Sacred groves of India

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Ancient monoliths in Mawphlang sacred grove, India
A sacred Hindu grove near Chandod on the banks of the Narmada River, drawn by James Forbes, 1782.

Sacred groves of India are forest fragments of varying sizes, which are communally protected, and which usually have a significant religious connotation for the protecting community. Hunting and logging are usually strictly prohibited within these patches.[1] Other forms of forest usage like honey collection and deadwood collection are sometimes allowed on a sustainable basis. Sacred groves did not enjoy protection via federal legislation in India. Some NGOs work with local villagers to protect such groves. Traditionally, and in some cases even today, members of the community take turns to protect the grove.[2] However, the introduction of the protected area category community reserves under the Wild Life (Protection) Amendment Act, 2002 has introduced legislation for providing government protection to community held lands, which could include sacred groves.

Indian sacred groves are often associated with temples, monasteries, shrines or with burial grounds. Historically, sacred groves find their mentions in Hindu, Jain and Buddhist texts, from sacred tree groves in Hinduism to sacred deer parks in Buddhism for example.[3] Sacred groves may be loosely used to refer to natural habitat protected on religious grounds. Other historical references to sacred groves can be obtained in Vrukshayurveda an ancient treatise, ancient classics such as Kalidasa's Vikramuurvashiiya. There has been a growing interest in creating green patches such as Nakshatravana grove.

Beliefs and practices[edit]

Banyan Tree at a temple in Kannur, India
Sacred grove in Mawphlang, India.

The Hindu tradition considers forests to be of three types - Tapovan, Mahavan and Sreevan. Tapovan are forests associated with penance (Tapas), and are inhabited by saints and rishis. Mahavan refers to the grand natural forests. Tapovan and Mahavan are considered to be a Raksha ("sanctuary") for flora and fauna as ordinary human beings are not allowed to enter these forests. Sreevan, which means, "forests of prosperity", consists of dense forests and groves. From the former, people would collect dry wood, leaves, forest produce and a limited amount of timber, though natural ecosystem would not be unnecessarily disturbed. Groves were considered as spaces of forests from where harvesting could be done. Sometimes, specific trees like mango trees could be planted and nurtured here. Groves were associated with religious rites, festivals and recreation. Typical recreational activities associated with these groves included jhoola/ jhoolan.[4] In the villages, Panchavati, or a cluster of five trees that represented the forests, were maintained. These trees represented the five elements of Earth, Water, Fire, Air and Space.[4]

Planting and nurturing of trees has been a highly evolved practice in ancient India.[5] Vrukshayurveda, the science of plant life and also a 10th-century treatise of that title on the subject ascribed to Surapala, dealt with various species of trees and their growth. Verses 9-23 from this text indicate how mystical beliefs and conservation of ecology was inter-connected.

A person is honored in Vaikuntha for as many thousand years as the days he resides in a house where tulasi is grown.
And if one properly grows bilva, which pleases Lord Siva, in his family, the goddess of riches resides permanently passes on to the sons and grandsons
He who plants even a single asvattha, wherever it may be, as per the prescribed mode, goes to the abode of Hari.
He who has planted dhatri has performed several sacrifices. He has donated the earth. He would be considered a celebate forever.
He who plant a couple of banyan trees as per the prescribed mode would go to the abode of Siva and many heavenly nymphs will attend upon him.
After planting neem trees a person well-versed in dharma attains the abode of Sun. Indeed! He resides there for a long period.
By planting four plaksa trees a person doubtlessly obtains the fruits of Rajasuya sacrifice.
He who plants five or six mango trees attains the abode of Garuda and lives happily forever like gods.
One should plant seven palasa trees or even one. One attains the abode of Brahma and enjoys the company of gods by doing so.
He who himself plants eight udumbara trees or even prompts someone to plant them, rejoices in the lunar world
He who has planted madhuka has propitiated Parvati, has become free from diseases, and has worshipped all deities.
If one plants ksirini, dadimi, rambha, priyala, and panasa, one experiences no affliction for seven births.
He who has knowingly or unknowingly planted ambu is respected as a recluse even while staying in the house.
By planting all kinds of other trees, useful for fruits and flowers, a person gets a reward of thousand cows adorned with jewels.
By planting one asvattha, one picumanda, one nyagrodha, ten tamarind trees, the group of three, viz., kapittha, bilva, and amalaka, and five mango trees, one never visits hell.[5]

Typically, sacred groves are associated with the concept of a presiding deity. Often these sacred deities are numerous nature spirits and guardians associated with Hindu, Jain and Buddhist deities, such as nature spirits known as Yakshas (numerous nature spirits), Nāgas (serpent guardians) and guardian tutelary deities (like ayyanar and amman) are also known. There are over 1000 deities associated with sacred groves in the states of Kerala and Karnataka alone.


