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Sacred Groves and Sacred Trees of Uttara Kannada

M. D. Subash Chandran Madhav Gadgil

There has been, of late, enormous interest in the study of nature conservation by traditional societies. The protection of patches of forest as sacred groves and of several tree species as sacred trees belong to the religion-based conservation ethos of ancient people all over the world. Although such practices became extinct in most parts of the world, basically due to changes in religion, and during recent times due to changes in resource use patterns, sacred groves and sacred trees continue to be of much importance in religion, culture and resource use systems in many parts of India. Despite many references to the sacred groves and sacred trees of India in early literature, the scientific study of them was initiated by Gadgil and Vartak (1975, 1976, 1981). Gadgil (1985) pioneered the view that sacred groves and sacred trees belong to a variety of cultural practices which helped Indian society to maintain an ecologically steady state with wild living resources. This view has been fortified by many later studies (Gadgil, 1985, 1991; Gadgil and Iyer, 1989; Malhotra, 1990; Subash Chandran and Gadgil, 1993a; and Joshi and Gadgil, 1991). There is also an increasing number of studies on the subject, and references to some of them have been made in this paper.

The present study on the sacred groves and sacred trees of Uttara Kannada, carried out under the aegis of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, was started in January 1991. The authors had been making studies on the sacred groves and sacred trees of Uttara Kannada as part of their regular ecological programmes in the district for the last many years. But here the emphasis has been more on sacred groves and sacred trees forming part of the village landscape and land use, both present and past. The work has been carried out mainly in Siddapur taluk.

Plants Related to Religion

The concept of the sacredness of plants "enters into every form of religion. . . . It rests on the earliest conceptions of the unity of life in nature, in the sense of communion and fellowship with the divine centre and source of life." The sacred tree is said to be deeply rooted in the primitive religious ideas of the human race: "In the history of religious development it lies behind the historic era" (Hastings, ed., 1934).

In the primitive totemic religion of the hunter-gatherer, as among the aboriginals of Australia, there existed within a clan’s hunting territory sacred locations identified by distinct landmarks like rocks, trees, lakes, rivers and ravines where the clans kept their sacred hoards. The essential feature of totemism is belief in a supernatural connection between a group of people and a group of objects like certain animal species, sometimes plants, or more rarely other objects. Usually there is a taboo on killing or eating an animal totem (Tokarev, 1989).

In totemism we find that plant species may be totems just as animal species or rocks are. On the other hand, the protection of plant species or groves or their planting on grounds of sacredness could be considered a more advanced stage in the evolution of religion. Such groves and sacred trees are associated more with agricultural and pastoral societies.

Thus in the Caucasus mountains each community had its own sacred grove. Especially worshipped were sanctuaries built among enormous age-old trees which were never to be cut down. The ancient Slavic people worshipped the spirits of nature, especially of woodlands. The German tribes also had their own sacred forests, which were the venue of public offerings and various rituals. When tribes began uniting, these sites became centres for inter-tribal religious worship. For the Germans the sacred groves served the purpose of sanctuaries and temples (Tokarev, 1989).

Hughes (1994), in his study of the environmental problems of the ancient Greeks and Romans, gives us a rare portrait of the sacred groves of the Mediterranean region, glimpses of which are given in the following few paragraphs.

The Greek and Roman landscapes were dotted with hundreds of sacred places. Sacred enclosures formed one of the major categories of land use. These usually contained groves of trees and springs of water; within them the environment was preserved, as a rule, in its natural state. As Seneca (1st century ad) remarked, "If you come upon a grove of old trees that have lifted up their crowns above the common height and shut out the light of the sky by the darkness of their interlacing boughs, you feel that there is a spirit in the place, so lofty is the wood, so lone the spot, so wondrous the thick unbroken shade."

Ovid said, "Here stands a silent grove black with the shade of oaks; at the sight of it anyone could say, ‘there is a spirit here!’ "

In Virgil (1st century bc) is found a reference to the rural folk wondering on seeing an old tree-covered capitoline hill: "Some god has this grove for He also noted that the dwelling!" Gods favour wild trees "unsown by mortal hand".

Pliny the Elder (ad 23-79) indicated that trees were the first temples of the gods, and "even now simple country people dedicate a tree of exceptional height to a god . . . ."

Aquelus spoke of travellers praying under the trees on "a little sacred hill fenced all around". But the grove of Daphne was ten miles in circumference. A grove near Lerna stretched all the way down a mountainside to the sea. Alexander the Great found an entire island dedicated to a goddess identified as Artemis (Hughes, 1994).

The Romans often personified the spirit of plant life. The ‘forest king’ was the human personification of the spirit of the sacred tree, the oak, his living double (Frazer, 1935).

The ancient Greeks represented the spirit of conservation in the shape of a formidable protector of animals and plants, the goddess Artemis. She was the protector not only of wildlife but of the wilderness itself. In ancient religious thought, Artemis endowed the wilderness with sacredness (Hughes, 1990).

Frazer, in The Golden Bough (1935), traces the beginnings of sacred groves to the hunting and gathering people of the palaeolithic. Among the Kikuyu of Africa, he says, "Groves of this tree (the migumu) are sacred. In them no axe may be laid to any tree, no branch broken, no firewood gathered, no grass burnt; and wild animals which have taken refuge there may not be molested. In these sacred groves sheep and goats are sacrificed and prayers are offered for rain or fine weather or in behalf of sick children".

