Treasuringthe forest

When Ravi Derekar of Deria village in Uttara Kannada district asked me to pay my obeisance to a forest deity who protects their thick forests since time immemorial, I was intrigued by the story of forest deities.

Siddhanath, Payak, Mavula Devi are just a few deities worshipped in various village forests of the Uttara Kannada region. These forests are called vanarai locally.

Sacred groves are patches of undisturbed forest where trees and other vegetation thrive. Nobody is permitted to cut any tree or take away any kind of forest produce. However, in the past few decades, sacred groves are depleting because of the extraction of forest produce.
Jagalbet village, for instance, was known to have a very good sacred grove, home to rich flora and fauna. Today, though, it would be hard to spot wildlife here. But all is not lost. The locals still try hard to retain these sacred groves. Members of Kunabi tribe, Gowlis and many Maratha villages in the forests of  Karnataka, Goa and Maharashtra have traditional development strategies to conserve and manage natural resources. These strategies are in line with the traditional lifestyle of their societies.

In many parts of the Western Ghats, one or more species of plants or animals are protected as spiritual ancestors, certain species are conserved for rituals, and many patches of forests and water bodies remain untouched in the name of local deities.

Equally fascinating and significant has been the ancient tradition of conserving a patch of landscape or the whole landscape, as sacred. Forests, mountain peaks and hillocks, rivers and streambeds, ponds and grasslands are left untouched or their use strictly regulated, due to faith or fear associated with the local deity. In most sacred groves, the protecting institution may be the priest, a temple trust, or the community as a whole. The vanarai or sacred forest in Jagalbet was protected by a deity called Devachar, who is believed to a giant living god who not only protects the forests but also punishes villagers who break rules or beliefs. Sacred groves are identified by different local names in different parts of the Western Ghats — devarabana, devarakadu or nagabana in Karnataka; vanarai or devarai in Maharashtra.

However, in cases where there has been depletion of sacred groves, it is important that the right measures are taken. The local forest committees should be educated and allowed to manage forests in coordination with both forest and education departments. There is an urgent need to declare all sacred groves across the Western Ghats as heritage sites and take special care of these areas.