By Priya Ranganathan

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Many people go to temples, mosques, churches, and gurudwaras to pray to their gods for blessings and good health. In India, we have yet another type of temple – the forest. Yes, you heard correctly – India is home to many sacred groves, which are small forests where local communities come to pray to the forest gods. A grove is a small patch of trees. 

The gods in these sacred groves are not well known by people outside of the villages. They are as old as time, even older than Hinduism, one of the oldest religions in the world. Some of these gods are the water goddess Chowdi, the tiger god Dakshin Ray, the protector of the forests Vanadevi, and the protector of those who enter the forest Bonbibi. All across India, sacred groves used to exist in large pieces of forest, filled with wildlife and rare plants, but today, they are tiny pieces of forested land, surrounded by agricultural fields and villages. 

Let us visit the ancient swamp forests of the Western Ghats, where you can spot sacred groves. One such grove is Kathalekan, “the dark forest,” where Chowdi is the most popular goddess. Another mischievous spirit, Bhoota, causes trouble for local villagers. People pray to Vanadevi, the mother goddess, before starting a new job, school, or entering the forest, even in today’s modern world. These sacred groves are slices of tradition in the chaos of the 21st century! In Kerala, groves known as serpent groves are left to praise the snake gods, or Nagas

Huli devaru, one of the forest gods in Karnataka (Photo Credit: M.A. Sriram/The Hindu)

If you walk into the dense forests of Uttara Kannada district in Karnataka, you may stumble across stone statues of a tiger near streambanks. According to locals, this is the forest god Huli devaru (tiger god), who protects the jungle. Taking items from the jungle, hunting, or destroying the forest will bring the anger of the tiger god on the offending villages. Locals protect the sacred grove of the god, but also the larger forests that cover nearly 80 percent of the district.

On the other side of the country, in the vast Sundarbans mangrove forest, sacred groves are common. The local villagers worship Bonbibi, the protector of those who go into the tiger-infested jungle every day to cultivate honey and collect forest produce. They also pray to Dakshin Ray, the tiger god, to give them safe passage and forgive them for trespassing on the tiger’s territory. In the Sundarbans, tigers attack people very often, and the swamp is considered treacherous for those who do not know its secrets. Prayers and faith keep the people alive as much as paying attention to what is prowling among the trees.

Bonbibi, the protector goddess of the Sundarbans (Photo Credit: Dincy Mariyam)

In traditional Hinduism, forests were classified into three categories – Tapovan, Mahavan, and Sreevan. Tapovan forests were those where sages went to meditate and had their ashrams to teach students. Mahavan forests are the great, ancient forests of India, where wildlife is plentiful. Both Tapovan and Mahavan forests are full of birds and animals, as well as tall, powerful trees, and wildlife here is protected as ordinary humans were not allowed to enter these forests. Sreevan forests were dense groves, where people were allowed to enter and collect berries, fruits, branches, leaves, and herbs, as long as they did not disturb the natural ecosystem. Sreevan means “forest of the goddess of wealth,” and these forests became the sacred groves of today. 

A theyyam ritual inside a sacred grove in Kerala (Photo Credits: Thulasi Kakkat/The Hindu)

Villages across India worship nature in many forms, whether by praying at sacred groves or by nurturing wildlife. The Bishnois and many other tribes across Rajasthan care deeply for wildlife and do not allow harm to befall them. Bishnoi women are even known to look after orphaned deer, gazelles (chinkara), and antelope like their own children. Most villages across the country have small groves of at least five trees – representing the five elements of air, water, fire, earth, and ether. The northern and southern states of Himachal Pradesh and Kerala are known to have many sacred groves. One of my favourite rituals in Kerala is when women from certain communities go to the snake groves and worship the cobra, dancing an intricate dance to imitate the slithering motion of this majestic snake. 

Travel across India and keep your eyes and ears peeled for tales of forest gods and temples in the deep, dark woods. You will definitely find many of them as you visit different parts of our country. From the Myristica swamps of Karnataka to the deodar forests of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand to the mangrove forests of West Bengal to the serpent groves in Kerala, India is full of forest gods – if you know where to look, that is! 

Fun Fact: Do you know the names for sacred groves in other Indian languages?

Malayalam – Kaavu

Kannada – Kaan/Devarakaadu

Marathi – Devraai

Marwari – Oran

Khasi – Khlaw kyntang

Tamil – Kovil kaadu

Hindi – Devban

About the Author:

Priya Ranganathan is a wetland ecologist and geologist by training who works in the wild Western Ghats. When she isn’t out wading through swamp forests, she can be found scribbling away in her notebook or practicing Bharatanatyam. Check out her website ‘On Life and Wildlife.’