pp. 338- 345 in Bioethics in Asia

Editors: Norio Fujiki and Darryl R. J. Macer, Ph.D.
Eubios Ethics Institute

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P3. Biodiversity Conservation and Ethics: Sacred Groves and Pools

K.C. Malhotra, Shashi Stanley (2), N.S. Hemam and Ketaki Das.

Indian Statistical Institute, Calcutta 700 035, India

2. Integrated Rural Development of Weaker-sections in India, Semiliguda 764036, Orissa, India

Introduction

Throughout human history, people have evolved cultural ethos and institutions to promote long term persistence of biological communities. These traditional systems of conservation have taken the form of sacred sites (sacred groves, ponds, sacred species). The objectives of this paper are: to report sacred groves and a sacred pool from West Bengal and Orissa, India; to describe the ethical values associated with these sacred sites; and to examine the bearing of such ethical practices in biodiversity conservation efforts.

The materials presented in the paper comprises of field surveys carried out in sacred groves (SG) of seven villages of West Bengal and 220 villages in Orissa. Besides, a sacred pool in Orissa has also been described. The main findings of the present study are: (i) in all SGs there are strict cultural taboos in harvesting of plant biomass and hunting of animals; (ii) none of the forest products in the SG can be exploited for commercial purposes; (iii) most of the SGs were found undisturbed; (iv) in the scared pool harvesting of fishes and other aquatic fauna and flora are strictly forbidden; (v) the protection of sacred sites is maintained by belief in powers of resident spirits and deities, and no policing or monitoring is carried out by humans, and (vi) persons violating the established norms and values are generally not punished, instead are punished by local nature spirits/deities.

In all studied villages, the communities, irrespective of ethnicity, religion, language, age or gender observe traditional values and ethics in maintaining the biological and cultural integrity of the sacred sites. Such values and ethics related to sacred sites have a strong bearing on the conservation of dwindling biodiversity. There is plenty to learn from such prudent cultural practices related to care and use of natural resources.

Throughout human history, people have evolved cultural ethics and institutions to promote long term persistence of biological communities or populations of individual species. These traditional systems of conservation have taken the form of sacred sites- sacred groves and ponds, sacred species- and are found throughout India and in other parts of the world.

Sacred groves (patches of natural vegetation) from western and southern India have been well documented (Gadgil and Vartak 1981; Chandaran and Gadgil 1993); see Gadgil (1995) for an overview on the subject. However, there is a marked dearth of such studies in eastern India. Also, not many examples of sacred pools have been reported in the literature. In these sacred sites are preserved a wide range of biodiversity (terrestrial and aquatic). These sites play a very significant role in the social, cultural, religious and political lives of the people. An understanding of ethical values (systems) associated with these sites have an immense bearing on the dwindling biodiversity world over. In this paper we show examples from sacred groves from West Bengal and Orissa; report a unique sacred fish pool in Orissa; describe the ethical values associated with these sacred sites; and examine the role of such ethical practices in biodiversity conservation efforts.

Material and Methods

The material presented in this paper comprises of two separate field surveys carried out in West Bengal and Orissa. During March-April 1997 sacred groves and other sacred sites were studied in 7 villages in Midnapur district, West Bengal. The names and their geographical location are shown in Figure 1. During August through mid-October 1997 an extensive survey of sacred groves was carried out in all the 220 villages of Semiliguda block in Koraput District of Orissa. The names and geographical location of studied villages are in Figure 2. In addition, a scared fish pool was also studied in Koraput district.

The methods used in collection of the data were semi-structured interview schedules. Several persons including men and women and priests were interacted with. Data gathered for each sacred grove included information on history, size and location of the grove, ritual performed in the grove, deity worshipped, associated objects in the grove, rules of access and harvest of biodiversity, conflict resolution, degree of disturbance and dominant tree species found in the grove. For each grove site - maps were drawn and several photographs were taken. Similar data were also gathered in the case of sacred pool. For the sake of convenience we shall describe separately sacred groves in West Bengal and Orissa.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 1
: Distribution of studied villages in Midnapore district, West Bengal

Table 1: Sacred groves and associated features in 7 villages of Midnapore district, West Bengal

 

Village

Ethnic Composition

No. SGs

Area (Ha)

Associated deities

1 Baro Pipri Mixed population

6

0.06

Garam Devta, Jaher, Sitala Manasa, Bhairabhi
2 Dhekipura Caste Hindu

3

-

Garam Devta, Sitala and Shiva
3 Dudhkundi Mixed population

4

-

Garam Devta, Sitala, Sabitri and Shiva
4 Khasibandh Tribe

4

0.02

Jaher, Sitala, Manasa and Gouri
5 Kendua Mixed population

6

0.30

Jaher, Garam Devta, Shiva, Chakrasini, Sitala and Manasa
6 Patharnala Mixed population

