Conservation and management of sacred groves, myths and beliefs of tribal communities: a case study from north-India
© Kandari et al.; licensee Springer 2014
Received: 19 February 2014
Accepted: 24 April 2014
Published: 20 June 2014
Traditional and indigenous communities in India are of the religious belief that medicinal groves and plants are sacred in nature. Sacred groves (SGs) are patches of trees on forest land that are protected communally with religious zeal and connotations. These forest areas have been protected since ages by traditional societies and indigenous communities with their socio-cultural and religious practices. Sacred groves as a rule are treated piously. Sacred trees are prohibited from cutting and not axed except when wood is needed for the religious purposes like construction and repair of temple buildings or in cases like worshiping, death ceremonies and temple rituals. Thus, SGs carry direct and everlasting pious status and assist in maintaining social fabric of the society.
From the present study it is concluded that, religious identification of medicinal plants and practices have influenced the folklore towards a sense of selfless services in the name the Gods. However, during the course of modernization, mechanization and globalization in the recent past has transformed and weakened both cultural and biological integrity. Changes in social belief, modernization and erosion of cultural practices are some of the major factors contributing towards degradation of the ancient institutional heritage which need to be looked into.
The present study is, therefore intended to propose management and conservation as an alternative strategy towards the sustainability of forests around human settlements and also an attempt to explore the role of SGs in conservation and management of different ecosystem services.
KeywordsConservation Ecosystem services Sacred groves Sustainability Traditional
In India, different religions having different traditions, beliefs, and rituals are associated with conservation of biodiversity and forests. In Hindu religion, it is a traditional belief that nature shows a reverence for five basic elements i.e., Earth (Prithvi), Fire (Agni), Water (Jal), Air (Wayo) and Space (Akash). All the five elements are treated as a body of God and are worshipped. These five elements are protected for religious, cultural and spiritual reasons. There are many studies entitled to further quantify this ethics, which leads to biodiversity conservation and sustainable ecosystem (Pal and Mukhopadhyay ).
The SGs play an important role in ecosystem services such as clean environment i.e., air, soil and water conservation, flora and fauna conservation, carbon sequestration, temperature control and conservation of traditional knowledge. They are therefore, the epicenter of ecological conservation research and policy regarding conservation and management of forest at state and national levels (Ray and Ramachandra ). There are several studies carried out by various researchers on this subject highlighting significant role and potential of the SGs. The present paper therefore, explores the role of SGs in conservation and management of different ecosystem services in Indian society.
Results and discussion
Taboos for plant and animal conservation
From the current study it was found that, in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand state (India), people believed that when a village rural girl gets married, the married couple has to plant a seedling of a tree in bride’s house. Planting a tree seedling is a cultural and traditional practice in this region which later gained momentum in late eighties and succeeded in creating a lot of awareness among the locals. Planting of sapling as a marks of respect, is undertaken by VIPs during their visit to various establishments. This practice has been popular and planting a tree seedling has been taken up by non-government organizations (NGOs) as an important movement (Maiti Andolan) which includes list of taboos that slowly intensified, spreading to nearby areas of the region. This is a new and novel approach for biodiversity conservation in the hilly region through plantation, where the occurrence of land slide and natural hazards are more frequent. Another example of such conservation is the alpine plants Saussurea obvallata and Delphinium vestitum locally called Dongar and Loshkar; which have been protected through local customs and beliefs by linking these plants with local deity and not allowing any one from the village or outside to pluck the flowers except the village priest during specific day and time only (Meenakshi et al. ).
Taboos are the unwritten, orally transmitted traditional and social rules that regulate human behavior (Colding and Folke ; Banjo et al. ). In rural areas of India, many plants and animals are considered as pious and sacred religiously having imbibed cultural values among the tribal communities. The religious belief serves as an instrument of protection of those rare forest species (Pandey ).
