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Center for the Conservation of Biodiversity: Sacred Groves in India

M. L. Khan[1]


India is well known for worship of nature, and this plays an integral role in the lives of many communities. Religion and cultural practices are closely linked with forests, and this helps in conservation. Some patches of forest are left untouched because of social fencing by local people. These types of forest are regarded as “sacred groves”. India has an abundance of sacred groves, which are known by several names. The conservation practices used in the groves vary in different states according to their nature, distribution and local beliefs. In this paper we discussed the features, mythology and taboos associated with sacred groves. Ecological importance, management and measures for conservation have been discussed with special reference to sacred groves of northeast India.


Introduction

From time immemorial, in India, as well as in parts of Asia and Africa, care and respect for nature has been influenced by religious belief and indigenous practices. Our country is well known for nature’s worship, which plays an integral role in the live of many communities. Every aspect of religious and cultural practices is deeply rooted with the forest that helps in nature conservation. It also acts as the subject of a great deal of myth, legend and lore. Still, today there exist some tribes in the remote hilly areas, whose livelihood were fully dependent on forest resources and their traditional practices conserved a large number of wild plant species for various reasons e.g. food, fiber, shelter or medicine. Unfortunately, various developmental activities and changes in people’s attitude in terms of beliefs in religious and indigenous practices bring heedless actions towards forest. This leads to degradation of forest at an alarming rate and shrinking of biodiversity. However, there are some patches of forest, which are left untouched because of social fencing by local people. These types of forest brings the concept of “sacred groves”. Generally, sacred groves are a tract of virgin forest, harbouring rich biodiversity and protected traditionally by the local communities as a whole. The area of scared groves ranges from few square meters to several hectares. Till today, there exist some fascinating example of forest patches harbouring native vegetation, which has been intertwined with the various aspects of indigenous, cultural and religious practices along with the associated taboos. The inextricable link between culture and biodiversity has been found in sacred groves. India is having abundance of scared groves and known by several names such as kavu in Kerala, devaravana or devarakadu etc. in Karnataka, sarana or jaherthan in Jharkhand, dev van in Himachal Pradesh, devrai or devgudi in Maharashtra, ki law lyngdoh or ki law kyntang etc. in Meghalaya, vanis or kenkris etc in Rajasthan, kovilkadu in Tamil Nadu, and umanglai in Manipur. The way of conservation varies in different states according to their nature, distribution and local beliefs. Sacred groves also exist in West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Uttranchal, Sikkim, Orissa, Gujarat, Bihar, etc. It is also found that in some state, sacred groves are known by different names within the state.

Sacred groves in Manipur

In north-eastern India, various ethnic groups have preserved and protected several forest patches and even individual trees or animals with the belief in nature’s worship. Manipur is in the north-eastern corner of the country. Nagaland surrounds it on the north, upper Mayanmar on the east, Chin-hills of Mayanmar and Lusai hills of Mizoram on the south, and Cachar district of Assam on the west. In ancient Manipuri culture, people worshipped the natural phenomena like the sun, the moon, the sky, the water and the fire. Although Hinduism invaded in the early Manipuri culture, the religious and cultural practice performed by the ancient meities were not change at all. The worshipping and protection of forest in the name of “Umanglai” because of their associated deities are still practice by the modern Manipuries preserving the ancient tradition till date. In Manipur, some of the forest patches are owned by some deity and conserved by the local people largely on the basis of religious beliefs and cultural practices. Such forests are known as “Umanglai”. Among the different ethnic groups of Manipur, meitei is the dominant community and they administer most of the sacred groves. They have preserved forest in its pristine. Villagers or the people of that locality consider any sort of damage in this sacred forest as a sin. The “Umanglai” literally means, “Umang” means ‘forest’ and “Lai” means ‘deities’ for is being worshipped in the forest. In the ancient meiteis society, preservation of forestlands was practiced in the name of deities in Umanglai (sacred grove). Umanglai are called not because being worshipped merely in the forest but because of the belief that a thick forest that cannot be seen through our eyes is mysterious as God or deity. In truth, Umanglai may be considered as knowledge which is infinite and all pervading.

