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Typology of sacred groves and their discrimination from sacred sites
Arti Garg Inadequate awareness on the typology of sacred groves is perceived to be the major cause for misinterpretation of some unnoticed, naturally preserved, deep-seated and concealed sacred sites established within the thickets of the Himalayan mountains and forests as ‘sacred groves’. This results in an invalid typification and incorrigible documentation of the priceless virgin ecosystems generating surplus sacred groves and creating a chaotic and debatable situation which may hamper their development for sustainable benefits. A more rationalized definition encapsulating the typological parameters of sacred groves is given here and the major criteria of differentiating them from sacred sites are provided.
Discrimination, sacred groves, sacred sites, typology.
THE blend of criteria provided recently by various workers in designating sacred groves appears to be based on a comprehension that sacred groves ‘comprise of remnants of pristine forest or cultural artifact embedded in a thickly forested site in vicinity of any place of worship, bearing some historic anecdote of the grove, with a shrine created for the deity in a dedicated place regarded as “genius loci” or spirit of the place, where rituals are performed’1–4. Such considerations reflect inadequate awareness on the standard typological characters of sacred groves, which results in the misinterpretation of sacred/ religious sites as sacred groves. A necessity is therefore realized to evolve a rationalized concept of sacred groves with unique, consistent and concrete parameters, to strengthen their typology5 and underpin the conceptual demarcation between the two closely allied terms – sacred groves and sacred sites (Table 1).
Typological parameters of sacred groves
The term ‘sacred’ implies some extraordinary attributes which stimulate feelings of power, mystery, awe, transcendence, peace and healing6,7. Trees are a form of nature which represent life and the sacred continuity of spiritual, cosmic and physical worlds and are the first temple of gods8,9. Trees may be ‘holy’, ‘blessed’ or ‘sacred’, depending upon the religious attitude of people towards them. A ‘holy’ tree is a species of which all parts are worshipped, e.g. Ficus religiosa Lev. (peepal), Ficus benghalensis L. (bargad). A ‘blessed’ tree10 is an abode of angels or a deity who protects it, and is revered due to
Arti Garg is in the Botanical Survey of India, Central Regional Centre, 10 Chattham lines, Allahabad 211 002, India. e-mail: email@example.com 596
the religious dedication of people who worship it with an intention to please the deity within (e.g. the ‘Kalpvraksh’ – Adansinia digitata L.). ‘Sacred’ trees are those which are subjected to practical manifestation of worship, adoration and profound veneration to honour a deity or to please a devil, demon, or any other ghostly creature, provide sanctuary for spirits, remind present generations of ancestors, or to protect a sanctified place from willful damage and exploitation. Once linked with stringent religious or historical events, the sacred trees acquire a symbolic status to manifest the associated events and act as a path between man and god. The term sacred is strongly upheld by fear and awesome reverence of the associated gods and spirits11–13. The habitats which harbour only sacred trees in special environments, owned exclusively by the local clan responsible for their establishment, protection and supervision with special values limited to their own culture and religion14,15 and with restricted human interference, emerge as ‘sacred groves’, derived from the desire of local people to live in harmony with numerous spirits that are believed to be associated with the natural environment, especially forests7. The typology5 of sacred groves depends on a number of factors associated with the tree cover and variously defined by different workers15–24. However, these definitions were ‘ecological’, derived from a botanical ideal (climax), not based on local understanding25. Later, Hughes and Chandran9 provided a more comprehensive definition as ‘Segments of landscape containing trees and other forms of life and geographical features that are delimited and protected by human activities believing that preserving such a patch of vegetation in relatively undisturbed state is necessary for expressing one’s relation to the divine or to nature’, which is more widely accepted.