The Mbeere tribe of East Africa had many sacred groves, areas ranging from a quarter of a hectare to three hectares, where tree cutting was taboo. Some of these groves survived up to the 1970s, providing excellent sites for examining the vegetation that had existed a century earlier, as several species of trees were rare or not seen at all elsewhere (Little and Brokensha, 1987).

The abundantly productive sycamore (Ficus sycamorus) and the date palm (Phoenix dactylyfera) were represented in the temple architecture of ancient Egypt. The worship of trees and groves was prevalent in Arabia, Persia, Assyria, the British Isles, Scandinavia, China, India, Ceylon and many other parts of the world (Anonymous, 1971).

In the Cyclops Mountains, as elsewhere in New Guinea, tribal stories concerned with descent, beliefs and taboos are closely connected to the forest, its animals and land, with conservation as a value inherent in most traditional beliefs and reflected in them. The Sentani and Tabla people respect the peaks of the Cyclops Mountains as the resting places of their ancestors. Nature has such an overwhelming influence that various clans refrain from hunting birds like the cassowary, the wagtail, lorries (a species of parrot) and hornbills due to a totemic relationship with these species (Michell, De Fretes and Poffenberger, 1990).

The Indonesians have a striking cultural similarity with Indians. The banyan tree, Ficus benghalensis, is considered sacred. Springs are often found under mature banyan trees. Indonesians believe that holy spirits reside in the trees and ensure the availability of clean water. For the Javanese, sacred spirits dwell deep within forests. Shadow plays like Gunungan have a figure that illustrates the forest ecosystem in which plants, animals, human beings, holy spirits and devils live together (Sastrapradja, 1988).

There could be many reasons why the groves vanished from Europe. A kind of multiple use was allowed in groves. Although they were strictly protected in Greece and Rome, religious use of their resources was allowed. As much wood might be taken as was necessary for sacrifices. Animals in the grove, such as goats and deer, might be captured and offered to the deity. Trees in the grove could be used in building a temple inside it or even away from it. Wood from the sacred trees was believed to keep its magical powers when fashioned into other objects and was used for making a variety of objects like statues of gods, staffs, sceptres, etc. Wood was even supplied to private persons at a fixed price for sacrifices (Hughes, 1984).

It seems the groves also suffered from the pressures of urbanization, as baths, stadia, gymnasiums, schools, etc., were established in them. At times they also had to cater to the timber needs of the military. What caused the final downfall of the groves in Europe? In the words of Hughes (1984) :

The groves lasted as places of economic and religious importance down through the Christianization of the Roman Empire. As centres of pagan worship, they became the objects of Christian zeal, again both religious and economic. The emperor Theodosius II (5th century ad) issued an edict directing that the groves be cut down unless they had already been appropriated for some purpose compatible with Christianity. A few of them became monastery gardens and churchyards, and here and there in the Mediterranean even today one will find a gigantic old tree that is supposed, however unlikely it might seem, to have sheltered Plato or Hippocrates, and has been spared for that reason.

Sacred Groves and Sacred Trees: The Indian Scenario

Due mainly to the rise of dogmatic religions like Christianity and Islam, which advocated faith in one god and were explicitly for the eradication of ‘pagan’ practices, the tradition of maintaining sacred groves and sacred trees vanished from most countries. Though Brahmanic Hinduism has not been opposed to several of the local cults involving the worship of sacred groves and sacred trees, there has been an almost imperceptible transformation of the grove into the temple. Hinduism itself has grown out of the amalgamation of scores of local cults which are often nature-based. Therefore the worship of plants, groves, animals and natural objects like rivers, mounts, ant-hills and rocks continues to have some place in it. Outdoor sanctuaries were the first temples of the gods. A sacred place demarcated for a deity was called temenos in Greek and templum in Latin.

Brosse (1989) observed:

The sacred grove was at the origin of the temple, whose columns were initially trees, and later of the Christian church which still evokes it by the alignment of its pillars, the semidarkness within it, and the soft coloured light that filters through its stained glass windows.

India has rich folk traditions of the conservation of biodiversity and the sustainable use of natural resources, to which at least its ‘ecosystem people’ still adhere to varying degrees (Gadgil and Vartak, 1976; Gadgil, 1991). The protection of whole communities as sacred ponds and groves is a remarkable feature of the Indian subcontinent. One of the most widespread of the traditions in India is the protection given to trees of the genus Ficus, which dot the countryside and are often the only large trees in the midst of towns and cities. They are now recognized by biologists as keystone resources of tropical forests, ‘fruiting’ often at times when most other species are without fruits (Terborgh, 1986).

Says Ashton (1988), a tropical forest ecologist, on the traditional Indian perceptions of the sacred in nature:

The Indian sub-continent is without doubt the world centre of human cultural diversity. . . . The Hindus have inherited perceptions of a people who have lived since ancient times in a humid climate particularly favourable for forest life. Settled people, they see themselves as one with the natural world, as both custodians and dependants. The people of India continue to harvest an astonishing diversity of products from the forest. Forests of the mountains and watersheds have traditionally been sacred; springs and the natural landscape in their vicinity have attracted special veneration. The Hindus learned from their predecessors millennia ago, a mythology, sociology and technology of irrigation that has enabled the most intensive yet sustainable agriculture humanity has so far devised.