Approach towards Eco-retreats
The devastating impact of pollution, supplemented by deforestation can only be restored by green lung area of the sacred groves which, besides providing numerous tangible products remains the storehouse of the life gas–oxygen. If these storehouses are not properly managed and conserved, the future generation will definitely be deprived off this valuable asset (Anthwal et al. ). As a part of school curriculum, school children are often asked to plant saplings in school compounds to understand the importance of trees. Planting for the progamme are supplied by the local forest department for this purpose. Saplings of the plants like sandal (Santalum album) are specially planted in lower areas, which have specially seen the severest cutting and elimination out of greed.
Belief and myth towards soil and water conservation
Sacred groves play an important role in soil and water conservation. They improve the soil stability of the region and act as soil binder. Plants like vetiver grass (Vetiveria zizanioides) and Eucalyptus spp are maintained to bind the soil thereby preventing soil erosion. In India, water of different rivers are treated as holy among all sources and used in all rituals and worships. People take holy dip/bath at the confluence of two or three rivers called prayag or sangam (meaning union) in different parts of the country i.e., Devparyag, Allahabad, Nasik etc. As most of the cities and town are settled on the bank of rivers ie., Ganga, Yamuna, Brahmaputra, Godavari, Krishna, Kaveri, etc. which are, not only considered sacred but are also a source of drinking water supply cities in the country. Small natural water bodies are maintained, near SGs to take care of drinking water problem during drought. Villagers are now improving the surrounding areas of water bodies with concrete structure to conserve natural flowing Waterbodies and maintain it in a hygienic condition.
Approach towards Carbon sequestration
Estimation of carbon stocks and stock changes in tree biomass are necessary for reporting to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and which is required for Kyoto Protocol reporting also. Very little work has been done so far for estimation of the carbon sequestration potential of the sacred groves except for few reports, where carbon sequestration potential of various species was estimated in Maharashtra (Hangarge et al. ). The tree, Terminalia bellirica was found to be dominant of sequestrating 327.78 tonnes of carbon followed 221 tonnes by Ficus amplissima (Hangarge et al. ). The species Gnidia glauca had lowest carbon sequestration potential i.e. 0.0808 tonnes. A SGs having thick vegetation possesses high carbon sequestration potential thereby contributing to reduced concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere (Hangarge et al. ).
Traditional knowledge for conservation and management
Traditional societies are characterized by their close interconnection with nature and its resources. Hence, the traditional communities depend upon natural resources and biodiversity more for their livelihood (Ramakrishnan ). Even now the NGOs working in the region make it a point to plant important utility plants like soap nut (Sapindus mukorossi), arjun (Terminalia arjuna) Roxb., sandal (Santalum album) to strengthen the SGs in different lower regions.
Conservation of Medicinal and Aromatic Plants through local belief
The SGs are believed to be a treasure house of medicinal and aromatic plants. Though most of the indigenous people residing near the groves are illiterate, they have scrupulously nurtured their traditional customs, rituals, ceremonies and a way of forest life through folk beliefs with great vigour. The fact that sanjeevani found in Himalayan region was used by Lord Hanuman (A Hindu deity) to resuscitate Lakshman the brother of Lord Rama is well known to all Indians. There is a need for protection of large number of medicinal plants as an important component of SGs in different parts of India which is already documented in various studies (Vartak et al. ; Bhandary and Chandrasekhar ; Pandit and Bhakat ). In Doonagiri village of Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve, Uttarakhand state, tribal people of Bhotiya community have an ancient practice of conserving the medicinal plants of the region for centuries. This is mainly attributed to their religious belief. They have deep faith that if someone from outside the village uproots the medicinal plants from their village, it is treated as an evil act which may bring misery of great order to the village folks. They nurture a belief that Lord Hanuman came to their village and uprooted all their medicinal plants which was the cause of untreatable diseases, which struck the people later. Thus, medicinal plant conservation is an integral part of sustainable living by these people with the nature (King-Oliver et al. ). Till now medicinal plants like mint (Mentha arvensis), coriander (Coriandrum sativum) and fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum) are planted as an important component of SGs and preserving Himalayan ecosystem.