Distribution of sacred groves in Manipur

365 sacred groves are recorded in Manipur (Devi, 2000) which are distributed over a wide range of landscape viz., hills, foothills, hillocks, near river and streams, islands and plains. Hence, all the landscaping area of Manipur has the sacred groves deities, which conserve many rare and endemic species of flora and fauna of the state. These sacred groves of Manipur have helped the conservation of biodiversity through the ages and some of them remain unaffected till date. Further, Umanglai are the ideal places for worship of meiteis and preservation of Umanglai means the preservation of her ecology, culture and religion (Rajendro, 1997). The lofty hills, which surround the valley, are named after the deities’ viz., the Koubru hills in the north-west of the valley, Thangjing hills in the south-west, etc. Umanglai plays very important role to protect and conserve the primitive cultivators and other wild flora and fauna.

Celebrations and ritual practices of sacred groves

Meiteis use to worship Umanglais with the celebrations called “Lai-Harouba” (the pleasing of God). ‘The Lai Haraoba mirrors the entire culture of the Manipuri people. It reveals its strength and weakness, the beliefs and superstitious, and perhaps also the charm and happiness of the Manipuri people. It reflects the people at their intensest’ (Singh, 1961). The objectives of the Lai Haraoba are to pleased God to gain their favour. The celebration starts at the onset of the wet season in the months of Kalen (in Manipuri calender) i.e. April - May and may continue through to June. Each celebration normally lasts a little more than a week. The main rituals of the Lai Haraoba are performed or led by the maiba (Priest) and maibi (Priestess) and Penakhongba (the player of the Pena). Pena is a traditional one stringed fiddle. The Lai Haraoba rituals exist in three main forms; the Kanglei (Meitei) Haraoba, in which Pakhangaba is the chief deity honoured; the Moirang Haraoba, in honoured of Thangjing, chief lai of the Moirang yek (clan); and the Chakpa Haraoba, which seems to be more primitive. Lai Panan Ningthou is a deity of the Chakpa village of Andro. His Haraoba (pleasing) is still highly secretive and outsiders are excluded. Though there are some significant differences between them, the basic structure of the Lai Haraoba is common to all three. During the festival, God are made to pleased by offering words, flowers and fruits, dance, play etc. in order to gain their favour for the prosperity of the village, peoples and individuals, also to cure disease and everything to be fortunate in future. The offering of Sharen Katpa, literally ‘live offering’ is even more significant. In this ritual two cooking pots are brought out, one for the rice, the other for the vegetables and in between them is placed a sareng (Wallago attu). The flowers and fruits offered to deities are distributed to the people. The songs and dances and other rituals practices are all related to love and affections of our wildlife (flora and fauna). It is believed that according to the caring and pleasing of deities by the local people, deities protect them from sickness, harm, natural disasters etc. that might come to them.

Common taboos and beliefs associated with the sacred grove of Manipur.

* Cutting of any trees and destroying of groves are prohibited.

* Shoes and accessories of leather are not allowed at the entrance of the gate leading to the deities’ temples as these are made from animals skin and believed to be impure.

* Women are not allowed to enter the grove at the particular place and particular time.

* It is believed that if anyone offended to the entity of the grove, deities will punish by bringing illness or unfortunate to him or her.

* People used to pray to the scared species with some offering like- pan (it consist of Betel nut Areca catechu and Betel leaf Piper betle), flowers, fruits, coin, flag etc.

