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Sacred Groves and Sacred Trees of Uttara Kannada...

M. D. Subash Chandran Madhav Gadgil


Of late the Indian caste system has been viewed as an ecological adaptation that has created a diversification of ecological niches with minimal overlapping, thereby promoting sustainable utilization of natural resources. Sustainable use was accomplished in two ways: by restricting access to many specialized resources in any given locality to members of one endogamous caste group, and by linking together members of different endogamous groups in a network of reciprocal exchanges and mutual obligations (Gadgil and Malhotra,

Table 3.1

Occupations of different caste and religious groups

No. Name of caste/religious group No. of Families Population Traditional occupation Present occupation Remarks
1 Namadhari 135 967 Soldiers, toddy-tapping and agriculture Toddy-tapping and agriculture  
2 Karivokkaliga 126 939 Agriculture including shifting cultivation Agriculture  
3 Madival 112 727 Washermen, agriculture Agriculture  
4 Sonar 25 148 Goldsmith Agriculture Migrants from Goa
5 Muslim 22 129 Miscellaneous labour, beedi-making Agricultre, Migrants
6 Lingayat 21 123 Trade and agriculture Agriculture  
7 Channaya 22 107 Labour and hunting Labour  
8 Bovi 13 56 ? Labour  
9 Jogi 08 48 Bangle selling Bangle selling, agriculture  
10 Karad Brahmana 02 26 ? Horticulture, priesthood from Karad
11 Havik Brahmana 01 08 Horticulture, priesthood Horticulture, priesthood  
12 Kelsi 06 30 Barber Barber  
13 Badiger 05 19 Carpentry Carpentry  
14 Achari 01 10 Ironsmith  Ironsmith  
  Total 499 3337      

1983). In a classic study carried out in coastal Uttara Kannada recently, the prudent resource use by caste society has been illustrated (Gadgil and Iyer, 1989).

Our study in Siddapur supports this argument. The Namadharis had toddy-tapping as their primary occupation, which is even today taboo to other castes in the region. The Karivokkaligas were shifting cultivators. The Madivals were traditionally washermen. The Lingayats were traders and agriculturists. The Channayas had a tradition of hunting and gathering. The Jogis wandered and sold bangles and trinkets. The Brahmanas specialized in priesthood and the growing of spice gardens, which requires great skill and mastery over the landscape. The Sonars were goldsmiths and the Badigers and Acharis were carpenters and ironsmiths respectively.

Game animals were abundant in the district during the pre-British and early British periods (Campbell, 1883). The Namadharis, Karivokkaligas and Channayyas hunted to a substantial extent and did some fishing. The Madivals seldom hunted, but they fished. The Brahmanas, Lingayats and Sonars never hunted or fished and depended much on milk for their protein requirements. Other castes had hardly any tradition of dependence on milk although they had begun to use some. Most of the population gathered a variety of non-wood produce from the forests for subsistence and some trade.


The requirements of the society in the focal area during the olden days can be summarized.

Land for cultivation

Permanent agricultural fields required the addition of large quantities of leaf and cattle manure to restore fertility and maintain the soil structure, since the soils of tropical rainy regions are notoriously fragile and quickly lose fertility. To circumvent this problem, shifting cultivation was evolved in such areas (Subash Chandran, 1992b). This system, known as hakkal in the focal area, was widely practised once along the hill slopes and in the highlands. It involved rotation of fields, permitting the growth of wild vegetation during the fallow stages, which on being burnt after a gap of many years enriched the soil with nutrients (Subash Chandran, 1992b).

Non-wood produce for subsistence and trade

The Uttara Kannada forests are rich in biological diversity even today. The people depended on the forests for a variety of produce like edible flour from the pith of palms, bamboo grains and shoots, fruits like Mangifera, Artocarpus, Garcinia, Phyllanthus emblica, and Syzygium cumini, edible fats from the seeds of, e.g., Garcinia spp., spices like pepper and cinnamon, honey, and mushrooms (Subash Chandran and Gadgil, 1993b), thatching, basket- and mat-weaving materials, fibres, medicinal plants, etc.


In humid and hilly Uttara Kannada, which is not favourable for sheep and where cattle are of poor breed, most of the non-Brahmanas depended on hunting and fishing for their protein needs. From the accounts of early European travellers, the Gazetteer of Kanara (Campbell, 1883) and folk history, one learns that Uttara Kannada was a haven for wildlife. The game mainly consisted of spotted deer, barking deer, mouse deer, sambar, hog, gaur, blacknaped hare, porcupine, etc., and a variety of birds like jungle fowl, peafowl, partridge, quail, plover, snipe, coot, rail and several water bird (Subash Chandran and Gadgil, 1993b). The maintenance of such animal diversity was crucial for the survival of the population. It should be noted that the lofty evergreen forests natural to the region alone would not have supported most of these game animals. Their population was promoted by a mosaic landscape consisting of elements like species-rich sacred groves, ordinary supply forests, pastures, fields and fallows in different stages of vegetational succession with several natural interlinking corridors like rivers, gorges and ridges.