6

-

Garam Devta, Sitala, Shiva, Santalburi and Jugithakur
7 Purabali Bandh Mixed population

3

-

Garam Devta, Sitala and Kali
Findings in West Bengal

The seven villages surveyed in Midnapur district of West Bengal displayed wide variation in terms of population size and ethnic composition. Some of the villages are exclusively inhabited by tribals (Santal, Lodha, Kora, Bhumij, Bhuiya) whereas others had mixed population of tribal and non-tribals (Brahmin, Mahato, Dom, Bagal and Napit). Irrespective of the ethnic composition and other variation in each of these 7 villages at least one sacred grove was present (Table 1). Locally these groves are known as Jaherthan. We summarize below the salient features of these sacred groves (SG).

All SGs comprise of only natural vegetation and are relatively small usually less than one ha. All SGs are associated with a deity(ies). All SGs are very ancient and their antiquity could not be established. In all SGs a number of ceremonies/sacrifices are performed. A large number of terracota votives of animals (like elephant and horse) etc. are usually found in SGs.

There are strict cultural taboos regarding harvesting of plant biomass and hunting of animals; except for fruits, tubers and medicinal plants, collection of all other forest products are forbidden; none of the products can be exploited for commercial purposes. All SGs were found undisturbed. The tree species mostly found in the SGs include sal (Shorea robusta), asan (Terminalia tomentosa), karam (Adina cordifolia), banyan (Ficus bengalensis), aswath (Ficus religosa), pial (Buchanania lanzan), neem (Azadirachta indica), and mahua (Bassia latifolia). In all villages, the communities, irrespective of ethnicity, age or sex, attached high religious and moral values to the long-term preservation of the SGs.

It may be noted that by late sixties natural forests in the studied 7 villages (as elsewhere in the whole district) had vanished resulting in acute shortages of fuelwood and timber. The only natural vegetation that survived in the region was in the SGs. These groves, as shown by Deb, Deuti and Malhotra (1997), served as important sanctuaries for numerous biota amidst landscape of species depletion; they further reported that 49% of birds found in Midnapur district are seen in these groves (Table 2).

Findings in Sacred Groves in Orissa

Semiliguda is a growing suburban town in the district of Koraput situated on the highway between Vishakapatnam in Andhra Pradesh and Raipur in Madhya Pradesh. It's people are of diversified religion and culture. The 220 surveyed villages in Semiliguda displayed wide variation in terms of population size and ethnic composition. There are 10 tribal and 20 non-tribal ethnic groups in the block (Table 3). Most of the villages had mixed population of tribal and non-tribals. Irrespective of the ethnic composition and other variation out of 220 villages 77% (169) of them had sacred groves. These sacred groves are known by various names in different villages (Table 4). We summarize below the salient features of these sacred groves.

Out of the 220 villages surveyed about 77% (169) of them still preserved SGs. The number of SG in a village ranges between 1 to 7. The total number of SGs observed in the block was 322. The size of the SG varied from village to village. It ranges from a small 0.01 Ac to 7 Ac. The estimated total area under the SGs in Semiliguda Block was approximately 94 Acres. These groves are in various states of condition (Table 5): 35.14% of the SG are in its primeval form, without any disturbance; there is little disturbance in 29.39% of the SG; and about 35.47% of the SG are highly disturbed. These SGs are devoid of any built-in structure. The deities of these SGs are mainly represented by piece of iron, sword, mud-pot, mole hill, wooden pole, etc. Major animals and birds sacrificed in the SG are chicken, duck, pigeon, goat, cow, buffalo, and sheep. All the sacrifices and poojas are performed by the priest, but management and control over the SG varies from village to village. In some cases it is the priest who managed the SG, in some it is the village Naik and in some it is the whole village.

Very rarely different ethnic groups have different SGs. Even if a SG is devoted to one ethnic group, it is invariably worshipped by all the communities in the village. A SG is not necessarily for a single community or a village. Community of the same descent group (usually a lineage or clan) living in different area always have a common SG. Therefore, most of the villages which do not have SG are attached to the SG of another or parental village.

