Yaksha (nature/tree deity); Courtesy- Pintrest (Allison Dennis)
Sacred grooves are pieces of land having trees and other geographical features that are maintained and protected by societies as it is believed that keeping these pieces of forest in their original state is an expression of an important relationship with the divine and with nature. These sites are gaining the interest of international organizations like UNESCO and the World Wide Fund for Nature. The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) treats sacred grooves as “natural areas of special spiritual significance to peoples and communities”. These include any natural areas recognized as sacred by indigenous and traditional peoples as well as natural areas recognized by institutionalized religions or faiths as place for worship and remembrance”
These grooves assumed increasing importance with the arrival of agriculture. Primeval forests were cleared at an alarming rate due to the increasing need for lands for agriculture. The fear of offending the gods of nature propelled the emergence of sacred grove-centered worship. These groves continue to exist in many parts of the world.
In these groves it is believed that spiritual beings reside, and where ordinary activities like the felling of trees, gathering wood and plant and leaves, hunting, fishing, grazing of domestic animals, harvesting crops, and ordinary dwellings were restricted. This culture in India has pre-Vedic roots. The pan-Indian distribution of groves is a subject of great interest to biologists, anthropologists, and policymakers as these groves represent an array of ecosystems, social and ethnic identities, legal tenures, and cultural traditions. There are hundreds or thousands of these groves in India. By protecting the sanctity of the forests, the people ensured the protection of their interests as well as the dynamics of the local ecosystems.
These grooves were studied for the first time by the pioneering works of Gadgil and Vartak. After that various studies have been conducted which resulted in the compilation of a considerable size of literature. However, the literature on the biodiversity of these forests is limited. However, the emphasis has been given to biodiversity conservation (especially on floral aspects), natural resource management, culture, and conservation values. A review is done by Rajasri Ray, et al. Compiled all major publications on biodiversity assessment of sacred groves in India. In this study, it was found that grove studies were concentrated geographically into three regions, namely, Wester Ghats, northeast India (Indian Himalayan states), and Eastern Ghats-Coromandel Coast. This was perhaps because of their hotspot status and rapid land-use change which is attracting national and international attention. There were very few studies that addressed the central Indian plateau, Gangetic plain, western Himalaya, and the western desert.
Even after fragmentation and isolation, the sacred grooves are repositories of rare species in comparison to the adjoining landscape. These groves usually have diverse ecosystems with a varying species composition. These groves often act as refugia for rare, threatened and endemic species. It is found that smaller groves usually contain a greater mix of secondary and invasive species of plants as they are under higher human pressure. The abundance of leaf litter and deadwood in the sacred groves provides a medium for a unique assemblage of decomposer fungi.
A theyyam ritual inside a sacred grove in Kasaragod; Courtesy- Thulasi Kakkat
Groves that are humanized landscapes act as local refugia for fauna. As sacred groves are often smaller in size it does not allow larger faun to reside however the suitable microclimate allows numerous medium to small species to reside. Studies have shown the discovery of new frog species, avifauna richness, and fauna species presence. It also hosts many invertebrate species like various species of butterflies, earthworms, and mollusks. However, the presence of other vertebrates hasn’t been studied.
There is the limited economic importance of these forest patches. Felling of trees is usually banned in sacred groves. However, non-timber forest products (NTFPs) are traditionally harvested. This is more common in larger sacred groves. Various edible fruits and seeds, palm toddy, palm starch, and medicinal plants have been extracted from the forests of kans of Uttara Kannada and Shimoga. A sacred grove is major forest patches from where medicinal plants are extracted. These medicinal plants are of great importance to the rural people and for the forest dwellers as it is their only source of medicine.
Ecological functions and dynamics did not receive as much importance in terms of research than biodiversity assessment. These are important aspects of groove management and conservation. Sacred grove plays a major role in ecosystem functioning and services. It provides valuable ecosystem services such as soil, water and biodiversity conservation, nutrient cycling, and temperature regulation. At local levels, even a small groove can play important ecological roles in pollination, seed dispersal, and corridor provision for animals.
The litter accumulated on the floor of these forests degrades and passes on the organic matter and nutrients to the soil hence adding to the standing biomass. This will ensure the flourishing of various microorganisms, invertebrates, and fungi will flourish. Along with that species that are not indigenous to ploughed fields and secondary forests can survive in the grooves. This litter along with the humus and the network of roots are important in preventing erosion and fostering soil building. The water seeping out of the sacred forests are considered nutritious by village communities, however, this is yet to be backed by scientific evidence.