Watershed conservation

The slashing and burning of forests for shifting cultivation and repeated burning for the promotion of grass growth in the benas (pasture) often meant tampering with the percolation of water into the soil, adversely affecting the groundwater and with consequences for stream flow. The maintenance of substantial patches of forests as kans played an important role in watershed protection. The role of kans in watershed protection was highlighted by the Government of Bombay (1923):

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 . . . .

We are therefore to view the sacred groves of Uttara Kannada and of the Western Ghats in general not in isolation but as a vital component of the pre-British peasant-managed landscape serving a variety of purposes.


The traditional land use and resource management systems underwent radical changes in the course of the 19th century, with the state claiming common property resources like forests, pastures and shifting cultivation lands. Nevertheless the retention of essentially the same names for landscape elements by the village communities largely reflect their past uses, in addition to other ground evidence which may be present even today.

Gadgil and Subash Chandran (unpublished) made efforts to reconstruct the traditional land use system in the focal area, mainly based on landscape names and folk history as well as on other historical records like forest settlement reports. The focal area belongs fully or partially to the villages or hamlets of Kavachur, Hittalkoppa, Akkunji, Mattigar, Dugdimane, Golgudu, Harlikoppa and Kalyanpur. Table 3.2 shows the percentage of land area under different uses. Thus in the peasant-dominated landscape of eastern Siddapur, the community was once able to maintain nearly 6 per cent of land area as sacred groves. These sacred groves, along with supply forests, from where the people gathered their regular biomass requirements like leaf manure, minor timber, firewood, fibre, etc., covered about 30 per cent of the land area. The total area of wilderness could have been higher if we also take into account the hakkal or shifting cultivation fallows in different stages of vegetational succession.

Table 3.2

Areas under different uses under traditional management


Land use

Percentage of area


Kan, bana, vatti or matti (sacred groves)



Kadu or adavi (supply forest)



Hakkal (shifting cultivation area)



Bena (grazing land)



Gadde, bailu or habevu (fields)



Miscellaneous uses



Kere or gundi (ponds) and hole (streams)



Keri (hamlets)






Under traditional management the focal area had about 146 ha of land under sacred groves alone, though there were several human settlements. There were at least twenty major groves, ranging in size from 0.5 ha (Kadkod birla bana) to 33 ha (Akkunji kanu). If this indeed was the case with the rather well populated agricultural landscape of an undulating terrain, we could hope for bigger groves all along the hilly landscape to the west. There are also a large number of smaller groves, sometimes merely clumps of trees. Our focal area had the relics of fifty-four groves.

The working plan for the forests of Sirsi and Siddapur, for instance, also includes the kans of seventy-three villages (Shanmukhappa, 1966; see Appendix 1 for more details). Whereas in Aigod village the kan was slightly over 1 ha in size, Kodkani had 735 ha and Mulkund had 1,039 ha. The firewood supply plan for Sirsi town includes for timber exploitation the kans of ten villages totalling 672.4 ha. The Kallabbe kan, about 10 km to the east of Kumta town on the Uttara Kannada coast, is about 100 ha in extent and was in magnificent form until it was subjected to logging by forest-based industry recently.

Sacred Groves of Siddapur: Their Present State

The sacred groves are on the decline due to several reasons. In the focal area, the area under sacred groves had shrunk from about 5.85 per cent to 0.31 per cent. The details of the present sacred groves in the focal area are given in Appendix - I.

It is clear that the sacred groves of the focal area have drastically declined from 146 ha under traditional management to a mere 7.5 ha. A glance through the Table shows that the deities have very little to do with the Hindu pantheon. The deities occur almost in the form they were before their acceptance and elevation by Hinduism.

