Ajeevali Village

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 Location Ecosystem Type   Conservation Type   Area(hectare) Legal status 
 Pune, Maharashtra Forest Sacred Grove 493Privately Owned, Community Owned

Case Study (2009)

Background

Sustainable use of plant and animal species by rural people can play an important role in conservation of particular ecosystems. In India, as elsewhere in many parts of the world, a number of communities traditionally prohibit harvests from patches of forests termed as ‘sacred groves’ and dedicated to deities or ancestral spirits. Amongst varied religious practices the most significant from an economic viewpoint are those relating to the preservation of sizable patches of forest, sometimes as much as 20 hectares in extent, as sacred groves.1

Ajeevali village (18.50 N, 73.520 E), with a land area of 493 ha, is situated in Maval taluka in Pune district, Maharashtra State in Western India. The nearest town is Lonavala. (28 km from Ajeevali) The village can be approached from Pune, which is at a distance of 50 km by road. The village is situated in the eastern offshoots of the Sahyadri mountain ranges (popularly known as the Western Ghats). The terrain in and around the village is undulating. A part of the village boundary overlaps with the taluka boundary of Maval and Mulshi. The village is on a sloping hillside, one side being flanked by a steep cliff. The highest point is about 3000 feet above mean sea level. The village lies in the catchment of the river Pavana and is situated on the banks of the backwaters of Pavana dam. Agricultural fields surround the landscape.

A number of streams flow down the hill slopes, forming the source of water for agriculture and fish that migrate upstream for breeding. The region receives heavy rainfall of around 4300 mm from June to September. Winters (from October to January) are cold with temperatures dropping to 40C. Summers (February to May) are hot when temperatures rise up to 400C.

The village shows the following landscape elements: human settlement and temples, agricultural fields, sacred grove along the mountain, a dense vegetation patch of privately owned plots and a patch of sparse vegetation (privately owned plots) which is allotted for cattle grazing and fuelwood requirements.

All forest land in the village is privately or community owned. The decision-making body in the village is the gram panchayat (formed of elected representatives of people), which governs the overall administrative and village welfare activities. There are three schools in the village. The village is supplied with drinking water through taps and has electricity. People also drink well water which has to be brought from a longer distance.

Ajeevali has a good semi-evergreen forest patch of 22 acres, a sacred grove traditionally conserved by the local people. A special feature of this grove is the abundance of fish-tail palms from which maadi—a popular local liquor—is extracted commercially. Interestingly, religious belief coupled with this activity of maadi extraction play a crucial role in the conservation of the grove and village economics.

The village population consists of a single community, the Kunbi Marathas, with agriculture as the main occupation. The tribal community of Katkaris that is mainly dependent on natural resources is found in the surrounding forests. Katkaris do not have a permanent settlement in the village. There is a small Katkari pada (a small settlement of Katkaris) in the neighboring village of Shilim. Agriculture is the main occupation of the people. Rice is cultivated traditionally here, the ambemohor variety being the speciality of this area. Other varieties of rice cultivated are kolam,saal, jire saal, indrayani, etc. Ragi is also cultivated traditionally on the hill slopes by the cyclic raab (mature and dried Strobilanthes callosus on selected hill slopes is slashed and burnt every seven years and ragi is cultivated). These two main crops are grown using only rainwater. But recently there is a decreasing trend in ragi cultivation, the very strenuous work involved in ragi cultivation being the main reason given by the villagers. Other crops cultivated include wheat, masoor, gram, beans, tur, vegetables, etc. However the other crops are grown on a very small scale due to lack of irrigation facilities.

There has been an increasing trend in the use of inorganic fertilizers for farming, although many farmers are aware about the negative impact of their over-use. It is a usual practice to grow crops and vegetables for personal or domestic use separately using only organic manure, and to use chemical fertilizers for crops grown for sale. The villagers say that organically grown food is tastier than that grown using inorganic fertilizers.

