& Conservation

Sacred groves are forests or natural spaces protected by human communities who believe that preserving them in an undisturbed state expresses our unique relationship with the divine, or with nature.

  • Osun Osogbo, Nigeria
    Regarded as the abode of Osun, a Yoruba goddess of fertility, this grove and its river is one of the last remnants of primary high forest in southern Nigeria. Before extensive urbanisation, sacred forests were found on the edges of most Yoruba cities.
  • Hedo Utaki, Japan
    ‘Utaki’ is the term used for a sacred place—often a grove, cave, or mountain—in the Okinawa Islands of Japan. Most utaki have several sacred trees and simple stone altars.
  • Maardu Hiis, Estonia
    ‘Hiis’ is an Estonian term used to denote a sacred natural site, often a tree-covered hilltop. There are more than 500 known sacred groves in Estonia, often associated with folk traditions, some of which are thought to be thousands of years old.
  • Myat-seli, Ingushtia
    Small stone shrines and temples dot the sacred mountains in the Republic of Ingushetia in the Russian Federation, considered holy since ancient times.
  • Oak Flat, USA
    Apaches have lived on, worshipped and cared for this site since before recorded history, and continue to hold important ceremonies here. It is considered a blessed dwelling place for ‘Ga’an’ (messengers between the people and ‘Usen’, the creator).

Historically, such groves were found in some form or other across the world—from ancient Greece and the Middle East to the Americas. Today they are most prominent in places like India, Japan and West Africa.

In India, groves can be found across the country—amidst the grasslands of Meghalaya, hill slopes of the Himalayas, central Indian plains, Rajasthani deserts, coasts of Kerala, and agricultural landscapes of West Bengal and Karnataka. Most groves in India have pre-Vedic origins and are often associated with indigenous communities. They come in all sizes, some covering acres and acres of land while others are just small patches nurtured by a single family. Often, they serve as havens for animals and plants in landscapes subjected to deforestation.


Sacred Groves
recorded all over India
100,000–150,000 estimated

  • Mawphlang Sacred Forest, Meghalaya
    Covering some 192 acres in the east Khasi hills, it is believed to be the abode of the local deity Labasa, who protects this forest and the community from any mishap.
  • Thirayattam, Kerala
    Thirayattam is a ritual performing art form from Kerala, usually enacted in the courtyards of kaavukal (sacred groves) in the south Malabar region. It blends dance, theatre, music, satire, martial art and ritualistic function.
  • Bedni Bugyal, Uttarakhand
    In Uttarakhand, the term ‘bugyal’ refers to sacred alpine meadows. According to religious texts, Parvati and Shiva performed part of their marital rites in Bedni bugyal before proceeding towards Kailash. Every year, locals recreate this journey with a palanquin of Nanda Devi (or Parvati). Such meadows serve as a rich gene pool of plant diversity.
  • Chipko Andolan, Uttarakhand
    In 1973, in the Himalayan region of Uttarakhand, local tribespeople began a nonviolent resistance against widespread deforestation. It came to be known as Chipko Andolan (tree-hugging movement), and continues to inspire environmental movements around the world. In one area, women tied rakhi (sacred threads) around trees, in reference to the festival of Raksha Bandhan, which celebrates the bond between sisters and brothers.
  • Sacred Grove, Kodagu
    A sacred rainforest grove surrounded by paddyfields in Kodagu, Karnataka

Different communities have varied conventions used to protect these groves, such as prohibiting visitors from removing anything, even dead leaves and branches. Some allow people to take fruit and seeds fallen on the forest floor, while others permit limited extraction for non-commercial use.

Protecting Myristica Swamps & Wetlands

Myristica Swamps are often found within sacred groves, indicating that local communities have always understood their special importance. Wetlands in general, and Myristica swamps in particular, provide multiple services to local communities and the larger ecosystem.

Mattigar sacred grove, Uttara Kannada, Image.

The web-like structure of stilt tree roots prevents soil erosion, facilitates groundwater recharge, and reduces flooding in downstream villages. Water filtered by the swamp is used by communities for household consumption.

Local communities have noticed that swamps have cooler temperatures year-round compared to other habitat types.

The fruit of the Magnificent nutmeg and Kanara nutmeg are collected by local communities and eaten by various fruit-eating species of wildlife, including monkeys, hornbills, and squirrels.

Match the following Indian states to the names they use for ‘sacred grove’.

Chapter 06

Forest on Stilts: A Personal Essay

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