Sacred Groves of Konkan
There is a tradition in India which binds us: north, south, east and west, mountain ,valley, river bank, sea coast, desert or lush tropical island, whatever the region, whatever the language, whatever the culture. This is the tradition of the sacred grove, a tradition that indeed, still survives in other parts of the world that still believe in nature worship. These are forests that have survived in the country because of the deep rooted beliefs of the communities that live within and around them.
Known by many names, in every part of the country, the sacred groves or sacred forests of India are threatened by many troubles, one being the erosion of deep belief and faith in old customs and laws.
Whether they are called Oran in Rajasthan, Devarakadu in Kodagu, Sarna in Madhya Pradesh, Than in Assam, or Kovil Kadu in Tamil Nadu, these forests have for centuries maintained a delicate ecological balance at local and regional levels that is not only of value to us in India, but indeed of value to the world at large.
Though we do need to eradicate old superstitions, and go forward into the next millennium, as part of the global village of the 21st century, we also need to assess our old customs and traditions that have kept all that is essential to our survival as humans. We need to recognise that for the sake of our own survival as a species, we must live with nature, rather than imagine we can live without it.
Perhaps it would be a good idea to hark back at this point, to the Tsunami, a disaster of global magnitude and of biblical proportions where rich and poor alike lost lives because "civilisation" had veiled the laws of nature from our understanding. It was no accident that a remote tribe in the Andamans were able to run to safety on top of a hill, or a little geography student recognised danger signals, believed them and informed a teacher who actually listened to her! A significant number of lives were saved this way.
There was a kind of hush that surrounded us when the word Devrai was spoken. In Maharashtra, the Devrai is still a force to be reckoned with, and a deep reverence for the forces of nature still survives among its rural people despite their difficulties and frustrations in engaging with the demands of "progress" and "development". This was our first visit to the Devrai, and we were looking forward to it from the time Dr. Archana Godbole, Founder Director of AERF (Applied Environmental Research Foundation), Pune, suggested that Chiplun might be a good place to start with Arundhuti's research on forest deities and of the myths surrounding them.
We took the early morning Mandovi Express. The Mandovi Express is the grand old lady of the Konkan coast from Mumbai to Goa. Named after the Mandovi river, she is subjected to tooting new trains that share her route with her which seriously impede her schedule, so she rests for a little at several stations on the way for a bit of chai pani allowing the new to pass her by. She puffs and steams and chuffs a bit, but until she decides to bellow no one really moves a muscle to get on again .They continue to suck their ice creams or sip their tea unperturbed. Many of the stops are unscheduled ones, through beautiful sylvan countryside, and if you have time you may as well enjoy it, because she isn't going anywhere in a hurry. You may look out for ghost trees (sterculia urens) and wild tulsi, rice planters and ancient temples, if you like to observe your surroundings. There are sure to be birds worth watching as well.
You need not worry about food though, for like the grand and good old lady she is, there is plenty of clean sustenance to go round. We had generous portions of Shira and Upma, cleverly packed together, two in one. A healthy, not too oily, and hearty meal which the two of us shared. There is Vada pao of course and much else available. She caters quite a bit to foreign clientele as she carries on to Goa, so the food is cleanly packed and fairly digestible. The usual "chai" and coffee and "Shoop" for beverages, and you could reach at midnight for all you may care. While you are on board you are fine with clean bedding, and a clean loo to boot!
We reached Chiplun at 1.30, an hour and a half behind schedule, so it cut our day a bit shorter. The delays are awkward if a meeting has to be planned, specially if you pack everything into one day as we had to do. The train may be anything from one or more hours late, and the distance from Mumbai to Chiplun being around 6 hours at least, your meeting can get severely delayed. It gets a bit more difficult to get a lot done, if your meeting happens to be a forty minute drive from Chiplun "proper", quite a way away from any convenient transport system! Luckily for us, our hosts were waiting for us. They were Conservation practitioner and Ethno botanist Dr. Archana Godbole, Mr. Sameer Punde,a qualified conservation biologist, and Mr. Sanjay Pashte, team field assistant with a diploma in agriculture.
Ethnobotany is the science of understanding the relationship of people and plants in general, and that of indigenous cultures and natural resources in particular.