Nearly all the land in the village is privately owned. The sacred grove of Ajeevali is a common property resource owned by the entire village. In recent times, some additional privately owned forests adjoining the grove have been collectively dedicated to the temple by the villagers in the name of the goddess. Uncultivated private land under forest cover on the slopes is being rapidly sold off to people outside the village, usually from the urban elite.

The sacred grove is situated at an altitude of around 1000 mamsl. As one travels from the village to the grove, a gradual change in the vegetation is observed. Agriculture fields start adjacent to the habitation. Exotic species like eucalyptus (nilgiri), Thespesia populnea, casuarina, etc. are seen here on the bunds. In addition to this, other plant species like Bombax ceiba, Terminalia tomentosa, Holoptelia integrifolia, Eliodendron glaucum are seen in this patch up to a distance of about half a kilometre from the village. Next starts a vegetation patch with deciduous species and relatively fewer agriculture fields. Tree species found are Madhuca indica, Oidna wodier, Anogeissus latifolia, Bridelia retusa Hollarhena etc. In these are the scattered Acacia catechu patches. This degraded secondary vegetation indicates a considerable human and cattle interference. As we proceed further, a relatively wooded patch appears showing species composition of Erythrina suberosa, Mangifera indica, Lagerstroemia lanceolata, and Terminalia tomentosa. At an elevation of about 60 m from the village a predominant bamboo area is seen along a stream. Then starts vegetation dominated by Terminalia tomentosa. However, at this stage evergreen species like Caryota urens, Mangifera indica, Syzigium cumini and Pongamia pinnata can be noticed. This is woodland with considerable canopy. Thus the gradual change in the quality of the forest continues till the grove, where a sudden change in the vegetation is observed due to sharp boundaries of the grove.

The sacred grove shows the presence of densely wooded patches with species composition like C. urens, Mangifera indica, Atlantia racemosa, etc. The opened-up habitats outside the grove favoured growth of deciduous trees such as Terminalia, Bridelia, Grewia, etc. A heterogeneous plant community comprising pioneer species like Mappia foetida, Macaranga peltata, etc. is seen outside. As mentioned earlier, activities such as fuelwood collection and timber extraction are common outside the grove, leading to degradation of vegetation. The biomass of the sacred grove forest is significant (145 T/ha) as compared to that of the habitat outside

The grove is a densely wooded forest with more than 80 per cent canopy and can easily be distinguished from the surrounding degraded forest. Such a dense canopy makes the grove the last refuge for the animals like giant squirrel. Among other animals, Ajeevali sacred grove harbours diverse kind of fauna such as Hanuman langur, Malabar giant squirrel, barking deer, wild boar, leopard, porcupine and white-backed vulture, in addition to being home for a variety of other birds, insects, amphibians and reptiles.

The grove is a dense patch of vegetation of 16 hectares. It has been conserved since ancient times in the name of Goddess Waghjai (the Tiger Goddess). The grove is locally called as Waghjai chi Devraai (the sacred grove of the Tiger Goddess) or the raai (grove). The village community has deep faith in the goddess. The grove has a natural cave in which is situated the idol of the deity: a small stone, painted saffron. There is no construction of any temple or roof over the idol. It is a belief that deities having no roof or temple construction are more fierce and powerful. People visit the grove during special occasions like marriages, festivals, before beginning any important farming activities, etc.

Every year, starting from Chaitra Pournima (full moon day of the first month of the Hindu calendar, around April), they celebrate the four day-long annual festival - urus of the goddess. A ritual called bagad is performed on Chaitra Pournima. In this festival, a galkari (a person believed to have spiritual powers) is hung from a 20 m pole of teak wood with the help of metal hooks pierced through his back. It is believed that a tiger spirit enters the body of the galkari and some other members of the community (bhagat). These bhagats are worshipped by offering flower garlands and applying tilak on their foreheads. After a short procession lasting for about an hour, the actual ritual is performed. The bagad represents human sacrifice to the deity. The villagers organize wrestling competitions, spiritual discourse and devotional song programs. During the urus all the villagers take their meals together. All activities are performed in the village in front of the temple. No activity is performed in the grove except for a few rituals performed by the bhagat and a few villagers, and carrying the palanquin with the deity from the cave to the village temple.

