India: Sacred Forests



  • United Nations University Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability (UNU-IAS); Japan Wildlife Research Center (JWRC)


  • 06/03/2012

  • REGION :

  • Southern Asia


  • India


  • This study was commissioned to be included in the publication “Socio-ecological Production Landscapes in Asia”. This chapter provides an overview of sacred forests and their management throughout India.


  • Sacred forests, traditional forestry, indigenous knowledge


  • Japan Wildlife Research Center (JWRC); Kaoru Ichikawa (UNU-IAS), ed.

  • LINK:


Summary Sheet

The summary sheet for this case study is available here.

Natural and Social Background

[Note: this case study originally appeared in the publication Socio-ecological Production Landscapes in Asia.]

Indian society has a multiethnic makeup, including the Aryans, the Dravidians, the Mongoloids, as well as over 40,000 ethnic minority groups. The religious background in India is also diverse, composed of 80.5% Hindus, 13.4% Muslims, 2.3% Christians, 1.9% Sikhs, 0.8% Buddhists and 0.4% Jains. Regardless of the religious or cultural background, a number of ethnic groups have practiced nature worship and have conserved nature in general and specific animals through their own traditional methods from time immemorial.

In India, the forest coverage is about 68,289,000 ha as of 2009 ( FAOSTAT’s figure), accounting for some 20.8% of the land area. Despite the recent global trend towards a decline in the area of forests, Indian forest coverage is on the rise as is evidenced by the increase in the forest area of around 2,319,000 ha between 2000 and 2004 (FAO, 2010). This increase, however, has occurred in the open forest areas with a crown ratio of 10-40%, while the area of dense forests with a crown ratio of over 40% has declined (FAO, 2010). Thus, in India, high quality forests are considered to be on the decline. Major threats to the Indian forest ecosystem include the conversion of forests to agricultural land associated with the growth of the population, inappropriate patterns of shifting cultivation and illegal encroachment. The projections of an enlarging population for at least more than half a century will require India to address the recovery of natural resources, including the protection of the remaining forests and reforestation. Since the Indian Forest Act which was firstly enacted in 1878 under British rule and was last amended in 1927, Indian forests are owned by the government and those who have protected and used the forests over many generations have been deprived of ownership.

Photo 1. Dense overstory of the Ambuttilkavu sacred grove, Kannur, Kerala (Photo: Aneesh CR)

Photo 2. Natural regeneration in the Ambuttilkavu sacred grove, Kannur, Kerala (Photo: Aneesh CR)

Characteristics of Sacred Forests

Sacred Forest

“Sacred Forests” in India refers to the small patches of forest that indigenous peoples or ethnic minorities have protected and conserved to devote them to their own Gods /spirits or to their ancestral spirits (Photo 1 and 2). Sacred forests are found throughout the country. The number of reported ones totaled more than 13,720 (as shown in Table 1), which, with the number of unreported ones, adds up to an estimate of over 100,000 sacred forests (Malhotra et al., 2001). They are particularly concentrated in the Western Ghats, central India and northeastern India. In contrast, there have been no reports of sacred forests in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Jammu and Kashmir State, Lakshadweep Union Territory, National Capital Territory of Delhi, Goa State, Punjab State and Tripura State. Practices to protect small patches of forest, which are believed to be the abode of Gods in accordance with religious or traditional rules, have also been performed across the world, and such sacred forests are known to exist in Asia, Africa, Europe, Australia, North America and South America (Bhagwat and Rutte, 2006). There are also reports of sacred forests in Ghana, Nigeria, Syria, Turkey and Japan (Kahn et al., 2008).

In Kerala State where sacred forests are closely featured with serpent worship, most of those that are owned collectively by the villagers are dedicated to Lord Ayyappan (Vishnu, a Hindu God) or the Goddess Bhagavathi. On the other hand, sacred forests owned by the tribal communities are dedicated to one of the following; vanadevatha, the goddess of the forest, spirits, demons or ancestors. The Gods and ancestral spirits in the forests are thought to safeguard the local people against various calamities, as well as enable them to confront various taboos. These forests have been protected for many centuries and have played a significant role in conserving biodiversity as primary forests.

Structure, Use and Management of the Sacred Forests

A large proportion of sacred forests are remnants of primary forests that have remained almost intact. For example, most of the sacred forests in Kerala State, as well as those in Kodagu district, Karnataka state, are reported to be relics of lowland evergreen and semi-evergreen forests that were previously extensive and grew in clusters in the past (Chandrakanth et al., 2004; Kerala Forest and Wildlife Department, 2009). The composition of the vegetation of these sacred forests is generally a mixture of trees of different heights, including shrubs (low trees), herbs, climbing plants and stranglers (Ficus aurea), with a lush coverage of fungi and ferns over the humic ground (Kerala Forest and Wildlife Department, 2009). Native Tree species such as Canarium stricum, Vateria indica, Magifera indica, Dalbergia latifolia, Artocarpus heterophylus, Santalum album, Ficus glomerata, Bamboosa arundinaceae and other species are found in the sacred forests of Karnataka State (Chandrakanth et al., 2004).