Traditional uses: One of the most important traditional uses of sacred groves was that it acted as a repository for various Ayurvedic medicines. Other uses involved a source of replenishable resources like fruits and honey. However, in most sacred groves it was taboo to hunt or chop wood. The vegetation cover helps reduce soil erosion and prevents desertification, as in Rajasthan. The groves are often associated with ponds and streams, and meet water requirements of local communities. They sometimes help in recharging aquifers as well.

Modern uses: In modern times, sacred groves have become biodiversity hotspots, as various species seek refuge in the areas due to progressive habitat destruction, and hunting. Sacred groves often contain plant and animal species that have become extinct in neighboring areas. They therefore harbor great genetic diversity. Besides this, sacred groves in urban landscapes act as "lungs" to the city as well, providing much needed vegetation cover.


Deodar Devban grove in Himachal Pradesh, India.

Sacred groves are scattered all over the country, and are referred to by different names in different parts of India. Sacred groves occur in a variety of places – from scrub forests in the Thar Desert of Rajasthan maintained by the Bishnois, to rain forests in the Western Ghats of Kerala. Himachal Pradesh in the north and Kerala in the south are specifically known for their large numbers of sacred groves.[6] The Gurjar people of Rajasthan have a unique practice of neem (Azadirachta indica) planting and worshipping as abode of God Devnarayan.Thus, a Gurjjar settlement appears like a human-inhabited sacred grove.[7] Similarly Mangar Bani, last surviving natural forest of Delhi is protected by Gurjars of nearby area.[8] 14,000 sacred groves have been reported from all over India, which act as reservoirs of rare fauna, and more often rare flora, amid rural and even urban settings. Experts believe that the total number of sacred groves could be as high as 100,000.[9][10]

It is estimated that around 1000 km² of unexploited land is inside sacred groves. Some of the more famous groves are the kavus of Kerala, which are located in the Western Ghats and have enormous biodiversity; and the law kyntangs of Meghalaya – sacred groves associated with every village (two large groves being in Mawphlang [11] and Mausmai) to appease the forest spirit.

Among the largest sacred groves of India are the ones in Hariyali, near Gauchar in Chamoli District of Uttarakhand, and the Deodar grove in Shipin near Simla in Himachal Pradesh.

State No of groves Local name References
Andhra Pradesh 691 Pavitraskhetralu Kailash C. Malhotra et al.[12]
Arunachal Pradesh 65 Gumpa forests
(since attached
to monasteries)
Dudley et al.[13]
Assam 40 Than, Madaico
Chhattisgarh 600* Sarna, Devlas,
Mandar, Budhadev
Goa NA* SERBC document [14]
Gujarat 29*
Haryana 248 Beed or Bid (बीड़), Bani (बणी), Bann (बण), Janglat (जंगलात), Shamlat (शामलात)
Himachal Pradesh 329 Dev Kothi, Devban, Bakhu Devban [15]
Jharkhand 21* Sarna

more than 500 " Jaherthan" in Godda of Jharkhand

Marine Carrin [16]
Karnataka 1424 Devarakadu,
Gadgil et al.[17]
Kerala 2000 Kavu, Sarpa Kavu M. Jayarajan [18]
Maharashtra 1600 Deorai/Devrai