All Hindu festivals are celebrated with great enthusiasm and villagers come together at these times. The most important festivals include Diwali (October-November)—associated with the harvest season and Ganesh Chaturthi (August-September). During the activities conducted with schoolchildren, their attitude towards the grove was noted. The boys visit the raai weekly or fortnightly, just for fun, and during special occasions like festivals and while accompanying visitors and guests who come to drink maadi. Girls do not visit the raai as frequently as boys do, since they are advised not to do so by their parents due to safety considerations. But they also visit raai during festivals and other occasions. Most of the children (including girls and boys) know the types of large mammals found in their raai. They do not know names of any birds but they are aware that a great diversity of birds is found there. Analysis of a painting exercise (picture of the grove as subject) conducted for the students to know their perception of the grove showed the association of the deity, dense vegetation, and the grove with the fish-tail palm and maadi extraction being the most important constituents of the grove.

There is a strict taboo which restricts the entry of women during menstruation. Women visit the grove on special occasions like festivals and ceremonies. Women in the village whose male family members are involved in maadi extraction have the additional job of going to the raai to take food for them twice in a day. They do take turns sometimes. These women also have to share greater responsibility of the farm since the male members are busy with maadi during the season. However work involving strenuous efforts like ploughing is done by the male members only, during which their kin or friends look after their maadi business for that day.

Men visit the grove more frequently than women. The reasons for visiting include worshipping and praying to the goddess during festivals, important ceremonies and before commencing any important agricultural activity for the season. Men involved in maadi extraction business have to go to the grove regularly during the season.

People from Ajeevali recognize the benefits of the grove like the grove acting as aquifer recharge, thus aiding water conservation and supply to the village which has no irrigation facilities and thus is largely dependent on this water for their farms. Some villagers also have knowledge regarding the role of birds and animals like frogs, etc. in pest control on their farms.

Tribal people visit the grove for hunting. Hunting is legally banned here as in other parts of the country. Katkaris mainly depend on hunting and wild edible plants for food. Wild boars, barking deer, mouse deer, partridges, quails, hares, crabs, etc. are killed and eaten by Katkaris as well as villagers. Katkaris use home made searchlights and handmade guns for hunting. Many villagers are maalkaris—a cult which refrains from non-vegetarian diet. Tourists from urban areas occasionally visit the village for hunting and drinking maadi.

About 20-30 years ago, against the background of decreasing religious beliefs, many sacred groves in this area were lost when sold to coal merchants for economic gains,. Ajeevali sacred grove was also on the way to being sold as nearly half of the village population was for it. However a teacher from a nearby village along with Jagdish Godbole2 convinced the villagers to protect the grove by suggesting a long-term economic benefit from maadi extract from the grove. The sap exudates for maadi are collected by cutting off an inflorescent axis of the fishtail palm plant. After this incident, a few villagers, especially the politically stronger ones, started reaping benefits from maadi extraction and sale.

Till 1986, any interested villager, and especially those who were politically strong, used to go to the sacred grove to extract maadi. The villagers realized that the benefits were being cornered by a few in the village. A decision was then taken by the village assembly for sarvajanik (community) maadi extraction, where the rights for extracting maadi would be contracted out. Villagers, however, were concerned that contracting people from outside the village for this purpose may affect the sustainability of the process. The extraction rights of the maadi are therefore auctioned to those interested from within the village. Under this system the extraction is still carried out by the same powerful people of the village but the benefits are now shared as a common village fund. The revenue thus generated is used in village welfare and religious activities. As the funds generated by maadi increased, villagers established a system of a well-defined and organized management structure comprising the temple trust, the gram panchayat and the maadi extractor.

