Kaavu in Kerala (Sacred Groves in Kerala)
Sacred groves are “small forests or stands of trees whose produce is set aside for the exclusive use of a deity” which has conservational and religious values attached to such “pockets of abundant and diverse flora and fauna” . Dietrich Brandis, the first General Inspector of Forest in India, identified the religious conservation of kaavu and termed it sacred grove . Sacred groves have been studied from various perspectives – ethnographic, ecological, theological, sociological, and mythical.
The Ecology of Sacred Groves
Ecologists look at sacred groves as a rich conservatory of “rare and endemic species of plants” . Approximately 13,720 sacred groves are identified in the 19 states of India with maximum number of them in Kerala, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, and Tamil Nadu . Sacred groves have withstood the massive deforestation initiated by the British administration in India. But due to various reasons such as population growth, deforestation, land grabbing, development, change in land-use patterns, and religious conversions, sacred groves are disappearing .
Religious Perspectives on Sacred Groves
All the sacred groves have direct religious implications in India. Usually, sacred groves are either part of a Hindu community/family temple or a traditional house. The belief is that the space where the sacred grove exists is sacred as the reigning deity of the family/community live in those trees . All vegetation, animals, birds, rocks, and hills are protected as they are part of the dwelling place of the reigning deity. Generally, sacred groves are “dedicated to different gods, goddesses, spirits, demons, ancestors or serpents” . There are a number of rituals attached to the place. In Kerala, the rituals and festivals attached to Kaavukal (plural of kaavu) depend on the deities attached to them. The sacred groves in Kerala are classified into three depending on the category of deity attached to it – Ammadaivakaavukal (sacred groves with reigning deities as mother goddesses), Purushadaivakaavukal (sacred groves with reigning deities as male gods), and Mrigadaivakaavukal (sacred groves with reigning deities as animals) . Some of the mother goddesses are Bhagavathi, Durga, Bhadra, and Chamundi; some male gods are Vishnu, Shiva, Ayyappan, and Sastha, and animals are serpents and tiger . Popular among these are the Sarpa Kaavukal (the sacred groves dedicated to serpents). A sarpakaavu is usually surrounded by several trees or has a single tree. The tree(s) is/are not allowed to be felled. The kaavu usually has a well-defined boundary, territorialized by a stone fence. The persons who enter this sacred space are expected to be pure in mind and body. This will please the deities. The wrath of the serpent deity is manifested in the form of diseases and misfortune .
Kaavu and the Ritual-Art-Culture in Kerala
In Kerala, the rituals attached to sarpakaavu are of two kinds based on the castes of the people who own the grove. The Brahmins (higher caste) perform their daily worship by lighting earthen oil lamp (at dusk) and chant manthras in vedic style. The lower castes such as Nair, Ezhavar, Pulluvar, and Thandaar perform Kalamezhuthupaattu (an art of drawing color patterns on the ground and singing songs that are peculiar to the art form) and Paambuthullal (a dance form to invoke the sacred serpent) . Usually these performances are done in front of the kaavu or in an open space in front of a traditional Hindu house. Kalamezhuthupaattu is a vibrant visual treat to the audience. As it is an expensive ritual, it is usually performed once in a year during the Malayalam (language spoken in the State of Kerala) month of Vrichikam (mid-November–mid-December). Aasaan (literally, “teacher”), the elderly artist, begins by drawing pictures of serpents using various colors. The elderly artist/chief priest draws the kalam (the drawing on the earth) in front of the sacred grove usually under a temporary thatched roof. The surroundings of the kaavu are decorated with leaves of fig tree, mango, palm, betel, and coconut . After the kalam is complete, the lamps are lit, and the ritual begins. Invocation to the serpents and offering of flowers, food, fruits, and milk to the serpent gods are some major events along with the pulluva paattu (with the accompaniment of the single-stringed veena) .
Kaavukal should be understood as a rich ecological space with varieties of trees and other living and nonliving beings preserved by the members of a community through rituals, religious practices, art performances, and oral beliefs. As the worldviews of the communities change, the Kaavukal are under threat, and so individuals, communities, and the state and National Governments should engage in more effective ways to preserve these ecological treasures.
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