestors, and to live beside the wilderness as we once did. Nowhere else but in the sacred groves of Meghalaya will you find living bridges: bridges formed using the roots of ancient trees by the Khasi tribe, and nowhere else but in these groves will you find the last remaining fragments of our wilderness that are not managed but set free, and the last strand keeping India’s natural heritage bound to its cultural heritage.

Further reading:
Malhotra, K. C. 1998. Anthropological dimensions of sacred groves in India: an overview. Pp 423-438. In: Ramakrishnan, P. S. Saxena, K.G and Chandrashekhara, U.M. (Editors) Conserving the Sacred for Biodiversity Management. UNESCO and Oxford-IBH Publishing, New Delhi.
Deb, D. and Malhotra K. C. 2011. Conservation ethos in Local Traditions: The West Bengal Heritage. Society of Natural Resources 14(8): 711-724.
Pandey, Amitabh; Rao, P. Venkata. 2002. Impact of globalization on culture of sacred groves: a revival of common, but decay of the traditional institution. In: The Commons in an Age of Globalisation, the Ninth Conference of the International Association of the Study of Common Property.
Khan, M. L., Khumbongmayum, Ashalata Devi, Tripathi, R. S. 2008. The sacred groves and their significance in conserving biodiversity an overview. In: International Journal of Ecology and Environmental Sciences 34(3): 277-291.
Krishnan, M. 1954. Non-reclamation. In: The Sunday Statesman.
Reynolds, Gretchen. 2013. More research on the calming effect of being among the trees. In: The New York Times. Retrieved from: http://actrees.org/news/trees-in-the-news/research/more-research-on-the-calming-effect-of-being-among-the-trees/
Hamon, Amanda C. 2008. How nature soothes: involuntary attention gives your brain a break. In: Michigan Live. Retrieved from: http://www.mlive.com/living/ann-arbor/index.ssf/2008/12/how_nature_soothes_involuntary.html

By the campfire

Every season is marked by an event or a phenomenon that defines that season, and is so skillfully woven onto a timeline that it forms a periodic rhythm – the beauty of which lies in a meshwork of colours, scents, songs, and something that cannot be seen, smelled, or heard – a purpose, which I think comes close to what we humans call love. The purpose is but the only force that drives every plant or animal to display colours, release pheromones, and sing melodies.

What’s special about man is perhaps his way of appreciating nature’s mysteries and sharing it with others of his kind, and not in building bridges and airplanes; those feats were long conquered by nature.

What’s special is this: no bird can sing of an autumn sunrise or of sound of the crashing waves, although we and they equally feel it, and our lives depend upon it. Our greatest strength perhaps lies in understanding what gave birth to us, and to them – indeed to all of us – and in respecting that wisdom than manipulating it for devious purposes.

Man’s mark on human evolution, and the history of our entire planet, has so far been earthshaking. What creature would evolve to be as this? If there is a God, why would God create such a creature? If there is no God, why would nature carve a pathway for the evolution of such a creature, only to destroy itself in its pursuits?

And yet I carry a pessimist’s optimism, that man has a beautiful brain – as beautiful as an orchid or a bird of paradise, or a honeybee or a tiger, because, given a choice, he can understand that life is more than just man-made illusions. There are regions worth getting lost in to be found, should you decide to come out of the illusions which pretend to protect us. How else are we different with our beautiful brains, then, from the scorpion wielding a sting to hunt, or the ruminant with a specialized stomach?

