Sacred groves of Kerala: Backed by divinity, but not legality
Sacred groves of Kerala: Backed by divinity, but not legality

Sacred groves of Kerala: Backed by divinity, but not legality

Somewhere in the God’s own country there are people who are convinced of the need to protect God’s own heritage.

On a satellite map, Kammadam Kavu, the largest sacred grove in Kerala, is in line with the Talakaveri Wildlife Sanctuary. As the crow flies, the grove in the midlands of Kasaragod district may even be less than 30 km away from the crest of the Western Ghats in Kodagu district of Karnataka. It is not possible to understand this on the ground though, as we walked into the forest patch.

This summer, the paddy fields near the sacred grove were dry like the fields in all parts of Kerala. Due to the failure of the southwest and northeast monsoons in 2016, the green state had taken a golden yellow hue with dry paddy fields.

Inside Kammadam Kavu, it was surreal in comparison to the outside; it was a thick, tropical, evergreen forest. The undergrowth limited our trek only through the beaten track. Every pore in the skin was exuding sweat. We beat mosquitoes as we felt their stings. The stream inside the forest had some water flowing, even while other streams outside were dry.

Perhaps the 54.7-acre Kammadam Kavu is a vestige of evergreen forests that once stretched down from the mountains into the midlands and coastal plains. But today, it is an island, surrounded by paddy fields, arecanut, rubber and banana.

No legal protection

Standing on revenue lands (classified as revenue assessed waste land), the forest patch has no legal protection. It is surviving without further encroachment because of the belief in the divinity associated with the Bhagavathy deity inside the forest, and the local community’s fierce desire to conserve it.

Seen in Map is Kammadam Temple - to its north is the forest patch called Kammadam Kavu

“The forest once used to cover 109 acres, and has now come to its present size. We will ensure that it will not shrink any further, and that no more trees are cut,” said Kunjambu Nair, the president of the Kammadam Kavu Protection Committee. Nair, who lives near and has agricultural fields close to the sacred grove, has been working since 1992 to conserve the forest from any further encroachment.

However, he rues that their efforts do not have the backing of a strong legal protection for the largest sacred grove in Kerala, which also has the richest biological diversity.

Even though the district collector of Kasaragod had visited the Kavi, and promised to recommend its notification into a forest area, no action has been taken yet. Without a legal backing, Kammadam Kavu can be very easily be converted for other land uses, and the local community may find it difficult to prevent such a land use change.

According to E Unnikrishnan, an environmental activist who has studied the sacred groves of northern Kerala extensively, the government can and should notify Kammadam Kavu into a community reserve, so that its biodiversity is protected, without restricting the entry of the local community for their traditional needs.

This sacred grove was one of the earliest that Unnikrishnan had documented, when he had began his work in 1992. His passion for documenting and conserving sacred groves has earned him the sobriquet of Kavunni.

E Unnikrishnan and Balakrishnan inside Kammadam Kavu.

The deity at Kammadam Kavu.

Romantic messages can kill old growth trees at Kammadam Kavu.

The Kammadam Kavu's services

According to VC Balakrishnan, secretary of the Society for Environmental Education in Kerala, and the Kannur district coordinator for the Kerala State Biodiversity Board, Kammadam Kavu is a vestige of a tropical evergreen forest. It is unique in its tropical evergreen vegetation and supports unique species such as the Malabar Tree Nymph butterfly. Balakrishnan, an avid, self-taught botanist is an expert at identifying trees and small animals.

“Considering that 2011-2020 is being observed as the United Nations Decade on Biodiversity and also there are governmental activities for promoting biodiversity conservation, notifying Kammadam Kavu as a protected area will help conserve this treasure for posterity,” Balakrishnan said.

“The most important ecosystem service that forest patches like Kammadam provide is water. They are the points of origin for streams that later join to form rivers. They provide oxygen and sequester carbon, control the micro climate and help precipitate rains.”

Urbanisation in Kerala

Situated on a strip of land that is 580 km long and less than 150 km in breadth at the broadest, Kerala packs in dense vegetation. As the Western Ghats block the rain-bearing clouds of the southwest monsoon, the state gets an average annual rainfall of nearly 3,000 mm, amongst the highest in the country. Despite the state looking a sea of green from an aircraft, it is not as if the landscape is ecologically rich.

Changes in land use in the past decades have replaced the native vegetation and biological diversity with mono-cropped plantations and urban settlements. The satellite image of Kammadam forest shows the unbroken canopy being eaten into by green dots of plantations along its periphery.

Urbanisation has made major inroads into the native vegetation of Kerala. While during the 2001 Census one in four people in the state lived in an urban area, by the 2011 Census it became one in every two. The Census document makes an interesting observation. While the number of statutory towns (urban bodies with a notified Panchayati Raj institution) reduced from 60 to 59 in the ten years between 2001 and 2011, the number of census towns (these can even be villages that answer to the criteria of population, density and male working force involved in non-agricultural activities) increased from 99 to 461.

It is the neo-urbanising areas are those that make a more pronounced adverse impact on the native vegetation stands. They encroach house-by-house into the sacred groves. Even if the fear of the divine prevents the local inhabitants from encroaching into the grove, they make enough transgressions to send the forest patch into a spin of decline.

