Sacred Groves of Virajpet Taluka

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 Location Ecosystem Type   Conservation Type   Area(hectare) Legal status 
 Kodagu, Karnataka Mixed Sacred Grove Not Available Reserved Forest

Case Study (2009)


This case study focuses on the current status of the age-old tradition of conserving patches of forests (termed as sacred groves) housing deities in the Coorg Virajpet taluka of Kodagu district in Karnataka. These devarakadus, as they are referred to in the local dialect, are located within an area of over 1500 sq km of Virajpet taluka and number about 500 (the total area that these sacred groves occupy has not been calculated). This case study is based on research carried out on 25 such SGs in 20 villages.

The forests in Virajpet along the eastern slopes of the Western Ghats mountains are of the tropical evergreen type. This study is along the hilly region, which is between 800 and 900 meters above sea level, where one comes across the Brahmagiri Wildlife Sanctuary.

Some sacred groves of ancient semi-natural forest type are found in an otherwise heavily utilized agricultural landscape of coffee plantations, paddy fields and habitations. Some of these SGs are also present in swampy areas, often adjacent to perennial streams, whilst some SGs are on hilly slopes, in ravines and gullies. The flora and fauna includes woody plants and birds, both of which are 25 per cent endemic.1

The protection of patches of forest is presumed to have started as a safety measure and sometimes as a supply of resources to the communities protecting it by forming taboos and restrictions on the resource use.2 Violation of the rules was believed to result in the wrath of the deity associated with the SG. This age-old tradition, which has modified itself into the ‘Sanskritisation’ mould with the construction of temples, is still respected and followed by the Kodavu community which forms the majority community of these villages.

The kodavus are primarily involved in activities in the SGs like cutting of trees, collecting forest produce, temple use, etc. Within the kodavus, those families that are economically richer than the others enjoy higher social status. The non-kodavu inhabitants of the villages such as tribals (yeravas, kurubas, mala kudias, etc.), other non-kodavas (gowdas, brahmins, etc.) and immigrant communities such as Tamils, Malyalees, etc. form the minority community of the villages and therefore have little to say on matters concerning the SGs. Not totally excluded, they have some duties to perform during annual religious gatherings. Settlers from outside or people with different religious beliefs may not be involved in the festivals at all.

In most cases temple committees have been formed to manage the forests. Where there are no temple committees, the village councils or village panchayats look after the matters of the SG; laying down rules, solving disputes, organising festivals and looking into the overall management.

The temple committee normally has a president, who oversees all functioning of the committee, with all members being answerable to him. Village heads and heads of village groups are also members of this committee. Another important person is the dev-thakka who is mainly responsible for the religious activities related to the temple.

Most of these posts are elected from the same Kodavu family or clan. People with previous experience with public service may have a greater prominence in the temple committee. There is no formal government institution involved, and the government will not interfere in the decisions made by the temple committee except on issues of ownership of land.

Before 1901, the SGs were owned by the colonial forest department. The historical records suggest that the colonial officers were aware of this local tradition of protecting patches of forest for their religious significance, and, to the extent possible, respected its cultural value.3 Between 1901 and 1985, management of these SGs was handed over to the revenue department. This resulted in a dramatic change in the land use of many of these groves. They were either sold or leased out in part or in whole to private individuals for agricultural purposes, mainly for planting coffee. They were also exploited for fuelwood and small diameter timber, although larger trees were retained and were presumably never felled due to religious beliefs.

In 1985, the SGs were handed over to the forest department again and notified as reserved forests. A land survey was undertaken and the boundaries were marked in some areas. In other areas the SGs are currently being surveyed.

The main association of the people with the SG is religious, and it is a prominent component of the local culture. Villagers from surrounding areas usually take active part in the annual festival organized by the temple. It is often a social gathering as well as a traditional forum for resolution of any disputes or conflicts amongst the villagers.

