Babu eagerly peeked over our shoulders to look at the photos we had managed to click amid the alarm and panic. A few moments earlier, we had exited a dense forest patch into the village path. It had started to rain, and it was getting dark. In a hurry to escape the showers, we had nearly stepped on a snake that was crossing the path and expertly camouflaged amid the pebbles and leaf litter on the forest floor. The accidental encountering took both species by shock—we screamed while the snake seemed suddenly unsure of the path ahead. A few minutes later we took to our respective routes, knees still wobbly with excitement and fear. You met the guardian of the forest. The snake is a protector, Babu explained to us with excitement, claiming that it was auspicious to see the snake.
Although he identified it wrongly as a venomous snake, his conviction about the creature’s role as a guardian deity of the forest was palpable. We were standing in a sacred grove, or devrai, once a commonplace phenomenon across the rural Indian landscape (CPR Environmental Education Centre, n.d). These patches of forests are considered holy by nearby communities and associated with a locally revered deity. Rules and norms crafted by the elders prohibit anyone from using any produce from the forest, thus naturally allowing for the spaces to become unofficial preserves for flora and fauna. Sacred groves are like nature’s library. Since they are untouched and preserved, one can observe various facets of nature when immersed in it, apart from the species diversity. These groves are home to diverse floral species, including medicinal plants and herbs. They also support a variety of birds, moths, butterflies, and lesser-known insects as well as organisms like fungi.
Ancient temples constructed in or near such groves serve as an ethereal reminder of the respect and awe the space demands. We marveled at the mossy stone bust of a bull, spouting clear water from its mouth into a small pool shaded by ancient trees. Our guide explained that the water in the pool never dried up, even in the hottest months of the year.
Interestingly, of all the world’s sacred groves, India is home to the highest number, the bulk of them nestled in the Western Ghats, an ancient mountain chain. Sacred groves harbor rich biodiversity despite that they mostly fall outside the perimeters of designated protected areas. We were visiting one such area in the north of the Western Ghats. The region boasts immense biodiversity and many endemic species, for which it is recognized worldwide as a biodiversity hot spot. More than three hundred globally threatened species of plants and animals are found in this region (UNESCO 2022).
Standing on its Last Legs: The Myristica Swamps
Little did we know that one of the sacred groves in the northern Western Ghats is an extremely unique ecological habitat, the Myristica swamps. We had read about the fascinating freshwater swamps, dominated by members of the Myristicaceae family. A patch of these swamps had been discovered nearby just a few decades ago, and in recent years it has increasingly gained attention from researchers and nature enthusiasts.
Our host and guide, Pravin, asked us to wear slippers for the walk to the Myristica swamp forest. Intrigued, we followed him through small streams and numerous farms, feeling increasingly uncertain that we were heading to the right place. Monsoons were at their peak in the Ghats, and the fields were flooded; water overflowed into the canals adjoining the farms. Our doubts were firmly put to rest when he directed us to a walk through the boundaries of a paddy farm and seemed to disappear behind a curtain of trees near the field.
We followed suit and instantly felt the world of the swamp forest literally close in on us; it was as if we had entered not just another habitat but an ancient time dimension as well. We were wading through entangled, protruding stilt and knee roots jutting out like old, woody fingers and elbows to help the trees stay erect in the waterlogged soil and aid in gas exchange. The roots, some of the oldest tree systems on the planet, act as a sponge during rainy seasons but slowly discharge water during the lean, hotter months.
In the Myristica swamps, field studies have identified approximately 79 species of trees, of which 23 are endemic to the Western Ghats, as well as 26 species of shrubs, 27 species of climbers, and 44 species of herb. Further, these studies also recorded more than 630 species, including invertebrates, fishes, amphibians, and large mammals like gaur, sambar, and wild boar. The availability of water in these rich hydrological networks has attracted extractive farming occupations and hydroelectric projects in the area, leaving the swamps one of the most critically endangered ecosystems in India (Ranganathan, Ravikanth, & Aravind 2022).
Fragmentation of Cultures, Communities, and Forests
Pravin later took us near the massive Tillari reservoir and pointed to the center of the giant lake. Our village was almost eight kilometers from there. His family is among the many relocated as part of the Tillari Dam project. Relocation, however, sounds rather innocuous; it actually entails dispossession, disruption, and detachment. Pravin’s family is perhaps one of the more fortunate ones who could resettle in the vicinity. They were provided some land in the nearby state of Goa as compensation. His abiding love for the land, its forests, and the perennial rivers are evident in his intimate knowledge of the favorite haunts of hornbills, the secret roost of the elusive frogmouth, the tree enveloped in bioluminescent fungi, and the usual trails of many other creatures. His story is likely an exception today, as the repeated displacement of native villagers for various development projects has led many to migrate to cities. The inevitable erosion of community ties and structures have weakened the norms regarding the protection of sacred groves, leaving the ecosystem vulnerable to exploitation and degradation.
What to make of the proverbial sound of a collapsing tree when no one is there to hear it?
Coming Together of Social and the Science: Key to Ecological Flourishing?
In recent times, environmental scientists have recognized the socio-ecological entanglements of people and ecosystems. They have come to realize that a purely scientific approach is not enough to preserve natural habitats, as understanding prevailing social structures is equally crucial for sustainable conservation projects. During our stay, we came across wildlife researchers from a reputable organization in the same area who were studying how land-use changes affect biodiversity. As forests are increasingly being converted to economically important monoculture plantations, this research was essential to understanding whether such plantations are habitable for the Western Ghats’ endemic and other species (Barve, 2009). Given that the plantations are a significant source of livelihood for the locals, conservation strategies need to rely on innovative practices that incorporate protected patches into the plantations or encourage mixed cropping systems. Either way, working with the people directly impacted by, and responsible for, land use remains their best bet for ensuring the protection of endangered habitats (Chandran & Mesta, n.d; Hebbar, Aravind, Shaanker & Ravikanth, 2016).
Newer ideas of sacred need to also emerge from partnerships between scientists and native communities, along with economies that are mindful of the ideas of limits and reciprocity. For the writer and biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer, To love a place is not enough, we must find ways to heal it. In many ways, the healing entails repairing broken relationships, listening to the people, attending to the land, and recognizing the patterns that bind us all, like the entangled roots of the Myristica swamps.
Barve, Sahas. Responses shown by bird communities to teak plantations in Sagar Forest Division, Karnataka. Master’s thesis, University of Saurashtra, Rajkot, 2009.
Chandran, M. S., and D. K. Mesta. Myristica swamps: Remnants of primeval tropical forests of Western Ghats. Sahyadri E-News, 13. Western Ghats Biodiversity Information System Back ENVIS @CES, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. http://wgbis.ces.iisc.ernet.in/biodiversity/sahyadri_enews/newsletter/issue13/index.htm
CPR Environmental Education Centre, Chennai. Sacred Groves in Maharashtra. http://www.cpreecenvis.nic.in/Database/SacredGrovesinMaharashtra_887.aspx
Hebbar, Priti, N. A. Aravind, R. U. Shaanker, and G. Ravikanth. Modeling impacts of future climate on the distribution of Myristicaceae species in the Western Ghats, India. Ecological Engineering, 89 (2016), 14–23.
Ranganathan, P., G. Ravikanth, and N. A. Aravind. A review of research and conservation of Myristica swamps, a threatened freshwater swamp of the Western Ghats, India. Wetlands Ecology and Management,30 (2022), 171–189. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11273-021-09825-5
UNESCO. Western Ghats. https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1342/