It is mainly in the hilly and mountainous areas of India like the Himalayas, the Western Ghats and central India that ancient practices survive, sometimes in their pristine form. Studies on sacred groves reveal that they are priceless treasures of great ecological, biological, cultural and historical value. In the evolution of religion sacred groves once played a vital role, but perished often without leaving a trace as in Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East. The situation in India used to be quite different, at least until the early British period. This is quite evident from the observations of D. Brandis, the first Inspector General of Forests in India:

Very little has been published regarding sacred groves in India, but they are, or rather were, very numerous. I have found them in nearly all provinces. As instances I may mention the Garo and Khasia hills which I visited in 1879, the Devara Kadus or sacred groves of Coorg . . . and the hill ranges of the Salem district in the Madras Presidency. . . .well known are the Swami Shola on the Yelagiris, the sacred grove at Pudur on the Javadis and several sacred forests on the Shevaroys. These are situated in the moister parts of the country. In the dry region sacred groves are particularly numerous in Rajputana. In Mewar they usually consist of Anogeissus pendula, a moderate sized tree with small leaves, which fall early in the dry season. . . . Before falling the foliage of these trees turns a beautiful yellowish red, and at that season these woods resemble our Beech forests in autumn. In the southernmost States of Rajputana, in Partabgarh and Banswara, in a somewhat moister climate, the sacred groves, here called Malwan, consist of a variety of trees, Teak among the number. These sacred forests, as a rule, are never touched by the axe, except when wood is wanted for the repair of religious buildings, or in special cases for other purposes (Brandis, 1897).

Brandis also referred to a "remarkable little forest of Sal (Shorea robusta)" near Gorakhpur being maintained by a Muslim saint, Mian Sahib. The forest was in good condition and well protected. Nothing was allowed to be cut except wood to feed the sacred fire and "this required the cutting annually of a small number of trees which were carefully selected among those that showed signs of age and decay".

In the sacred forests or devarakadus of Coorg also, firewood and construction materials were removed only for the temple’s sake (Shri Satyan, 1971). The Imperial Gazetteer of India, Vol. XI (1908), noted that in Coorg devarakadus were set apart for Ayyappadeva. These were "untrodden by human foot and reserved for the abodes or hunting grounds of deified ancestors".

Rao (1969-70) observed that the sites of the gramadevatas (village goddesses) in Andhra "are almost always in the vicinity of trees".

All over Chota Nagpur, Risley (1908) remarked,

there are many jungle-clad hills, . . . the favourite haunts of bears, which beaters of the Animistic races steadfastly refuse to approach until the mysterious power which pervades them has been conciliated by the sacrifice of a fowl. Everywhere we find sacred groves, the abode of equally indeterminate beings, who are represented by no symbols and of whose form and functions no one can give an intelligible account, which have not yet been clothed with individual attributes; they linger on as survivals of the impersonal stage of early religion.

Kavus, the sacred groves of Kerala, are "sacred places where trees and plants were allowed to grow undisturbed and where reptiles, birds and animals could have free living without fear of poaching or interference by man". These kavus are of two kinds. Some are in the midst of human habitation and in most cases attached to households or not far away from them. These kavus used to have the serpent (sarpakavu) or Durga (durgakavu) as deities; but of late these distinctions got blurred due to both being worshipped in the same kavu. The ayyappankavus, on the other hand, exist in the mountain ranges engulfed in forests (Nayar, 1987).

A serpent kavu, an abode of snakes, was an indispensable adjunct to well-to-do Nair and Namboodiri houses in Kerala. An early 19th century estimate states the number of kavus in the erstwhile province of Travancore in south Kerala as 15,000 (Pillai, 1940).

Sacred trees like Ficus and Mimusops elenji, remnants of sacred groves, or intact groves with rare plants and sacred ponds, are associated with the Bhagavati or Mother Goddess temples of Kerala. Behind the facade of vela and pooram, the colourful cultural festivals of the beautiful temple complexes of Kerala, with their caparisoned elephants, men masked as demons or deities, sword-wielding oracles dressed in red and dipping blood, the exhilarating panchavadya — the music from five instruments, with the drum in the lead — are the rapidly fading folklore about entangled groves and their mysterious deities.

Ramakrishnan (1992) observes that the climax vegetation at higher elevations in Meghalaya, as at Cherrapunji, is today represented only by sacred groves. According to A.S. Chauhan of the Botanical Survey of India, the sacred groves of Meghalaya, totalling about 1000 km2 of undisturbed natural vegetation, are found scattered in small pockets all over the Khasi and Jaintia Hills. With heavy pressure of population on the land, these groves remain the last refugia for 700 rare plant species (Down to Earth, 1994).

Early travellers like Hunter in 1879 and Gurdon in 1914 made frequent mention of the very conspicuous groves of evergreen forests on the Khasi plateau in Meghalaya (Rodgers, unpublished). Bor (1942) stated that all evergreen forest patches on the Khasi plateau were either sacred groves or land unfit for cultivation.

