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