Tranquillity rains down in sacred forests. Shades of green and brown present an enchanting harmony. The earthy smell of the forest floor fills the air. Cicadas chirp. Delicious fruits beckon. There is extraordinary biodiversity—not just tall trees, some of which are rare, but also mushrooms growing on their trunks, earthworms crawling in the leaf litter, and a variety of insects living in every single nook of forest. Shonil Bhagwat, who has been researching them for the last 20 years, attests to these experiences.

“Sacred forests are pretty special places. Each is different, but you can always feel this mystique in each forest,” he says.

Bhagwat grew up in Pune and studied in Marathi medium public schools. Fascinated with the natural world, he studied ecology in college. He would go bird watching and developed an interest in identifying everyday urban trees. The interest spurred him to work in tropical forests where he came across much richer biodiversity and could challenge himself identifying rare trees. The Indian countryside—particularly the Western Ghats—is replete with forests that are protected for cultural, spiritual and religious reasons. What is today Bhimashankar Wildlife Sanctuary in northern Maharashtra has some of the loftiest evergreen forests protected as sacred long before the sanctuary was notified. This spurred his interest in sacredness, nature that is protected as sacred and the people who protect it.

The sacred forests in Kodagu district of Karnataka enthralled him. The most striking thing for him about it is a sharp drop in temperature, the cooler air under the canopy of tall trees on a scorching day.

 An environmental geographer with the Open University, UK, and associate researcher at the Oxford Long-term ecology lab Bhagwat feels the sensory experience and heightened awareness that you feel in sacred forests is akin to a religious experience.

“You start to feel in awe of the natural world.”

Religion and spirituality are not as esoteric as they’re made out to be. Explaining the innate dimension of religion, the March 1984 editorial in Prabuddha Bharata, says, “‘Religion is not a matter of personal sentiment which has nothing to do with the objective realities of society,’ says Christopher Dawson (Inquiries into Religion and Culture),’ but on the contrary, the heart of social life and the root of every living culture.” Religion is not a special or unnatural attitude or the isolated activity of a few individuals. It is mankind’s total response to “Reality”. An individual is religious only in so far as he shares in this universal response.

“The finally decisive factor as to the quality of culture is not the environment,” points out Von Ogdon Vogt (Cult and Culture), “but the total attitude and spirit of the men who compose society. It is this total attitude and spirit which is the religion of the tribe or nation.”

As such, according to Bhagwat, in most Indian languages some forests are regarded as  “god’s forests”. As a physical structure, most often there are small shrines—sometimes even a collection of simple standing stones with floral offerings—surrounded by tall trees. Over time these deities were named after mainstream Hindu gods and goddesses.

Bhagwat thinks, as a spiritual practice, these forests originated long before mainstream Hinduism came along. They were rooted in the animistic traditions of nature worship—a reason why standing stones or trees were important. As a cultural practice, these sacred groves must have been meeting places for the communities who protected them serving the functions of, for example, conflict resolution between community members, spaces for performing pagan rituals around hunting, gathering and later farming.

The idea of  “sacredness”, he says, was imposed on these forests by Western scholars much later.

Religious and cultural traditions play an all-encompassing role in protecting these forests. Although they were on different continents in early times, they are now mostly found in Africa and Asia and the Middle East. There are Kaya forests in Kenya, and in Uganda, in Benin, in Gambia, and the church forests in Ethiopia. In addition, we have Shinto shrine forests and Zen gardens in Japan. Sikhs, in tune with their religious culture, planted innumerable trees in Punjab.

A tree part of a sacred patch in Rajasthan. Photo: Special arrangement.

When Bhagwat did his doctoral work on sacred forests in Kodagu in the early 2000s, the ups and down in coffee prices had a great impact on how people protect forests and trees. In early 2000s Kodagu was just coming off a global slump in coffee prices. In this period planters supplemented their income by either cutting down and selling valuable timber trees from their plantations or by expanding their plantations into neighbouring sacred forests (encroachment) or both. But in the 2000s as coffee prices started to go up again, he started his research with collaborators in Kodagu who were well-connected with the local communities.

“Looking back, I arrived at the right time in the right place because communities were receptive to conservation issues and the cultural importance of sacred forests. Today, Kodagu is one of the best examples of sacred forest conservation,” he says.

In his doctoral research, Bhagawat was primarily interested in biodiversity within sacred forests. He adopted the “landscape-scale approach”—one where sacred forests are not only studied on their own, but in relation to other parts of the landscape (coffee plantations and protected areas).

Until the 2000s people had written about these forests as if they were unique  “islands” of biodiversity. But Bhagwat found that part of the reason for the uniqueness of these forests was also their surroundings. The reason why these forests are rich in biodiversity is because they are “buffered” by other tree-covered landscapes (coffee plantations) that help the biodiversity.