I spent a considerable amount of time in the countryside of Kanha Tiger Reserve this year, more amongst people who live with the forests than without, and as I sit by the campfire at the end of the year, I reflect upon the seasons that went by and what the seasons that follow will bring. I could capture some moments in pictures which I share here, some in writing, but most remain in my heart.
January | A mother and her daughter
Kanha Tiger Reserve
Winter is the season when the young are old enough but still too young to leave their mother’s side. I observed this Chital (Axis axis) fawn embrace its mother, and the doe, so very kindly, acknowledged by preening its neck one cold January morning.
January | The eyes that pity humanity
Kanha Tiger Reserve
Gondus was a Collared Scops Owl (Otus lettia) fledgling rescued from local hunters and taken care of for several days until he succumbed to its wounds from a broken wing. Its mother, Venus, was cared for until she could defend herself and was released back into the wild. Owls are heavily hunted in India for preposterous superstitious reasons.
February | Fields of gold
Kanha Tiger Reserve
While man digs for gold and diamonds underground, he so ignorantly ignores the treasure that lies in front – that which gives him life – the serenity of nature. Most pristine forests today rest over ores and oilfields, their very existence their doom.
February | A single antlered Barasingha
Kanha Tiger Reserve
The Hard Ground Barasingha (Cervus duvaucelii branderi), famed for its mighty branched antlers, is a subspecies found only in Kanha, and was driven to extinction because of rampant hunting. Thanks to stringent conservation measures, it is one of the success stories of India’s conservation movement. This stag probably lost an antler in a fight with another.
March | A herd of Barasingha against mighty Sal forests
Kanha Tiger Reserve
Barasingha move in herds dominated by a stag and include several females and fawns, and young bucks. The meadows of Kanha eclipsed by the giant Sal trees are the finest habitats for these vulnerable species of deer.
March | Flames of Palash
Kanha Tiger Reserve
Palash (Butea monosperma) is one of the few trees to give colour to an otherwise drab monochrome of the summer of the Central Indian Highlands. A set of flowers resembling oil lamps hangs from the lower branch along a perennial waterhole.
April | Spring of Kusum
Kanha Tiger Reserve
Kusum (Schleichera oleosa) explodes in warm colours by the end of March as it sheds leaves, and just as suddenly springs into shades of deepest reds as new leaves sprout. The spring of Kusum emblazes the forests of Central India during summer, and the sight of seeing one ablaze in the summer greens of Sal is a sight for sore eyes.
April | The scorpion hunter
Kanha Tiger Reserve
Weaver Ants (Oecophylla smargdina) are primarily arboreal ants, making nests on trees using leaves and tending to bugs that secret honeydew, but they are also fierce fighters and opportunists, capable of taking down a number of living things they can empower, including this bark scorpion.
May | The Chital congregation
Kanha Tiger Reserve
As temperatures soar over forty degrees and waterholes shrink, animals start flocking together and can be seen in huge congregations, a scene reminiscent of mighty migrations of African and American continents. A herd of Chital over 114 individuals strong trod over this hillock looking for sparse green grass one summer evening.
May | A graceful fight
Kanha Tiger Reserve
Male Indian Rat Snakes (Ptyas mucosa) engage in territorial fights during 
summer months when humidity slowly begins to increase, in preparation to secure 
an area to attract a mate and offer her a safe haven to lay eggs. This fight is 
often misinterpreted as courting pairs, and some people believe that it is a Dhamin 
(Indian Rat Snake) mating with a Nag (Cobra), and that the offspring of these are deadlier.
June | The might of Gaur
Kanha Tiger Reserve
Gaur (Bos gaurus) is the largest of Bovids of India, and a herd of these gentle giants is a sight to see. We came across a large herd of cows, calves, and young bulls in early June when the rains had cleared the dust off leaves, led by this giant bull with a wall of muscle, bearing scars on his face from many a battle.
June | Pseudoscorpions of Kanha
Kanha Tiger Reserve
There are many secrets the jungle holds beside the most magnificent, and most of these secrets lie hidden. Pseudoscorpions are one of the least known Arachnids and best kept secrets of Kanha that have found their own niche amongst the tigers and spiders, both supreme predators of their respective niche.
July | A courting pair of Millipedes
Kanha Tiger Reserve