(Pune, Ratnagiri,
Raigarh, Kolhapur

Waghchaure et al.[19]
Manipur 365 Umang Lai, Gamkhap, Mauhak
(sacred bamboo
Khumbongmayum et al.[20]
Meghalaya 79 Law Kyntang,
Law Lyngdoh
Upadhyay et al.[21]
Orissa 322* Jahera, Thakuramma
Puducherry 108 Kovil Kadu Ramanujam et al.[22]
Rajasthan 9* Oran (Jaiselmer,
Jodhpur, Bikaner),
Kenkri (Ajmer),
Vani (Mewar),
Shamlat deh, Devbani
(Alwar), Jogmaya
Sikkim 56 Gumpa forests
(since attached
to monasteries)
S. S. Dash [23]

Dudley et al.[13]

Tamil Nadu 503 Kovil Kadu M. Amrithalingam [24]
Telangana 65 Kailash C. Malhotra et al.[12]
Uttarakhand 18* Devbhumi, Baun, Bugyal
(sacred alpine
Anthwal et al.[25]
West Bengal 670* Garamthan, Harithan,
Jahera, Sabitrithan,
R. K. Bhakat [26]

All numbers are quoted from the records of the C.P.R. Environmental Education Centre of the Government of India. Starred numbers are likely to increase. The centre also maintains a complete list of identified sacred groves in India, most of which is online.[27]

Sarpa Kavu[edit]

A Sarpakkavu or Snake Grove is a kind of holy grove found in Kerala.

Mannan Purath Kavu, Nileshwaram

Kavu is the traditional name given for Sacred groves across the Malabar Coast in Kerala, South India.[28] Kavus are notable for Theyyam, the centuries-old ritual dance.

Umang Lai[edit]

Umang Lai (literally, "Forest Deities") is a form of holy Sacred grove found in Manipur.[29][30]

There are more than 365 Umang Lais, affiliated to the ancient religion of Sanamahism, which exists in various regions scattered across the Himalayan state of Manipur since ancient times. The holy as well as religious festival of Lai Haraoba is celebrated especially in regards of these holy sacred groves.[31]

The accounts of these holy sacred groves are found in the ancient Manipuri Manuscript named Karthong Lamlen.

Interestingly, Manipur stands 8th rank among all the Indian States and 1st rank for North East India, for having highest number of sacred groves across the country.

Threats - Mining Projects


Threats to the grove include urbanization, over-exploitation of resources (like overgrazing and excessive firewood collection), and environmental destruction due to religious practices. Other threats to the sacred groves include invasion by invasive species, like the invasive weeds Chromolaena odorata, Lantana camara and Prosopis juliflora.


A large number of distinct local art forms and folk traditions are associated with the deities of sacred groves, and are an important cultural aspect closely associated with sacred traditions. Ritualistic dances and dramatizations based on the local deities that protect the groves are called Theyyam in Kerala and Nagmandalam, among other names, in Karnataka. Often, elaborate rituals and traditions are associated with sacred groves,[32] as are associated folk tales and folk mythology.

