Mandala Of Indic Traditions
Sacred Forestry: The Case of Rajasthan, India
by Deep N. Pandey
It is estimated that about 25,000 sacred groves and other
sanctified ecosystems, varying in size between 0.1 ha. to 500 ha., are in existence
in Rajasthan. This is based on the extrapolation of a study based on the ratio
of 1027 recorded groves and number of villages of Rajasthan. This is a preliminary
conservative estimate; the actual number may be substantially more than this
number. This paper is areview of various studies of sacred landscapes conducted
Sacred groves are known under various names in Rajasthan
as sacred groves (deora, malvan, deorai, rakhat bani, oran, etc.), sacred corridors
(deo ghats), temple forests (mandir van) and sacred gardens (baugh).
Even though we have few studies, sacred groves in particular,
however, are among the most researched areas. Dietrich Brandis, as early as
1887, gave initial information on sacred groves of Aravallis. He wrote, 'though
very few papers have been published on sacred groves, this does not mean that
such areas do not abound in India'. Commenting on the sacred groves of Rajasthan,
particularly Rajputana and Mewar area, he wrote that in Pratapgarh and Banswara
such groves are common. Here trees of Anogeissus pendula abound. People do not
cut wood for personal use. Only dead and fallen trees are removed for religious
work such as the repair of the temple or funerals. Joshi (1995) writing on the
ethnobotany of Rajasthan provided interesting insights on tribal traditions
of maintaining sacred groves. We studied sacred groves of southern Aravallis
between January 1991 and August 1994. Information on ecological, social, religious
and economic aspects was collected in addition to various traditions of indigenous
resource management. The available resources, biodiversity, social beliefs,
threats and factors responsible for biodiversity depletion, economic status
of village people, suggestions for conservation of sacred groves and joint forest
management were studied in the context of the sacred in nature. We also carried
out a study at Kota, Bundi, Jhalawar, Bhilwara, Chittaurgarh, Rajsamand and
Tonk (Pandey 1996, 1997, 1998). AFC (1997) published a report on sacred groves
of Ajmer and Udaipur Districts of Rajasthan. Recently two case studies of Orans
in western Rajasthan were carried out by Jha et al. (1998) and Singh and Saxena
For this review, we have classified the sacred areas in to
sacred groves, sacred corridors, temple forests, sacred gardens and inhabited
Sacred groves in Aravallis and Vindhyas can be classified
into three major groups. In the first group we classify groves located near
the village and close to a water source. Such groves are also at the top of
small hillocks in Aravallis, where people worship Bheruji, Bawsi and Mataji.
Khanpa Bheruji, Kukawas Bheruji, Badi Roopan Mata etc. are the example of such
sites in Udaipur. In the Vindhyan tract of Kota Bundi, Baran and Jhalawar such
The second group of groves is dedicated to Lord Mahadeo.
Vegetation of the entire watershed is often protected as groves. Sometimes part
of the vegetation in a watershed is protected. Large trees and a water source
are the main characteristics of these groves. Water sources developed as open
and step wells (Bawdi) may be seen at Ubeshwarji, Kamalnath, Gautmeshwasji,
Taneshwarji and Jhameshwarji. Sometimes both groups can also be found in the
The third type may be as a single tree. In Kotra forest range
several large trees of Ficus benghalensis are seen. Because of development of
aerial and prop roots these trees look like a grove. The tradition of protecting
Peepal, Gular and Bargad trees is not only found in
Rajasthan but also in other states of India. The tradition is also reported
from other Asian and African countries.
In northern parts of Aravallis various forms of sacred groves
are maintained. These are known as kankar bani, rakhat bani, dev ouranya, vall
and dev bani.
Large tracts of tree-bearing land in otherwise desertified
western Rajasthan are called Orans. These Orans are identical to sacred groves
in Aravallis and they offer similar advantages. One of the finest examples of
Oran is Ramdeora in the Jaisalmer District in Rajasthan. Species in most of
the Orans are Prosopis cineraria, Zizyphus mauritiana and Salvadora sp. In Jaisalmer
District most of the Orans support Caparris aphylla. Shrubs include Calotropis
procera in Jaisalmer and Zizyphus sp. in Jodhpur Districts. However, comparatively
sacred groves in Aravallis and Vindhyas are larger in area coverage.