The need for a fence

Poyyilkavu, a 12.5-acre sacred grove located almost at the northern edge of the growing Kozhikode city, has not lost its size. But with increasing number of people walking through the grove, the protection committee’s prime requirement from the government is financial support to erect a fence along its periphery. The grove is not very far from the Kappad beach, where in the year 1498 the Portugese seafarer Vasco da Gama beached his sail ship, and thereby beginning the process of colonisation in the Indian subcontinent.

For T Madhavan Nair and TK Sridharan Nair, trustees of the Poyyilkavu temple and grove, unwanted incursions into the forest disturbing the old tree stand is of concern. “We need to secure the boundaries of the sacred grove,” said Madhavan Nair. “We do not have the funds to fence the compound, and have requested the forest department and other governmental departments many a time, but to no avail.”

“The benefits from this forest patch is for all of us living close by,” continued Sridharan Nair. “Our wells do not dry because of the water recharge from here. Also, since this forest has many medicinal plants, we breathe good air which keeps us healthy.”

A giant liana at Poyyilkavu.

The Poyyilkavu Government Higher Secondary School is adjacent to the grove. “The fact that we work in a good environment like this is the envy of teachers from other schools,” said E Suresh Kumar, headmaster. His colleague C Sujith added that he brings his students into the forest for nature and biodiversity studies.

We met the goddess herself at Neeliyar Kottam sacred grove near Parassinikadavu in Kannur district. In northern Kerala, the deities take human form of Theyyam to meet their devotees. When devotees pray, and their wishes are fulfilled, they pay for a Theyyam performance to be held in the temple inside the sacred grove.

“Families pray for having children and overcoming illnesses with Durga the deity, and thank the goddess herself in the form of Theyyam,” said Kunjiraman, a retired sub inspector of police and the head of the family that manages the temple and the 20.18-acre sacred grove. In the mud quadrangle of the temple, the goddess blessed those whose wishes had been fulfilled and the others who had fresh requests.

Theyyam at Neeliyar Kottam.

Kunjiraman talks about Neeliyar Kottam.

The Vareekkara Kavu story

At Vareekkara Kavu in Karivellur Peralam panchayat, Kannur district, it is a story of lost, recovered and now again getting lost. The 25-acre sacred grove was part of a patch double its size, owned by a private landlord. Since the private owner was cutting trees, the local community intervened in 1975, filed a court case, and got public management for the grove.

“Vareekkara Kavu is a classic case of the recovery of a grove if nature is left to mend itself,” said Unnikrishnan, who had come to the grove since the early 1990s and had seen its recovery. However, as we visited the grove, the committee had further starting clearing small patches for temple festivities. The grove also had signs of different government departments working on different targets without understanding its larger ecological complexity. While there was some engineering works to conserve rainwater, there was selective planting of some species at the cost of others.

A Praveen, one of the committee members who has seen first-hand the forest history since he was a boy, said that the local population is very aware of the ecosystem services from the grove. He remembered the time in his boyhood when they used to go in to collect water from the stream. Today, there is piped water supply into homes, but then in a dry year when the taps run dry, they know that there will be some water in the stream.

“Our old family houses were large and there were trees in the compound,” reminisced Praveen. “Today our households are small, and the only place where there are trees is this sacred grove.”

Once, a forest without space

As we speak, Tanmaya, Praveen’s eight-year old daughter, says bye to us and runs bare foot down the hard laterite track in the grove, which has pebbles that dig deep into the foot.

Insisting that visitors remove their footwear outside is one measure that the management committee at Edayilekkadu island in the Kavvayi estuary has taken to prevent people sauntering deep into the sacred grove. The forest, which has a small temple dedicated to the snake god inside, is popular with the public since an elderly lady feeds the resident monkeys every day.

“The name Edayilekkadu itself came from edam illa kadu meaning that there was no open space in the forest and it covered the entire island once,” said P Venugopalan, a school teacher and secretary of the Navodaya library across the grove. “When the railway line was constructed decades ago, the forests were cut to provide track sleepers. This patch of 15 acres was conserved because of the Naga temple inside.”

It is surprising that the sand island with estuarine water all around could pack such biological diversity. Venugopalan presumes that the seeds of the trees could have come in with floods and then taken roots in the island. As an example, he says that Nervilia infundibulifolia known locally as oruila thamara (one-leaved lotus) is found in the sacred grove. According to taxonomy website Flowers of India, this plant is otherwise found above 1,700 m altitude in south India.

The grove also has a large area with cane trees. Venugopalan uses the presence of the sacred grove to impart nature and environment training to school and college students.

Mangrove species of Thayakavu

South of the Kavayyi estuary, beyond the Indian Naval Academy at Ezhimala, is another estuary at the junction of Kuppam and Valapattanam rivers. Thekkumbad is a long, narrow island in this estuary before it opens out into the Arabian Sea at Azhikkal.