In the Nepal Himalayas Murton (unpublished) observed sacred trees, small groves and larger sacred forests. Such groves and forests are often the only remains of the original vegetation, whose presence in the landscape is dramatically observable on large deforested and terraced slopes.

Not only did sacred groves exist in more favourable climatic conditions, but their presence is noticed even in the deserts of Rajasthan. For instance the Bishnois, a sect of Hindus, are known for assiduously protecting khejadi (Prosopis cineraria) trees and groves (Sankhala and Jackson, 1985).

Sacred Groves and Trees: Scriptural and Historical References

The pipal tree or asvatta (Ficus religiosa) has had a conspicuous position in the cultural landscape of north India and human collective memory for more than 5,000 years. It was depicted even on Mohenjo Daro seals. Buddha himself found enlightenment under a pipal tree (Mansberger, 1988). Buddha is reported to have been born in a sacred grove, Lumbinivana, full of sal trees (Gadgil, 1985).

The conservation of forest patches, groves and trees probably dates back to the pre-epic period in Indian history. Karve (1974) and Gadgil and Guha (1992) state that the introduction of iron in India about 1000 bc was instrumental in the march of agriculture and pastoralism into the forest-clad Gangetic Valley. The combined use of iron and fire made it possible to bring the middle Gangetic plains under intensive agricultural-pastoral colonization with wet paddy cultivation as a key element. The destruction of forests with their wild animals amounted to weakening the resource base of the food gatherers. The burning of the khandavavana on the banks of Yamuna by Krishna and Arjuna, though couched in terms of a great ritual sacrifice to please the fire god Agni, was evidently to provide land for Arjuna’s agricultural-pastoral clan.

Vana, though meaning forest, could have been sacred forest. Sita was kept captive in the ashokavana, or forest of Saraca indica, by Ravana. This beautiful small tree is a sacred tree of India and grows in the shade of humid tropical evergreen forests. The authors have seen the ashoka tree growing in many vanas (bana in Kannada) which are sacred to the people of Uttara Kannada. Early Buddhist literature reflects the agrarian landscape of the pre-Buddhist period. Around the gama (village) or suburban area lay the pasture or khetta, its woodland where the people gathered their regular biomass requirements, and its primeval uncleared forests like andhavana of Kosala, sitavana of Magadha, etc., which were retreats haunted by wild beasts and woodland spirits (Rapson, 1935) just as most sacred groves are the abodes of spiritual deities even today.

The Hindu scriptures, though they do not have much to say about sacred forests, do highlight the importance of planting trees and groves of trees. For instance the Vriksotsavavidhi of the Matsyapurana attaches great importance to the planting of trees and even to the celebration of the tree festival. The same purana states: "A son is equal to ten deep reservoirs of water and a tree planted is equal to ten sons". Other dharmsastras also prescribe the planting of trees: "Just as a good son saves his family, so a tree laden with flowers and fruits saves its owner from falling into hell, and one who plants five mango trees does not go to hell" (Kane, ed., 1958).

For Hindus the bel tree, Aegle marmelos, is associated with Shiva, tulasi with Vishnu, and fig (Ficus glomerata) with Dattatreya, the son of Trimurty. Pillai, (1986) refers to the sthalavrikshas associated with temples, the mango tree of Kanchipuram, the jambu tree of Jambukehavaram near Srirangam, and the tillai forest of Chidambaram.

In the association of gods with particular plant species we have a parallelism with the ancient Greeks. Oaks were said to belong to Zeus, willows to Hera, olives to Athena, laurel to Apollo, pines to pan, poplars to Hercules, and so on. However, inside the grove the deity was not identified with any special plant species (Hughes, 1984). This is also true for India.

Nakeera, the Tamil poet of the Sangam period, states that Lord Muruka could be found in the forest, in a place surrounded by water, rivers, tanks, meeting places under trees, new-grown groves, etc. The kadampa tree is likened to Lord Muruka himself. Sangam tradition holds that he is the owner of all the hilly tracts with rich groves (Ramachandran, 1990). Ayyappa, Aiyanar and Sasta (all considered to be the same) of south India is essentially a deity of the woods, whose province is to guard the fields, crops and herds of the peasantry and to drive away their enemies (Alexander, 1949; Pillai, 1939).

No temples existed in India during the Vedic period. They were not to be found in the pre-Buddhist period except for wooden ones. The ancient Buddhist sacred place was the stupa (Hastings, ed., 1934). The various gods and goddesses whom the indigenous population of peninsular India worshipped were not accustomed to dwell in the secluded atmosphere of temples; they loved the open air. Even today, for the gramadevata (village goddess) of south India there are no temples in many villages. The deity may be in the shadow of a big tree. Generally they are lodged in small shrines. In a good number of villages no object is placed to represent the deity and the tree itself is regarded as the embodiment of the deity (Ramanayya, 1983).

An interesting stage in the transformation of the sacred tree into the anthropomorphic form was observed by the Italian traveller Della Valle, who visited India in 1623–25. He found in Surat the worship of Parvati in the form of a tree. Her face was painted on the tree and offerings were of vegetable origin (Wheller and Macmillan, 1956).