Biodiversity of the Sacred Groves


The focal area of Siddapur has an annual average rainfall of 294 cm. About 95 per cent of this is received during the south-west monsoon, that is June to October. Such bountiful though seasonal rainfall promotes the growth of evergreen forests. But human influence is very decisive in shaping the vegetation of the focal area, which, though situated at an average elevation of 600 metres, is predominantly an agricultural landscape due to the relatively flat terrain with rolling hills not exceeding 25 metres in height from ground level. Following the Indian Forest Act of 1878 the state took over control of the forests, leading to the collapse of management by the village community. As even the hakkal or shifting cultivation lands were taken over by the state, the community faced great difficulty in meeting its biomass requirements. The government, however, responded to the clamour for the traditional rights of the peasants in the forests, though reluctantly, and put aside portions of the forests for the biomass needs of the people. Mention may be made of the ‘minor forests’ and the bettas. The latter are forests exclusively set aside for meeting the leaf manure requirements of individual plantations of areca and spices. It should be noted that the state reserved all the good forest for its exclusive use. The minor forests were usually lands close to villages and towns which were already in savannized condition or were shifting cultivation areas (Gadgil et al., 1990).

In our focal area Siddapur, greater part of the ‘minor forests’ were hakkals or shifting cultivation lands before the present century. The kans which were officially distinct blocks of evergreen forests (their sacredness never being acknowledged by the state) were treated as state reserved forests. In the eastern parts of Sirsi and Siddapur taluks, with larger part of the land under agriculture, the traditional rights of the villagers were reduced to certain minor concessions like the collection of dry fuelwood from the kans (Government of Bombay, 1923).

Tragedy of the Commons

Forest resources thus went out of community control. The ‘minor forests’ became common property resources open to larger numbers of people. The general scarcity of biomass for the peasantry resulted in unregulated exploitation. As a consequence the kans also were subjected to heavy pressures. Collins (1922) reported that in eastern Sirsi and Siddapur the kans were getting infested with a prolific weed, Lantana, which gave shelter to pigs to the ruin of agriculture. Lantana being a light-loving plant, obviously would have spread due to the canopy’s opening and the shrinkage of the otherwise dark kans. In our focal area it is therefore no surprise that the kans, which covered nearly 6 per cent of the land area in the traditional land use system, were reduced to a mere 0.3 per cent (Gadgil and Subash Chandran, unpublished).

Even in this attenuated form the sacred groves are found to be the best centres for the conservation of plant diversity. Most of these sacred groves may be considered remnants of the climax evergreen forests natural to the region. Outside the sacred groves the vegetation consists of moist deciduous forests, thickets and savannas. Tree density is very poor in the former kind, which are of secondary nature, the climax vegetation natural to the region being tropical evergreen forests. The best patches of deciduous forest have not more than 40 trees per hectare. The species found here are Buchanania lanzan, Careya arborea, Dillenia pentagyna, Lagerstroemia microcarpa, Lannea coromandelica, Salmalia malabarica, Syzygium cumini, Terminalia bellerica, T. paniculata, T. tomentosa, Zyzyphus jujuba, etc. The same kind of trees are present in the thickets and savannas too, but the density is poorer, the trees are more stunted, often less than 5 metres in height. The undergrowth is similar in these forests. There is plentiful growth of several shrubby species like Allophyllus cobbe, Breynia retusa, Bridelia scandens, Carissa carandans, Ervatamia heyneana, Glycosmis pentaphylla, Helictres isora, Holarrhena antidysenterica, Ixora coccinea and Plectronia parviflora. A variety of herbs, including ground orchids, grow during the favourable season. A few hardy evergreen forest trees like Aporosa lindleyana and Ixora brachiata are associated with all these forests. A prolific weed, Chromolaena odorata, has become a prominent undergrowth, replacing Lantana. There occur also a variety of herbs which grow mainly during the rainy season.

The sacred groves, in contrast, their small size notwithstanding, are richer in vegetation, with tree density exceeding 400 per hectare. The majority of tree species are evergreens, though deciduous trees are to be found towards the edges. These sacred groves act as important refugia on an otherwise impoverished landscape. Mention may be made of trees like Artocarpus hirsuta, Calophyllum wightianum, Caryota urens, Chrysophyllum roxburghi, Cinnamomum spp., Dimocarpus longan, Diospyros microphylla, Diespyros oocarpa, Dysoxylum binectariferum, Ficus nervosa, Garcinia spp., Holigarna grahami, Hydnocarpus laurifolius, Knema attenuata, Litsea spp., Lophopetalum, wightianum, Mesua ferrea, Mimusops elengi, Strombosia zeylanica Syzygium canarensis, Syzygium hemispherica and Vateria indica, which have their presence almost exclusively within the sacred groves. The Devaravatti kan at Mattigar, though only 0.85 ha in area, has, surprisingly, about 60 tree species within it. This is very good indeed for Uttara Kannada evergreen forests, where the tree species per hectare is in the range of 30 to 50. The trees of the sacred groves are large, the emergents at times over 30 metres in height.

