Unholy deeds in the woods

Unholy deeds in the woods as the largescale destruction of forests continue, there are small pockets of trees all over the country that are still holding out against the mindless deforestation. Sacred groves - small patches of forests which contain a temple and a deity. The copses formed an integral part of the traditional lifestyle of the state and a few years ago were considered successful models of forest conservation. But rituals and half-baked government policies are now posing a serious threat to their survival.

In Kerala, these islands of greenery are known as kavus and the gods generally are Bhagwati or Naga - the snake god. Barely three hours from Trichur is one such grove. These forests have all along been conserved in the name of religion, but now they make for good business. Most of them are in the hands of wily tantriks , who permit the owners to change the land use without any compunction.

Today, even their religious association can not save these groves from destruction. The association is being utilised to yield economic benefits and the price is being paid by the groves. According to land records, there were more than 10,000 groves in Kerala but recent studies indicate that not more than 900 remain. "From 10,000, the sacred groves with an area of at least 200m 2 have been reduced to around 360; but if all sacred groves are included, especially ones with a few trees and an idol, the number would amount to around 900,' says N C Indochoodan, assistant conservator of forests, Nilambur, Kerala, who has recently written a thesis on the diversity of sacred groves of Kerala.

A scarcity of land combined with growing population and development needs have played havoc with the forests of this southern state notwithstanding the religious sanctity attached. "Kerala, with 1 per cent of the country's land mass, has to harbour 4 per cent of the population of India which increases the demographic pressure on the land. This squeeze is being reflected on the sacred groves,' says Indochoodan. According to mythology, the groves house the goddess Bhagwati and the serpent god or Naga and, hence, should be left undisturbed. In fact, removing leaf litter from the forest or harvesting trees is strictly forbidden. But the lure of lucre is too powerful to disobey. Even as the sacred groves are probably entering their last phase of survival, ignorance and a wanton destruction of trees are taking a heavy toll. For instance today, Iringole kavu , which is a two-hour drive from Trichur, has been reduced to a 14-hectare plot, half of the original 27.5 hectares. A considerably well-adorned temple housing goddess Bhagwati and run by the Devasam Board occupies the centre of the grove. The priests stay nearby and are entrusted with the task of protecting the kavu . But this has hardly resulted in any protection and the groves have been reduced to half their original size. Land, that was earlier part of the grove, has been utilised by the adjoining village where houses and roads and private plantations have sprung up.

The story of another grove Sarpa Kavu in Vadama, Mala is slightly different from the previous one. This forest is hemmed in by concrete walls which protects a flourishing business under the cover of the rituals. The small nine-hectare plot of land houses a number of plant species and a small temple, but neighbouring the grove is the real hub of activities, a two-storeyed building that houses the tantriks while a garage in the background houses a few modern cars. A small office in the corner of this building serves as the centre for registration of sacred grove replacements and a reception area where two tantriks, dressed in black, meet visitors. At the counter one can also buy clothes to be worn while taking a dip in the pond nearby before entering the premises of the kavu .

But how does one replace a forest? According to the tantriks a small ritual is performed to accomplish the task for a price. People who want to usurp the forest land or its natural resources come to the Sarp Kavu and are registered for a fee. Priests from the kavu then go and perform a ritual, which in their own words "transfers the mystical power of the deity associated with the groves to the Sarp Kavu where the idols are finally shifted.' The sacred grove houses tens of thousands of idols brought from households that did away with their own sacred groves. Shifting of the idol accomplishes the so called replacement of forests which in real terms are cut down and cleared.

The tantriks , however, justify their actions and assert that they are abiding by traditional rules and customs. One of them said: "Monetary demands have increased and people are compelled to sell their land today, at times to people who do not belong to their community. This means that people buying these lands do not have a traditional association with the groves and, thus, cannot be allowed to take care of the groves even if they are willing to do it. We are performing a service to save old customs and traditions. In order to save the mystical power of the groves residing in the idols we have to shift it and preserve it in the Sarp Kavu . The land under the groves is then reclaimed and put to uses ranging from construction to cultivation.'

"We have placed a proposal before the forest department to try and curb this practice because this is providing an easy way to do away with the sacred groves,' says Indochoodan. But implementation will take time and till then the sacred groves face the danger of disappearing.

Sacred groves were an essential part of the undivided Hindu households of Kerala in the past. But with the joint family system now defunct, the fragmentation of property has led to the division of sacred groves, too, reducing them to such small areas that their sustainability becomes questionable. The