To state that sacred groves exist, they are crucial but increasingly suffer the axe is stating the obvious. The academic world has concluded while digging deeper into the roots that the secular traditions and taboos that protected these community-managed forests have become woefully inadequate. A disconnect has grown between the needs of a grove in 2003 and the taboos that were constructed some decades (at times centuries ago) to conserve it. We reported on their nebulous existence in Down To Earth, January 31, 1994. In the intervening 10 years, the processes that deplete this common property resource have only hastened. We went looking anew into them. We found that although the processes may lead in one general direction, they are region-specific, and at times, site-specific.
We chose three pockets of India the relic forests of the Khasi and Jaintia hills in Meghalaya, the island-like isolated groves of Kodagu in Karnataka and the groves along a highway in Maharashtra. The lesson we learnt is that no single grove, or region, for that matter, is representative of the state of sacred groves in the country. Each grove has its peculiarities because it is so closely bound to the political economy of the villages that protect it. Local currents affect them as much as larger regional eddies. They matter, politically and socially. Somewhere, governments use them for turf battles and at times communities use them to exclude or integrate groups.
We had read and heard of the severe criticism of the Sanskrit-isation of deities in the groves of Karnataka and Maharashtra and loss of faith in Meghalaya. The ugliness of such co-optation of earlier faiths by new ones reverberated through several degraded groves. But these, we soon realised, were mere symptoms.
A new economy always seeks to dab a fresh coat of paint on the existing institutions of a society. Each changing political and economical era wants to create its own icons, religious or secular. The sacred groves in India suffer (or enjoy, as the case maybe) a similar fate. One must look at the hand that dabs the paint rather than get distracted by the kitsch of a new faith.
This hand, we now realise, is the changing economic reality. The groves are political institutions and they suffer the politics of an emerging economic logic.
Our travels formed the bedrock to a set of ideas that we hope shall take the debate beyond stating the obvious. We are not reporting on the state of the grove today but gathering clues for their tomorrow.
Some conclusions can be found in this issue of Down To Earth (see: A profane proposal). We also share with our readers the wealth of information that experts have already generated on sacred groves in the form of an annotated bibliography.