In another study by Rajendraprasad et al., it was documented that there was a linear correlation between species richness and diversity and litter production in sacred groves. It was concluded that the litter production patterns of sacred grooves mimic tropical rain forests. It was also found that dehydrogenase activity which helped in litter decomposition which dispensed the nutrients into the soil was higher in groves that had rich litter cover. It was observed in Cherrapunji, Meghalaya that the development and stability of a fragile ecosystem over a nutrient-deficient calcareous landscape was backed by highly efficient nutrient cycling through leaf litter and networks of fine roots developed on the soil surface.
A well-managed grove reduces the erosive power of run-off water efficiently thus preventing soil erosion and nutrient washout. The Lum Shyllong-Nongkrim sacred groves in Meghalaya supply water to as many as eight streams in Shillong. It helps in sedimentation when flowing over steep and rugged slopes towards the ridges of Himalayas. In Rajasthan, the water bodies of the sacred groves associate with the orans and serve as a lifeline for local inhabitants and livestock. The Jhalan sacred grove ensures the supply of water to the city of Jhalawar and protects the catchment area from siltation.
The Ayyappa temple at the Echuru Saced Grove; Courtesy- The News Minute
This aspect of water conservation favors the occurrence of sensitive hygrophilous endemic species in certain groves. This is well observed in sacred groves of the Western Ghats. The Kathaekan of Siddapur taluk, in Uttar Kannada shelter, s a community of rare hydrophilic species like Calophyllum apetalum, Dipterocarpus indicus, Gymnacranthera canarica, Mastixia arborea, Myristica magnifica, Pinanga dicksonii, and Syzygium travancoricum.
Sacred groves also act as carbon sinks due to their varied species composition, tree density, and leaf litter deposition. The Nagoni sacred forest in Himachal Pradesh showed higher percentages of carbon content in the soil compared to the other forest ecosystems. Also, because of the higher biomass of the sacred forests, it sequesters carbon more significantly compared to other forest ecosystems.
As sacred groves are present amidst a mosaic of landscape elements like utility forests, agricultural fields, grazing lands, plantations, human settlements, these forest patches enhance landscape heterogeneity and biodiversity. In the Kodagu region of Karnataka, sacred groves play an important role in maintaining forest bird diversity. Seed dispersal, regeneration, and genetic diversity of rare plants are affected due to fragmentation of groves which ultimately cause a decline in plant populations. The mutualistic relationships between plants and animals are also affected due to less availability of seed dispersers and pollinators which is in turn brought about by fragmentation.
The disturbances in groves are mostly anthropogenic. It can be categorized into land-use change like deforestation, land conversion, fragmentation, encroachment, etc. Change in species composition can be both planned and unplanned like a plantation, disturbance due to land-use change, unplanned restoration activities, etc. Developmental activities in and around the grove and changes in social norms, cultural and religious practices. Grove area is reducing due to land-use change is exposing the interior of the grove biota to extreme pressure. This results in the loss of many sensitive species and exposes it to invasive species like Lantana camara, Chromolaena odorata, etc. The original composition of the groves has been altered as well due to human intervention. Practices like plantation, horticulture, unplanned restoration activities, and disturbances in the landscape often introduce exotic species that affect and impact the ecological function of the area. Another serious problem in the future of the survival of grove is declining regeneration potential driven by anthropogenic pressures like developmental activities, grazing, unrestricted entry, and resource exploitation. This is particularly alarming for endemic and rare species for they are very restricted in their distribution due to high spatiotemporal sensitivity.
Therefore, it is a prime need for more holistic research of these sacred forests and formulation of techniques and strategies which will help conserve these relic forest patches and its biodiversity.
R. Ray, M. Chandran and T. Ramachandra, "Biodiversity and ecological assessments of Indian sacred groves", Journal of Forestry Research, vol. 25, no. 1, pp. 21-28, 2014. Available: 10.1007/s11676-014-0429-2 [Accessed 8 August 2020].
R. Khiewtam and P. Ramakrishnan, "Litter and fine root dynamics of a relict sacred grove forest at Cherrapunji in north-eastern India", Forest Ecology and Management, vol. 60, no. 3-4, pp. 327-344, 1993. Available: 10.1016/0378-1127(93)90087-4 [Accessed 8 August 2020].