Kodagu district in the state of Karnataka is one the greenest regions not only in India, but in the world. With over 75% of its geographical area under tree cover, the green-scape has contributed to make this region one of the most productive areas in terms of agriculture, plantations and ecotourism. The district is the largest shade coffee growing region in the world and produce like honey, mandarin, pepper, cardamom, timber and non-timber products portray the natural richness of the region. The green-scape not only provides direct economic benefits in terms of above mentioned resources, but provides life sustaining ecological benefits which are collectively called ecosystem services, like – hydrological services of river Cauvery which sustains communities downstream in South India, carbon sequestration, climate control, and biodiversity conservation. In the recent years, Kodagu has become an important destination of ecotourism which is primarily nature based. So, the green cover has contributed to evergreen development not only of Kodagu but the entire region of South India.
But why does this landscape have such a high tree cover? Very unique traditional landscape management practices supplemented with nature friendly farming practices have ensured that forests and trees are managed as an integral part of sustainable development. The foundation of this rich evergreen home is in the practice of nature and ancestral worship by local communities. Kodagu is not only the land of largest shade grown coffee farms, but also the land with high density of sacred forests. Sacred groves which are called Devakad, and associated traditional ancestral houses are the foundations of a unique Kodava culture which is now recognized world over as one of the most nature friendly practices.
Devakad – Sacred Groves
Sacred groves were a part of most agrarian cultures around the world; in South America, Africa, Australia, Europe and most Asian countries. Nature worship is the foundation of Indian culture, and sacred groves are protected in different states as “Sarana” in Bengal and Bihar, “Varaan” in Rajasthan, “Devari” in Maharastra, “Kavu” in Kerala; and in Karnataka, “Kanas” of Uttara Kannada, “Nagabanas” of Dakshina Kannada and “Devakad” of Kodagu. It is reported that there are 4,125 sacred groves covering 39,063 hectares in India.
Why Kodagu is a hotspot of sacred forest traditions:While sacred groves have vanished from many landscapes and cultures, they continue to thrive as a living tradition in Kodagu district. Some unique features of our Devakad are:
- According to a survey conducted by the Forest Department, Kodagu district has 1,214 sacred groves covering an area of 2,500 hectares. There is one sacred grove for every 300 hectares of land, and this density of could be one of the highest in the world.
- Kodagu is the only region in India where groves are owned by the Forest Department and declared as Protected Forests, but are managed by local communities as common property resources.
- Every village in the district has at least one Devakad, and there are 24 villages that have ten or more sacred sites.
- There are 121 deities and unique forms of worship practiced by 18 local communities including Muslims, symbolizing communal unity.
- Since these groves are distributed throughout the landscape, they represent diverse microclimatic conditions and associated biodiversity.
Devakad as an island in a paddy field
Communies in conservation:The 18 local communities involved in the sacred groves have had specific roles in management of the temple and its rituals, thereby bringing communal harmony. Traditional systems of temple management, by designating certain families as temple heads, guardians of temples treasures, dancers and priests, indicate very unique systems of communal integration. These nature temples were also the institutions which administered social justice, where heads of communities formulated rules of social order and local governance with blessings of local deities.
A shrine in a sacred grove
Changes in the sacred groves of Kodagu district:The first survey was undertaken by the British in 1873 when 873 sacred groves with a total area of 4398 hectares area were recorded. In 1905 the total area increased to 6277 hectares. After a long gap, a 1991 survey by the Forest Department indicated the presence of 1214 groves with an area of 2550 hectares. This clearly shows a loss of 3727 hectares in the last 80 years. As a result of this loss, many large groves have fragmented into smaller areas and, as such, although the total area of the groves has reduced, there is an increase in the number of groves due to fragmentation.
A sacred grove with a structured temple area
The major cause for loss in area results from encroachment due to lack of clarity regarding ownership. Though the Forest Department is the legal owner, there are instances when the Revenue Department has allocated these lands for habitation and cultivation. Capitalizing on this confusion, migrants and local farmers have encroached and converted some sacred groves into residential areas and coffee plantations. In addition, changes in the socio-cultural and religious attitudes of the community have also resulted in degradation of groves. In many cases, forest temples where annual worship of the deity under a tree was practiced have been transformed to temple forests where a structured temple has become more prominent than the forest.Conservation Efforts
The inventory and biodiversity studies undertaken indicate that a large majority of the sacred groves in Kodagu district are small islands, however, they are distributed in the entire district; and with a network of small and large groves, contain a high proportion of flora and fauna. It is evident that the groves, which are intact and rich in biodiversity, are managed well by the local communities.The festival of sacred groves – Devarakadu Habba – was held October on 15-16, 2000 at Virajpet to formulate an action plan for their conservation. This was the first effort to bring the different stakeholders on a common platform to discusseffective conservation. Since then, efforts are being undertaken by the different stakeholders for revival of this unique tradition.
This revival effort involving communities in conservation has been highlighted in the National and States Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan. Efforts undertaken by the stakeholders have also been highlighted in international scientific forums facilitating collaborations and support for these conservation initiatives. We are confident thanks to this multi stakeholder effort, that the sacred groves will continue to offer socio-religious and ecological services to native communities and revive the unique nature worship concept with the blessings of the deities and support of communities.Visitors are welcome to witness these village festivals which are mostly held during February to May every year, when the groves come back to life with music and dance. The land of Cauvery and coffee is also the land of Devakads – nature’s own temples.