Sacred sites of Bengaluru sanctuaries for biodiversity

Sacred sites of Bengaluru sanctuaries for biodiversity

Plant life flourishes in Bull Temple at basavanagudi in Bengaluru. Photo Grace Hauck.

As more and more trees fall to Metro tracks each day, some of the city’s greatest bio-cultural treasures remain guarded in oft-overlooked refuges — Bengaluru’s sacred temples and kattes (platforms around sacred trees). The native species and urban wildlife flourish at these sacred places.

According to a study published in the journal Urban Forestry and Urban Greening this past April, three scientists investigated the biodiversity of 69 sacred Hindu sites — from the open-air shrines on Kamaraj Road and JP Nagar Main Road, to larger sites like Halasuru Someshwara and Kaadu Malleshwara Temples. The study, entitled “Sacred sites as habitats of culturally important plant species in an Indian megacity,” was conducted between March and May of 2014 by Divya Gopala, Moritz von der Lippea and Ingo Kowarika of Technical University of Berlin.

The researchers encountered 121 different species, including native, non-native, spontaneous, or cultivated trees, shrubs and herbs. Unlike much of the non-native — sometimes invasive — greenery around Bengaluru, plant life of sacred sites is majority native (69%), more closely resembling that of non-urban forests and groves. Moreover, the researchers discovered that 89% of all the species studied were “culturally significant”, suggesting religious associations, medicinal uses and ornamental value.

The iconic peepal (Ficus religiosa) and neem (Azadirachta indica) trees were the most frequently occurring species at all the sites. “These two species have been worshipped since ancient times. Tree worship pre-dates temple worship. In fact, the earliest temples are believed to be rough stone carvings placed below sacred trees,” Divya said, adding, “In ancient times both peepal and neem trees were used to treat ailments. This healing ability of species made them magical, hence sacred.”

At the Bull Temple in Basavanagudi, greenery abounds: peepal trees rise above kattes at the front gate, and neem trees surround the walls of the temple. “We worship the trees,” Anant, who works at Bull Temple, told DH. Compared to public parks and non-sacred green spaces, where visitors might not interact with plant life, sacred sites may encourage practices such as watering plants, offering milk, and more.

Harini Nagendra, a professor at Azim Premji University who recently authored a book on the history of nature in Bengaluru, commended the study: “We think of biodiversity as existing in iconic and obvious locations, such as parks and botanical gardens. But this article tells us how biodiversity flourishes in the most every day yet special of locations.”