Also exclusively to be found within the groves of the focal area are Actinodaphne malabarica, Litsea ghatica, Schefflera venulosa, Nothopegia colebrrokeana, Celtis cinnamomea, Dracaena ternifolia, Palaquim ellipticum, Memecylon terminale, Entada pursäetha, Gnetum scandens, etc. Vegetation so rich in structure and diversity testifies to the fact that enormous vegetational changes have taken place in the region except in the sacred groves. Even the sacred groves are undergoing rapid changes like shrinkage in area, isolation effects being disconnected islands of vegetation, windfalls and encroachment of more heliophilous drought-resistant plants.

Going by forest settlement reports, forest working plans and related documents as well as ground evidence, all over the district sacred groves were much bigger and would have supplied the community with a variety of produce for subsistence. Shifting cultivation carried out to an extreme, robbing the fertility of virgin soils, in every suitable patch of forest would mean the community losing the benefits of biodiversity to a great extent. But the conservation of the kans sheltered the community of early peasants from this impoverishment. The kans are rich in a variety of fruit trees like Mangifera, Artocarpus and Garcinia. The seeds of Garcinia also supply edible fats. The Kandivars, a group of Namadharis, lived often in the vicinity of kans in the taluks of Sirsi and Siddapur, their traditional occupation being tapping of toddy from the wild palm Caryota urens of the kans. The palm also yields edible starchy flour from its pith, and sugar could be prepared by boiling the sweet toddy. The kans were known for the production of wild pepper (Piper nigrum), which was a prime export commodity from India since the pre-Christian period. Cinnamon and wild nutmeg (Myristica malabarica) are also available from the kans. Basket- and mat-weaving materials like rattan (Calamus spp.), reeds (Ochlandra spp.) and Pandanus canaranus are found in the kans. The kans also have a rich variety of herbs used in native medicine.

Elsewhere in Uttara Kannada also the sacred groves have been found to be sheltering several plant species which have mostly vanished from areas in between. Kans ranging in size from part of a hectare to a few hundred hectares, and protected from ancient times, may be considered the best samples of the climax evergreen forests of the region. By far the finest sacred grove we have seen is the Katlekan in the south-west corner of Siddapur. A Myristica swamp, reported by Krishnamurthy (1960) as a rare and threatened habitat from the Western Ghats of southern Kerala, has been located in the Katlekan. The rare Myristica magnifica and Pinanga dicksoni, a gregarious endemic palm of the Western Ghats, are confined to this swamp. Katlekan is also one of the two notable refugia for Dipterocarpus indicus in Uttara Kannada, the other being Karikan, also a sacred grove, in the Honavar taluk. These two sacred groves form the northernmost habitat of this magnificent tree of the Western Ghats (Gadgil and Subash Chandran, 1989). Notable among the plants found mostly in the kans of the district may be mentioned Dysoxylum binectariferum, Leea guinensis, Mesua ferrea, Unona pannosa and Vateria indica.

Elsewhere along the Western Ghats and the west coast, sacred groves have been found to be centres of plant diversity, harbouring even rare and threatened plant species. Gadgil and Vartak (1976) reported a sacred grove in Kolaba district harbouring a solitary well-grown specimen of the liana Entada phaseoloides. People came from an area of at least 40 km radius to collect the medicinal bark of this plant, reputed for treating snakebite in cattle. Another grove known as Dhuprahat has preserved two magnificent specimens of the Dhup tree (Canarium strictum), otherwise present only in the Uttara Kannada forests about 200 km to the south of this region.

Induchoodan (1988) found five species of Hopea in a kavu of Kerala, of which four are endemic to south-west India. Mohanan and Nair (1981) discovered a leguminous climber, Kunstleria keralensis, in a sacred grove in Kerala, which is a new genus record for India and a new species in the genus. Blepharistemma membranifolia, Buchanania lanceolata, Pterospermum reticulatum and Syzygium travancoricum are very rare species occurring only in the sacred groves of Kerala.


Landscape Heterogeniety and Animal Diversity

Landscape ecology often highlights the positive correlation between landscape heterogeniety and biodiversity. The extensive amount of edge habitat with edge species, and also animals that use more that one ecosystem in close proximity, say for breeding, feeding and resting, can be found in a heterogeneous lanscape (Forman and Godron, 1986). Such a complex landscape, species-rich sacred groves of climax forests, supply forests, pastures, fields and fallows in different stages of succession, with corridors of rivers, streams, gorges and ridges, would have been responsible for the rich wildlife that existed in Uttara Kannada. The maintenance of these landscape elements was crucial for the population, which depended greatly on hunting and gathering (Subash Chandran and Gadgil, 1993b). The modern alternative agricultural systems recommended for Third World farmers, which do not need the purchase of expensive external inputs and are based on ecological principles of sustainability and stability (Altieri and Anderson, 1986) are surprisingly similar to the traditional system of Uttara Kannada.