CURRENT SCIENCE, VOL. 104, NO. 5, 10 MARCH 2013
holy spirits or ghostly. bhutas. fearing that it may disturb the gods and spirits and attract retribution36. • Well delineated physically/geographically.GENERAL ARTICLES Table 1. Sacred groves The basic components are – (1) Natural elements: the sacred trees. (2) Supernatural elements: the deities. multi-tier virgin forest or a set of trees. (4) Anthropogenic criteria: development of pathway amidst the natural forest supporting biodiversity. The worship of sacred trees has precedence over idols or any other artifacts. of climax primary vegetation with keystone27 species and rich floral diversity. 5. (2) Supernatural powers: the deities which reside in a shrine and bless humans. Sometimes. The deities or demons worshipped within are abstracted from nature and believed to permeate through entire groves as indistinct beings such as tree spirits – Vanadevatas or Vanadevis. mosque. NO. The entire area is protected and the deity is propitiated periodically to ensure benevolence or to avert malevolence of the supernatural powers. Is the focus of pilgrims where people converge from all over for prayers and worships. sometimes unique or even weird and unusual. cultural or religious issues. Sacred groves are comprised of multispecies. Plants are conserved by the authoritative clan. a temple. cutting. Sustained in anthropogenically undisturbed conditions amidst altered environment. breaking. Religious customs are based on the pilgrim–deity association. 10 MARCH 2013 merging with the enveloping tampered ecosystem. Even picking the plant droppings is a taboo. They are the universal gods. Rituals are performed by pilgrims and common people who visit the shrines on religious grounds. physically diverse patches of original vegetation. demons. Religious customs are specific to the clan. • Communal sanctity and protection from interference. The idol may not have any correlation with trees. • An abode of a supernatural power. and having a rich representation of sacred trees within. The worship of idols has precedence. plucking or even touching plant specimens within the sacred area. Every tree of the grove is considered sacred for religious reasons33. The trees species are remnants of natural. not CURRENT SCIENCE. Impermeable to common people even for prayers and worship. 104. often represented by vacant spots. The deities are not abstracted from nature. memories and values which local people attach to the sacred trees and the entire grove for which they are enshrined in the natural environment. jinnas or animal deity – serpent (naga). temple and idol within. All rituals are performed by the endogamous clan. abstract weird creatures and evil spirits – atmas. panther and tiger26. Vigilance is kept only against damage to the shrine. temples. Plants may get conserved inadvertently. All trees and their associated life-forms are considered sacred. • Piece of natural vegetation (in most cases). There is no vigilance or taboo related to the plants around the shrine. angels or prophets and their anthropomorphic forms. Kept under strict vigilance against entering. Within their precincts. Differences between scared groves and sacred sites Sacred sites The basic components are – (1) Natural elements: religious monuments. performed using standardized methods. The deities or demons are abstracted from nature and are specific to the local clans. Anthropomorphic forms are rare and recent artifacts. primary.35. either directly or through priests. tomb. VOL. the sacred groves are impermeable to even the slightest human interference34. (3) Human ritual behaviours related to the trees for pleasing the divine/devilish figures. evergreen forests27. Devils and demons are never worshipped. shrines and their historical relevance. compared to the peripheral buffer area and possess a characteristic water body32. Only the monument. The sanctity is based on the religion of the endogamous group and ceremonial procedures are specific to the clan. pretas. often involving 597 . (3) Human ritual behaviours related to the temple gods. weird characters residing in the trees. often unnatural and unholy. (4) Botanical criteria: climax vegetation and high biodiversity. due to the associated beliefs and taboos attached to sacred trees to prevent any harm to the deity who would retaliate and take vengeance on the entire community. • Associated taboos. or memorial park39 and the worshipped gods are considered sacred. trees and woods may or may not be worshipped.28–31. a repository of specific genetic variants and remnants of species specific to the particular geographical region that might have succumbed to threats and perished from the denuded surroundings16. plucking of a small portion of plant specimen and even picking up dead wood and fallen leaves is a taboo and the entire patch is kept under strict vigilance of the local custodian. The adopted cultural practices depict the intrinsic spiritual perception. • Related to historical. church. sacred groves stand out as distinct. if the sacred site is deep-seated within a forest outside the limits of human settlements and also escapes interference by virtue of being in the vicinity of a religious monument. Tree species of surrounding forests have natural elements which may not be primary in nature. The idol has direct correlation with trees within the grove. crude stones and termite mounds and recognition of sacred trees inevitably precedes the associated idol or artifact. The seven major elements which define the typological characteristics of sacred groves are as follows.