Dr. Godbole, founder director of AERF, has had at least 15 years in the field of conservation. Mr. Punde received the Rufford Small Grant for Nature Conservation, to study medicinal plants in 2006. Mr. Pashte has a diploma in agriculture, and is responsible for a great deal of the work done for restoration at the sacred groves, including the setting up of nurseries, and plantation and protection We didn't have much time, as the village meeting would be delayed if we did not arrive within a suitable time, so we went for a quick thali, simple, tasty and well cooked, with the classic delicate Maharashtrian roti, hot, thin and soft and very welcome. Four generous rotis to the thali, one of which alas I had to abandon!
The bazaar next to our lunch-home had a medical store, a shoe store and several other provisions stores, but many were closed for the afternoon.
Into the devrai at Janavle , Guhagar block
Well rested and lunched, we set off for the Devrai. A little apprehensive at having to meet more new people and wondering whether we would be welcomed by the villagers we were going to meet, to see their home. We needn't have worried. Dr. Godbole's rapport with them ensured that they were very warm, friendly and helpful.
A tiny dust track leads off the main road at a point where there is a sign for a garage which says Samrat Auto. Scooters seem to ply comfortably through it, though it is meant only for humans and other species that live in the area. We got off the car, ten minutes into the forest.
Dr. Godbole explained that the way you can tell a Devrai from a distance is when there is a mixed forest, with many indigenous species, with very tall old trees still living. Many of these trees will not be found elsewhere as they are growing rare with deforestation. AERF under the leadership of Dr. Archana Godbole has been working for actual conservation and reviving the tradition of sacred groves for 13 years in the Konkan region. She recently received the Whitely Associate Award from Whitley Nature Fund U.K. to up scale the work and assure the protection of many such valuable sacred groves.
These forests are considered sacred, and they support the growth, and the conservation of every species of plant that may grow in the region. As a result they are essential as a source for forest regeneration in the surrounding area. All the plants may not necessarily be sacred or medicinal or of great use to man, but they have a place in the ecology of the area and are valuable by virtue of their existence. Many of them harbour the last of several birds and animals that may have no other refuge except for the Devrai.
If for instance, you happen to be a passionate bird watcher, desperately seeking to study the nesting habits of the Great Pied Hornbill, the Devrais are the places to visit!
The forest of the sacred groves also help to maintain the water table ,attract rainfall and control flooding, all very crucial factors to consider in acknowledging the need for them to be conserved. It is necessary to maintain the mixture of vegetation to maintain the balance they establish all together. They may not be medicinal, the wood may not be valuable in our eyes, but they establish balance and are beneficial to the environment and therefore to man.
Nature is about balancing and optimisation, and about adaptation. If we look around in the plant kingdom we often see that. a good mix of trees always signifies a good balance. Here's how it works. Trees that survive in estuarine water, called mangroves, a leguminous plant, may add nitrogen to the soil. A deciduous plant will shed its leaves which will add leaf mould, and topsoil to the forest over a good period of time. An evergreen or a thorny shrub like the Acacia, or a cactus will survive in arid conditions and some cacti and succulents may even store water. Most sacred groves have a large variety of different trees providing this balance just by virtue of their existence.
These groves also have many ancient water management systems built by local communities in the past, which have fallen into disrepair. These have tanks, and wells which harvest water during the monsoon, and are connected by trenches with trees in them to restrain the overflow, in case of flood, and to prevent water from flowing away too fast and washing away the land. The stored water is a god-send during the dry months when there is acute water shortage. If revitalised, and properly maintained, these could be used to harvest water, control floods and relieve drought. Everywhere, man seems to be at war with nature. Here, in the Devrais, we see efforts to maintain harmony as man and nature struggle to survive and to support each other.
The temple we saw was a fairly new structure, but airy, well built, exquisitely clean, with large uncluttered halls. The Kameshti/Waghjai mandir of Janavle village in particular was very comfortably open, the seating area was of cool grey stone, which looked like kadappa , and the hall was open aired with pillars supporting it, and shallow steps leading into it. The idols in the first temple we visited were of Shiva, Waghjai and Kameshthi. We were invited to see another temple where there were idols of Ram, Sita and Hanumanji. All the idols we saw were made of black stone.