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Gadgil, M. and Vartak, V.D. ; Sacred groves of India : A plea for continued conservation Journal of Bombay Natural History Society, 72 : 314-320, 1975
  2. ^ "Community Forest Management and Joint Forest Management; An Ecological, Economic and Institutional Assessment in Western Ghats, India" (PDF). 2007-06-10. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2007-06-10. Retrieved 2018-08-07.
  3. ^ Sen, Dr. A. (2008). Buddhist remains in India. Calcutta: Maha Bodhi Book Agency. pp. 30–34. ISBN 978-81-87032-78-6.
  4. ^ a b Ranchor Prime, Vedic Ecology: Practical Wisdom for Surviving the 21st Century, Mandala Publishing, Novato, CA, 2002
  5. ^ a b Vrukshayurveda, authored by Surapala, translated by Nalini Sadhale, Agri-History Bulletin No.1, Asian Agri-History Foundation, Secunderabad
  6. ^ A series Archived 2007-02-03 at the Wayback Machine of articles in the journal Down to Earth on sacred groves
  7. ^ "Sacred Forestry".
  8. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2016-03-04. Retrieved 2014-05-29.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)<
  9. ^ Malhotra, K. C., Ghokhale, Y., Chatterjee, S. and Srivastava, S., Cultural and Ecological Dimensions of Sacred Groves in India, INSA, New Delhi, 2001
  10. ^ Ramachandra Guha, The Unquiet Woods, University of California Press, 2000 (ISBN 978-0520222359)
  11. ^ Eco Destination . Mawphlang Sacred Forest
  12. ^ a b Kailash C. Malhotra, Yogesh Gokhale, Sudipto Chatterjee, and Sanjeev Srivastava (2001). Cultural and Ecological Dimensions of Sacred Groves in India. Indian National Science Academy, New Delhi, and Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Manav Sangrahalaya, Bhopal. "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2014-08-08. Retrieved 2014-07-20.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  13. ^ a b Ed. N. Dudley, L. Higgins-Zogib, and S. Mansourian; The Arguments for Protection Series - Beyond Belief: Linking faiths and protected areas to support biodiversity conservation, pp. 91-95; World Wide Fund for Nature, 2005 (ISBN 2-88085-270-6)
  14. ^ Website of the Sacred Grove Restoration Project, Society for Ecological Restoration
  15. ^
  16. ^ Marine Carrin, Santal autonomy as a social ecology[permanent dead link], 16th European Conference on Modern South Asian Studies, Edinburgh, 2000
  17. ^ "Sacred Groves and Sacred Trees of Uttara Kannada". 2017-03-31. Archived from the original on 2017-03-31. Retrieved 2018-08-07.
  18. ^ M. Jayarajan, Sacred Groves of North Malabar Archived 2009-03-26 at the Wayback Machine, Kerala Research Programme on Local Level Development, Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram (ISBN 81-87621-95-8)
  19. ^ Waghchaure, Chandrakant K.; Tetali, Pundarikakshudu; Gunale, Venkat R.; Antia, Noshir H.; Birdi, Tannaz J., Sacred Groves of Parinche Valley of Pune District of Maharashtra, India and their Importance[permanent dead link], Anthropology & Medicine, Volume 13, Number 1, April 2006, pp. 55-76(22)
  20. ^ Khumbongmayum, M.D., Khan, M.L., and Tripath, R.S, Sacred groves of Manipur – ideal centres for biodiversity conservation, Current Science, Vol 87, No 4, 25 Aug 2004
  21. ^ Upadhaya, K.; Pandey, H.N. 2; Law, P.S.; Tripathi, R.S; Tree diversity in sacred groves of the Jaintia hills in Meghalaya, northeast India, Biodiversity and Conservation, Volume 12, Number 3, March 2003, pp. 583-597(15)
  22. ^ M.P. Ramanujam and K. Praveen Kumar Cyril, Woody species diversity of four sacred groves in the Pondicherry region of South India, Biomedical and Life Sciences and Earth and Environmental Science, Volume 12, Number 2 / February, 2003, Springer Netherlands
  23. ^ S. S. Dash, Kabi sacred grove of North Sikkim Current Science, Vol 89, No 3, 10 Aug 2005
  24. ^ M. Amirthalingam, Sacred Groves of Tamil Nadu – A Survey, CPR Environmental Education Centre, Chennai, India, p. 191, 1998
  25. ^ Ashish Anthwal, Ramesh C. Sharma, and Archana Sharma, Sacred Groves: Traditional Way of Conserving Plant Diversity in Garhwal Himalaya, Uttaranchal Archived 2007-07-06 at the Wayback Machine, The Journal of American Science, 2(2), 2006, Anthwal et al., Sacred Groves: Conserving Plant Diversity
  26. ^ Ram Kumar Bhakat, Socio-religious and ecological perspective of a sacred grove from Midnapore district, West Bengal, Science and Culture (Sci. Cult.), 2003, vol. 69, no 11-12, pp. 371-374
  27. ^ Database at the CPR Environmental Education Centre
  28. ^ M. Jayarajan, Sacred Groves of North Malabar Archived 2009-03-26 at the Wayback Machine, Kerala Research Programme on Local Level Development, Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram (ISBN 81-87621-95-8)
  29. ^
  30. ^
  31. ^ Milaap (22 May 2017). "Lai Haraoba – Connecting Manipur's Mythology and Its Martial Art". Retrieved 18 January 2021.
  32. ^ Chris A. Gregory, The Oral Epics of the Women of the Dandakaranya Plateau: A Preliminary Mapping, J. Soc. Sci., 8(2): 93-104 (2004)

Further reading[edit]