A stone idol as a deity and a lighted stone lamp placed amidst a thick, bushy forest patch, surrounded by the chirping of birds and beetles is the traditional image of a kavu (sacred grove) in Kerala. Decades ago, there were thousands of them across the state, some just a clump of trees and others expanding over acres of land. But these groves have been changing in the recent years. While many have disappeared, in others, the temples have grown to bigger structures and wide roads and pavements have been carved through forest patches.
Despite their decline, they still serve the purpose of reminiscing the past where people worshiped nature together with their deities, conserving biodiversity along with the culture. They exist even today, amidst human settlements and urban areas and are rich in biodiversity that has been protected by local people for their religious and cultural beliefs. The groves have different deities and varied legends associated with them.
The kavus are more famous and prominent in north Kerala, especially in Kannur and Kasaragod districts. There are many groves that have been maintained close to their original form. The presence of many forest species in these kavus makes them unique.
Theyyam is performed in these grove temples in northern Kerala, where deities are believed to take human forms and meet devotees. Kavus are classified based on the deities they support, like Ayyappan, Bhagavathy or Muthappan (an incarnation of Siva). Then, there are those for serpent gods and spirits (sarpa kavu and yakshi kavu).
The C.P.R. Environmental Education Centre (CPREEC), hosted by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) Government of India, in a report has identified about 1000 small and large kavus in Kannur and Kasaragod districts alone. But presently many of them have vanished.
C. Shashikumar, noted bird watcher and environmentalist, in his studies has mentioned that there are 576 known kavus in northern Kerala.
Bird life has remained stable
P. O. Nameer, professor and head, Centre for Wildlife Studies, College of Forestry of the Kerala Agricultural University (KAU) and K.M. Jyothi of KAU did a study in 15 major sacred groves of Kannur and Kasaragod districts in 2015. â€śWe observed 107 bird species belonging to 48 families and 17 orders, among which 25 percent of the bird species were forest birds and 17 species were migratory birds,â€ť Nameer told Mongabay-India.
â€śThe sacred groves of northern Kerala also support two endemic bird species of the Western Ghats, such as the Malabar Grey Hornbill (Ocyceros griseus) and Rufous Babbler (Turdoides subrufa). Apart from that five species of raptors and four owl species were also reported in the study,â€ť he said.
â€śIn Thazhe Kavu (Kannur district) we had spotted the black headed ibis (Threskiornis melanocephalus), a near threatened bird,â€ť Nameer added.
Sashikumar had identified four species of endemic birds including grey headed bulbul and small sun bird, in his study in 2004 of the sacred groves of north Kerala. His study had identified 129 species of birds from 15 sacred groves. Among these, 18.6 percent of the birds were migrants while the rest (81.4 percent) were residents, and 71 bird species were identified as forest birds.
â€śOut of the 115 species of forest birds found in Kerala, 61.74 percent were recorded in the sacred groves.â€ť Sashikumar said in his study. â€śA total of 26 forest interior bird species were recorded from the 15 sacred groves. But the majority of the forest birds (53 percent) found in the sacred groves belonged to forest edge species.â€ť
E. Unnikrishnan, an environmental activist who has studied the sacred groves of northern Kerala extensively since the beginning of 1990s told Mongabay-India that in his studies he has spotted 66 bird species in prominent kavus of northern Kerala.
â€śAmong them, 12 species were migratory and 27 were forest birds. Rest of the 27 birds are urban-rural ones, but most of them are rarely sighted outside sacred groves,â€ť he said. He also added that now about 250 species of birds depend on these sacred groves for their survival. His study also revealed that 24 species of birds breed in these groves and 14 among them were forest birds.
Sacred groves that include mangrove forests and swamps are the peculiarity of very few north Kerala kavus. They host rare wetland birds including migratory ones.
â€śAs per recent studies the sacred groves of north Kerala host 17 species of migratory birds. There will be more for sure,â€ť Nameer said.
According to Sashikumar, the number of species of birds which live in the groves are almost consistent over the years, even while the number of wetland birds have decreased. He studied and monitored Chirayil Kavu in Kannur district continuously for 23 years and has discovered that the population of the resident forest birds was almost constant during the study period and one species became extinct in the grove but made its reappearance after a gap of 10 years. This showed the importance of such groves in bird conservation.
â€śExcept for one species, the dark-fronted babbler (Rhopocichla atriceps), the number of all other species has remained the same during the 23 years of monitoring. This species disappeared from the grove during the study and reappeared in June 2004, after an absence of 10 years,â€ť Sashikumar said.
Refuge habitats supporting a robust web of life
The presence of birds of prey or raptors in these groves is considered to be significant by environmentalists. The birds prey mainly on rodents.
â€śThe predators such as eagles, hawks and large owls require large territories and are sensitive to disturbances of their habitat. They need intact forests for parts of their life cycles. Even small changes in the environment conditions or forest extent notably affect these species. Their presence in these sacred groves indicates a sufficient prey base and thus the high quality of the ecosystem,â€ť Sashikumar said.
Apart from huge trees as shelter, constant availability of food and water also nurtures breeding of birds in the kavus. Shallow rock ponds are the water sources inside many sacred groves. Water gets stored in these tanks during rainy season and it slowly dries up in summer. These ponds also have fish and frogs on which the birds feed.
â€śThe breeding of white-bellied sea eagle in the sacred groves is very significant for the conservation of the species. In our study we have spotted them in Edayilakadu Kavu, a sacred grove in Kasaragod District,â€ť Nameer noted.
These groves face multiple threats
â€śSeveral threats like dumping of waste including plastic, encroachment, people extensively using the trails passing through the sacred groves and quality deterioration due to urbanisation are affecting these groves,â€ť Nameer mentioned in his study.
Unnikrishnan raised much more serious concerns over conservation of these groves. Since most of these groves are in private lands people find different ways to get rid of them.
â€śEarlier people were scared to destroy them, but now there are certain religious practices to destroy a sacred grove and just maintain a deity. With certain prayers and offerings people cut off all the trees and just keep the deity in a corner,â€ť he said, adding that there should be some legal rules and institutional mechanism to protect and conserve the kavus.
There is also the threat caused by the expansion of the temples inside the kavus. Earlier the deities were just a stone carving or a wooden sculpture. Only a small space was provided for the worship and rest of the area were dense forest patch. â€śThat has changed and many big temples are being constructed inside. This is not a good trend. So rather than religious reasons people should realise the ecological importance of these groves,â€ť Sashikumar opined.
It would be best if these godly abodes inside the sacred groves are preserved in their original forms, so that they can continue to be the refuge for biological diversity.
This was first published on Mongabay on 29 January 2019