Protecting the Ecology: a Sacred Duty
Dr. Nanditha Krishna
The author is an
art historian and the director of the C. P. Ramaswami
Aiyar Foundation, Chennai, which has a wing focusing
on environmental education: the C.P.R.
Environmental Education Centre.
This article, published in The New Sunday Express
of 3 March 2002, is reproduced with Dr. Nanditha Krishna’s
Our filthy streets and dusty,
drab, treeless countryside would suggest that Indians don’t
worship nature. Believe it or not, vanaspataye namah
was an essential part of our culture. The Rig Veda personifies
various natural phenomena, revered for their power over human
existence, and all through Indian literature we find respect
for nature. This was more so in rural and tribal India, where
people played an active role in their conservation, making
protection of the environment a sacred duty. They created
their own laws, systems and taboos that ensured preservation
of the ecology and environment. Any transgressions would be
punished by fines and, occasionally, even banishment.
Ancient Tamil literature grouped the various geo-climatic
zones into the aindu thinai or five tracts: paalai
(desert), mullai (pasture), marudham (agricultural
land), kurinji (hills) and neithal (coast).
The deity, inhabitants, occupations, foods, settlements, music,
musical instruments, water sources, plants, animals, birds
and seasons of each are documented in detail. But there was
also an attempt to preserve the delineated regions. For example,
Palani in Tamil Nadu was kurinji and there was a
conscious attempt to preserve its character. Folk songs sought
to perpetuate the characteristics of each thinai.
The most important aspect of our heritage is the ecological,
squandered away in recent times. It includes entire ecosystems
and mini biospheres preserved as sacred groves, trees of economic
and social value preserved as sacred trees, even small thickets
preserved as sacred precincts, fresh water bodies preserved
as sacred tanks, and so on. By sanctifying them, they ensured
that a great heritage was preserved for all time.
What is a sacred grove? It is a patch of forest, anything
from five to five thousand acres, with or without water, left
untouched out of religious belief. The trees here are sacred,
the pond, if any, is sacred, and so on. Generally, the grove
is dedicated to the Mother Goddess or the Earth Mother, Devi
or Amman, but other deities could also reign in the grove.
The sarpa kaavu of Kerala, once found behind each
tharavaad or family home, was dedicated to the snake.
The kovil kaadu of Tamil Nadu are generally dedicated
to Amman, but other minor deities such as Ayyanaar, protector
of the night, may also hold sway.
The nandavana and deivavana of Karnataka
and Andhra Pradesh are similar temple gardens and forests.
Every village has a grove, many of them still preserved in
the south. The village made its own taboos: except for utilizing
plants for their medicinal qualities, not a leaf or twig could
be touched. It was a mini biosphere reserve, preserving local
flora and fauna, retaining subsoil water and the water level.
These are self-sustaining ecosystems and repositories of several
rare and endangered endemic plant species.
The grove was also a source of preservation of indigenous
art and craft. The potter excels himself as he makes terracotta
horses, bulls and elephants, to be dedicated to Ayyanaar.
The faces of the ferocious Devis and their fierce warrior
Veerans (braves) make us wonder whether these were the rakshasas
or demons that came to life in Sanskrit and other indigenous
The sacred groves preserved over centuries are now patches
in a barren landscape. There is a very telling image of the
Western Ghats near Pune in Maharashtra, at the location of
the Panshet Dam. The hills are barren, except for a small
clump of trees that house the deorala, as the sacred
grove is known in Maharashtra. I have seen villages where
all that is left of the grove is a single tree beneath which
sits a Ganesha or a Devi temple. Farmers and others have encroached
into the groves.
Apart from the groves that
were the repositories of local endemic species, we also had
the concept of the sthalavriksha or sacred tree,
which celebrated the economic or ecological or medicinal contribution
of individual species. For example, the pipal is the most
sacred of trees, providing a home for animals and birds, shade
for human beings and even wisdom if you were the Buddha and
sat beneath it. The sthalavriksha of the Kapaleeshwarar
temple at Mylapore in Chennai is the punnai or Alexandrian
laurel. Once upon a time, ships were made out of logs of the
punnai tree. The sacred tree of Chidambaram, the
seat of Nataraja, the Lord of Dance, is the thillai
or mangrove, so essential to the ecology of the cyclone-prone
region. Some trees like the bilva (Bengal quince),
neem and tulsi are sacred to Shiva, Devi and Krishna
respectively, and form a necessary part of their worship.
They also have important medicinal properties. The tulsi
is grown in the courtyard of every home. The women swallow
a leaf or two, to avoid coughs, colds and throat infections.
Unfortunately, many of the trees that were sanctified for
their local importance have practically disappeared. Kanchipuram
was named after the kanchi tree. There is not a single
tree left in Kanchi. Where is the kadamba vana where
Meenakshi of Madurai once dwelled? The punnai forest
of Mylapore has disappeared as the city of Chennai has grown,
while the mangroves of Chidambaram are disappearing with tourism
and deforestation taking their toll.
The sacred tanks were another conservation system. Water —
including the rivers, lakes and other fresh water sources
— was precious and hence sacred, and the construction
of tanks, wells and canals was an act of great merit. Every
temple in south India has a tank to store water and retain
the village's water level. Harvested rainwater went into this
Today the tanks are polluted. Soap, detergent, plastics and
other debris float on these tanks. Some, like Chennai's Mylapore
temple tank, have not seen water for a long time and have
been converted to a public lavatory and garbage dump as an
uncaring and corrupt administration looks the other way. The
tanks, pushkarnis, yeris, keres and sarovars
built centuries ago are now pools of raw sewage. Chennai was
once a city of lakes. In the 1950s and '60s the water tanks
were filled with garbage and given to contractors for "development".
The result is a city without water.
The ancient people of India established sound socio-cultural
practices epitomizing in situ conservation of biological and
genetic diversity. In recent times, this has been forgotten
or ignored in the face of development. Firstly, there is no
exhaustive all-India listing or account of our ecological
heritage. Secondly, the legal status is ambiguous. The groves,
trees and tanks lying within forest areas are protected, the
rest are not. Then, the conservation practices associated
with the sacred groves and tanks have been weakened with time
and changing beliefs. For example, conversions to Christianity
in the northeast have resulted in the discontinuance of the
old tradition of conserving vast tracts of forests as sacred
groves. As a result, the forests are disappearing and Cherrapunji,
which has the world's highest rainfall, now has a water problem.
Changing lifestyles and practices are also destroying these
resources. Finally, a growing population and changing resource
use patterns are also wiping out our ecological heritage.
I have not touched on other aspects of our environment, only
on those preserved by religious traditions. These were developed
by different communities all over India and were successfully
applied in different places by different people in different
ways. As we have shown ourselves to be inept at protecting
our environment, we need to return to our traditions to protect
it. After 5,000 years of civilization, religion is still the
major motivating factor in India. We should continue to harness
it for the public good, as our ancestors did.