Important Orans in Sirohi, a semi-desert district in Rajasthan,
include Pichheshwar Mahadeo near Pindwara, Voreshwar Mahadeo in Sheoganj, Sarneshwar
Mahadeo near Sirohi (famous for its step-well), Mochal Mataji in Sheoganj (particularly
famous for animals like Chinkara and Neelgai), Baleshwari Mataji Oran in Pesua
village (famous for a very large Rayan tree) and Varada Hanuman ji which supports
several old Prosopis cineraria trees.
Scholars are not unanimous about the origin of sacred groves.
It is often believed that during shifting cultivation a part of the forest is
left undisturbed. Here all the species found in the area are protected. These
areas might have developed as sacred groves (Hazra, 1974 & 1980, Gadgil
& Vartak, 1976). Such sacred groves often protect watersheds and water sources.
There is a popular theory that sacred groves that protect a water-shed or water
source might have originated because of the people's belief that a deity located
near the grove yields water for agriculture. However, it is also possible that
groves are the result of the reasoned assertion rather than the instinctive
behaviour of the communities. As an editorial in Down to Earth (1994) points
out, 'To use sacred groves as an assertion that people in India and other tropical countries have been aware, from very early times, that their forests are ecologically
fragile is a statement of the obvious. The decline of forest cover has undoubtedly
grave consequences. Denuded of tree cover, tropical lands move quickly towards
infertility and erosion. Sacred groves uphold the notion that nature must be harnessed or used only within limits.'
In a state like Rajasthan, where water is scarce for farming,
animal husbandry and drinking purposes, it is understandable. Forests in hills
reduce the runoff and help in ground water recharge. The water thus becomes
available in the Bawdi (step-well) or pool located within
the sacred grove during the lean months. Water also brings minerals and fertilisers
in rich quantities. It is then logical that such resources are protected and
conserved by the people. People might have institutionalised these arrangements
during the course of time by attaching sacred value to it, to make collective
management easy and long-lasting. Sacred groves are the result of a complex
ethno-scientific thinking of the local communities (Pandey, 1996).
Biodiversity and resource use
Floral biodiversity in scared groves is very rich. Sacred
groves not only yield several non-timber forest products, they also harbour
multiple-use livelihood goods. Resources that are traditionally obtained from
trees and plants located in sacred groves include fodder, fruits, dry fallen
wood, seeds and ethno-medicine. Sacred groves are the important source of water
for traditional irrigation systems in Aravallis.
These areas also provide habitat, water and nest-sites for
wildlife and birds. Several species of honey-bees nest in large trees in sacred
groves. Honey not only provides livelihood to the people who collect and sell
it in the local market, it also saves bees from local extinction. Thus Peeple
(Ficus religiosa), Bargad (Ficus benghalensis) and Gular (Ficus glomerata) trees
are important for sustainability of the honey industry and local employment.
Important trees like Neem (Azadirachta indica) abound in sacred groves. Neem
is an important ethno-botanical
tree. Khajjur (Phoenis sp.) trees provide carbohydrate in the form of dry fruits
to the local people. It also gives them employment through the collection and
sale of leaves used for broom-making.
Khajjur groves located near Deola and Zhed are some important
roosting places for fruit-bats. Several cavity-nesting birds excavate their
nest in these trees. Large trees in forest areas in Aravallis are becoming rare.
Trees in groves provide nest and roost-sites for birds that help farmers by
eliminating insect pests. One of the studies found that sacred groves of Aravallis
provide cavity nest-sites to three species of parakeets, seven species of owl,
one species of kingfisher, five species of woodpeckers, two species of barbets,
two species of mynas and two species of tits. It also offers nest sites for
one species of roller, tree creeper and hoopoe. It is also believed that seven
other species could be breeding in these areas; however, no substantial evidence
was available during this study.
Some sacred groves support only one species of trees. e.g.
Malpur, Rama Rathore, Valiakheda and Dhaikhera harbour teak trees (Tectona grandis),
while Zed and Devla groves support Khajjur trees. Sacred groves in Vindhyas
mainly consist of Dhok (Annogeissus pendula), Khakhra (Butea monosperma) in
the hills and undulating plains. However, sacred groves along the water streams
mainly consist of Arjun (Terminalia arjuna), Jamun (Syzygium cuminii).