For example, without coffee plantations, sacred forests would not support populations of rare and endemic birds who also use the wider tree-covered landscapes for foraging, nesting and roosting.

“So, this landscape-scale framing was important in getting a handle on the importance of these forests for biodiversity conservation,” he says.

That led to further questions: Why are they rich in biodiversity? Have they always been that way? Have people promoted or cultivated certain species in sacred forests? How have these forests changed over time? How did the environmental change over long time scales have an impact on biodiversity in sacred forests?

Bhagwat started digging deeper into their long-term ecology, into the sediments in the sacred forests.

“Long-term ecology offers some pretty extraordinary tools to look back in time—a sort of ecological time machine. The sediments are deposited in layer after layer over decades, centuries and sometime millennia. So, if you can go deep enough in those sediments you can get to the time period in the distant history and pre-history,” he says.

That’s what he had done for some of his post-doctoral work.

“This deeper perspective from only a handful of locations—as opposed to  “landscape-scale” analysis—can lend some interesting insights into the past. Long-term ecology can provide an insight into history, archaeology, and anthropology of past societies who started protecting sacred forests.”

Doing long-term ecology work is not easy. Bhagwat explains it: First and foremost, it is important to develop relationships of trust with local collaborators and local communities who are participating in the research. Building trust and relationships takes time.

Some sacred forests are quite remote and it can take several hours to simply get there. Then there is unpredictability of weather, but work needs to be done come rain or sunshine. Third, it can also be challenging to get equipment to some of these remote places. The equipment for long-term ecological work can be quite heavy and needs to be carried on top of a four-wheel drive vehicle and on foot where these vehicles can’t reach.

“So, as the saying goes, ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ or in this case do the fieldwork,” he says.

His long-term ecological research showed that there were particular environmental, cultural and social triggers to the tradition of forest protection. Past societies responded to these triggers and found a way out of what could have been a catastrophe and possibly even the demise of those societies.

Long-term ecology showed that in Kodagu some sacred forests might have  “emerged” only around 400 years ago—contrary to the popular perception that sacred forests have always been there.

“So, what happened 400 years ago?” he says and explains that the  “Little Ice Age” arrived. In Europe, this was a period of extreme cold with lakes and rivers freezing up in winter. In the tropics, the effects of the Little Ice Age were not as dramatic, but still resulted in an overall reduction in water supply because there was less rain. For societies dependent on agriculture, water shortages are serious as they lead to significant crop loss and much reduced food supply.

Societies, he continues, must have recognised the importance of forests around this time and their role in protecting natural springs that would feed the streams and rivers and supply water to farms and fields. So, protection of forests provided crucial “ecosystem services” (as we call them today).

But how do you get people to recognise the importance of forests and their ecosystem services? This is where god comes in. In predominantly religious societies, god is important and if something is declared as god’s property, people would easily recognise its importance. This is how “god’s forest” must have come about, Bhagwat says.

Explaining the evolution of his thinking, he says when he started the research he had thought of sacred forests as remnants of natural forest that were protected from expanding agricultural frontiers, but the long-term ecological perspective has showed that in some cases these forests might have emerged as a result of the social fence that protected them. So, the assemblages of species you can find in sacred forests is not an “impoverished” version of biodiversity found in protected areas, but they are “enriched” by societies actively protecting sacred forests for cultural, spiritual and religious reasons.

“This certainly makes my engagement with sacred forests more forward-looking (as opposed to viewing them as vestiges of historical religions).The factors that led to the emergence of sacred forests make me more hopeful that with the right attitude to natural resources and social mechanisms to protect them, we can reverse the destruction of the natural world today and in the future,” he says.

I really felt the power of people’s devotion to the fierce village deities who inhabit these forest shrines in a sacred grove dedicated to Sri Ayyannar, the horse-riding guardian deity found throughout Tamil Nadu

The emergence of sacred forests can take different trails. When Eliza Kent, professor and chair of religious studies at Skidmore College, US, began her study of the sacred groves of Tamil Nadu many books and articles had been written about how Hindu theology could—or could not—provide philosophical resources to support an environmental ethos. But little had been done to show whether and how Hindus in India actually were motivated by their religion to engage in conservation, environmental restoration or anti-pollution efforts. The sacred groves tradition in Tamil Nadu impressed her as a widespread example of grass roots environmental action. But what surprised her most in the course of her ethnographic fieldwork in Tamil Nadu was that the village residents who had preserved these patches of forest for centuries in spite of the enormous need for fodder, fuel wood, and farmland did so without any obvious ecological sensibility at all. That is, villagers didn’t really care about the ecological benefits of species diversity or the fact that their sacred groves had helped in the conservation of trees and lianas that are found nowhere else, in some cases. What they cared about were the gods for whom these sacred groves were temples: lovely, cool, and mysterious temples.  

