Sacred groves of the Western Ghats are shrinking and their deities being Sanskritised

#1 Dec 24th, 2017, 13:13
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A theyyam ritual inside a sacred grove in Kasaragod | Photo Credit: Thulasi Kakkat

His curved machete tucked into a wooden holder slung across his waist, Rudra Gowda leads the way through areca plantations and paddy fields. Our destination, tucked away in the forest near Hukli village in Karnataka’s Uttara Kannada district, is a tiger god’s lair. “Our huli devaru (tiger god) protects us,” says Gowda. “We do not know how old he is, but we have been worshipping him for a century at least.”

The jungle draws near. It is so dense, the trees seem to merge into each other. Footwear is not permitted. And we step in, barefoot. A wild world unfurls. The carpet of moist, darkened fallen leaves is surprisingly springy and soft. Racket-tailed drongos call in a loud symphony. Invisible cicadas compete with their relentless chirping. Forty-foot-tall evergreen trees blot out most of the light with their canopies.

We make our way down a steep slope. A stream gurgles over giant tree roots. On its bank a stone tiger — less than a foot tall — stands propped up in an unkempt clearing. Two coconuts, blackened by the monsoon, lie at its feet. Beside the stone is a smaller bell-metal figurine with exaggerated tiger-like features and a long tail, one paw raised in blessing over a little metal elephant.

“This is our huli devaru,” says Gowda softly. “We have immense faith in him. We do not disturb him by collecting anything from his forest. If rules are broken he will visit the village, calling loudly.”

The huli devaru, which Gowda and his Kare Vokkaliga community revere, resides in a kan,or a sacred grove, — a forest patch dedicated to specific deities and protected by local communities. This practice of conserving forest patches in the name of faith is common across many parts of India, including the Western Ghats.

Animal and human

Here, sacred groves are believed to be at least two millennia old; they are called kaavu in Kerala, devaru kadu in Karnataka’s Kodagu district and devrai in Maharashtra. Deities can be animal or human: tigers, serpents, gaur, gods and goddesses, including Ayyappa and Durga. Trees in the Iringole grove in Kerala’s Ernakulam district, for instance, are considered sub-deities of the main goddess, Vanadurga (forest Durga).

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