Table 2: Habitat preference of birds in Midnapore district, West Bengal

Species Common name

Sal Forest

Sacred Grove

Settlement Area

Acreidotheres tristis Indian myna

-

+

+

A. fuscus Jungle myna

+

+

-

Anthus novaeseelandiae Paddyfield pipit

+

-

+

Appus affini House swift

+

-

+

Athena brama Spotted owlet

-

+

+

Bubulcus ibis Cattle egret

+

-

+

Caprimulgus asiaticus Common Indian nightjar

+

-

-

Centropus sinensis Crow pheasant

+

-

-

Cisticola juncidis Streaked fantail warbler

+

-

+

Columba livia Blue rock pigeon

-

+

+

Copsychus saularis Magpie robin

-

+

+

Coracius bengalensis Indian roller

+

-

+

 

There is strict customary norms and regulations of harvest of the SG products. In general, collection of medicinal plants, fruits, tubers and leaves are allowed from these SGs. But cutting of live branches or trees are prohibited. There is no imposition of punishment or monetary fine by the villagers for such violation. None of the products are harvested for commercial purposes. About 230 dominant tree species have been recorded from these groves.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 2: Distribution of Sacred Groves (SG)

in Semiliguda Block, Koraput district, Orissa

 

Figure 3: The Sacred Fish Pool (Amakondh) of

Kenduguda village, Malkangiri district, Orissa

Findings in Sacred Pool in Orissa

The sacred fish pool, Amakondh, lies in the village Kenduguda in Malkangiri district of Orissa (Figure 3). The pool about 100 square meters is formed by the blocking of a perennial stream, Amakondh, by big boulders. There are several myths and legends associated with the emergence of this sacred pool. In all myths/legends a deity is associated with this phenomena. The sacred site has three distinct elements: a sacred pool; a sacred place called Kanakondh; a recently established small temple.

In the sacred pool are found a large number of fishes, some weighing more than 5-6 kg., besides other aquatic life. There are at least four species of fishes in the pool - Rohi, Kuishari, Buttu and Lona. The people of the region, irrespective of ethnicity, age and sex, consider fishes, water and other aquatic fauna and flora highly sacred. People therefore do not harvest any biodiversity in the pool. Bathing in the pool is strictly prohibited.

Table 3: Names of the communities living in Similiguda Block, Koraput District, Orissa

Table 4: Distribution of Sacred Groves (SG) in different panchyats of Similiguda Block, Koraput District, Orissa

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Table 5: Degree of disturbance in the Sacred Groves (SG) of Similiguda Block, Orissa

 

 

Kanakondh is located at about one km. away from Amakondh. All animal sacrifices for the deity are made here. The recently established temple is located near the Khiarpur market. This was established in response to the ever increasing number of devotees that visit the pool. There is no idol inside the temple but has a Shivalinga and a trishul (trident). There are four priest belonging to four different villages who perform the rituals. However, the priest of Khairpur village is the head priest, and till recently this position was hereditary. There are two types of worship, weekly and annual. The weekly worship is performed every Tuesday. The head priest officiates on these worships. The worship includes offering of coconut , fruits, flowers. Occasionally people sacrifice fowl etc., but the sacrifice is made at Kanakondh.

The annual worship lasts for four days, Monday through Thursday and is performed in February. The worship starts with breaking of a coconut at the pool site. After this the devotees in a procession move to Kanakondh where a goat(s) are sacrificed. The sacrifice is made for the welfare and well-being of the community. During this annual worship, besides various rituals, a variety of cultural programs, music, dance, drama, etc. are also performed. Some 10 years back a committee, Amakondh Pooja Committee, was formed to look after the annual worship. The committee comprises of 18 members, one each from 18 surrounding villages.

For centuries, people of Malkangiri have evolved cultural tradition and practices that prohibit fishing in the scared pool. There is absolutely no monitoring or supervision of the pool. In case any one fishes in the pool, no punishment is given. It is the belief of the people that those who will not adhere to the norms will be punished by the deity. These practices have preserved aquatic life not only in the sacred pool but also down stream.

Conclusion

The sacred groves and sacred pool described here, clearly established that these sacred sites not only harbor islands of biodiversity but also function as cultural and religious centers.

Acknowledgments

We are highly indebted to the people of all the villages we studied for their cooperation and warm hospitality. One special thanks are to the staff of WIDA, Semiliguda, for their help in collection of data in the field.

References

Chandran, M.D.S. and Gadgil, M. (1993). Kans - safety forests of Uttara Kannada. Proc. of IUFRO Forest History Group on Peasant Forestry, pp. 49-57, Frieberg, Germany.

Deb, D., Deuti, K. and Malhotra, K.C. (1997). Sacred grove relics as bird sanctuaries. Current Science (in press)

Gadgil, M. (1995). Traditional conservation practices. In: W.A. Nierenberg (ed.) Encyclopedia of Environmental Biology, Vol iii, pp. 423-425, Academic Press.

Gadgil, M. and Vartak, V.D. (1981). Sacred groves of Maharashtra: an inventory. In: S. K. Jain (ed.) Glimpses of Ethnobotany, pp. 279-294, Oxford University Press, Bombay.


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