Sacred Groves are communally guarded forests that the locals revere as the abode of their deities. Nations within the Asian and African continents have communities that consider nature sacred and holy, resulting in indigenous practices revolving around the worshipping of such places. The forest dwelling locals believe that unnecessary activities within these regions might anger the deities for which they might face negative consequences like crop failure, natural disasters, and diseases. The extent to which they are held holy varies from one sacred grove to another. In one region, collecting forest produce and collecting timber for necessity might be permitted, whereas in other, even touching the fallen fruits and dry foliage might be considered disrespectful.
Spread all across the world from native Americans, African animists, Indian tribals, and even Italian hill communities, sacred groves have been a big part of the ancient practice of nature preservation. European sacred groves date back to the classical period with various ethnic groups like Gauls, Celts, Welsh, Druids, and Lithuanians each having a historic connection with separate sacred groves of their own. Out of the surviving examples from Europe are the Oak Woodlands originally revered to have been under the possession of the Roman god Jupiter, located in the hills of Umbria in Italy. Siberian indigenous communities have their own sacred boreal forests in Karakol sacred valley. Another example are the sacred groves of Australia, spread from the forests of the arid hinterland to the rainforests of Queensland, looked after by the Aborigines of Australia.
In China, the Montane rainforests spread across hundreds of hills of Xishuangbanna, Yunnan are considered sacred as being the residing place of gods of the Yi and Dai people. In Ethiopia, about 20,000 sacred groves are being tended by the Ethiopian Christian Orthodox Tewahedo churches, as a result of which they are the only surviving Afromontane forests at a time when neighbouring agricultural sites are drying up. Reasons similar to that are causing a revivalist movement called “Maasuk” in rural Estonia where each village has adopted for themselves their own sacred groves.
Ranging in size from a few square metres to several hectares, these patches of lands are generally rich in biodiversity and are considered to be of primaeval origins. As per the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, there are about 100,000 to 150,000 sacred groves in India, of which the most heavily concentrated groves are located in Himachal Pradesh and Kerala. Apart from being protected by the locals, the Government of India also provides them state protection through the Wild Life (Protection) Amendment Act, 2002.
They are known by various local names in different states like Gumpa in Arunachal Pradesh, Deo Bhumi in Uttarakhand, Umanglai in Manipur, Kavu in Kerala, and Devrai in Maharashtra. Hariyali region in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand has the largest known sacred grove in India.
Trying to adapt to a modern lifestyle, the traditional values of the locals seem to be getting lost which held these patches of forests sacred. Adding onto that is the burden of earning livelihood through forest produce for sustenance. The ever present threat of invasive weeds like Lantana Camara, Eupatorium Odarotum, and Prosopis Juliflora is also a major challenge. With enough pressure as is over the regions, rapid urbanisation and related construction activities cause further distress to these regions.
Since they are undisturbed forest lands, they harbour a large variety of endemic flora and fauna. Abode to a plethora of rare endangered species, these forest patches also act as aquifers which help recharge the nearby lakes and ponds which provide water to the locals. As per a study published in Current Science, surface water collected from three sacred groves of Himachal Pradesh conformed to the UN standards for potable water. Even during days when other neighbouring water bodies turn dry, these lands maintain ample supply of water due to their thick vegetative cover. This very thick vegetation also helps in maintaining the soil quality thus preventing topsoil erosion.