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Odisha government’s SDCs give a new lease of life to 11,000 sacred groves

Sacred groves are patches of forests protected by tribal communities. They conserve biodiversity and preserve age-old traditions and culture. Odisha government’s Special Development Councils (SDCs) are restoring and protecting them from encroachment

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In sacred groves, the supreme God or Goddess of the respective tribal communities is represented by stones, trees, or other natural objects. Pic: PHDMA, Odisha

In sacred groves, the supreme God or Goddess of the respective tribal communities is represented by stones, trees, or other natural objects. Pic: PHDMA, Odisha

Sacred groves are an age-old tradition where a fragment of forest or water body is dedicated to local deities and nobody is allowed to cut plants or kill animals. Sacred groves are found across India. In Odisha, where 22.85 percent of the population belongs to indigenous communities, these groves play an even more vital role in uniting them, shaping their day-to-day life, and defining tribal culture, tradition, and belief systems. 

Sacred groves are integral to the life and culture of 62 tribal communities including 13 particularly vulnerable tribal groups (PVTGs) living in Odisha. 

The state government has given a new lease of life to 11,000 sacred groves through their renovation and protection from encroachment. This helps in the preservation of tribal heritage and tradition and the conservation of floral and faunal biodiversity. 

The ST & SC Development, Minorities & Backward Classes Welfare Department of Odisha has been working towards sacred groves conservation through the Special Development Councils (SDCs). These SDCs recognize the traditional knowledge system of tribal communities, document their tangible and intangible heritage, promote tribal languages and dialects, undertake exposure visits and envision culture-specific development initiatives.

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In 2017 the State Government started commissioning the SDCs in nine tribal-dominated districts where more than 45 percent of the population was tribal. Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik on May 14, 2023, declared the inclusion of 14 more districts under the SDC fold where significant tribal population is found in several pockets. 

sacred groves
Sacred groves are integral to the life and culture of Odisha's 62 tribal communities. Pic: PHDMA, Odisha

In Odisha, where 22.85 percent of the population belongs to indigenous communities, the SDCs play a crucial role in sacred groves conservation. The restoration of 11,000 sacred groves is a milestone achievement by the ST & SC Development Department.

Sacred groves of Odisha

Sacred groves are a testimony to tribal peoples' indigenous knowledge and management system. In sacred groves, the supreme God or Goddess of the respective tribal communities is represented by stones, trees or other natural objects. The tradition of sacred groves is linked to tribal theology, cosmological myth and other cultural attributes. 

Different ethnic groups have named their sacred groves differently. The sites also vary in size, location and natural characteristics.

While “Jaheera” is the sacred grove for Santal, Munda, Bhumij, Ho, Kolha, Hill Kharia and Mankadia tribes under the SDCs of Mayurbhanj, Keonjhar and Sundargarh districts, “Sarna” belongs to Oram, Munda, Kharia and Kisan communities in Myurbhanj and Sundargarh.

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Similarly, sacred groves “Pat” belong to Bathudi, Gond and Saora communities and are seen in Keonjhar, Mayurbhanj, Rayagada, Gajapati and Nabarangapur districts. Likewise, “Demul” belongs to Bhuyan and Oram in Sundargarh and Keonjhar. 

sacred groves
Different ethnic groups have named their sacred groves differently. Pic: PHDMA, Odisha

“Hundi” is the name of the sacred groves for Paraja, Gadaba, Pentia, Bhatra and Omanatya and they are under the SDCs of Koraput, Rayagada and Nabarangpur. The Kandha community has names like “Darni”, “Tuleni” and “Gangama” for their Sacred Groves in Kandhamal, Rayagada and Koraput districts.

While “Gudi” belongs to communities like Kisan, Kuda, Matiya and Binjhal in Sundargarh, “Patkhanda” belongs to Bonda and Didayi in the southern Malkangiri district. 

Ecological hotspots

Interestingly, sacred groves are small pockets housing endemic diversity with rare plant species and many varieties of birds, insects, butterflies and other animals have found a safe shelter in them due to their age-old existence. 

The traditional restrictions associated with the rituals help in the immediate conservation of the entire ecosystem. Many sacred groves have very old trees which are important for germplasm and biodiversity conservation and the preservation of tribal heritage. 

The interventions by the SDCs with the departmental coordination include the construction of boundary walls and structures to house the area for religious services. This protects the entire ecosystem and helps protect its elements from stray cattle and encroachment.

Commissioner-cum-Secretary, ST & SC Development, Minorities and Backward Classes Welfare Department Roopa Roshan Sahoo says, “Odisha has become a leading state in the conservation of tribal heritage, culture, traditions and languages. SDCs have been doing exemplary work in this regard. The sacred groves are a thrust area not only to help revive a tradition but to conserve an age-old ecosystem for tribal people across the state and conserve the biodiversity.”

rituals
Members of a tribal community performing a ritual at a sacred grove. Pic: PHDMA, Odisha

According to environmental expert Bijaya Mishra, the sacred groves are repositories of gene pools and act as reservoirs of biological diversity because these have been protected since ancient times, and in many places appear as “climax forests” which harbor varieties of flora and fauna. 

“In the sacred groves the endemic vegetation is well stocked and diversity is maintained,” Mishra says.

Climax forests, where the sacred groves are particularly diverse in species of trees, are helpful for herbivorous animals which depend on trees. Apart from the preservation of rare species, the sacred groves preserve the biological diversity of endangered flora and fauna.

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The community controls are legitimized by giving it a religious basis guided by cosmological myths in different cultures preserved in oral or written traditions. Thus, there emerged tales of Gods and Goddesses who are angered by cutting trees or interfering with the diversity and they destroy the village or the offender in particular. Sacred groves are one of the finest instances of traditional conservation practices and they also serve as centres of cultural and religious life.

Revamping through SDCs

SDCs have attempted to revamp the sacred groves and shrine crafts, and also settle the area’s land rights in favour of the tribal community under the Community Forest Rights (CFR). Revisiting the tribal pockets for the verification of the sacred groves with the help of ITDA and local ST communities through SDCs has given rich dividends to the State Government. 

While in the nine old SDC districts like Gajapati, Kandhamal, Koraput, Malkangiri, Rayagada, Nabarangpur, Keonjhar, Mayurbhanj and Sundargarh protection of 10,599 Sacred Groves have been taken up and 5,712 have been completed so far, in the 14 newly-inducted districts 584 sacred groves have been taken up.

While the primary nine SDC districts have included all 117 blocks, 58 blocks from the 14 new districts are included in the SDC list.

Pagan Murmu from Badasingaria gram panchayat under Udala block in Mayurbhanj district, who led the team of dancers and priests to showcase the “Sacred Groves” tradition live at the State Level Republic Day Parade, for the first time, says “the ‘Jaheera’ was lying in utter neglect and I used to fence it. Through the SDC initiative, a total of six sacred groves in our gram panchayats are now well-kept along with additional `mandap’ and other structures.

(Bibhuti Barik and Sandip Kumar Bal are Consultants at Poverty & Human Development Monitoring Agency or PHDMA, Odisha) 

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