Approach towards animal conservation
List of some common animals, birds & reptiles and their associated beliefs
Used in rituals and medicine.
Elephas maximus indicus
In Hindu mythology, during Sagar Manthan (Milk sea churning), the Gods (Angels) and the demons (Asura) churned the ocean for the elixir of life called “Amrit” (Nectar) which make them immortal. From the churning the ‘navratnas’ (nine jewels) surfaced. Some of these jewels were the Aeravatha (white elephant), Karpavruksha (tree), Kamadhenu (Holy cow). Therefore considered to be sacred among Hindus.
In Hindu mythology the cow is considered holy The cow is equated to one’s own mother (hence the expression ‘Gaumata). In Hindu mythology, Kamadhenu, the wish-fulfilling celestial cow. It is believed that cow could grant any wish for those who worship cow.
Bull occupies a special place in Hindu mythology. The reverence of the animal has been one of the central themes of Hinduism, since ancient times. Bull is vehicle/vahana of lord Shiva.
It is also known as Krishna Mruga in Kannada.
Monkey is known to be associated in the army of Hindu God Hanuman hence considered sacred.
Cats are associated with fertility and the goddess of birth, Shakti.
Hindu mythology peacocks are associated with the goddess Saraswati (goddess of education & knowledge). The feathers thus represent qualities like: kindness, patience and good fortune.
The snake is commonly called (‘Nag’ in Hindi language) is worshipped by people across the country. Some of the snakes are considered in mythology as ‘protectors’ and other categories as harmful/destroyers’. Lord Shiva wore snake as an ornament. Lord Vishnu sleeps on snake with thousand heads Adiseshu (King cobra) as his bed on milk sea.
The bushy tail is in great demand as a fly–wish (fan) in many Buddhist monasteries and temples.
According to the epic Ramayana, when Ravana was abducting Sita to his kingdom of Lanka, a fierce battle took place between him and the vulture King Jatayau. The bird was fatally wounded it its attempt to rescue Sita from Ravana.
Goddess Rati, the Goddess of passion and lust and the consort of Kama, the God of love, is believed to be usually depicted with a pigeon as her vahana.
The house crow occupies a special place in Hindu religious rituals. It is usually identified with departed souls of ancestors. In Hindu the ritual of ‘pinda pradhana’ (offering of cooked rice balls) to the crow.
Sus scrofa Linnaeus
The third avtara of Lord Vishnu was Varaha, a boar. Varaha is generally depicted having a boars head on human body. Varahi is the Hindu Goddess Durga in the form of a wild boar.
Squirrels are considered sacred in India and are not to be harmed. Squirrels are association with Lord Rama. During the construction of the Adi Sethu (bridge) at Rameshwaram by Lord Rama and the vanara sena, a little squirrel also contributed in its own little way. Lord Ramas pleased by the creatures dedication, caressed the squirrels back and ever since, the Indian squirrel carried white stripes on its back, which are believed to be the mark of Lord Ramas fingers.
In many traditional Hindu mythological literatures the killing or hurting a cat is a crime which is also sinful and harmful. If any person is involved in killing the cat he has to make a statue of the cat of gold/bronze metal and kept submerged in deep water to get solace and relief from the effects of the committed sin. The scientific reasoning behind the Hindu mythology was that cat kills and eats many insects and rats as an integral part of food chain, thereby preventing the spread of many viral diseases. Hence, cats need to be protected which are human friendly with their livelihood practices. In Rajasthan (western-India), the Bishnoi community treats Black Buck Deer as their child and killing or harming them is considered a great sin. Thus, Bishnoi cult supports the wildlife protection act as Black Buck Deer is considered as human friendly in selected localities (Kala and Sharma ). Such incidences are widely prevalent and practiced in other countries also. The cow worship is another example of deep religious belief in India. Cow milk is treated as source of balanced diet for children in the Indian food basket. Cow dung is treated as having anti infection properties and used for domestic purposes. Cow urine is believed to possess rich chemical content and is highly useful to treat disease of human beings and is also applied as pesticide. With all its multidimensional uses of cow products, cows are treated sacred and prohibited from killing and worshipped in the name of Kamadhenu (Table 1).
