Do not disturb, anymore

Whispering leaves greet me and wildflowers enthrall me as I walk through the forest. I look up in wonder at the wild pepper vines clinging to the enormous trees. A pied hornbill flies overhead giving a warning screech. A large beetle slithers up a tree festooned with lianas. I take a deep breath of the scented air and fail to notice a little leech stuck to my toe. “He’ll fall off when he has gorged on enough blood,” reassures our guide, Suresh. The faint trail is now blocked by a fallen tree, which might have been lying there for years. I step over it with utmost care. For, I’m in a devara kaan/kaadu/ jataka vana/nagavana or sacred grove in Uttara Kannada, where nothing is ever disturbed, not even a dead tree.

Situation now

The Western Ghats, one of the sensitive biodiversity hotspots on earth containing more than a third of India’s total flora, is a treasure house of amphibians and other creatures, some that still await discovery.

Since time immemorial, the people of the region have coexisted with nature. But now, market forces are changing their lifestyle due to which the fragile ecology of the region is endangered.

This has led to the depletion of natural resources, and drought, which was unheard of here some years ago, is frequent. 

So, a ray of hope in these bleak times is of course the devara kaans or sacred groves of the region, marked as abodes of local deities.

In Karnataka, these groves exemplify the many traditional ways of conserving the biodiversity and maintaining ecological integrity of the region’s rain forests.

Being undisturbed natural forests, these groves have a micro-climate of their own.

Some contain perennial waterbodies that keep the temperature down and sustain the inhabitants of the ecosystem.

Journey continues...

The rugged path goes steeply downhill and the dense tree canopy makes the forest dark as we approach the shrine of Deity Chowdi.

Suresh mentions the annual festival held in April. During the festival, the forest echoes with the sound of drums and songs in praise of the deity. Devotees’ offerings are for favours received and to ask for a solution to their problems. It is believed that the custom of giving a sacrosanct status to a piece of the forest originated during the times of the Indus Valley Civilisation.

The sacred groves of the Western Ghats have been managed by the local communities as common property. According to a study by the scientists of Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru, “Although their importance in community life is felt through religious-cultural practices,
the sacred groves’ utility is also by their life-sustaining services.”

The annual leaf fall and dead trees create humus, which can store water and thus benefit the vegetation during summers. The saplings and the lianas calm the air during a storm by reducing the speed of the wind. During summers, the deeply shaded forest floor, with its myriad life forms, is well-protected by the thick leaf litter. The springs, which abound in the forests, are rejuvenated during monsoons.

The recently-propounded biotic pump theory stresses the importance of forests in bringing precipitation to the landmass. The extensive research carried out in Uttara Kannada and Kodagu by the scientists of IISc concludes that the tradition of sacred groves is “the best example of sustainable natural resource-management system.” 

A frog leaps across our way. “A new frog was discovered here by scientists recently,” says Suresh. I ask him whether the other sacred groves in the region also have such dark forests with undiscovered species. He shakes his head ruefully, “Thick forests are rare to come across even in the sacred groves these days,” and adds, “People lope the trees in some groves and let their cattle graze.” There is no fencing around many groves, which leads to cattle grazing.

With rapid urbanisation in the Western Ghats, the sacred groves are under  threat. The area of a number of groves has diminished considerably due to land conversion for establishing plantations and building temples. Invasive species like acacia and eupatorium at the borders of the grove change the microclimate of the place and reduce the number of species. Local people collect the precious leaf manure from the forest floor, disturbing the forest ecology.

According to Dr Madhav Gadgil (in DownToEarth), ‘the root cause of their decline is not waning of religious or cultural beliefs, but an assault on the sacred groves by commercial forces with active support from the state machinery.’

The forest department has taken measures for the conservation of the sacred groves with the help of village-forest committees, temples and youth forums.

A number of volunteer groups educate people and trekkers about the importance of protecting the groves. The Western Ghats Task Force has ensured a permanent project for a state-wide conservation of the sacred groves. The devara kaans of the district have been identified and registered. The mathas of the region are encouraging their followers to protect and nourish the sacred groves.  

As we walk through the darkening forest, I think of the wisdom of the those who have left us the invaluable forests and wonder if their conservation measures will serve an example across our country.

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