Karneshwar Sacred, located in the outskirts of Kota, is one
of the finest examples of agrove located along the stream. It supports at least
53 species of birds and several other species of animals. It has a water pool
where several species of fish, water birds and waders reside.
Species of trees include Terminalia arjuna, Anogeissus pendula, Diospyros nelanoxylon,
Syzygium cuminii, Mangifera indica, Ficus religiosa, Ficus benghalensis, Ficus
glomerata etc. Several species of cavity-nesting birds excavate nests.
The Dardevi sacred grove in Kota supports lofty trees of
Terminalia arjuna, Mitragyna parvifolia, Diospyros melanoxylon and Syzygium
cuminii. The presiding deity is the Dardevi Mata, the family goddess of the
erstwhile ruling family of Kota. Now, it is the only known natural habitat of
Pandanus species in Kota District.
Jharan Mahadeo sacred grove in Jhalawar is situated along
the stream leading to a large tank that ensures round the year supply of water
to the city of Jhalawar. This is the only green patch in the area. It is important
because it protects catchment that might otherwise be silted very
quickly in the absence of vegetation. Rare plants include Bambusa hamiltonii
and Scleichera oleosa. It is also important because it is a de facto sanctum
sanctorum of threatened plants, all of which have become extinct in the adjoining
area outside the grove. The Jharan Sacred
Grove is also an indicator and benchmark of forests that might have existed
in the region. Today, it is a natural laboratory, a habitat island, a genebank,
and a store-house of ethno-medicine. There is a perennial water spring. The
Forest Department has run a forest nursery inside the
groves for the last 50 years for the production of seedlings for plantations
and distribution. This ensures the survival of the grove in its original condition.
Management and religious belief
People do not harm sacred groves mainly because of socio-religious
traditions and fear of the unknown, believing that those who cut or use an axe
in a sacred grove may be harmed by the presiding deity. There is a legend about
Ekpaniya Bavsi sacred grove in the Madar village in
Udaipur. About 100 years ago somebody wanted to cut a Haldu (Haldina cordifolia)
tree from the forest. From the first cut, milk flowed down, and water in the
second cut. The third cut yielded blood and the axe-man lost his sight. Sight
could only be regained when the axe-man promised to construct a new temple for
Ekpaniya Bavsi. These beliefs might have strongly influenced conservation of
Continuous community protection of sacred groves has resulted
in several large sized trees. For example, there is a large tree of Churail
(Holoptelia integrifolia) growing in Amrakji sacred grove. This is the largest
tree of this species in India, having a height more than 33 metres, and its
girth is 6.91 metres.
Usually, only fallen and ripe fruits are collected from the
grove. Wood from mature trees is used to repair religious places. Dead and fallen
wood is also used for religious functions such as Annakut i.e. a religious community
feast. Wood is also used for funerals. Trees are not cut or removed for other
uses. However, forest products including wood are harvested from temple forests
dedicated to Lord Shrinath ji in Ghasiar. It is possible that during severe
drought some species may be lopped for fodder. Such species are Khakhra (Butea
monosperma), Neem (Azadirachta indica), Godal (Lannea coroman-delica), Ber (Zizyphus
mauritiana), Salar (Boswellia serrata), Khejadi (Prospis cineraria), Ronjh (Acacia
leucophloea), Bargad (Ficus benghalensis) etc.
Pipal (Ficus religiosa) trees growing on the bunds of Johad
(sacred ponds) in Alwar district are lopped for fodder. Water from Johad is
used for limited irrigation and for drinking purposes for livestock. Other sacred
groves provide water for drinking and limited irrigation.
There is an important sacred grove near Udaipur. Ubeshwar
Mahadeo has a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva. It is situated close to a water
stream and thus serves as a watering and resting place for people and livestock.
Kishore Saint (1994) points out that, by custom, no cowdung is removed from
the area, and is allowed to decay or dry. The dried dung cakes are used to cook
bati (ball-like local bread) by villagers and pilgrims who visit the temple.
The arrangement ensures the sanctity of the grove and provides ample stock of
fuel to all.