Conservation of floral diversity
India is among the few countries where trees or forests are also worshiped during their religious rituals. Majority of plants/trees are accepted as sacred by Hindus and hence worshipped. Sacred groves are the best example of in-situ conservation of biodiversity, where flowers like hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis), marigold (Tagetes erecta), jasmine (Jasminum officinale) Brahmakamal (Saussurea obvallata) are found in plenty. These SGs harbour many endemic species some of which are at different threat levels in different regions in the country. The state of Uttarakhand is endowed with world heritage site valley of flowers, where different flowers are found in abundance near SGs. Sacred groves are the natural gene pool preserver and example of habitat preservation through community participation (Gadgil and Vartak ). Scientific reports also confirm the fact that SGs protect a variety of flora and fauna (Ray and Ramachandra ). Sukumaran et al. () highlighted the species richness of 212 miniature sacred groves of Tamil Nadu. Due to this deep rooted religious system, many trees are not axed as they are supposed to increase longevity. In Uttarakhand, Cedrus deodara is treated as a religious tree and worshipped during rituals and religious ceremonies. In Madhya Pradesh, the Gond tribes only use the fallen parts of the tree and cutting this sacred tree is totally prohibited. The neem tree (Azadirachta indica) is considered to be a manifestation of Goddess Durga. Besides, Tulsi plant (Ocimum sanctum) is worshipped as Goddess by women throughout the country which is supposed to enhance the longevity of their husbands’ life.
Socio-cultural functions to the sacred groves
List of some sacred plants in Hindu mythology
Aegle marmelos (L.) Corr.
Artemisia nilgirica (Clarke)
Atrocarpus heterophyllus Lamk.
Blumea balsamifera (L.) DC.
Calotropis procera (Ait.) R. Br.
Cynodon dactylon Pers.
Elaeocarpus Ganitrus Roxb.
Erythrina indica Lam.
Mangifera indica L.
Ocimum sanctum L.
Terminalia arjuna (Roxb.)
Toona ciliata M. Roem.
Threats to the sacred groves
Total Sacred groves distribution in India (Adopted from Malhotra, 1998 and Malhotra et al., 2001)
Number of SGs
WWF (World Wildlife Fund) Andhra Pradesh ()
Deb et al. ()
Gumpa forest area
Chatterjee et al. 
Jha et al. 
Malhotra and Das 
Ka Law Kyntang
Tiwari et al. 
Deshmukh et al. 
Gupta et al. 
NAEB National Afforestation and Eco-development Board 
Deb et al. 
Chatterjee et al. 
Lack of awareness in terms of long term future benefits has also resulted in the destruction of SGs. Various religious beliefs, influx of large number of pilgrims and tourists and conversion to other religions axing of plants for monetary benefit have contributed consistently for the degradation of these well flourished areas of vegetation to a mere crunch of trees in many parts of India. Greed for certain plants like sandal (Santalum album) has resulted in decrease of their numbers in India and particularly in Himalayan SGs. The indigenous species found in the sacred groves are threatened by the introduction of exotic weeds such as Common Floss flower (Eupatorium odoratum), Shrub verbenas (Verbena officinalis), Lantana (Lantana camara) and Parthenium (Parthenium hysterophorus) etc. Likewise, grazing, lopping and removal of biomass have also resulted in dwindling of the groves. Encroachments of SGs areas by local communities or various other government departments, migration and immigration of people have contributed to the extinction of SGs. The most recent threat to SGs is witnessed from the process of modernization, industrialization, greed of land mafias and construction of building structures resulting is loss of cultural and ecological importance among the younger generation of local people.