Near the southern tip of this island is a unique sacred grove, which is a mangrove patch. It is Thayakavu, a grove that is dedicated to Bhagavathi. Despite the large network of estuaries in Kerala, there are only 17 sq km of mangroves in the state. Most of them are in distress. Thus the need for conserving the unique mangrove sacred grove becomes even more important.

According to Balakrishnan, the 18-acre Thayakavu mangroves have 10 out of the 17 true mangrove species found in Kerala, in addition to a few associate species.

“There are many important ecosystem services that this mangroves provide to the local community. Firstly, because of this patch, the open wells close to it have fresh water, unlike the ones in other islands, which mostly bear saline water. They serve as the nursery for the fishes in the river and sea, with the roots of the mangrove plants providing protection to the fry from predators. They also support beehives, thereby providing pollination to the nearby agricultural fields," he says.

However, the filteration function of the mangroves, where the root network filters the muddy water and make the soil sediment to provide protection against coastal erosion, was picking up wrong detritus. The mangrove roots were accumulating urban wastes floating through the river, and also thrown out of trains as they pass over the bridge. The sacred grove has heaps on non-sacred urban waste near its edges. In the recent years, after many urban bodies stopped centralised disposal of wastes, it has become easy for people to throw their household wastes into water bodies. Thayakavu has become an accumulation point for these wastes.  

The threat in Kerala

Even though sacred groves are under threat in all parts of the country, they are particularly so in Kerala because of its high land use change, spreading urbanisation, high consumerism, a highly mobile population, and an increasing trend to increase conveniences in the groves. Thus protecting these islands of biodiversity – from Kammadam Kavu to Thayakavu to others – is more important now than in the past.

“The sacred groves are the places where traditionally we practised the concept of living in harmony with nature,” said NC Induchoodan, a retired forest officer who had studied the sacred groves of Kerala for his PhD thesis. “We realised subtle relationships with nature in these groves, which we have forgotten in the modern day.”

According to him, the groves give a certain peace and tranquillity to both humans and animals, and thus can reduce the man-animal conflicts that are happening currently. When the animals are not agitated they will not get into conflict with humans. “Since 1975, the size and number of sacred groves are reducing in Kerala, and there are more reported cases of snakebite.”

We had heard the same at Poyyilkavu. Walking through the leaf litter that had formed a carpet on the floor of the jungle track, Madhavan Nair said that there are many venomous snakes in the grove, but there has not been a case of snakebite reported.

A trend reversal

There seems to be a trend to revive snake groves in central and southern Kerala.

Unlike in northern parts of the state, in the central and southern parts the sacred groves are smaller. During the feudal-agrarian times, these groves were a small part of the tharvad or the joint family property, and were mainly for snake worship.

As the families went nuclear and the properties were divided into smaller pockets, the snake groves became a hindrance to selling the parcel of land. There was a method to deal with it. The snake gods were propitiated and moved to one of the few Namboodiri family houses that were custodians of snake worship in the state. With the snake god migrated and settled in these Namboodiri family homes, the parcel of land could be sold.

However, this trend is reversing in the recent years. One of the few Namboodiri families that propitiated snake gods in groves and moved them to their family snake grove, the family at Pathirikkunnath Mana, have stopped doing it for the past four years.

Jadavedan Namboodiri, the octogenarian patriarch of the family said that they stopped this practice when they realised that spirit of the snake gods do not move from the original grove, even though the stone is moved. “We used to move it within the original compound, but now stopped even that, since it is necessary for the deity to be in the grove and the forest protected. Snake groves should continue where they are and should be conserved.” 

Nibha Namboodiri, a conservationist, who has married into the Pathirikkunnath family, said this decision had far-reaching impact since the Pathirikkunnath family was one of the very few in Kerala that traditionally carried out the avahanas (special worship to move the deity). It also set a rethink among those coming to request the shifting, on the need of ecological conservation of snake groves. The family used to perform around 50 such rituals in a year, and when it stopped, there was an impact.

P Ramakrishnan is a member of the pulluvan community that travels, singing of snakes and their stories, and does snake worship in family households that have snake groves. He started singing the snake songs when he started accompanying his mother Kali at the age of four. Sixty today, he has his son, PR Shamjith, accompanying him.

“The requests for snake worships in groves is increasing in the recent years,” said Ramakrishnan. “After decades of neglect, families started feeling the adverse effects. Families did not have children and there were constant illnesses. Now they want to maintain the remaining part of the snake groves and organise worship every year.”

Shamjith, who is a medical representative by profession, initially started accompanying his father to help him with performances. But now he is hooked, and would like to continue the singing and not let the practice die.

“There is an increasing respect for the work that we do, and this is a good sign that people want to conserve the remaining snake groves,” he said.

Ramakrishnan and Shamjith performing a pulluvan pattu

According to him, when the snake groves were destroyed, the tanks and wells associated with them went dry. Together, all this led to increase in the ambient temperature, and perhaps this has correlation with people’s health.

Somewhere in the God’s own country there are people who are convinced of the need to protect God’s own heritage.

(S. Gopikrishna Warrier is an environment journalist and blogger).

Picture and video credit: S. Gopikrishna Warrier

Maps: Google Maps

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