From the accounts of early European travellers and the Gazetteer of Kanara (Campbell, 1883), as well as from folk history, one finds that Uttara Kannada was a haven for wildlife including tiger, panther, elephant, gaur, sambar, spotted deer, barking deer, mouse deer, hog, blacknaped hare and porcupine, in addition to a variety of birds, reptiles, amphibians, etc.

Wildlife in the Focal Area

The focal area in Siddapur could not have been much different from the rest of the well-wooded district in harbouring rich wildlife, especially under traditional landscape management by the village communities. This wildlife thinned away following the disappearance of forests with the forest policies pursued by the state ever since the Indian Forest Act of 1878. Even the sacred groves showed an alarming shrinkage. Nevertheless, the leading peasant communities of the area like the Namadharis and Karivokkaligas, and to a smaller extent the Madivals, continued to depend on hunting and fishing for their major supply of proteins. The former two groups even today carry out hunting, especially for barking deer, mouse deer, blacknaped hare, porcupine, pig, and several birds like peafowl, jungle fowl, patridge, quail, duck, etc. The scrub jungles of the focal area even today harbour many of these species. However, since the 1980s the Forest Department has been converting more and more areas of the wilderness around into monoculture plantations of cashew, casuarina and Acacia auriculiformis. These plantations are made after bulldozing the land with all its vegetation, leading to the decline of wildlife and resentment among the people.

Birds of the Focal Area

Of the 416 species of birds recorded by Daniels (1990) in Uttara Kannada, 107 have been found within the focal area. It is a rich record, taking into consideration the fact that the district is 408 times bigger than the focal area. It is likely that the bird life was even better when the ecosystems of the focal area were in a better state under community management (see Appendix 2 for a detailed list of the birds of the focal area). In the course of a fleeting survey carried out by Dr. Daniels and the authors in the focal area, 50 of these 107 birds were found to occur in the sacred groves. The 0.6 ha Jattibana at Kalyanpur, with an excellent perennial pond, harboured 20 bird species, and the 0.85 ha Devaravattikan at Mattigar had 17 bird species. Indeed, 31 of the 107 bird species recorded are typically to be found in the forests. The majority occur in the sacred groves, which are bits of evergreen forests. Of the migrant birds of the focal area we may mentioned spotted sandpiper, eastern swallow, brown shrike, Blythe’s reed warbler, greenish leaf warbler and Indian grey drongo, the last one recorded in a sacred grove.

Among the typically forest species found in the focal area, mostly in the sacred groves, are the crested goshawk, lesser serpent eagle, grey jungle fowl, blossoheaded parakeet, blue-eared kingfisher, brown-headed stork-billed kingfisher, crimson-throated barbet and Nilgiri flowerpecker. The cool shade throughout the year, higher humidity, and the availability of fleshy fruits may be some of the reasons for these special birds to occur within the sacred goves.


In addition to the 54 sacred groves in the 25 km2 area are 45 sacred trees. They belong to a variety of species, with Ficus, considered the keystone resources of the tropical regions (Terborgh, 1986), dominating. Aswatha or pipal (Ficus religiosa), widely planted in South India, is more of an introduction from the north. In our focal area of Siddapur, Sonar Shets, Brahmanized Konkani speakers, have planted two aswatha trees. The rest of the trees are natural to the region, notable among them being bakul (Mimusops elengi), mango (Mangifera indica), Mesusa ferrea, jackfruits (Artocarpus heterophyllus), jamun (Sazygium cumini), saptaparni (Alstonia scholaris), and baini (Caryota urens). The deities associated with the sacred trees are basically similar to those inside the sacred groves.

The Gods of the Groves and an Ecological

Rethinking of Hindu Traditions

Almost every hamlet in the focal area has its own sacred groves and sacred trees, the latter inside private households or in public places. A revenue village might have several groves. For instance, Arendur has thirteen groves. Each sacred place has one or two deities. The deities are mostly indistinct beings represented by vacant spots, crude stones or termite mounds. Anthropomorphic forms are rare and are recent artefacts. The deities are abstracted from nature and believed to permeate entire groves. Although the Brahmanas refer to them as bloodthirsty goblins (Bhutas), the laity venerate them as parental figures which carry the appellation father or mother. Thus we find Bhutappa, Jatakappa and Choudamma as the most common deities. Every hamlet invariably has a male and a female deity. Birappa is sometimes regarded as a folk hero. All these deities are considered guardians of crops, cattle and humans. Two of the deities are named Mariamma: one is represented by a piece of rock; and in Hittalokoppa village, the original crude rock idol has been replaced by an anthropomorphic one and a small shrine has been built to house it recently.