People are not directly dependent on the SG for livelihood or commercial purposes, except for those who encroach to cultivate coffee or cardamom, which they are sometimes allowed to do by the committee in exchange for a portion of the produce for the temple. Sometimes people extract NTFPs like honey, medicinal plants, resin, edible mushrooms, etc. All other conflicts except land ownership are dealt with at the temple committee level, normally during temple festivals. Resolution of conflicts is usually done by an elderly person of the community on behalf of the deity (when a person gets possessed and speaks a divine language, normally Malayalam, since the Kodavus believe that their gods came from Kerala.).

No rules or regulations are written, although there are certain norms that are followed, consisting of dos and don’ts that are passed on from generation to generation. Extraction from the grove for ‘personal’ purposes is prohibited. If someone from the village tries to encroach on the grove, strong opposition is raised by members, and the person is asked to compensate for the loss to the temple committee. If the objective behind felling trees and collection of NTFP is for ‘the greater common good’, such as at annual festivals, it is not subject to opposition. As the committee has no legal powers, the temple committees cannot take legal action against the offenders.

Financial support for the maintenance of the SG comes from the community itself. Annual festivals are organized by individuals or families of the Kodavu community, who share the burden of expenses. For more popular temples, people from elsewhere also contribute for construction, renovation, ornaments, jewellery of the deity, to add to the property of the temple committee, etc. Whether money comes from local sources or from a wider community, all of it is spent on annual gatherings and no money is spent on conservation of the SGs. Funds also come from compensation collected from the violators of the SG rules.

Lately the Sacred Groves (SGs) face threats due to:

1. Decline of religious beliefs and lack of awareness about nature conservation traditions amongst the younger generation that is more exposed to modern life-styles.

2. The new immigrants who do not have the same belief system pose a threat to the future of the protected forests.

3. ‘Sanskritisation’ of the tradition of nature worship, leading to idol worship and ritualistic beliefs, often bypassing the SG itself.

4. There has been a trend of cutting trees and planting exotic species like silver oak, as coffee plantations require shade.

5. Constant encroachments on the SG land due to pressures of coffee/cardamom plantations, as they form the major income of most Kodavus, is observed, and any fluctuations in coffee prices in the market on the lower side leads to cutting down of trees and selling timber for cash from common property resources, including sometimes from the SGs.

The relationship between the field staff of the forest department and the community is harmonious. However, people in general are unhappy with the policies of the FD and believe that their policies lead to exploitation of Kodavu forests for the benefit of the state.4 There have been some complaints by the villagers about crop raiding by elephants, especially in the villages near the boundaries of protected areas (Brahmagiri Wildlife Sanctuary and Nagarhole National Park). However there are no major grievances about wildlife in SGs.

  This case study is written by Shonil Bhagwat, Oxford Forestry University. This is based on his First Year Assessment Report (D. Phil), Oxford Forestry Institute (1999), Department of Plant Sciences, University of Oxford, UK. Unpublished.

Shonil Bhagwat
Oxford Forestry University,
Dept. of Plant Sciences,
University of Oxford, OX1 3RB, U.K.
E-mail: [email protected]
Or check

C.G. Kushalappa
Dept. of Wildlife, & Forest Biology,
College of Forestry, University of Agricultural Sciences, Bangalore,
South Kodagu,
Karnataka 571216

1 B.R. Ramesh, J.P. Pascal and C. Nougouier, Atlas of the Endemics of the Western Ghats (India) – Distribution of Tree Species in the Evergreen and Semi-evergreen Forests (Institute Francaise de Pondicherry, India, 1997); and R. Grimmett, C. Inskipp and T. Inskipp, Birds of the Indian Subcontinent (London, Christopher Helm, A&C Black, 1998).

2 P.S. Ramakrishnan, ‘Conserving the Sacred for Biodiversity: The Conceptual Framework’, in P.S. Ramakrishnan, K.G. Saxena and U.M. Chandrashekara (eds), Conserving the Sacred for Biodiversity Management (New Delhi, UNESCO, Oxford and IBH Publishing Co. Pvt. Ltd., 1998).

3 D. Brandis Indian Forestry (Oriental University Institute), pp. 12-14.

4 Anon. n.d. ‘CNC urges HC judge to save tree from felling’, Coffeeland News, On-line edition Newsevts.asp.

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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