The History of Sacred Groves and Sacred Trees

Gadgil and Vartak (1976) identify four important regions in India for sacred groves. These are (a) Khasia and Jaintia hills of north-east India, (b) the Western Ghats of Maharashtra and Karnataka, (c) the Aravalli hills of Rajasthan, and (d) Sarguja, Chanda and Bastar areas of central India. Uttara Kannada, where the authors have been engaged in ecological studies for more than one decade, was chosen for a case study of the sacred groves and sacred trees.


Uttar Kannada or North Canara is a district of Karnataka situated towards the middle of the west coast of the Indian peninsula. The hills of the Western Ghats, seldom rising beyond 600 metres but lower than 900 metres, cover the major part of the district except a narrow coastal strip, the continuity of which is broken by wide river mouths and backwaters. In common with the rest of the Western Ghats and the west coast, Uttara Kannada receives copious rainfall during the months of June–September. The mean annual precipitation is as high as 5000 mm along the crestline, with the coast, receiving 3000 mm; the drier east, which merges with the Deccan Plateau, receives only 1000 mm. The hilly landscape is full of narrow valleys, streams, gorges of rivers and breathtaking waterfalls, chief of which are the Jog falls along the river Sharavati with a sheer drop of 253 metres, the highest in India.

Bountiful rainfall and relatively low population promoted the growth of luxuriant forests which, though subjected to heavy commercial pressures during the last 150 years or so, still cover nearly 70 per cent of Uttara Kannada’s 10,200 km2 land surface. It is a meeting place of several ecosystems, namely marine, estuarine, riverine and a variety of land-based ones. The forests belong to the tropical evergreen, semi-evergreen, moist deciduous and dry deciduous types. There are also extensive savannized lands, degraded scrub jungles, remnant mangrove patches in the estuaries, barren lateritic plateaus and hills of the west coast, and sandy beaches lined with Calophyllum inophyllum, coconut and screw pine (Pandanus spp. ).

The waters support rich fisheries. Though cultivation is confined to only 13 per cent of its land surface, there is a bewildering variety of cultivated crops which include rice, coconut and arecanut, spices like pepper, cardamom, ginger and nutmeg; cocoa, cashew and fruit trees like mango, jack, Garcinia, sapota; other fruits like banana and pineapple; and a variety of vegetables which include cucurbit, brinjal, lady’s finger, onion, Amaranthus, Basella, radish, cauliflower, knolkol, and tuber crops like sweet potato, Dioscorea and aroids. Groundnut and other legumes are also popular. Millets, cotton, etc., are grown towards the drier eastern parts. Small patches of sugarcane are found all over the district.


It would be of some interest to speculate on the antiquity of the sacred groves of Uttara Kannada. The origin of the groves here is likely to have followed the introduction of agriculture. Palynological study in the district reveals a major vegetational change here, beginning 3500 years B.P., in the form of a decline of forests and the spread of savanna dominated by grasses. There was also a decline in the mangrove forests of esturaries. The reason is stated to be a climatic change towards drier conditions (Caratini et al., 1991).

Major civilizations of the world declined during the fourth millennium B.P. During this period of aridity the prosperity of the urban Harappans seems also to have declined. It was a period of the emergence of pastoral nomadism and of the abandonment of agriculture by pastoralists (Khazanov, 1986).

Despite this climatic change, we have no compelling reason to think of the natural replacement of forests by savanna and of the decline of mangroves, at least along the west coast and the lower portions of the Western Ghats. Some sacred groves also lend support to such a view. Here rainfall is of the order of 3,000 to 6,000 mm per annum and most natural forests would be of the evergreen type. The onset of drier conditions in all probability heralded the agricultural colonization of the wetter Uttara Kannada and other portions of South-west India (Subash Chandran, 1993). Agriculture was already being practised 3500 years ago by the Neochalcothic farmers of Hallur in the Tungabhadra Valley, towards the immediate east of Uttara Kannada (Alur, 1971).

With the climatic change during the fourth millennium B.P., when Harappan centres towards the creek of Saurashtra and the marshes of Kutch became less suitable for the cultivation of crops like rice, we may expect a stream of agriculturists moving south along the more humid and rainy west coast. Thus would begin reclamation of the fertile estuarine areas of Uttara Kannada through earthen embankments as well as by filling the shallower parts with soil dug from the coastal hills. The naturally fertile estuarine fields, called gajani, cleared of mangroves, and flooded during the rains, would be ideal for growing salt tolerant rice varieities like kagga, as is being done to this day. The beginning of estuarine agriculture would have been the major cause of the decline of mangroves (Subash Chandran, 1993). Moreover, the estuarine habitat continues to be suitable for the growth of mangroves, and there exists even today a sacred mangrove grove in Kumta. Interestingly, folklore says the legendary Parashurama retrieved the west coast from the sea and made it fit for human settlement.