The temple was crowded, as the village is setting up its own theatre troupe (natak mandali) that can perform during special occasions and festivals. The meeting was conducted by the village governing Body (Grampanchayat) and Sarpanch was leading the meeting, who was clearly well regarded by both village and AERF, and he conducted it with sympathy and dignity. Once he had reassured everybody that 5 rupees was as valuable as 50, and that all contributions were welcome,- donations rolled in, people donated anything from Rs 5 and Rs 500 and everybody got a clap. Both men and women donated and there was a lot of humour and friendly banter flowing.
It was Saraswati Puja for us Bengali visitors, a very special day, so we left a token at the mandir in appreciation. After this, we were introduced, and our visit explained. The AERF team had obviously established a rapport with the village, and we were given a friendly welcome. Most people seemed pleased on the whole, that we should wish to document what they had to share. They were keen to pass on the elder's botanical knowledge to their children and to supplement it with the AERF's information.
It is very surprising that due to forces of modernisation and urbanisation very few people from the village Janavle were aware of the tremendous plant wealth at their sacred grove. Today's meeting had been organised to wander through the grove with villagers and exchange the knowledge about it. AERF shared the knowledge of important plants and people shared their knowledge of traditions. We all went towards the path into the forest and looked at some of the trees at the periphery. Some of the trees in this area are very rare now and grow only in the Konkan. Like Kadu kavath ( Hydnocarpus pentandra,) Sita Ashok (Saraca asoka), Gaydole( Sterculia foetida ) and many others.
Dr.Godbole, Sameer Punde and the villagers all pointed out and discussed quite a few trees .We had never seen some of them before, and stories were told about the plants, the temple and its surroundings.
One leguminous plant had furry spiky burry fruit, reddish brown. the size of green almonds, but roundish. We were warned not to touch them as they cause a terrible itch. Sameer informed us it was called Mucuna monosperma.
Kadu kavath (Hydnocarpus pentandra,)had fruit that looked like a very knobbly wild brown custard apple on the outside.This is believed by the villagers to cure leprosy.
It is believed in India that the Sita Asoka (Saraca Indica ) only flowers if a beautiful woman kicks it A small evergreen tree, it has reddish orange flowers that look a little like the Ixora, but has roundish petals. Its bark is used in ayurvedic remedies, to treat uterine infections and gynaecological problems. Traditionally, it is also believed to cure personality disorders and chemical imbalances. It is also used to treat insect bites.
This area is full of stories and legends of the surroundings, and of the trees. Some of the stories, probably hold local knowledge and wisdom and are a means of handing this down orally. Some are purely for entertainment in a place where tv, radio, movies etc are not so easily had even now.
Also flourishing here were the soap nut, Sapindous laurifolia ,and a vigorous wild tulsi.
Tales from Janavle Village, Chiplun:
Many many moons ago, there was no temple where the Waghjai temple stands today, but Bhattji had many cows that went to feed in the forest. One of his cows used to wander everyday, and would come back with no milk left. Bhattji was curious and a bit angry. "Who could possibly be stealing her milk?" he wondered, so one day he followed the cow, and lo and behold he found her voluntarily releasing her milk in the spot where the temple now stands, established by Bhattji.
In this temple resides, among others, the Waghjai Devi. It is believed that leopards visit the temple, to ask permission of the Devi Waghjai before making any kill in the village or the forest.
The devis of the Janavle Mandir are brought to the village during holi and sent back to the temple after Gudi padwa. When the Wagjai Devi comes to the village, she is visiting her mother's house and is extremely light and can be carried down by the children of the village. On her return her heart is heavy - and men have to struggle to carry her up. It is believed that she is reluctant to return to her husband's home.
Near the mouth of the forest, lies an unidentified Devi, propped up at the root of a tree. Dr.Godbole explained that a priest tried to take the Devi away from the temple. But she didn't want to leave ,and made herself so heavy that the priest had to drop her at the foot of that tree during the journey.
Within a thick growth of ancient giants, a column of shadow, unmoving, yet deeply alive, a dark pulsating energy silently watched our arrival and our departure. As we turned away to return to the city, I had this odd feeling we were actually leaving civilisation, rather than returning to it!
As we left the forest, we passed the local burial grounds on our way out, where the ancestors of the Janavle village remained, looking out for the Devrais, as the Devrais silently look out for them. May their vigil be fruitful.
Photo Credit: AERF
Editor: Romola Butalia   (c) India Travelogue. All rights reserved.