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Both India and China are ancient civilisations possessing characteristic indigenous knowledge of conservation of natural ecosystems. The Chinese have recognised the potential of traditional knowledge and regard religious forests as an asset and an important tool for rehabilitation of degraded soil. Unfortunately in India, a similar revival is yet to happen
Recently, researcher P P Dhyani carried out a successful revival of part of a religious forest that existed at Badrinath. He undertook to rehabilitate the badrivan (sacred grove) around the holy shrine of Badrinath Dham by planting saplings of tree species that originally grew there. These include Bhojpatra (Betula utilis), Badri (Juniperus macropoda) and Badriphal (Hippophae salicifolia), a shrub. Unfortunately, he is an exception.
Both India and China are ancient civilisations both possessing characteristic indigenous knowledge of conservation of natural ecosystems. The Chinese have recognised the potential of traditional knowledge and regard religious forests as an asset and an important tool for rehabilitation of degraded soil. Unfortunately in India, a similar revival is yet to happen. Few efforts have been made to preserve and restore the pristine glory of forests and even fewer for rehabilitation of degraded land.
Indian culture is a mosaic of different religions. Nature worship was a form of conservation and created environmental awareness. Gardens surrounded Hindu temples and mendicants raised forests that supplied flowers and fruits, which form an inseparable part of Hindu rituals.
These gardens served as an arboretum with their rich collection of medicinal plants. To preserve biodiversity, different Gods were offered flowers and fruits found in different times of the year. Lord Shiva is worshipped with white flowers and wild flowers that abound in summer, Kali is pleased with red ones, and Durga with unique autumnal seasonal flowers such as Sthalkamal (Hibiscus mutabilis) and Harshringar (Nycanthes arbor-tristis).
The concept of offering flowers or fruits was introduced perhaps to iden-tify important plants. Their constant use would lead to need, and so to conservation and propagation. These forests supported a plethora of birds and animals and formed a unique ecosystem. The relics of such forests may still be seen around some of the ancient temples in India. Such forests were known as tapovans (meditation forests), which formed an ideal place for meditation and air purification, and a source of medicinal plants.
Almost all Hindu rituals involve the use of flowers, fruits and plant parts. Both Banyan and Pipal (Ficus religiosa) trees are still so much venerated by Hindus that they are often planted for religious reasons. Beneath their branches may be seen little shrines marked by the presence of rounded stones depicting Lord Shiva and even small temples are erected in their shade. Animals were worshipped as vehicles of the Gods and Goddesses and hence killing them was an offence. This practice led to the conservation of species and maintained the ecological balance.
The Chinese culture is also highly advanced in terms of knowledge of ecosystem conservation. The ethnic minorities of Dai, Miao, Dong and Yao in Yunnan and Guizhou provinces conserve community religious forests around their villages. These forests are called Longshan or Fengshuilin, where ancestors are buried. Felling and hunting are not permitted here. The forests are strictly protected because local residents regard the large trees as Gods and the woodlands as homelands of Gods and heaven for the soul of the dead.
These forests are the habitats of diverse forms of wildlife. Another type of religious forest is the plantation around temples. The Dai in Xishuangbanna are Buddhists. As many as 58 species of religious trees and ornamental flowers are planted for use in Buddhist ceremonies, while constructing temples according to local religious beliefs. The religious forests serve as small reserves for diversity conservation. They are also excellent water-conserving areas. Thus the Chinese civilisation held similar concepts on conservation and nature like us.
Himalayan forests have been affec-ted due to anthropogenic pressure. Fraser's Himalayan Mountains describes that walnuts grew at up to 2750 metres, Deodars (Cedrus deodara) and Bilka up to 2900 metres, and Amesh and Kiushu at similar heights. Today the scenario is literally degraded: only a few strands of long-leaved Excelsia Pine exist. Excessive lopping of trees for wood, fuel, food and fodder are leading to extinction of natural forests in India. Traditional practices are being overlooked. Immediate and sincere efforts are required to rejuvenate the eroding traditional culture and conserve our natural surroundings.
Paromita Ghosh is a research associate at the G B Pant Institute of Himalayan Environment & Development
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