Under the current system the contract is necessarily awarded to a local person, thereby increasing their stake in conservation and assigning them the responsibility of protecting the grove while extraction of maadi. Activities like hunting, grazing and extraction of timber and non-timber forest produce (NTFP) other than maadi inside the grove were traditionally prohibited because of religious beliefs. This regulatory system has now been revived under the contract system.

The decision-making body in the village is the gram panchayat, which governs the overall administrative and village welfare activities. The second management institution in the village is the temple trust, which governs the activities related to the sacred grove. It works independent of the village gram panchayat. The temple Trust is a committee of 13 villagers, and works as a self-governed organization. It functions with a president, a vice-president, a treasurer and the trustees. It has a pivotal role to play as strong religious taboos are attached to the grove. The trust has the administrative authority regarding management of the grove. Annually, the contract for maadi extraction in the grove is auctioned by the temple trust. The revenue thus generated (Rs 1,50,000 per year) is managed by the trust for village welfare and religious activities. 

In Ajeevali (sacred grove and surrounding area), so far a total of about 250 species of plants have been recorded from the grove and its catchments. These species are distributed across various habitat types such as semi-evergreen forest, moist deciduous and dry deciduous vegetation patches, scrub jungle and grasslands. 75 per cent of the total recorded plant species have utility value. Wild edible plants (about 30 species) recorded from the study area supplement tribal diet during rainy season, e.g., Dioscorea pentaphylla, Meyna laxiflora and Nothapodytes nimmoniana (syn. Mappia foetida), a globally endangered and endemic species, well known for its anti-cancer and anti-HIV properties. The grove gains significance because of the presence of Nothapodytes. The population of this species has declined by 50-80 per cent during last decade from the other parts of Western Ghats owing to clandestine trade. In addition to Nothapodytes, we also recorded 8 species of medicinal value which belong to IUCN threat category, and 4 endemic tree species. Abutilon ranadei, a species believed to be extinct from the Western Ghats region, was also recorded here during this study.

The quality of the grove forest is good enough for its limits to be clearly identified in the landscape. The surrounding vegetation of the grove that is under the influence of human interference is different in composition, and lacks in lianas and certain evergreen tree species which are found in the grove (as mentioned earlier). Lianas and sciophytes such as Actinodaphne hookeri are recorded in the grove, whereas heliophytes such as Bridelia retusa, Butea monosperma are frequent outside.

C. urens, from which maadi is extracted, is concentrated in a 8 ha forest patch of the grove. Out of 22 tree species found in the grove, C. urens, an indicator species of evergreen and semievergreen forests, is the most abundant. It grows among tall trees, in the humid atmosphere and humus-rich soil. This species, currently threatened due to human interference, was once a prominent tree in the high rainfall regions of the Western Ghats. Thus sacred groves where this species is proliferating in large numbers become important from a species conservation point of view.3

The current population structure of the palm in the grove could be attributed to its historic and present use. Activities like hunting, grazing and extraction of timber and non-timber forest produce (NTFP) other than maadi have been prevented on religious grounds since ancient times, when the sacred practices must have been established. The pre-existing rules and regulations regarding harvesting of forest produce are now being followed more strictly in the contract system. The contractor has the responsibility of protecting the grove. This has restricted activities such as collection of leaf litter that led to trampling of the saplings and eating of the pith of young palms by the tribal people that led to reduction in the number of palms.

The sap exudates for maadi are collected by cutting off an inflorescent axis of the plant. Those employed (from local tribal communities) for extracting the sap, have a good understanding of the phenology and population structure of the palm. They have also devised methodologies for maximum extraction. According to the villagers who are experienced in maadi extraction, the business of maadi extraction is a profitable one. The economic turnover, summing up two harvesting seasons, was as high as Rs 3,00,000 to 4,00,000. As per the sources, each palm when tapped yields about 200 bottles (150 litres), each worth Rs 15, in one season. Thus the income obtained from one palm amounts to about Rs 3000 per season.