All the species of forest plants found in the palynological studies of Caratini et al. (1993) in the untrammelled primeval forests continue to occur in Uttara Kannada. Some trees like Dipterocarpus indicus are found mainly confined to just a couple of sacred groves of Katlekan in Siddapur taluk and Karikan in Honavar taluk. The natural occurrence of Vateria indica, another Dipterocarp, is exclusive to just a single grove in Mattigar in Siddapur. Savannization and slash-and-burn cultivation would have been the main reasons for the hygrophilous Dipterocarps to vanish from most of Uttara Kannada. Since population was thin and forest patches cleared for cultivation small, the forests must have recovered in most places except in lands maintained as savannas through periodic burning. Therefore the vegetation of sacred groves, the relics of which remain to this day, dispute the theory of climatic change as the reason for forest decline and spread of savannas in Uttara Kannada (Subash Chandran, 1993).

Since the soils of the wet tropics are notoriously fragile, being prone to quick loss of fertility and massive erosion, the farmers who occupied the hilly interior of Uttara Kannada would take to permanent cultivation of rice in the narrow valleys and slash-and-burn cultivation for millets along the hill slopes and tops around their village settlements (Gadgil and Subash Chandran, 1988). Burnt ash enriches the soil with nutrients and has a neutralizing effect on soil acidity. Unlike the fire-sensitive and tall primary forest trees of evergreens, the secondary vegetation which sprouted on the cultivation fallows would provide more usable biomass like easily harvestable leaf manure and coppice shoots and hardwoods and bamboo for a variety of purposes. At the same time, the loss of evergreen forest would result in a decrease in scores of useful plant species like pepper, jackfruit, mango, cinnamon, Garcinia, etc., and canes for basketry. Streams and springs are adversely affected and fire-proneness increases in the ecosystem. The village communities would therefore learn to set aside substantial area of forest close to their settlements as safety forests. Before the arrival of organized religions, including Hinduism, when paganism, with deities in the groves or mountain cliffs or water sources would be more common, the safety forests would naturally turn into sacred places as well. Tree cutting here would be taboo, which is true to this day in many parts of the country.

Evaluating the small-scale refugia of peasant socieities, Joshi and Gadgil (1993) argue that such a system may permit biological resource use at near maximal sustainable level, while keeping the risk of resource extermination low. Such an interpretation is consistent with the fact that in the tribal state of Mizoram, the village woodlot subject to regulated use is termed the supply forest, while the adjacent sacred grove is called the safety forest (Malhotra, 1990).


We have thus noted that the kans forests are patches of often climax evergreen forest protected by shifting cultivators primarily on religious grounds. These kans, rich in biological diversity, are also places of worship for pre-Brahman peasant societies. All along the Western Ghats shifting cultivation was a very important form of land use which involved the clearing of primary forests, at least initially. However, there is growing evidence to suggest that the shifting cultivators followed certain ethics while dealing with the forest ecosystems. The most important aspect is the retention of often sizeable patches of forests from few hectares to a few hundred hectares as inviolable sacred groves. The kans of Uttara Kannada and neighbouring Shimoga district belong to this category of forest (Subash Chandran and Gadgil, 1993a; Subash Chandran, 1992b).

In the sacred kans timber felling became a taboo, insuring their preservation through the ages. But collection of various non-wood produce and sometimes of fallen leaves for manure was carried out, if the community had no other source, without endangering the ecology of the kans. Obviously referring to such sacred kans, Dr. Francis Buchanan (1870), emissary of the British East India Company who travelled through Uttara Kannada, remarked:

The forests are the property of the gods of the villages in which they are situated, and the trees ought not to be cut without having leave from the Gauda or headman of the village, whose office is hereditary, and who here also is priest (pujari) to the temple of the village god. The idol receives nothing for granting this permission; but the neglect of the ceremony of asking his leave brings his vengeance on the guilty person.

The taboo on cutting trees in the sacred kans continues to this day among the peasantry of Uttara Kannada, in spite of difficulties in getting forest biomass. Buchanan’s statement referring to village gods is relevant here:

Each village has a different god, some male, some female, but by the Brahmins they are called Saktis (power), as requiring bloody sacrifices to appease their wrath.

From this we may infer that the forests were virtually under the control of village communities with well-defined territories. Thus the common property resources of a village, like forests, were used by a small number of people under a well-regulated social system without the need for policing. The sacred groves, with their deities requiring bloody sacrifices, were evidently under the control of pre-Brahman peasant societies (Subash Chandran and Gadgil, 1993).

The kans undoubtedly were and still continue to function as temples of worship all along the hilly tracts of Karnataka. In spite of the Brahmanization of primitive deities that has swept through the plains of India and most of the west coast, in the interior villages of Uttara Kannada kans continue to be the centres of primitive cults, where religion in its early form is still in vogue.

Kans as Safety Forests

In the Uttara Kannada of the pre-British period kans existed contiguous with ordinary supply forests called kadu or adavi, from where people gathered their regular necessities of fuel, leaf manure, minor timber, etc., and shifting cultivation fallows in different stages of vegetational succession, pastures, fields, spice gardens and ponds with corridors of streams and rivers, creating a very heterogeneous mosaic congenial for the rich presence of wildlife. Landscape ecology stresses the high positive correlation between landscape heterogeneity and biodiversity (Forman and Godron, 1986).