“I really felt the power of people’s devotion to the fierce village deities who inhabit these forest shrines in a sacred grove dedicated to Sri Ayyannar, the horse-riding guardian deity found throughout Tamil Nadu,” she says.

Upon entering the forest, accompanied by one of the village residents, she was immediately struck by how cool and shady it was—a welcome relief from the pounding heat of the day. A mongoose scurried away from the banks of a small pond in the forest, and butterflies filled the air. As they advanced towards the central shrine the forest canopy grew thicker filtering the light through a canopy of dark green. Her companions and she grew quiet as they approached the verdant sanctum sanctorum along a narrow path through the trees, flanked on one side by a dozen brightly-painted votive terra-cotta horses. No elaborate structure sheltered Ayyannar and his two wives from the rain and sun; rather, a simple brick and mortar arch framed the three stones that represented the deities.

“But I couldn’t help but feel that the whole forest was this Lord’s palace, and I was humbled and grateful before Him,” she says.

Based on her field work in Tamil Nadu, Kent published in 2013 a book titled: Sacred Groves and Local Gods: Religion and Environmentalism in South India.

In it, she writes, the deities who reign over forest shrines in Tamil Nadu are typically lineage deities traditionally associated with the protection of boundaries such as the horse-riding village protector, Ayyanar, and fierce versions of mother goddesses, or ammans, who reside on the outskirts of the village. As befits their use of violence to protect the social order, these deities are, with the exception of Ayyanar, non-vegetarian deities, whose worship involves pali, the sacrifice of animals, mostly fowl and goats. Even Ayyanar inevitably has a guardian deity such as Veerabhadra or Muniyandi, who receives animal sacrifices in the close proximity of the shrine. 

While these forest dwelling deities typically direct their violence against ghosts, demons, or disease, shielding their devotees from harm, they can also inflict harm when offended or neglected. When people suspect a supernatural cause for trouble in their lives, one standard method for uncovering it is a possession ritual, in which a medium, a kōṭāṅki or cāmiyāṭi, enters a trance-state enabling a god to speak and act through his or her body.  The possessing deity can then tell whether he or she, another deity, or a disturbed ghost sent the affliction, and what needs to be done. Often, the remedy to having offended or neglected the deity is sacrifice. The offering of a chicken or goat is meant to make up for the moral lapse that led to the god’s displeasure, whether a forgotten vow, a taboo unknowingly violated, or regular worship that has gone undone. 

Similarly, gratitude for boons or services obtained (such as the driving out of ghosts) is often expressed through sacrifice. Forest shrines occupy an important place in this system as the homes and temples of these deities. Forests are their special domain. Residing in forests suits these gods’ irritable nature by putting them out of earshot of the ural and ulakkai (the mortar and pestle) and away from the ordinary domestic life its sound evokes. 

Mostly neglected during the year, sacred groves typically see the most activity during the annual festival (tiruviḻā), when lineage deities speak through their cāmiyāṭi vehicles recounting the narrative of how they arrived, thereby connecting communities to themselves and to the mythologised pasts in which the community’s identity is anchored. Together, the different beliefs and practices described here—the taboos on the use of forest produce, tales of divine punishment for transgression, possession rituals to ascertain the will of the divine, and sacrifices to restore harmony between humans and deities, whose connectedness to a mythologised past cements a community’s group identity—make up the ideological system that curbs human use of the natural resources of the groves.  

Explaining what is sacred about sacred groves, Kent says, Tamils see the groves as “sacred” because they belong to gods, as their property and proper domain. The groves she visited were seen as very special places that belong typically to one of the fierce protector deities whose job it is to patrol and secure the boundaries of the village.  

Aazhakaapuri Aiyannar horses. Photo: Eliza Kent

As such, the koyil-kadu, she continues, is not a place one goes to casually. Very often people taking her there walked gingerly, careful not to trample undergrowth or break limbs. They didn’t hesitate to show her the central shrine or votive statues (in the absence even of a stone representing the deity) but then they wanted to leave, so as not to inadvertently provoke the sami’s displeasure. And yet, during festival times, people came into deeply intimate, familiar, and emotionally intense contact with the deity—reaching out to the god for support, embodied temporarily in the sami-adi (or god-dancer, shaman), for all kinds of things: healing, fertility, protection against enemies, finding lost objects or lost people. So the gods are connected to the people who revere and worship them in profound ways.  

At another level, that connection has to do, she says, with a community’s history.

“Very often the mythology of the gods tells you something about the pasts of the people—how they migrated from place to place until they received a signal from their deity that this was the right place to be. The rituals performed at the annual festival, when people do go to the grove in large numbers, often re-enact and re-connect people to that history, reminding them of who they are and where they came from.”  

