Diminished by fragmentation
Sacred groves dedicated to snakes, called naga kavus, are unique to Kerala. Most of them adjoin places of worship or are independent and privately owned. But a growing disbelief in the power of the snake gods, among other factors, is leading to the decline of these groves.
In the Ezhimala region, there are hundreds of serpent groves attached to shrines and households. In the 250 sq metre Karippala grove, about 50 plant species are found, including red silk-cotton (Bombax ceiba) and a high canopy of Belleric myrobalan (Terminalia bellerica), both valuable for Ayurvedic preparations.
The groves are highly respected and no one trespasses them. For the believers, even taking a dry twig is forbidden. Rural folklore abounds with stories of people who incurred the wrath of snake gods for violating taboos on the kavus. Normally, snakes are not seen around the groves, though many are believed to be living underground. The sighting of snakes is considered a bad omen.
Leprosy and leucoderma are believed to be caused by the wrath of serpents. Appeasing snake gods for a new birth was also practised. Another ritual is to atone to snake gods for wrong-doing.
However, many naga kavus are now degraded and those that remain are fast disappearing on account of senseless felling of trees to accommodate concrete shrines.
Most of the groves are owned by the Nair community, traditionally a land-owning warrior caste with a matriarchal lineage. Part of the land owned by Nair families was marked for the kavu, but this is now becoming rare because of the fragmentation of land and a switchover by Nair society to patriarchy.