Many pre-British travellers referred to the richness of wildlife in Uttara Kannada, which included tiger, panther, gaur, elephant, bear, wild pig, deer, etc., and several birds and reptiles (Campbell, 1883). Daniels (1989) reported 419 species of birds occurring in Uttara Kannada. The kans, with a taboo on hunting within them, in addition to acting as sanctums for wildlife, would also have provided ample food especially for frugivorous animals.

The kans are often found to be associated with water sources like springs and ponds. The Government of Bombay (1923) highlighted the watershed value of the kans of Uttara Kannada:

Throughout the area, both in Sirsi and Siddapur, there are few tanks and few deep wells and the people depend much on springs . . . . Heavy evergreen forests hold up several feet of monsoon rain . . . . If an evergreen forest is felled in the dry season the flow of water from any spring it feeds increases rapidly though no rainwater may have fallen for some months . . .

Wingate (1888), the forest settlement officer for Uttara Kannada, noted that the kans were of "great economic and climatic importance. They favour the existence of springs, and perennial streams, and generally indicate the proximity of valuable spice gardens, which derive from them both shade and moisture".

Tropical forest ecologist Peter Ashton (1988) characterizes the kans of Sorab, in the neighbourhood of Siddapur taluk of Uttara Kannada, our focal area, as the "prototypes of a technique currently being promoted as a new approach to forestry: agroforestry. In a region dominated by deciduous forests (Sorab is bordering on the drier Deccan Plateau) that were annually burned, the kans stood out as belts, often miles long, of evergreen forest along the moist scraps of western Ghat hills. Assiduously protected by the villagers, these once natural forests had been enriched by the inhabitants through interplanting of such useful crop species as jackfruits, sago and sugar palms, pepper vine, and even coffee, an exotic."

The kans, being mostly patches of climax evergreen forest, played an important role in the conservation of biodiversity and helped in the regeneration and restoration of degraded forests around (Subash Chandran and Gadgil, 1993a).


It is probable that the practice of maintaining kans as inviolable reserves suffered an early setback when the spice gardens were set up, often in the vicinity of the kans, by the Havik Brahmanas. The gardens derived not only water and shade from the kans but also much-needed leaf manure. These Brahmanas pay obeisance to kan deities, who are often wild spirits but who come lower in hierarchy than the higher gods of Hinduism. Nevertheless the spice gardeners realized the ecological value of the kans and, by and large, abstained from any cutting of trees in them.

The amalgamation of the primitive deities into the Hindu pantheon, often followed by temple construction, was another early threat to sacred groves all over India, including the kans. We have observed several such temples along the Western Ghats tract and the west coast, which obviously replaced the sacred groves or led towards their decline. The Talacauveri temple in Coorg may be cited as a classical instance from Karnataka, and the Ayyappa temple at Sabarimala in Kerala as another where dense sacred forests which occurred once were obviously cut down to build the temple complexes. But temple construction activity at the expense of the kans was not so pronounced in Uttara Kannada.

The major threat to the kans arose from the state laying its claim over all the forests, including the kans, under the British regime. The state domination over the forests would have led to the villagers’ losing their hold over the kans. Following the Indian Forest Act of 1878 people’s rights in the kans were curtailed to certain minor concessions like the collection of dry fuelwood, as in eastern parts of Sirsi and Siddapur (Government of Bombay, 1923). As the forest resources went out of community control the common lands conceded to the people for enjoyment of their traditional privileges were subjected to unregulated exploitation. Evidently the kans were also subjected to heavy pressures. Thus Collins (1922) reported that in eastern Sirsi and Siddapur the kans were getting infested with the prolific weed Lantana, which gave shelter to the pig to the detriment of agriculture. The kans also started shrinking in area due to the heavy pressures on them.

Collins (1922) pointed out that as a variation from its policy of strict protection of kans, the Government allotted kans in many villages of the Sirsi-Siddapur area to spice-gardeners as betta or leaf manure forests. In eastern Sirsi 769 hectares of kans were added to the minor forests open for exploitation by all.

The state takeover of the kans was followed by the introduction of the contract system for the collection of non-wood produce. The impact may be described in the words of Wingate (1888):

I am still of the opinion that the system of annually selling by auction the produce of the kans is a pernicious one. The contractor sends forth his subordinates and coolies, who hack about the kans just as they please, the pepper vines are cut down from the root, dragged from the trees and the fruits then gathered, while the cinnamon trees are all but destroyed . . . . I was greatly struck with the general destruction among the Kumta evergreens, they were in a far finer state of preservation 15 years ago.

As the kans contained mostly softwood, unmarketable at that time, no timber exploitation was carried out in them during most of the British period.


During the 1940s Dipterocarpus indicus, found sheltered only in some of the kans, was supplied to the railways and a plywood company. A working plan for the forests of Sirsi and Siddapur brought under it 73 kans, totalling over 4000 hectares, for the felling of industrial timber (see Appendix 1). Another working plan for Sirsi included the kans, of 10 villages totalling over 670 hectares. A kan was even clear-felled and converted into a Eucalyptus plantation in Menasi village of Siddapur taluk. In 1976, the village kans of the Muroor-Kallabbe village forest panchayat, which were in excellent state of preservation, were leased out to a plywood company which extracted hundreds of logs, also creating enormous incidental damage.