Despite the anchoring frame of reference the sacred forests provide to people and communities caring for them, threats exist.

Kent says the main force driving their devastation is the integration of villages into global networks, which lead villagers with more cosmopolitan sensibilities to see these forest shrines as “backwards”, “rustic” or “primitive.”  

“Often, an ambitious resident gets the idea to ‘improve’ the God’s residence by building a pukka temple in concrete, which requires cutting down all or most of the trees that sheltered the deity,” she says.

Sometimes, she continues, this course of action can be delayed when others insist that a seance be conducted to see whether that is actually what the deity wants, and sometimes a kotanki or sami-adi reveals in trance that the god does not want a pukka temple.  ​

“But when people in neighbouring villages destroy their sacred groves to create concrete temples for their village deities, it starts a trend that is hard to stop.” 

In a few instances, the Forest Department’s somewhat ham-handed efforts to partner with local communities led to a clearing of sacred groves.  

Entrance to a sacred grove in Kodagu, Karnataka. Photo: Special arrangement.

She says she found in Tiruvannamalai district—and J. J. Roy Burman also found the same thing in Maharashtra—forest department enthusiasm for a joint forest management scheme  at the site of a sacred grove led the residents to fear they would lose control over the property. Rather than see the sparsely forested open space they used once a year during the tiruvila become a eucalyptus grove that they couldn’t use at all, they cleared the site of all trees and leased out the land to farmers to support the deity’s ritual needs. 

Bhagwat too echoes the processes that are damaging sacred groves. He says, “The most damaging is the process of ‘Sanskritisation’—where animistic deities in sacred forests are replaced by mainstream Hindu gods and goddesses, simple stone structures are replaced by elaborate concrete temples, and trees are cut down to make space for built construction.”

He calls it a form of  “encroachment from within”—replacement of the natural features of sacred forests by artificial constructions.

Added to that is there is “encroachment from outside’”where farmland or plantations are eating into sacred forests.

He is hopeful because “there are many counter-examples where the ‘social fence’ is working, where communities are coming together to protect their sacred forests, and where people are proud of their cultural, spiritual and religious heritage. These are the places where biodiversity in sacred forests continues to thrive.”

Also, Bhagwat observes, the land ownership of sacred forests is complex. Some are owned and managed by state forest departments. Some are owned by the state forest departments but managed by local communities. Some are owned by communities (commons) and also managed by them. Others are owned privately (by families) and managed by family members.

 “So, the designation of sacred forests in Kodagu (as well as in other parts of India) is a very complex matter and it depends on the local histories of land ownership.”

In literature on sacred forests, the word  “stewardship” often comes up. However, Bhagwat says, stewardship is a very Western idea and it has its roots in Abrahamic religions which are founded on the assumption that humans are superior to other beings and are made in the image of God. Because of this special status of humans, it is their responsibility to protect the natural world.

On the other hand, in many Eastern philosophies, humans are seen as part of the natural order. So the elements of nature deriving from animistic traditions feature prominently in many Hindu traditions and rituals. There is continuity between animistic traditions and mainstream Hindu traditions. This is also the case in many other places where sacred forests are protected.

His continuing research shows these traditions around the world and their similarities with the traditions we have in India.

“Even in Europe and North America, where you would think Abrahamic traditions are prevalent, there is recognition of pagan traditions (Europe) and indigenous traditions (North America).”

Their worldviews also don’t easily subscribe to the idea of “stewardship”. Instead, humans are considered part of the natural order and that influences their approach to the natural world. Despite the prevalence of Abrahamic traditions in the Western world, many people are cognizant of pagan and indigenous traditions and some are even influenced by them, including traditions such as the protection of sacred forests, Bhagwat adds.

Sacred forests are unique in that they are protected by people. They are places, as Bhagwat puts it, where “biodiversity can be protected in places where you would least expect to find it. These forests very often are on land that could otherwise be ‘developed’ by planting coffee or by opening it up for commercial projects. But this hasn’t happened because the ‘social fence’ in many cases has worked very well to protect these forests from destruction.”

That has helped in protecting some unique assemblages of species in these forests because these forests have been under community protection for hundreds and sometimes thousands of years.

“My research has highlighted the importance of these forests for biodiversity conservation in ways that work with local communities and not against them.”

In India, he continues, some communities resent our wildlife sanctuaries and national parks because they have forced them out of their settlements and villages, but sacred forest protection is a tradition that has emerged at the grassroots and has been upheld by many communities themselves.

Religion—our response to Reality—is a powerful force in conservation.”

So if you want to communicate to people that we need to take action on climate change (or conservation), religions are important partners and should not be overlooked. There is of course a role for the political process and international agreements, but to get the message down to ordinary citizens, the message needs to be communicated through concepts they best understand. Indians, endowed as they are mostly with mythical way of thinking, can relate to forest gods best.