Millipedes, although fairly common throughout the world, are one of the least appreciated groups of organisms, and play a vital role in the undergrowth. Their courtship is nowhere short of romantic. Here, a Polydesmid male gently climbs and holds a female, and using his modified pair of legs called gonopods, caresses the female in a graceful embrace.
July | Light of the lady Firefly
Kanha Tiger Reserve
Females in some species of Firefly (Family Lampyridae) retain their larval stage after maturity and attract males by flashing a fluorescent bottom. Large females such as the one coiled up in defense are a common sight on Kanha’s forest floor during monsoon months.
August | Kaans
Kanha Tiger Reserve
If there is one that defines the Central Indian Highlands, 
one that speaks of changing seasons, 
one that is graceful in its stature and inflorescence, 
and one of use to mankind in building homes, 
it is naught but Kaans (Saccharum spontaneum).
August | The mimicking assassin
Kanha Tiger Reserve
The Crab Spider, Amyciaea cf forticeps is one of the most specialized of spiders that mimic ants, 
exhibiting characters so cunningly of the Weaver Ants. What’s puzzling about its mimicry is 
that most predators mimic their model from head-to-tail, and those susceptible to 
predation usually mimic from tail-to-head (in that order) so that the tail-end resembles a head. 
Amyciaea, a predator, uses the tail-to-head mimicry, which is uncommon for a predator. 
In this picture, a Phoerid fly shares the hunt.
September | On the other side of web
Pench Tiger Reserve
Spiders of Central India are diverse in their size, shape, colour, and methods of hunting. 
The most conspicuous are the Giant Wood Spiders (Nephila pilipes) that adorn these 
ancient woods with their large orb-webs. A male can be seen trying to court 
with a female relishing upon a honeybee she caught on the other side of her web.
September | A young Indian Cobra
Kanha Tiger Reserve
One of the most common venomous snakes of Kanha is the Indian Cobra (Naja naja), also called the Spectacled Cobra. This young fellow sought shelter in a motorbike in the morning after sensing movement of people around, and was rescued from it after a whole forty-five minutes of searching.
October | Sunrise over Kanha
Kanha Tiger Reserve
The essence of sunrise or a sunset lies in simply watching it, no matter where you watch it from. Seeing the sun rise over the vast forests of Kanha creates an illusion of what I call the Endless Forest Effect. This landscape however is intermingled with villages, fields, pasture lands, and roads, waiting to encroach through the network of trees.
October | Marking her scent
Kanha Tiger Reserve
To see a tiger is to see everything an ecosystem stands for. 
Very rightly the epitome of an ecosystem, tigers are now more of an epitome of management. 
This beautiful Babathenga Mada tigress loitered around the famous Babathenga waterhole, 
marked her scent on one of the Sal trees, and vanished into the thickets, 
her call reverberating through our hearts long after she had vanished.
November | Trail of a Common Tiger butterfly
Kanha Tiger Reserve
The namesake of the Tiger, Common Tiger, Danaus genutia, also called Striped Tiger, nonchalantly flaps its wings to touch-base with one of the last flowering Crotalaria shrubs before the onset of the cold winter months.
November | A tangled trap
Kanha Tiger Reserve
The entirety of this web of a Pholcid spider contained tens of mosquitoes, a part of this in the photograph shows mosquitoes in the genus Aedes and Anopheles, both carriers of malaria, and several midges, craneflies, and a planthopper fallen prey to the spider. Kanha’s southern region is rife with malaria, and spider-webs serve as efficient traps for mosquitoes. In this picture, two Milichiid flies feast on the remains.
December | The dancing grass
Kanha Tiger Reserve
By the end of the year almost all the plants that grew through monsoon have produced seeds. During the cold and dry season of winter, they ripen and are ready to disperse. Some grasses, such as Heteropogon contortus, locally called Sukda Ghaas (in picture), rely on winds and sporadic rains to unfurl their seeds and be ready to latch onto any passing animal. A few drops of water send this bunch of seeds tangled by their awn into a spin, unraveling themselves as they dance.
December | A winter sunset
Kanha Tiger Reserve
My window offers a decent view of the sun setting over a crowded treeline. Every evening casts new shapes and colours, and performs sunset displays each different than the previous. Winters offer the best spectacle during the setting sun, and are a fine ending to a fine year, but also a fine prelude for what’s to come. The year – if it may end, if it should end – should always end with a spectacular sunset. 
I wish you all a very Happy New Year!