The deities need to be propitiated periodically to earn their blessings and escape their wrath. Usually for the male deities, goats or fowl are sacrificed on certain occasions, but for the female deities the offerings consist mostly of fruits and milk. Many of the deities, especially Choudamma, are associated with water sources.

There is a limited degree of animal worship as well. Sacred groves and trees together, there are nine locations where the serpent (naga) is the deity. One of the groves in Golgudu is dedicated to the worship of hulidevaru or panther. Panther is a subsidiary deity in yet another grove. Panther or tiger worship is quite natural in a heavily forested district like Uttara Kannada.

In our focal area, where almost the entire population is of non-tribal Hindu peasants, interestingly, only one major deity of the Hindus is worshipped in a grove, inside a big shrine. He is Veerabhadra, considered to be an incarnation of Shiva. There are also four small shrines of Ishwara, or Shiva, of which one is in the shade of a lone sacred tree. All these five places are under the professional priesthood of Lingayats, followers of Veerashaivism, an important sect of organized Hindu religion in South India. On the other hand are the numerous deities abstracted from nature and associated with sacred groves and sacred trees. They belong to the Little Tradition, people on the periphery of organized Hinduism who make up about 94 per cent of the population of 3,300, most of them being subsistence peasants. They have no professional priesthood, nor temples of their own. The Lingayats are economically better off and specialize in growing cash crops like arecanut and pepper. The entry of Shaivism in the focal area may be regarded as the arrival of the Great Tradition into the land of the Little Tradition. Nevertheless, the laity do have some exposure to the gods of organized Hinduism. Although for the community as a whole sacred groves and sacred trees form the places, of worship, pictures or idols of Hindu deities like Shiva, Vishnu, Krishna, Ganapati, Lakshmi, Durga, etc., are popular in the households. Those who can afford it also make pilgrimages to major temples like Tirupati, Gokarna and Dharmasthala. Almost the entire population has immense faith in the Mother at Chandragutti in the neighbouring Sorab taluk, well known for the tradition of kans.

Of late the Karivokkaligas of Mattigar, the most tradition-bound, and backward of the peasants-cum-hunter-gatherers, who were also shifting cultivators in the past, and whose kin still live in the interior forests of the district, have started performing annual satyanarayana pooja, or worship of Lord Vishnu, by inviting Brahmana priests. The worship is conducted inside a pandal erected for the purpose in the open field just outside their major sacred grove, Devaravattibana, inside which the deities are Choudamma and Jatakappa, formless spirits without any icons, and believed to permeate the entire grove.

We have here two extreme phases of Hindu worship, one of primordial formless spirits abstracted from nature, permeating the grove and approachable without the medium of the priesthood. The other, considered to be supreme god, visualized in human form and with all natural forces under his control. To the lay worshipper he is inside fortified temples, guarded by a strong priesthood and with elaborate ritualism involved in his worship.

We begin our journey into Hinduism from the sacred grove at Mattigar, where the Vedic concept of purusha and prakriti or Man and Nature (the latter considered female) remains frozen through time. People here have a nearness to these ‘objects’ of worship. There is no professional priesthood or expenditure of money involved in the worship of these Mother and Father spirits. They are easily approachable and nearer to the hearts of the simple folk, so much so that many get possessed by these deities effortlessly. They offer only food and incense to these gods, and on days of ritual hunting the animal caught is sacrificed to win their blessings. The deities stand for the welfare in general of crops, cattle, vegetation and water.

Some of the groves have just termite mounds representing deities. About 75 per cent of the deities are represented by vacant spots or by simple natural objects like rocks or termite mounds or trees themselves. The next stage in iconic evolution to be found in the grove is anthropomorphism. Crudely carved icons represent Chowdamma under two of the sacred trees. A more perfect image of Choudamma is seen associated with one of the trees. One of the deity called Bommadevaru, all the four Gramadevaru, another named Kattedevaru, and one of the two Mariammas have anthropomorhic representations. All the four idols of Shiva and one of Veerabhadra are in accordance with iconographic prescriptions. All the nine locations where the serpent (naga) is worshipped have carved stones. Four of the snake images are associated with termite mounds and the others are not.

Interestingly, most of the deities (animal deities excluded) with Sanskritized names have icons. They include Gramadevaru, Ishwara and Veerabhadra. We may assume that this is due to the impact of textual tradition.