Features and Mythology of sacred groves

The location of sacred groves were mainly depends on the types of deities. The shape and structure of the temple are constructed according to the favour of the deities presides. Sacred stone found in most of the sacred groves located in hills, are worship in the name of their associated deities. Sacred trees or sacred place are also found in some of the groves, which are taboo. It is also belief that deity presides on the sacred trees therefore, it is worshipped, protected and no one is permitted to cut down. It is supposed to be everyone duties to protect not only the scared trees but also the sacred groves situated in their surrounding. Some of the sacred groves are peculiar in their nature. In Konthoujam Lairembi sacred grove, 11 Ficus trees are connected to each other giving a specific structure in the grove, which narrates some myth behind them. These species also support various animals including birds and innumerable invertebrate species. Lai Awangba sacred grove at Khurai Imphal, situated at the roadside, holds a good conservation of natural and planted trees. Some of the sacred groves are associated with sacred plant species and sacred pond that are conserved as a whole. The sacred species are either medicinal plants, or source of edible parts of the plant or having ritual value. These plants are conserved and have been considered sacred because of their cultural, religious and economic importance. Mayokpha (Terminalia arjuna) in the Mayokpha sacred grove, Peepal (Ficus religiosa) in many sacred groves may be mentioned. Sacred ponds are associated with myth and legend having specific characteristic and possesses some remarkable qualities. Sacred pond of Ebuthou Pakhangba puruk shoubi at Uchekon Takhongpat Leikai is unusual in nature. Pond water is turbid, exuberant in many portions. It is belief that some skins disease could be cure after bathing with this pond water. Therefore, during the Lai Harouba or in any other auspicious day, people collect pond water, after performing sort of rituals practices by offering flowers, fruits, pan, money etc near the pond. It is a taboo, which is practiced commonly as a special case by priest (maiba). Mayokpha (Terminalia arjuna) is a scared tree with medicinal value. If anyone wants to pluck the leaf or any part like bark, root, etc., one has to inform the plant, in the form of invitation by money, flower or fruits or pan (pana). If this normal indigenous procedure is not followed, there is a belief that the patient who used the plant as a medicine may face more trouble instead of curing the disease.

Ecological importance of sacred groves

The value of sacred groves is immense. It is also the repositories of rich medicinal plants, wild relatives of crops and many important species, which act as the valuable gene pool. They give much ecological and genetically significance and play an important role in wildlife conservation also. Umanglai with unmolested vegetation harbours in-situ conservation of wild plant species with potential, economic, along with rare and threatened plant species. Perhaps sacred groves could be called as a last refuge for these vulnerable species. They are acting as mini-botanical gardens (Rajmuhon and Rajendro, 1998). The cultural trees like Choi (Cassia fistula), Kurao (Erythrina sp.), Tairel (Cedrella toona), Nongleisang (Xylosma longifolia), Heikreng (Cettiscinua menum), Khongnang (Ficus sp.) etc. are grown naturally and conserved in most of the sacred groves. Medicinal plants like Langtheri (Eupatorium birmaticum), Nongmangkha (Adhatoda vastica), Mayokpha (Terminia arjuna), Leihou (Michilia sp.) etc are also grown in these natural centers. Sacred groves are the good source of the variety of medicinal plants, fruits, fodder, fuel wood, spices, etc. Few of the medicinal plants which are rare in forest, they are conserved in some of the sacred groves e.g., Lam thabi (Melothria purpusilla) in Mahabali sacred grove. Trees from the sacred grove may be cut down especially only for the purpose of the celebration of the sacred groves or for the requirement of the others rituals practices. The conservation of plants in the Koubru sacred grove has immense contribution in the protection of several leopards or tigers that are threatened now-a-days. Mayokpha sacred grove at Elangbam leikai Keisamthong, is associated with the diety “Pungjao lakpa” on incarnation of “Pakhangba” (snake). In this grove Mayokpha (Terminalia arjuna) is conserved along with the conservation of all snakes inhabiting in and around the area of the grove. In Konthoujam sacred grove native trees and other medicinal herb species have ever since been treasured and play a significant role in ecological balance of that region.

Faunal species like bees, lizards, snake, monkeys etc. are also seen in sacred groves of Manipur. Monkeys (Rhesus sp.) and Flying fox found in Mongba Hanba sacred grove (popularly known as Mahabali) are largely conserved within the grove and give a good picture of the Mahabali sacred grove. Many of the birds are found nestling in the sacred groves. Practice of bee keeping by the care-taker (Shri K. Noubicha Singh) within the Heingang Marjing sacred grove is found to be successful. This practiced is sustainable and can be made as a source of income, which may contribute, though little account, for the management of the sacred grove. Besides these, sacred groves play a great role in maintaining the microclimate of the region. Conservation of these groves can conserve water and, prevent soil and nutrient loss. Sacred groves also help in preserving the religious and cultural heritage of Meitei culture.

