Sacred Groves : Indigenous Conservation Of Biodiversity
By Dr. Supatra Sen (Asst. Professor, Department Of Botany, Asutosh College)
The institution of Sacred Groves (SG) is perhaps “as old as the civilization itself,” born at a time when pristine religion was taking shape (Skolmowski, 1991). At the dawn of religious thinking, deities were imagined by primitive societies to reside in stones, trees, animals and woods. This seems to be an expression of the gratitude to and respect for Nature for providing services to human society. SGs once existed in most parts of India. Dietrich Brandis, the first Inspector General of Forests of India, recorded that sacred groves were “very numerous” and found “in nearly all provinces” (Brandis 1897: 12-13). Many SGs have been identified to be as old as the Indus Valley civilization.
Sacred groves are distinct patches of vegetation (ranging in size from a small cluster of a few trees to a large forest stand spanning several hundred acres) which are consecrated in the name of local deities or ancestral spirits. Removal of any living things from the SG is a taboo, although dead logs and leaves are sometimes removed from some. This institution is perhaps the best example of indigenous traditional resource use practice promoting conservation of biodiversity. Protected over centuries, SGs are remnants of pristine forests in climax formation (Malhotra et al., 2001).
Over 560 SGs have been documented in West Bengal and are known as Gramthan, Haritan, Sabitritan, Jahera, Deo Tasara and Mawmund. Sal, bamboo, mango, Indian butter tree, Neem, wild date palm, Indian Mulberry and Trumpet Flower tree are among the most commonly found plant species in the SGs. A survey of SGs in West Bengal indicates that along with the indigenous flora, non-native trees like Psidium guajava (guava), Acacia auriculiformis (Akashmoni), Ervatamia divaricata (Tagar) and Polyalthia longifolia (Debdaru) also occur. This indicates that these trees are often planted in the SGs to replace dead trees in the stand, and therefore the biotic composition of SGs is not necessarily pristine, but is a result of continuous human intervention and management.
The SG as an institution is associated with a range of oral narratives and belief systems and make up a unique social means to prevent intra-group conflicts and violation of the traditional ethos from external infringement. The SG represents the unique fragments of the respective species gene pool. Conservation of SGs may conserve the declining population diversity. With the felling of forests all around them, the SGs have become fragmented habitats containing the vestiges of genetic pools and the last refuge of many threatened, endangered and endemic organisms.
A rich faunal diversity exists in the SGs, in particular birds (mostly insectivorous and birds of prey), small mammals (rabbit, porcupine, rats, bats etc), reptiles (several snake species, lizards), frogs and insects (honey bees, butterflies, beetles). They may serve as interesting sites for eco-tourism and educational visits and a source of State revenue, which may be shared with the local people and trustees.
Ecologically valuable species, which perform the function of ‘keystone’ species in an ecosystem and contribute to the maintenance and enhancement of biodiversity, are also found. SGs, in general, act as a nursery and storehouse of many of the local ayurvedic, tribal and folk medicines. In southwest Bengal, valuable medicinal plants like Azadirachta indica, Aegle marmelos, Holarrhena antidysenterica, Leucas aspera and Hemidesmus indicus are found to be most common. A direct economic use of SGs comprises the maintenance of safe drinking water. In many places, ponds and tanks traditionally demarcated for the sole purpose of drinking water were usually associated with a SG.
A sacred grove is an excellent example of an autonomous community effort initiated by communities for conservation and management of biological resources (Sen, 2016) and could be encouraged, promoted and developed as centres of eco-tourism in this International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development.