Called kovilkaadugal, some of these sacred groves are very old, going back thousands of years; some go back only hundreds of years. In former times, every village in India had its own sacred grove. There the trees, all the plants, all the birds and other wildlife were protected because these lands were the abode of the sacred spirits. So that meant that every living being there was sacred, to be preserved and cared for.
The book, Sacred Groves of Tamil Nadu, a Survey, by M. Amirthalingam, published by C.P.R. Environmental Education Centre gives a fascinating overview of the sacred groves of Tamil Nadu, in the south of India.
Not all the groves remain; some have been destroyed with the advent of a more modern worldview for whom the sacred is a less meaningful concept. Others that are still there have deteriorated. The C.P.R. Environmental Education Centre in the past few years has restored over fifty of the sacred groves in Tamil Nadu. There are a few of the groves that have never been destroyed at all—that have been preserved intact, repositories of endemic species of plants, trees, vines, and wildlife.
The unique feature of the sacred groves is that the people who live there themselves revere and care for the grove. The people and the grove are part of the same sacred place, and no outside organization or governmental structure will care for the groves in the quite same way. Wherever the CPREEC has restored one of the sacred groves, they have ensured that the future care of the grove remains with the local village people who live there. It is their grove, and they are the people best suited to look after it.
Generally each grove has a shrine dedicated either to the Mother Goddess Amman or to Ayyanar, a warrior spirit. People build huge terra cotta statues of horses to offer in worship. Nearby may be a small pond or a brook. The forms of the goddess may have a fierce aspect. The spirit Ayyanar and his band of warriors are protective, riding on their horses, as they encircle the village at night protecting everyone there from harm. They carry huge swords and wear gigantic mustaches.
Ayyanar is happy with offerings of fruit, flowers, or coconuts.
Sometimes there are squares of blackened earth, where villagers practice firewalking.
It is important that the devotional figures to be offered be made of terra cotta, because clay represents the life cycle. It is biodegradable. In a few years, it will decay, returning to the earth from where it came, so it represents the process of life. The terra cotta animals are generally domestic animals, like horses or bulls, though sometimes they are elephants.
The terra cotta horses offered can be as high as twenty feet, and the whole village is involved in making and decorating them. The horse as a sacred animal is a very ancient concept, going back to the time of the Rig Veda.
The groves are situated on the outskirts of villages and also serve an ecological function as windbreakers. They are home to many medicinal plants.
Often the deity being worshipped in the grove is represented simply by a stone slab, or even irregular clumps of stone.
Sometimes the sacred groves are also archeological sites. Mr. Amerthalingam calls for the government to take up certain measures to ensure the continued protection of the sacred groves.
The sacred groves of India preserve endemic species of plants and animals, some preserved nowhere else. They are a treasure house for so many species and for something less tangible—for the sacred nature that is part of the soul of India.
Photo: Western Ghats/ Public domain