Sacred groves also provide meeting places for the community
to discuss socio-religious and economic issues and to resolve their personal
The Baug: Sacred Gardens
The Baug is a ethno-silvihorticultural garden planted near
settlements for fruit, fodder, fuelwood, medicine, NTFPs and shade. They are
the backbone of indigenous methods of drought prevention, acquisition of entitlements
and food security. Probably no other landscape is as productive and valuable
as the Baug. The biodiversity consists of utility trees such as Mangifera indica,
Madhuca latifolia, Feronia limonia, Syzygium cuminii etc. We were able to find
Baug in Udaipur, Kota, Bundi, Baran and Jhalawar districts in Rajasthan. An
excellent Baug exists near a village inside the Darrah Wildlife Sanctuary in
Kota. Surrounded by cultivation, it has Mangifera indica, Tamarindus indica,
Phoenix sp. and other important species. It was supposed to have been planted
by local rulers. These gardens are similar to the Baugh found in the Bundelkhand
region (Panna, Chhatarpur, Sagar, Damoh of M.P. and Jhansi in U.P.) and Baghelkhand
(Satna, Rewa, Sidhi and Shahdol in M.P.).
Sacred gardens are cultivated counterparts of sacred groves.
Every garden has a sacred place dedicated to a village deity. Green felling
is totally banned by the community, only dead and fallen wood is removed by
the owner (Kapoor and Pandey, 1998).
Temple forests, by virtue of their size and visible locations,
are comparatively studied more than other forms of traditional forest management.
Some studies are available on temple forests of India, China, Nepal and Thailand
(see for example, Menzies, 1988; Ingles; 1990, Chandrakanth et al., 1990; Karnataka
Forest Department in India, 1988, among others).
Temple forests are managed and maintained to serve the temple.
This may include economic, ecological, social and religious functions. In Rajasthan
many forests are managed to meet the requirement of temples, which in turn support
religious and social functions. Shri Nath ji temple in Rajasthan, India, has
a large temple forest owned by the Temple Trust, and a sacred grove located
in Gautameshwar forest block. Temple Trust management does not derive authority
from state forest regulations. Management includes protection against grazing,
fire, illicit felling, and fencewall breach. Similarly, Karnataka Forest Department
has a programme for development of sacred groves and temple forests (Chandrakanth
and Romm, 1991).
Sacred Corridors are locally protected riverbanks by villagers
in the name of Lord Shiva. Long stretches of Karai van or riparian forests are
protected in several places along the river Chambal. Examples of such sacred
corridors in Kota are Gaipernath and Garadia Mahadeo in Kota. Sacred corridors
along the river Chambal attract hundreds of visitors during the annual religious fair dedicated to Lord Shiva.
Creating Groves: Planting and Deification of Neem by
The Gujjar people of Rajasthan have a unique practice of
neem (Azadirachta indica) planting and worshipping as neem narayan or neem-god.
A Gujjar settlement normally starts near a water source, stream or river. Initially
few huts are constructed, and neem saplings, brought either from other settlements
or from the wild, are planted in the enclosure around the hut. Gujjars worship Neem as the abode of God Deonarayan. In a few years these trees start producing
viable seeds that germinate naturally amidst home-enclosures. Some of these
seedlings attain tree form as Gujjars take every care to nurse the wild seedlings.
This pattern is replicated around all huts in the settlement
simultaneously. Thus, a Gujjar settlement appears like a human-inhabited sacred
grove. For example, Kalyakui settlement, a sub village, or Dhani as they are
called locally in Kota district in Rajasthan, has about 50 houses. Every house
has a large enclosure, chiefly made of random rubble or brushwood, for livestock
rearing. Gujjars being a pastoral community, they keep livestock in the same
enclosure around the dwelling house. Thus, neem trees provide shade and air-conditioning
for the livestock. Summers are particularly intense and difficult for buffalos
in Rajasthan. Neem shade gives respite in the intense summer noons. Neem is
also used as a veterinary medicine. Leaves are used for wound dressing and decoction
is given orally for deworming.
Size and frequency of neem trees can be a fairly reliable
indicator of the age and history of the settlement. The larger the girth and
crown, the older the tree. Similarly, older settlements have more neem trees
than the recent ones.
