Puthupet: The opening of the Conference on Sacred Groves

Drums and flutes procession

A booming procession of flutes and drums marched down the central pathway of the sacred grove of Puthupet in Tamil Nadu, in southern India.  Photographers ran along beside the procession, dignitaries followed the musicians, students gathered laughing and smiling on the sidelines, village people sat beside tables of wares, with children running helter-skelter, dogs in the background slept or scrounged for a snack, a truck was parked randomly on the pathway, its cab brilliantly decorated with painted blue birds.  And over all, hung the branches of ancient trees.  Lining the pathways leading off into the Puthupet sacred grove were more beautiful old trees, draped in thick vines, that, amazingly are a thousand years old.

So began The National Conference on Sacred Groves, this past spring  —  well, the full title is “The National Conference on Conservation of Sacred Groves to Protect Biodiversity,” held February 12, 13, and 14, in Tamil Nadu, India, and organized by CPREEC, the C.P. Ramaswamy Environmental Education Centre, based in Chennai (sometimes called Madras).

Inside the meeting hall, conference attendees gathered, including speakers who had traveled from all over India to talk about their scientific work studying, researching, and preserving, the sacred groves of India. A ritual lamp was lit by Shri R. Sundararaju, Director of the Tamil Nadu Forest Service, who has done a great deal to preserve the sacred groves.

Shri R. Sundararaju and Dr. Nanditha Krishna

Dr. Nanditha Krishna, Honorary Director of CPREEC, the organization hosting the conference, described how their work restoring sacred groves had come about.

They had discovered that it was simply “not enough to talk about the environment and to train teachers.”  More was needed—a “micro-level example of a perfect environment.”  So at CPREEC, they began a search for such an example, and they found it in the sacred groves of India. “In my opinion a sacred grove is a magical place,” Dr. Krishna said.  CPREEC has restored 52 sacred groves in Tamil Nadu.  “25 villages have asked us for technical help… This is replicable at the local level.”

They have documented 13,000 sacred groves, 702 in Tamil Nadu alone.  “Nenmeli [another sacred grove that CPREEC restored] was a wasteland—50 acres are now covered in happy plants.”  Jackals and porcupines have returned.

For restoration of a sacred grove to succeed, “local people must be interested and willing… We get to know about the local plants from the elders.”

“Sacred groves comprise parts of forests, and they are protected by local spiritual tradition….Often they are the last refuge of endemic species.”

With the rapid urbanization that has taken place over the last 100 years, much of these traditions of sacred groves have been destroyed.  Trees have been felled for development; there has been widening of roads, and new roads have come up where once there were sacred groves.  The object of the Conference is to look at sacred groves as national heritage sites.

“Without the spiritual aspect of our lives, we will just have more trees cut,” Dr. Krishna concluded.  It is, however, more and more of a challenge to protect them as the population grows.  The tradition of India is that every village had its sacred grove.

Shri C. Achalender Reddy, of the Indian Forest Service, Secretary, National Biodiversity Authority, followed, speaking on the theme that “spiritual tradition and science can go together…such traditions have preserved knowledge.”  He talked about the sacred groves as repositories of genes and about the crucial importance of genes. “These gene pools in the form of sacred groves will play a major role in the coming years…Some species have been growing and have been preserved around temples.”

“It’s important that our children do not forget about their roots,” he added, “These are living laboratories for all our children to learn about nature.”  He pointed out that, “legal backing is essential to preserve the sacred groves.”

Students invited to attend the Conference

Dr. P.S. Ramakrishnan, INSA (Indian National Science Academy) Honorary Senior Scientist, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, mentioned that he had grown up in a small village in south India. “There are over 10,000 sacred groves in this country…some are rapidly deteriorating…how much do we know about these sacred groves?”  He continued, “Biologists and scientists need to do a good job…we need to learn lessons from these sacred groves.”

Shri R. Sundararaju, Indian Forest Service, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and Chief Wildlife Warden, Forest Department, Government of Tamil Nadu, who had opened the ceremony by lighting the lamp, presented some very telling examples of the unique contribution of sacred groves. Very sadly, as many as 96% to 99% of the vultures in India have succumbed to a drug that was being used to treat cattle, a drug that has now been banned.

One ingredient that has helped the vultures has been water that has been found only in certain seeds in some sacred groves.  These kinds of discoveries can be essential for the recovery of species.  Maintaining the forests of sacred groves also protects land from insect imbalances.  He stressed that the Forest Service works for the people, and their job is to protect the environment for the people. “We need to protect sacred groves as the repository of species, so that they are not lost forever.”

The ways that preserving the environment are of benefit to people need to be conveyed to the public, he said.  “If this is known, there will be more support for the sacred groves.” He also called for more studies of human/wildlife conflicts, which can be a major issue in India, affecting many people’s daily lives.

As the trees in the background listened and the dogs slept, this inspiring beginning of the Sacred Groves Conference came to the close of the first day.

The two days to follow were to be technical sessions (technical, but fascinating all the same) to take place back in Chennai at the C.P. Ramaswamy Aiyar Foundation.

Photos: Sharon St Joan,

Top photo: Drum and flute procession at Puthupet

Second photo: Shri R. Sundararaju, Dr. Nanditha Krishna

Third photo: Some of the students who were invited


To visit the website of CPREEC, click here.


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