Bodh Gaya and Sarnath in other parts of India7 and the Buddha Lumbini in Nepal. In Global Challenges Series (ed. these are liable to be misapprehended as sacred groves. P. or ceremonial use by. which are believed to be intimately and inextricably linked with forests and woods. thus opening way to debatable situations and chaotic inventory of sacred groves. or individual determined to be an appropriately authoritative representative of the religion. The degree of vegetational conservation and vicinity of religious shrine paves way to misinterpretation of such sacred sites as ‘sacred groves’38. provided that the tribe or appropriately authoritative representative of the religion has informed the concerned Government agency of its existence’. P. The deities. 17–18. Divine powers are worshipped in both these sites. • Ubiquitous values not restricted to specific religion or geographic territory. discrete. 104. Oduro. devil or a demon who is strongly bond with the woods. the same must be reported and registered formally with the concerned Government agency for future development and sustainable utilization. Bureau of Integrated Rural Development. as sacred by virtue of its established religious significance to. is established in the temple monument with religious sentiments.27 They constitute active centres of regular worship and religious rituals with symbolic and tangible elements that interlink man and divinity and witness centripetal influx of pilgrims for worship and offering prayers.. S.GENERAL ARTICLES animal sacrifices and blood offerings.).. Conclusion Sacred groves and sacred sites are closely allied terms demarcated by very fine. to avoid conflicts arising out of such classifications. The authoritative community carries the responsibility to safeguard these beliefs. Many such sacred/religious sites are embedded in deep and dense forests where human encroachments and interferences are negligible. unexplored and unnoticed in their inaccessible locations. Many sacred temple forests in India are carefully managed and contribute immensely in preserving the landscape with natural floral and faunal wealth. sometimes virgin flora having curious plant species which may have been left unexplored. 2010. Kwame Nkrumah University of Science & Technology. which are conserved informally over generations to uphold these beliefs’. Chandika Devi. The venerated gods of the shrines may not be associated with the trees and woods at all. The merits of sacred sites are so closely allied to sacred groves that unless these sites are scrupulously investigated and scrutinized in-depth for detailed behavioural strategies adopted by the local clans and their religious tie-ups which help in the protection of the trees in and around the religious sites. coupled with the detailed scrutiny of the differentiating characters of the sacred groves and sacred sites. G. is therefore recommended as a prerequisite for designating such enshrined forested patches. Many sacred sites are also endowed with primary vegetation and carve out a refuge for some rare tree species. Once a sacred grove is typified or a sacred site is instituted. W. The surrounding forests provide a sanctuary to important. but intelligible features. I. while ensuring the execution of traditional practice over generations. sometimes to the same extent as the sacred groves. 10 MARCH 2013 Sacred sites ‘Sacred sites’ are ‘specific. 5. generally elderly priests/priestesses. the religion. Rameshwaram. all bearing a historical significance connected to the Hindu mythology. Traditional representations of the natural environment and biodiversity conservation: sacred groves in Ghana. Ghana. who perform these rituals and pray to the gods and spirits on behalf of the entire community are also defined. All values are self-designed based only on the beliefs of local clans. Based on these criteria the rationalized definition covering all attributes of sacred groves is specified by the present author as ‘a physically diverse patch of natural. narrowly delineated location on Federal land identified by a tribe. Such concealed sites are often left abandoned. 1. College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR). E. VOL. unnoticed or neglected in these inaccessible locations. Among the most well-known sites are Vaishno Devi. The venerated deity of sacred sites is inevitably a god or goddess. Antoh Fredua. whose idol or other form or symbolic artifact. remote forest thickets. The Himalayas in India are endowed with many such religious sites which devotees visit regularly for performing religious rituals and ceremonies. ascribed to a deity. by virtue of 598 . Sarfo-Mensah. pp. weird creatures are never worshipped here. or some alarming mythological anecdote. It is therefore suggested that while designating sacred groves. demons or other forms of unnatural. and Amisah. such as the ‘sweet osmanthus’ (Osmanthus fragrans) tree in Chandak temple of Pithoragarh in Kumaon Himalayas37. CURRENT SCIENCE. their location in small pockets of hilly and mountainous areas often embedded and obscured by unapproachable. NO. revered by the endogamous clan for their supernatural association with religious or ominous attribute. falling outside human settlements and the forests in the vicinity of such sacred sites also enjoy unscathed natural conservation. as sacred groves.. Ottaviano. The persons. demons or other holy figures or evil spirits are independent of any religion and impervious to religious obligations. Kumasi. A meticulous appraisal of the typological criteria. primary forested enclosure of sacred trees and connected life-forms. Devils. the typological criteria must be strictly followed in adherence to the basic guidelines of differentiating them from sacred sites. Mahabalipuram. Amarnath. an angel or a prophet. Badrinath and Kedarnath in the Himalayas.
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