It is well understood that the sacred groves also often serve as a last refuge for many species of flora and fauna. Ajeevali sacred grove too harbours diverse kind of fauna as reported above. A number of wild edible and medicinal plants are commonly found in the grove and its surrounds. Endangered species such as Ceropegia spp. are commonly sighted not only in the grove but also in the other landscape elements in the village. The grove therefore acts as an important wildlife habitat, as a source for recharging local aquifers and helps in soil binding and soil conservation.4

The present study points towards a possibility of continued protection to the sacred grove and the palm species coupled with the religious and economic aspects. The practice of conservation along with commercial linkages at a local level needs to be understood further and studied for its economic, ecological as well as institutional sustainability. There are some issues that currently face this initiative, including:

1. Increased migration of youth to cities like Pune and Mumbai in search of employment, so less people interested in looking after the grove.

2. More and more people finding it difficult to manage their landholdings and are selling it to outsiders for real estate development.

The current system of conservation definitely needs positive external intervention to strengthen it to deal with these challenges resulting from the changing socio-economic scenario.

Local individuals who are concerned with the future of the grove are concerned about the sale of village land to outsiders. They are also concerned about ecological changes within the grove. For example the local knowledgeable individuals (KIs) regard the trend of the high level of regeneration of C. urens as detrimental for the regeneration and growth of other species. However they also encourage extraction of maadi because of its economic value.

A local KI has suggested an adaptive management strategy for dealing with some of these problems, which includes:

• Cut off the palm inflorescences at a critical timing during the year for controlling their rapid population increase.

• Deal with the problem of land being sold to outsiders: the money generated from the auction could be used to buy plots in Ajeevali from villagers who wish to sell them to outsiders. This way the land will be protected from outsiders and the area under the grove can be increased.

• Give the farmers options like medicinal plant cultivation, through facilitation by some NGOs, etc., and make them aware of conservation values and guide them. The farmer can be a responsible agent for protecting the grove. Thus, strengthe

1. Strengthening of existing conservation initiatives/traditional practices

Some people from the village know the importance of biodiversity conservation and sustainable use of natural resources. In the context of rapid urbanization and land being sold to outsiders for farmhouse construction, it is necessary to encourage such knowledgeable people to come forward. These individuals can help initiate a conservation movement by reviving the traditional ecological knowledge and reach this awareness to each and every villager. There are examples of conservation initiatives in the past from this area.

As children are an important medium to spread awareness and information among the villagers through their parents, local school programmes can integrate revival and use of traditional knowledge and new local ecological findings in their curricula. This would be an important method of reviving conservation aspirations in the village.

Some NGOs have in the past tried to work with the women in the village and form self-help groups (SHGs). Local politics and other reasons ensured that these SHGs did not work for too long. Various interactions as part of the current study encouraged the women to restructure and revive these. Presently there are two SHGs in the village. These SHGs need to be encouraged and sustained. Through these much work towards conservation in the area can be achieved. These SHGs could also be the medium for village women to establish natural resource-based economic independence.

2. Additional economic gains to the people

Tourism already exists in the village to a certain extent. Presently tourists come mainly for hunting and drinking maadi. Ajeevali and the surrounding area can be developed into an eco-tourism area. The eco-tourism program can be run by the local people, following a ‘Panchsutri’ (a set of five principles: organic food, handloom/khadi cloth, wooden/bamboo furniture, herbal medicines and bio-fuels), aimed at sustainable livelihood, through providing to the urban people, who need such changes desperately, organic food which is more nutritious and tasty; herbal medicines, which have greater value and effects (naturopathy centre); bamboo or wooden pottery/furniture/cottages; traditional hand-woven/khadi clothes and energy generated with the help of bio-fuels such as biogas/ bio-diesel/solar panels. In such a situation, there is a greater possibility of Ajeevali becoming self-governed and self-sustaining. This will again yield mutual benefits to people as well as ecosystem. 

