Sacred Groves of Kodagu - Conserving a rich tradition

Kodagu is the second smallest district of Karnataka with an area of slightly more than 4000 sq.kms.The concept of Devarakadu or the Sacred Grove is a very popular tradition in Kodagu. Sacred groves exist all over India and in the rest of the world but what makes Kodagu unique is that this little district has probably the highest density of sacred groves in all of India with about 1214 that are officially listed. Almost every village has one or more sacred groves, while 14 villages have more than ten groves each and Thakeri village in Somwarpet Taluk has the largest number with 17 groves. (Kushalappa and Kushalappa 1996).

These groves have remained protected in the names of the over 165 different deities that they harbor. The most common deities in the sacred groves are Iyappa, Bhagavathi, Bhadrakali, Mahadeva and Basaweshwara. All the 18 native communities including Muslims (called Jammamapilas) subscribe to this unique tradition. Most of the sacred groves have a village level committee consisting of representatives from all the major communities of the village with Deva Thakka as the person assigned to head the committee and look after the functioning of the temple. There are others like Bhandara Thakka (treasurer or keeper of money and jewels), Uru Thakka (head of the village) and Nadu Thakka (head of a group of villages) who assist the temple committees. The responsibilities relating to the management of the sacred groves along with those of performing various rituals - offerings, music, dance and other religious rituals - during the annual festivity, are given to members of specific communities within the village.

Over the years, the sacred groves have undergone changes in their legal status, physical extent and rituals of worship. The extent of the groves has declined to less than half of the area covered in 1905 (this is based on 1985 figures). But their numbers increased from 873 to 1214 during the same period, indicating a reduction in area as a result of extensive fragmentation (Kalam, 1996).

Ecological Value of Sacred Groves

Biodiversity conservation
Access to and interference with sacred groves has always been restricted due to a system of socially operative sanctions that protect them from exploitation. This permits the complex ecological processes to continue uninterrupted over a longer period, resulting in sacred groves becoming a micro hotspot of biodiversity. These sacred groves are richer in native species and harbour vast diversity in the species of trees, climbers, plants, birds, butterflies, fungi and other insects.

Ecosystem services
The sacred groves act as a recharge agent for aquifers. The vegetative mass of the grove itself retains water, soaks it up like a sponge during wet periods and releases it slowly during periods of drought/heat. Forest litter is accumulated and decomposed, and the organic material is returned to the soil and thereby to the biomass of the standing forests. This process is continued over a long period ensuring the maintenance of biodiversity, continuity of the evolutionary process and the comprehensive health of the enclosed landscape. Thus the grove promotes soil conservation and the nutrient cycle.

Threats to the Existence of Sacred Groves
These ancient institutions and current hotspots of biodiversity are showing signs of weakening in terms of both cultural and biological integrity as a result of the pressures building on common property resources and the concurrent decline of socially operative sanctions. The threats have come in several forms such as:
Change in belief systems: Several studies have revealed an attitudinal change in the younger generation who are unaware of or uninterested in folk traditions and beliefs, which is commonly attributed to modern education and western influence in the wake of globalisation.

Sanskritisation: Replacement of small and symbolic structures with large temples as part of the modern panindian Sanskritisation of hindu devotional culture as well as the introduction of daily offerings have increased human depredation and attendant destructive pressures on the groves.

Encroachment: There is large scale encroachment of sacred groves, with them being converted into housing colonies, coffee estates, etc., due to the relative negllect of the grove caused by Sanskritisation and changed belief systems.

Deforestation: Removal of valuable endemic trees by the local communities, government or poachers, and replacement of the native species by exotic varieties such as silver oak, mangium and acasia. Grazing and fuel wood extraction by the local people has also increased the deforestation.

Removal of biomass: The increased harvesting of certain types of biomass like leaf litter for ginger cultivation, fallen twigs for fuel wood, and dead trees for construction work, over a long period of time has added to the degradation of groves.

Pilgrimage: Many groves face increased and unmanageable pressure due to the influx of large numbers of pilgrims who come to worship the local or regional deities.

Political interference: Political interference in the form of allotting sacred groves for settlement or conversion to other land use such as cultivation, graveyard and playground has resulted in their degradation.

Conservation of Sacred Groves
Local communities were once the protectors of the Sacred Groves which were revered as nature's gift and conserved as part of their culture and traditions. The grove was preserved untouched except during the special festivals of the deity for which the produce from the sacred grove was utilised, though minimally. All native communities in Kodagu had a role in maintaining their sacred grove and had a unique tradition of worship, including dance and music.

Each family in a village is allocated a specific responsibility to the sacred grove and the deity; one member of a specific family would be recognised as the Thakka or the Head of the village who was accountable for the maintenance of the temple in the sacred grove. This tradition is followed very religiously by families who owe allegiance to the deity and the grove. The customs, culture and traditions with regard to the sacred groves and their deities are identical throughout Kodagu and are a part of the traditions of Kodagu from time immemorial.

In most Kodagu communities, women act as traditional healers who perform their duties without any expectation of remuneration. They also conserve, preserve and teach their daughters to take on the role of traditional healers. Many home remedies and even complex treatment of humans and livestock are carried out as part of this tradition. However, this tradition is being eroded due to loss of biodiversity and lack of interest in traditional healing practices among the younger generation.

Today many other formal institutions like the Forest Department, research institutions and NGOs have joined hands with local communities towards the conservation of Sacred Groves through a variety of efforts such as conducting public awareness programs in the groves during festivals through exhibitions, street plays and video shows that educate the local community about the relevance and role of the sacred groves within the larger cultural and ecological landscape. Involving college students and school children in documenting and creating awareness about the rich medicinal plant diversity in sacred groves, organising seminars, training programs and interaction programs for students, officials, temple committee members and the general public on various aspects of sacred groves are some of the ways these living storehouses of native biodiversity can be conserved and safeguarded.

Contributed by: Shyamala Mani, CEE

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