A sacred forest grove in Kodagu, Western Ghats of India.
How old are sacred forest groves? Why are sacred groves where they are? How did these sites come about? These questions have been bugging me ever since I stepped foot in the tropical forests of South India. Ecologists think that sacred forest groves are fragments of once-continuous forest. Anthropologists think that sacred forest groves are special places in the landscape that have cultural meaning. Local communities talk about sacred forests going back to several of their ancestral generations. But how old sacred forests really are has been an enigma for a long time. But now we have the answer!
Some colleagues and I have been working on the long-term ecology of sacred forest groves in the Indian Western Ghats. We were fortunate to find 1000-year old mud in continuous sequences of sediment from two sacred groves in Kodagu region of the Western Ghats mountains. For long-term ecologists, this kind of mud is black gold! Wet mud can preserve a variety of plant fossils and charcoal that give a good idea of what kind of trees lived all those years, decades, centuries or millennia ago. It also gives an idea of what people did to the land back then. For example, if people set fire to land, that will show up in mud as charcoal particles. This kind of information is very useful to ‘reconstruct’ historical landscapes and to imagine how they might have looked like in the past.
We did this in two sacred forest groves and found that both these forest groves ’emerged’ around 400 years ago. Our academic paper on this is now available online. What is really interesting is the cultural, political and social factors that made these sacred forest groves emerge. We speculate in this paper that setting fire to land for shifting cultivation was common at these sites. But something suddenly changed around 400 years ago. We think that a change in political dynasty and the demarcation of land boundaries by the new rulers of Kodagu was an important turning point in the regeneration of these forest groves.
Also, there might have been a society-wide awareness of forest loss and its effects on groundwater because history says that around 400 year ago, at the peak of the Little Ice Age, there were severe water shortages, draughts and even famines in some parts of Asia. When the community became aware of the forest loss and its effects on ground water, they might have got together and declared some land as sacred. The newly emerged sacredness 400 years ago might have allowed the forest to come back. Today, sacred groves are often found around natural springs.
Of course, our data come only from two sacred groves, but they are sufficiently far apart from each other to think that this was a region-wide phenomenon. The emergence of forest at two separate locations at the same time is hardly a coincidence, so it is very likely that such changes happened also elsewhere in the landscape. We need more mud, more sediment sequences, to put a firm timeline on the emergence of sacred forest groves, but this study perhaps helps us imagine various historical possibilities of sacredness and its emergence.
Even though these sacred forest groves are only 400 years old, today they look remarkably ‘ancient’. This means that tropical forests can regenerate within relatively short periods of time. Four hundred years is about five human generations, but for long-lived trees, this is only a couple of generations. It is remarkable that tropical forest ecosystems can turn around and pretend as if nothing happened only in a couple of generations! There are probably scars of ‘inter-generational trauma’ of forest loss, but they are not obvious in these sacred forest groves. A divine intervention? May be!
Bhagwat SA, S Nogué, KJ Willis (2014) Cultural drivers of reforestation in tropical forest groves of the Western Ghats of India. Forest Ecology and Management, Available online 23 December 2013 http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.foreco.2013.11.017