Degradation of sacred groves of Manipur

With their protectors gone, the groves of rich biological diversity are also disappearing. Then indigenous cultures for the conservation of the sacred grove are being disturbed and eroded due to the impact of developmental activities, urbanization, increase in population, changes in people attitude, etc. Human interference such as encroachment, exploitation for their resources, mainly for the collection of vegetables, medicinal plants, firewood and dry leaves, also threatened sacred groves. Such interference enhanced shrinking of sacred groves area and depletion of flora and fauna. Groves located near the settlements are disappearing at a faster rate because of the construction or rebuilt of many beautiful temples and mandapas (temple hall), at the expense of several trees from the groves. Conversion to other religions and, eroding people’s beliefs on various indigenous and cultural practices associated with sacred groves and considering as superstitions by a large section of people, particularly by the younger generation resulted in the degradation of sacred groves at alarming rate. In the same way in Nagaland, the neighboring state of Manipur, it is believed that ghost (devil spirit) resides in sacred groves and if anyone dares to disturb it, they cause harm to people. In fear of ghost, people do not enter the sacred groves, thus forests were left untouched and conserved biodiversity as a whole. However, due to blessing of Christianity by the indigenous people in the state, younger generation no more believe this and consider as superstitions. In due course of time, groves are destructed for the construction of churches, connecting roadways etc., and leading to destruction of forest. The local people also started exploitation of forest resources from these groves for their immediate requirements. This leads to the depletion of sacred groves in Nagaland at the faster rate.

Sacred groves (Umanglai) management

The government and forest authorities done a very little work for the protection of sacred groves in Manipur. Locally, Umanglai are looking after by the head of the village or the members of the authorized committee or caretaker. They take up measures for the protection of sacred groves. All decision especially, at the times of Lai haraoba were made by them. However, all the Umanglais in Manipur are controlled and managed by the “Shri Govindaji Temple board”, Konung, Wangkhei Imphal under the Shri Govindaji temple Bill 1972, against Government of Manipur Secretariat. It was amended again in 1976 against the Government of Manipur Secretariat. Though some of the Umanglais are now under Manipur Ancient Historical Monuments & Archeological Sites. “Manipur Sanamahi Temple Board” (a private board) also ensures to save Umanglai from being neglected and destruction.

Measures for the conservation of scared groves in Manipur

Proper education should be provided to the people addressing about the need for conserving sacred groves. In the settlement areas, fencing the grove would help in reducing grazing and other human intervention especially, encroaching the grove area. Reforestation of groves by planting native plant species or species similar to that in the nearby groves, may help the survival and growth of many species. Providing awareness about the uses of traditional knowledge/practices for the conservation of flora and fauna and, for maintaining the identity of the community may be significant for the conservation of sacred groves in Manipur.

Acknowledgement

The work was supported by a research grant to MLK from G. B. Pant Institute of Himalayan Environment and Development, Almora, Uttranchal.

References

Devi, S. 2000. Sacred groves of Manipur. Abstract. National workshop on community strategies on the Management of Natural Resources. Bhopal.

Kulachandra Singh, N. 1993. Meitei Lai harouba (in Manipuri). Imphal.

Nilakanta Singh, E. 1961. Lai Haraoba in Marg. 14 (4): 30-34.

Rajendro Singh, N. 1997. “Biodiversity Conservation An Overview”.

Rajmuhon Singh, N. & Rajendro Singh, N. 1997. “Efforts for Conservation of Biodiversity-A Strategy for sustainable development”. 8th Manipur Science Congress Souvenir, Manipur University. pp. 40-44.

Saroj, N. A. Parratt. & J. Parratt. 1997. The pleasing of God: Meitei Lai harouba. Vikas publishing house Pvt Ltd. New Delhi.


[1] Department of Forestry, North Eastern Regional Institute of Science & Technology, Nirjuli-791 109 (Itanagar), Arunachal Pradesh, India. Email: mlk@agni.nerist.ac.in; mlk@nerist.ernet.in; khanml@yahoo.com