Neem trees are also planted, or naturally growing seedlings
assisted to develop, in the outskirts of settlements in the form of a Deonarayan
Sacred Grove, believed to be the abode of village deity God Deonarayan. Sometimes,
the tree itself is called neem narayan. Kota district in Rajasthan, India, has
about 600 Gujjar settlements, where an estimated 70,000 trees of various age
and dimensions are thriving.
This has far-reaching advantages for the Forest Department.
Plantations near Gujjar settlements should have a predominance of neem saplings.
Planting neem will not only meet the fodder requirements during scarcity, but
will not be removed by people.
Neem seeds can be a sustainable source of income, and thereby
become a source of entitlement to the people. We need to establish market links
for seeds. Either Forest Departments or traders can procure seeds from collectors
and households. Similarly, neem seedlings can be distributed through Gujjar
dominated Village Forest Protection and Management Committees. These seedlings
will have better chances of survival. Additional income thus provides entitlement
security and access to money.
Threats to the Sacred Sites
Sacred groves currently face various threats like submer-gence,
clear felling, mining, quarry, encroachment and other depletive factors. For
example, a part of Ubeshwarji sacred grove was destroyed by submergence because
of construction of an anicut across the stream flowing through the grove. Taneshwarji
sacred grove is threatened by mining and stone quarrying. Amrakji sacred grove,
that protects a large specimen of Holoptelia integrifolia, was threatened by
encroachers who wanted to set up industries around the grove. Amrakji sacred
grove provides drinking water to livestock reared by people in a nearby village.
Malpur sacred grove, in a private land holding, was clear felled because it
contains valuable teak-wood. No sufficient regeneration effort was made to restore
the groves by the owners who gave consent to fell the groves. Felling in other
groves has been stopped only after the intervention of the Forest Department.
Orans are threatened because of increasing pressure from
population and livestock. Several encroachments have taken place, and worse,
they have been regularised by the Governments. Area and legal status of several
Orans has not been clearly defined. Unfortunately, these lands have not even
been declared as forest lands, hence effective legislation is not applied in
the case of offenders.
Eroding community values have made the matter worse. Lack
of faith in the younger generation is a problem. This situation is similar throughout
the country. For example a well researched study on social and anthropological
aspects of sarana (sacred groves) in Madhya Pradesh by Drs Patnaik and Pandey
(1998) concludes that saranas are fairly degraded landscapes with over-mature
Shorea robusta trees with hardly any regeneration because of open grazing, non-timber
forest produce collection, and various other biotic pressures. We need to reverse
Sacred Grove Conservation
Aravalli deovan conservation
To restore the sacred groves of Aravallis a programme Aravalli
Deovan Sanrakshan Abhiyan (Aravalli Sacred Grove Conservation) was launched
in 1992. This programme includes protection of groves, planting of indigenous
species, soil and water conservation and participatory approach to restoration.
Some of the restored groves include Moria Ka Khuna, Jhameshwarji, Amrakji, Ubeshwarji,
Dhinkli, Haldu Ghati, Banki, Khokhariya Ki Nal, and Ambua sacred groves (Pandey
and Singh, 1995a & b). Moria Ka Khuna sacred grove is located inside the
forest in Udaipur. It has the best bamboo clumps in Aravallis, in terms of culm
dimensions and clump area. A bamboo plantation has been raised in the adjoining
50 ha. of land to extend the area of the grove.
Large tracts of tree-bearing land in otherwise desolate districts
in western Rajasthan are called Orans. These Orans are identical to sacred groves
in Aravallis and they offer similar advantages.
Important technical inputs being addressed are the constitution
of Village Forest Protection and Management Committees, training on sacred groves
conservation for people, NGOs and foresters, documentation of sacred groves
and bio-diversity, participatory planting and
seed sowing of local species, soil and water conservation, restoration, planting
of ethno-silvicultural refugia, seed collection from species growing in sacred
groves, and afforestation of local, rare and threatened trees around the sacred
groves located in forest lands.
Societal and legal issues being addressed include public
education, awareness and legal action against those who violate the community
and legal protection norms.
This programme has only been launched in the Udaipur district
by Udaipur South Forest Division. It needs to be replicated in Dungarpur, Banswara,
Sirohi, Chittorgarh, Rajsamand and other areas in Rajasthan, and the country.