Stuck in front of several deities like Jatakappa, Bhutappa and Choudamma are iron tridents. Sticks with split ends resembling arrows are stuck in front of Choudamma and Jatakappa in the Mattigar grove. These arrows and tridents, mostly associated with the folk gods of South India, take us into the hunter-gatherer days of mankind. Devotees who go to the temple of Aiyappa in Sarbarimala traditionally carry an arrow and place it under a famous Ficus tree. The devotees of Murukan, a popular deity of Tamil Nadu, also might carry a vel or trident, his favourite weapon. These deities appear to be originally associated with sacred groves or summits or hills. Interestingly, Murukan (Sanskritized as Subramanian), as in Palni or Adichanallur, and Aiyappa of Sabarimala (Sanskritized as Sastha) are today in large temple complexes where millions of devotees throng every year.

For tribals and nomadic pastoral peoples, anthropomorphic idols of deities are rare; for them mountains, termite mounds, trees, animals of the forest, and rivers, all characteristic of untamed nature, are close to them and intrinsically divine (Eschmann, 1978).

According to Vaudeville (1989), Murukan of Tamil Nadu, Khandoba of Maharashtra, Mailara of Karnataka and the ubiquitous Bhairava and Govardhan of Braj belong to a group of ancient folk deities inhabiting forests and mountains. The predominant element in the origin of Murukan and Khandoba is the worship of the mountain in the forested tracts by hill tribes and pastoralists. Sontheimer (1989) traces the origin of Khandoba to the worship of the ant-hill, the seat of snakes. The ant-hill should not be ploughed by farmers lest they suffer great harm. For the forest tribes and pastorals the ant-hill was also the seat of wealth.

In the Sangam period of Tamil Nadu, Murukan of the Tirupparankundram hill of Madurai was referred to as a centre of nature worship. He was in the form of a spear under a kadamba tree. In the 8th century ad the Pandiyans established a Shiva temple there and an idol of Murukan (Sanskritized as Subramanian, the son of Shiva) was installed. He later became the son-in-law of Vishnu during the Nayaka period. This is thought to be an effort to bridge Shaivism and Vaishnavism. These scences are said to be depicted on the pillars of the temple (Nachiyappan, 1988).

In Uttara Kannada, temple construction in all probability began with the Brahmanic influence. However, temples and priesthood could not be supported to a large extent by the subsistence peasants, pastoralists and hunter-gatherers. Therefore sacred groves, sacred trees and various objects of nature continued to be places of worship. Nevertheless, with improvement in the economic conditions of the people and changes in value systems, groves and sacred trees might have given way to shrines and temples. The shrine to the betedevaru (hunter’s god) of the Halakkivokkal peasant is evidently in the ruins of a grove. A large termite mound under a tiled roof is the original deity. A crude human image of a hunter was installed there later. In the Karikan temple devoted to Karikanamma (Mother of the Black Forest), the natural rock on a hill summit representing the deity is today covered with a metal mask depicting the Mother, considered to be Parvati. The temple, under Havik Brahmana priesthood, co-exists with a wonderful grove dominated by Dipterocarpus indicus, a rare tree in Uttara Kannada. This grove is today part of a reserve forest. The Shantika Parameshwari temple in Kumta, an important one for non-Brahmanas, also has a large termite mound as the deity. Here also a metal mask depicting the Mother conceals most of the mound.

Entangled inseparably in the sacred groves of Uttara Kannada are ecological and Hindu religious history. Whereas the sacred groves of Katlekan and Karikan together shed much light on the kind of primeval endemic vegetation of the Western Ghats harbouring tall Dipterocarps or swamps of wild nutmegs (Myristica) and endangered mammals like the lion-tailed macaque, enshrined in the groves of Siddapur are stages in the development of the Hindu religion. It is difficult to find such a priceless heritage in most other parts of the country. Taken in totality, the groves and religion related to them widen our horizons of knowledge. They highlight the links between human groups in our country as well as champion the cause of conservation of biodiversity, the call for which will arise from the rustics or ‘ecosystem people’ rather than from the elite or ‘biosphere people’. A lack of holistic appreciation of these traditional value systems is resulting in religion drifting from conservation and in the ecosystem and biosphere people coming together to steadily deplete biodiversity and natural resources.

There is still plasticity enough in the Hindu religion, as it does not preach any dogmatic creed. It has evolved through the ages, incorporating a megadiversity of cultures, religious cults and creeds. As Vannucci (1992) puts it: "In traditional thought in India there is no distinction between sacred and the profane: everything is sacred. Tolerance of all beliefs, and the implict recognition that everything evolves — that nothing is static and immutable except the Ultimate Reality or Brahman . . . . The essence of this tradition is to live in partnership rather than the exploitation of nature."