Issues concerns for SGs conservations
Concerns for conservation
Capacity building of woman regarding importance of SGs land planting by forest department for immediate multiplication of such plants for release in different villages
Appointing contact persons in villages on monthly basis if not on regular basis as in case of water carriers in school for maintenance of identified SGs specially near village and place of worship.
Involvement of school children for creating awareness and augmentation of SGs
Regular visits by forest staff for guidance and maintenance of SGs.
Scientific management of water bodies around SGs
In the words of Dr. M.S. Swaminathan, “Unlike a botanical garden, where a wide range of trees and plants are collected and cultivated for the purpose of our education and enjoyment, the sacred groves are one method of expressing the gratitude of human beings to the trees which sustain and support life under a given agro-ecological condition”. We therefore need immediate measures to stop the destruction of SGs and start their conservation as being an integral part of the social and cultural life in rural India. Documentation of all the sacred groves needs to be taken up on high priority basis so that management and conservation programs for these threatened groves can be initiated. The bondage between people, their beliefs and rituals associated with SGs in the past have hidden scientific truth. Many ancient trees are surviving till date due to the sacred belief and worship. However, in the past heavy inflow of tourists around sacred groves, threatened their very existence. Loss in faith and religious conversions in general has further intensified the magnitude of erosion of beliefs and value system. Hence, revival of SGs institution for the conservation of valuable biodiversity and ecosystem services is necessary. At the same time the cultural, biological, social and ecological importance of SGs cannot be ignored. Therefore, there is a great need for restoration and management of SGs to preserve scientific ecological system. A scientific understanding of harmony and co-existence of flora and fauna will strengthen the importance of SGs and play an important role in designing strategies for their rehabilitation and management for maintenance of sustainable ecological balance. Awareness building regarding the importance of sacred groves is first and foremost step needed to be taken for the revitalization of these traditional values, practices and beliefs among the youth. Benefit sharing should be promoted within the local communities for conserving and maintaining the groves. Stringent legislation followed by punishment accordingly is definitely needed for long and healthy life of sacred groves and therefore conservation as a whole.
Some positive signs
The Social Forestry wing of the Kerala Forest Department has signed memorandums of association with the owners of select groves for protection, enhancement of biodiversity and awareness programmes and 15 sacred groves have received assistance for their conservation efforts (The Hindu, May 5, 2013, India)
Chilkigarh a sacred grove being located almost in trijunction of the three states (West Bengal, Bihar and Orissa) is known for its rich and unique floral wealth was indiscriminately exploited earlier and presently the entire sacred complex has been taken over by the local Kanak Durga Temple trust consisting of members from Chilkigarh and adjoining villages. They have revived the concept of social fencing through inculcating the traditional socio-religious and ecological values of plants and simultaneously getting economic benefits through the tourists, visitors and devotees.
A good number of SGs are found scattered in the hills of Garhwal and Kumaon region (Uttarakhand) India near the bank of rivers, Bhagirathi, Mandakani, Alaknanda as well as in the world famous spiritual centers of Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath. The places are visited by pilgrims in thousands, throughout the year. To collect information for the present study, a small team was constituted to visit such areas with a prepared questionnaire on different type of plants, utilized by people in adjoining villages, extinct plants and their use for religious ceremonies and awareness of these plants as well as common animals & birds attached to associated beliefs. Ten centers each were visited in the areas of Uttarkashi, Pauri, Tehri and Chamoli for this purpose. Necessary information was collected from five people in each centre majority of whom were functioning priests serving in the area. Thus, a total of 200 people were contacted for their views on the present status of the SGs. The information was later complied and tabulated.
Authors are thankful to Haramaya University, Dire-Dawa, Ethiopia for providing necessary facilities. Contribution and help from traditional medicine practioners (Vaidyas) and other local healers of the study area in India are hereby acknowledged.
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