There is an urgent need to address this problem for the following reasons:
- 1. Threats to sacred groves are high and on the increase.
2. Documentation of the practice is required to effectively restore, manage
and conserve the threatened groves.
3. Traditional resource management practices can provide a clue to the modern
scientific forestry and participatory forestry. It will help in management,
regeneration, conservation and sustainable use of forest resources.
4. Success gained in the programme at Udaipur should be replicated elsewhere.
In order to develop a sustainable cluster of forest plantation,
foresters need to establish a temporary nursery to obtain saplings for planting
and distribution. These temporary nurseries have been developed by an internationally
funded forestry project, Aravalli Afforestation Project, into Ethno-silvicultural
Refugia by planting the local trees for prudent and sustainable use by local
communities. Species planted are multiple-use trees such as Mahua (Madhuca indica),
Aam (Mangifera indica), Khajjur (Phoenix sylvestris), Khakhra (Butea monosperma),
Imli (Tamarindus indica), Jamun (Syzygium cuminii), Neem (Azadirachta indica)
etc. These are the most frequently used trees to obtain food, fodder, fuelwood,
small timber, fibre and medicine. In addition, they serve ecological functions
in offering nest, forage and roost sites for wild animals. These species not
only yield multiple resources but also can grow on a variety of edaphic and
climatic conditions (Pandey 1993).
These Ethno-silvicultural Refugia are comparable to the traditional
sacred groves. The objects of the management of such groves are: to provide
traditional non-timber forest products and subsistence goods to the people;
nesting, roosting and foraging sites to the pest-controlling cavity nesting
birds and other wild animals; protecting the species that offer sites for beehives
and enhance the availability of honey; developing seedling orchards and seed
production areas of ethno-silvicultural species and sustaining the essential
ecological processes and life support systems. In Udaipur South Forest Division
such groves have been developed in several forest plantations.
We have discussed planting of ethno-silvicultural refugia
and the Aravalli Deovan Conservation Programme in southern Aravallis. We shall
now address some issues to bear in mind while implementing the programme.
1. Sacred groves are community protection areas. Though they
yield several direct benefits to the community, harvest of resources is restrained.
People would definitely benefit from restoration of sacred groves as ethnomedicines,
dead and fallen wood, seed collec-tion
for local afforestation programmes and limited irrigation from the water source
near the grove.
It is the local community organised and registered as village
forest protection and management committee that will ultimately carry out the
restoration work of the groves. Their aspiration and vision would be a major
guiding factor to restore the groves.
Studies should be carried out by the researchers in active
collaboration with the community. We have already pointed out the lack of documentation
and inventorisation. It becomes necessary to explore various issues in detail.
It will help with protection.
2. The role of grassroot organisations in actual implementation
is manifold. Organisations involved are primarily village forest protection
and management committees and small NGOs. Village forest protection and management
committees are constituted under an enabling resolution passed by the Government.
Every household from a village is a member of VFPMC. An executive body constituted
and elected by the villagers attends to day to day functioning. The village
forest protection and management committee maintains a bank account. Every committee
has a registration certificate and number. The VFPMCs in Aravallis have excelled
in participatory forestry in collaboration with the Forest Department in Rajasthan.
The efforts are of a pioneering nature.
Local non-governmental organisations located in the district
headquarters will be of help in training, study and assistance to VFPMC in actual
implementation. NGOs in Rajasthan helped in several biodiversity conservation
programmes. Their collaboration with the Forest Department and communities has
produced a significant results.
We acknowledge the kind support of Dr Ram Prasad, Director,
IIFM, Bhopal, Mr D.C. Sood, IFS, PCCF Rajasthan, Mr R.P. Kapoor, IFS, CCF and
Mr D.P. Govil, IFS, CCF Rajasthan. Prof. K.C. Malhotra, ISI, Calcutta is gratefully
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About the Author
Deep Narayan Pandey has been a practising forester in the
Indian Forest Service for 15 years. Currently he is an Associate Professor of
Forestry at the Indian Institute of Forest Management, Bhopal, India. He is
also co-ordinating the International Network on ethnoforestry. He has been awarded
the highest Indian national honour, IPVM Award, in forestry, for his field work.
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