In the personification of Lord Shiva, for instance, we may observe the evolution of Indian traditional thought of living in partnership with nature. He is as old as Indian thought and his origin probably merges with oblivion in the Indus Valley culture. He has mountains and wild places as his abode. His entangled hair symbolizes the primeval untamed forest. The Ganga originating from his tress depicts the watershed function of sacred groves. Serpents coiled around his neck symbolize coexistence with the denizens of the ecosystem. By his trident and leopard skin attire he brings to our mind the picture of the hunter-gatherer. The sacred ash smeared on his body could be the ash of the woods, which restores fertility to depleted soils. As the fragile tropical hill soils got quickly depleted of nutrients, it was wood ash that sustained agriculture; it also neutralized soil acidity in areas of heavy rainfall. Shifting cultivation, which was widely prevalent in the hill country, involved growing and burning of wood. Shiva and his prototypes were known for their wrath. Probably this refers to their power over fire, which could reduce woods to ashes. This destruction is followed by creation; incorporating the elements (bhutas) from Mother Earth sprouts crops and grasses and once again forests. The sacred grove, on the other hand, was aboriginal forest which enhanced overall landscape heterogeneity and thereby greater plant and animal diversity. The necklace of rudraksha (Elaeocarpus spp.) adorning Shiva’s neck also highlights his links with the forest.

The entire clan of Shiva is replete with ecological symbolism. Shiva’s consort Parvati is considered the daughter of the mountain. She is the personification of Mother Earth. Apparently the female deities of the sacred groves may be identified as Parvati, her incarnations or prototypes. Thus the Mother of Karikan (Black Forest) in Honavar is addressed as Parameshwari. The termite mound in a Kumta temple is worshipped as Shantika Parameshwari. Examples abound to trace the origin of Shiva and Parvati from sacred woods.

Ganesha, the son of Shiva, is a combination of elephant and man. The elephant is worshipped in this country and even today forms an integral part of many temples and festivals. Muruka or Subramanyan, another son of Shiva, also with the trident as his favourite weapon, and the peacock as his vehicle, is a deity of woods and mountains in South India. The bhutas, despite their grotesque caricatures gifted from the hands of textual tradition, in all probability would be objects of worship for peasants. Scores of bhutas are still worshipped as the guardians of fields and cattle. Bhutas, unseen, simply would mean elements, of which water, the earth, fire and air, and the life-giving light coming from the sky are integral components of the ecosystem (Subhash Chandran, 1992a). No wonder Shiva is considered the supreme lord of bhutas and Ganesha their marshal.

The Indian tradition is strongly cosmocentric, where man lives as part of a system in which everything is related to everything else. Creation and destruction take place simultaneously. Materials and energy move from organism to organism. Matter is arranged in precise order in every organism, but in death this order is followed by disorder: cycling of materials through organisms brings order once again. But today, rapidly drifting from our traditions of sustainable use and coexistence, we seem to be entering a man-centred world that implies the decimation of nature. In religion, superstitions with wide-ranging implications for ecology are replacing superstitions of a simpler kind. Our gods, alienated from the elements of nature, are getting locked up in temple complexes which have turned out to be places of elaborate ritualism. This drift is going to revise Indians’ attitudes towards nature. The view that has gained strength is of the overharvesting of natural resources, not their prudent use. As a result the sacred groves are disappearing and being replaced by housing sites, agriculture, secondary forests or even eucalyptus plantations. Temples also are replacing the groves. Thus we find that in most of Kerala, Bhagavati temples have come up in places where, presumably, groves existed in the past. Bhutasthanas or shrines for bhutas appear to be a major reason for the degradation of the sacred groves of Dakshina Kannada. Today at Talacauvery in Coorg, the sacred Kavery river is not gushing out from a watershed forest as it used to but from a concrete pit in the premises of a temple complex at the base of a deforested mountain! The all-powerful bureaucracy, in collusion with the industrial lobby and politicians, together forming a formidable stranglehold, too realised that the groves, once an integral part of the village landscape and ecosystem, are no more sacred. The groves became part of the reserve forests in Uttara Kannada. A number of groves were attached to arecanut gardens as leaf manure forests during the British time itself. A forest working plan of 1966 included over 4000 hectares of sacred kans for timber exploitation in Sirsi and Siddapur taluks of Uttara Kannada (Subash Chandran and Gadgil, 1993a; see also Appendix - II).


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