3. Conservation model through villagers’ participation

Villagers’ participation in the conservation process is an important factor. People should understand the importance of biodiversity and the need for its conservation for a sustainable future. Environment education and awareness programs are necessary for increasing people’s understanding about biodiversity around their village. People should be made aware of the legal provisions for protecting their rights over biodiversity and other natural resources. The working of the present temple trust needs to be studied and suggestions for improving its working and efficiency should be given. An important role in this can be played by experts and government or non-government organizations working in the field of natural resource management and biodiversity conservation.

4. Legal provisions for conservation of biodiversity

Various existing legal provisions that could be used in the village after sufficient discussions in the village and after receiving villagers’ consent include:

• Looking at the close dependence of people on the biodiversity, only if the local people are willing, it may be possible and advisable to declare the area as a community reserve. This will make conservation a participatory as well as a legal process.

• Another provision can be to declare the sacred groves as a Heritage Site under the Biodiversity Act 2003. But the details of what this provision stands for how or whether it is the best means to support initiatives of this kind was not very clear till the time of writing this case study. Under the same Act, however, there is a possibility of strengthening the present initiative through the formation of a village-level Biodiversity Monitoring Committee (BMC). However, it is important that the composition of the BMC is acceptable to the villagers and the rules and regulations formulated are locale-specific and respect the land-use pattern that the villagers have established for this area, particularly the sustainable harvesting of maadi and other NTFP.

• Declaring this area as an Ecologically Sensitive Area under the Environment Protection Act 1976 would restrict construction and destructive development in this area.

However different provisions would have their own advantages and constraints. These need a thorough debate prior to taking any decision. It should be kept in mind from the beginning that laws and policies are a means of supporting and facilitating conservation, and not tools for imposing external powers and creating local conflicts.

This practice of conservation along with commercial linkages at a local level seems to be an interesting system and needs to be studied especially for its sustainability. Our study points towards a possibility of continued protection to the sacred grove and the palm species coupled with the religious and economic aspects. Ajeevali has a wide range of landscape elements and land-use patterns. From the results of this one-year study (conducted as part of completion of Masters programme in the year 2004-5) it is clear that Ajeevali sacred grove needs a long-term conservation plan. However the grove does not exist in isolation, rather it is a part of the overall village landscape and land-use pattern. Therefore, conservation of the grove is also very closely linked to the conservation of the surrounding landscape elements and linked cultural aspects. A study of this kind was useful to understand this link between the conservation of the grove and economic, ecological and cultural fabric of Ajeevali village. An effective step ahead would be to use the results of this study to generate a village-level as well as larger debate to arrive at an appropriate conservation model for Ajeevali as a whole.

  This case study has been compiled from the following documents: Supriya Goturkar and Radhika Kanade ‘A study of biodiversity, its use and conservation in rural lifescape at Ajeevali sacred grove, Pune, India’, dissertation submitted in partial fulfilment of Master’s degree in Biodiversity (2005); Supriya Goturkar, Radhika Kanade, Neema Pathak, Mukul Mahabaleshwarkar and Ankur Patwardhan, ‘Abstract – Ajeevali village, a case study of socio-economic strength leading to self-governed conservation’, for the Society for Conservation Biology (2005). 

Radhika Kanade
680/2, Sant Eknath Nagar
Bibvewadi
Pune 411037
Ph: 9422530384
E-mail: [email protected]

Supriya Goturkar
RANWA, C – 26 / 1,
Ketan Heights, Kothrud,
Pune – 411038
Ph : 9881434410
E-mail: [email protected]

1 M.G. Gadgil and V.D. Vartak, The Sacred Groves of Western Ghats in India, Economic Botany, 1 (1976), pp. 152–60.

2 A researcher from Pune who had started ‘Save Western Ghats Movement’ around the same time.

3 V.D. Vartak, Tadamadanchi Palmsrushti (Pune, Continental Publication, 2001).

4 M.G. Gadgil and V.D. Vartak, ‘Sacred Groves of India – A Plea for Continued Conservation’, Journal of Bombay Natural History Society, 72(2) (1974), pp. 198 - 205.

This case study was part of the Directory on Community Conserved Areas (2009), published by Kalpavriksh. The directory can be downloaded here.

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