Thus a look at the forest history of Uttara Kannada tells us that the resources of the masses have been rapidly destroyed during the last nearly two centuries of forest management by the state (Gadgil, 1989).

The British, although they realized the watershed value of the kans and reserved them as state forests, did not see them as a part of the people managed landscape of the villages of Uttara Kannada. The Forest Settlement Officer Wingate (1888) brought it the notice of the administration that these distinct patches of valuable evergreen forests were not even properly demarcated on the maps. We may take it for granted that many such groves, therefore, lost their identity and merged with the ordinary forests and were treated like them. Even today it may be possible for one to distinguish some such sacred groves by the artefacts present in them.

Agroforestry, according to Ashton (1988) "is a new and unfamiliar technique, still resisted by foresters of Western training, but on a deeper level it represents a very different perception of the forest and our interdependence with it".

A Case Study of Siddapur

Sacred groves and sacred trees had a prominent place in the early religion of the indigenous people of the Western Ghats. This practice suffered a setback due to several reasons, the more important of which are stated here:

  1. The arrival of Christianity and Islam, which professed faith in one god and were against the paganism of the local people.

  2. The acceptance of Hinduism, as we know it today, by the masses, with faith in one supreme god, mostly Shiva or Vishnu. Several other divinities like Parvati, Durga, Ganapati, Krishna, Muruka (Subramanya) and Ayyappa, related to the supreme gods in one way or another, also adorned the central places of worship. Most often the worship was that of icons prepared according to Hindu iconographic texts and frequently installed in elaborately built temples which replaced the sacred groves or trees. In spite of the fact that trees like pipal (Ficus religiosa) and bel(Aegle marmelos) or small clumps of trees are associated with the temples, Hinduism, as it is being practised today, clearly brought about an attitudinal change towards nature, the temples and the professional priesthood coming in the way of the communion of the people with nature.

  3. The influx of migrant shifting cultivators like the Kunbis from Portuguese Goa and the Kumri Marathis from Maharashtra during the past few centuries evidently interfered with the landscape management practices of the southern Western Ghats, of which sacred groves formed an integral part.

  4. The takeover by the state of the forests of the west coast and the Western Ghats, beginning with the British period early in the 19th century, was a major intervention in the traditional resource management systems of the region with ravaging consequences for the landscape. Timber became the major commodity for sale. Shifting cultivation was prohibited and at least in Uttara Kannada, 80 per cent of the land came under the direct control of the forest department. Even the sacred kans, which were places of worship for a sizeable section of society, were not spared. Elsewhere along the Western Ghats of Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, large areas of forest, particularly evergreens, with very little timber value then, were released to Europeans and to affluent Indians for creating plantations of tea, coffee and rubber. The local peasants in most places forfeited their traditional hold over the forests, including the sacred groves.

A 25 km2 area in Siddapur taluk of Uttara Kannada was selected for a case study by the authors. The reasons for the selection of this area for detailed study were:

  1. Christianity and Islam have had practically no impact on the religion of the people.

  2. Siddapur taluk as a whole is well known for the spice gardens maintained by the Havik Brahmanas, with Shiva and Ganapati as their major gods. These ubiquitous Brahmanas, who depend on priesthood and horticulture for their livelihood, have a strong influence on the religious life of the traditional non-Brahmana peasantry of Uttara Kannada. Their blend of pre-Vedic paganism with faith in the supreme gods of Hinduism was often followed by the worship of anthropomorphic deities and temple construction with certain adverse consequences for the maintenance of the once luxuriant sacred groves. But the 25 km2 sample area, with just one family of Havik Brahmanas and two of Karad Brahmanas, exhibits a certain immunity to the Brahmanic priesthood even today.

  3. The sample area also remained intact during the exodus of the Kunbi shifting cultivators from Portuguese Goa and the Kumri Marathis from Maharashtra, and therefore has presumably retained until today the traits of primal faith characteristic of the region. The traditional landscape management system, with shifting cultivation as an important form of land use, also prevailed almost until the close of the 19th century.

  4. In spite of the state monopoly over the forest resources of the district, Siddapur, with its evergreen forests which had very little timber value, and by reason reason of its remoteness from sea and land routes, remained free from timber exploitation until the war fellings and industrial fellings began in the 1940s.

Siddapur is located towards the south-east of Uttara Kannada, to the south of Sirsi taluk; towards the east and south it is bounded by Shimoga district of the erstwhile princely state of Mysore, and towards its west are Kumta and Honavar taluks. Densely wooded hills occur towards its west, and the plains and low hills towards the east were once well wooded. The valleys among the western hills, full of unfailing streams, have rich spice gardens growing areca, pepper, cardamom, cocoa, banana, etc. The plains towards the east have rice and sugarcane fields. The focal area of Siddapur is situated towards the south-east of the taluk with plains, low hills and gentle valleys.


It can be seen from Table 3.1 that only 9 per cent of the inhabitants (Sonar, Muslim and Karad Brahmana) belong to the migrants of the recent past and that their occupations do not indicate any possible intervention in the land use, religious and cultural systems of the local population. Most groups except the Brahmanas are educationally very backward and are very little exposed to the textual traditions of Hinduism in this remote forested part of the Western Ghats.



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