Sacred forests are generally concentrated in areas at a lower altitude, and widely distributed from the lowlands to the foothills.(Chandrakanth et al., 2004; Kerala Forest and Wildlife Department, 2009). In Kodagu District, more than 1,200 sacred forests occur corresponding to one for every 300 ha of land, with the remaining portion covered by coffee plantations, which together constitute the landscape (Ormsby and Bhagwat, 2010). Most of the sacred forests are found in the vicinity of water sources (Chandrakanth et al., 2004; Kerala Forest and Wildlife Department, 2009). In old villages, temples and tanks are often located in contiguity with sacred forests, suggesting that they have a role in securing and distributing water resources used for irrigated agriculture and other uses (Swamy et al., 2003; Kerala Forest and Wildlife Department, 2009).

Table 1 Number of Reported Sacred Forests by State in India

Source: modified from Malhotra et al.(2001)

The management systems and methods in terms of the maintenance and protection of these sacred forests vary, including the implementation of rites and feasts related to the forests, the resolution of conflicts and disputes, and biomass harvesting. In India, sacred forests are generally classified into the following three categories (Malhotra et al., 2001):

  1. Those under the management of the state forest department;
  2. Those under the management of other administrative institutions (the revenue, district councils, etc.); and
  3. Those managed by the local people, including families, clans or temple committees.

While the management bodies of the sacred forests often vary even within the same state and the same district, all the sacred forests in Meghalaya State, for example, are under the management of district councils (Malhotra et al., 2001), which are chaired by priests who execute the rituals in the forests (Ormsby and Bhagwat, 2010). Also, in Maharashtra State, the majority of them are managed by the state forest department. Those in Kerala State correspond to the third category above, where the management bodies are categorized into individual families, a group of several families or the statutory agency for temple management (Chandrashekara and Sankar, 1998). In Kodagu district in Karnataka State, sacred forests are either owned and managed by a family or managed by a temple committee consisting of several local families.

As for the use of the natural resources of the sacred forests, in some forests it is prohibited by religion and custom to harvest any biomass, while others allow extraction of a certain portion of the forest resources, which provides direct benefits to the local people. In the former case, encroachment and destruction of the forest are strictly banned and individual family members including children are not allowed to remove tree branches or any other products. There may be no direct benefits from the use of the resources, however, monetary or material benefits may accrue due to visits by tourists and pilgrims. In the latter case, timber may be extracted only for the purpose of temple construction and repair. The collection of minor forest products such as fallen leaves and branches as well as the picking of certain trees, fruits and plants (Caryota urens and Mangifera indica, etc.) may be performed for ritualistic uses (Chandrashekara and Sankar, 1998; Chandrakanth et al., 2004;). Examples of other sacred plant species include Artocarpus heterophyllus Lamk., Blumea balsamifera (Linn.)D.C, Cudrenia nepalensis, Cynodon dactylon Pers., Dactyloctenium aegyptium Beauv., Erythrina indica Lam. and Plectranthus ternifolius D. Don, that are used in rituals and/or considered to repel evil spirits (Khumbongmayum et al., 2004). Some medicinal plants unique to sacred groves are occasionally extracted only with the consent of the relevant communities (Chandrakanth et al., 2004). In some cases, this extraction of plant materials may be used for handicrafts and other purposes and may serve as a source of cash income for the local communities.

The compliance with the management and conservation of the forest and with the controlled use of these resources depends largely on the faith handed down through the generations as well as on the belief that the loss of forest resources will lead to misfortune (illness, a poor harvest of agricultural products, etc.) . Another example of such beliefs is that those who damage the forests will be turned into a hedgehog over the next millennium. To demonstrate the presence of the sacred land, the homegardens in Udaipur District, Rajasthan State in Northwestern India, for instance, use saffron water to demarcate the border between other areas by sprinkling it in the sacred forest (Ormsby and Bhagwat, 2010).

A variety of rites and feasts are performed in sacred forests. People expect material, moral and social benefits in return for their offerings to the Gods or the spirits of the forests. There is a belief, for example, that spirits inhabit such trees as the banyan, neem and tamarind tree, and a toy cradle for a wish to have a baby or a black cloth enclosing salt for a wish to be guarded from evil are tied to their branches. The annual village fiestas devoted to local Gods or spirits are also practiced in the sacred forests by making offerings, or cuisine cooked using the withered branches picked from the forests is devoted to them. At night, village people recount folk tales and perform epic poetry on a stage in the sacred forest. Such fiestas last for a week, and on the last day, animals such as chickens and goats are offered as a sacrifice to the Gods or the spirits (Swamy et al., 2003).

Functions and Benefits

Sacred forests provide various benefits. As mentioned above, in the sacred forests that have been protected on the basis of religious beliefs or traditional customs since time immemorial and have been handed over to successive generations, the local people have conserved a number of rare, endemic or endangered species, many of which have the potential to provide medical, agricultural or industrial benefits to humankind. Those in Tamil Nadu State, for instance, include such rare endemic species as Antiaris toxicaria, Diospyros maalbarica, Diospyros ebenum, Feronia elephantum, Butea frondosa, Garcinia cambogia and Sterculia foetida. Besides, over several tens of important herbs, including Abutilon indicum, Andrographis paniculata and Evolvulus alsinoides, are extensively used by the local people for the treatment of ulcers, bites by snakes and scorpions, gastrointestinal dysfunctions and fever (Swamy et al., 2003). These herbs are also applied in the treatment of livestock, including snakes bites.

According to a study on the biodiversity of sacred forests and the adjacent official forest reserves in Kodagu District, Karnataka State by Bhagwat and others (2005), the sacred forests still maintain populations of endangered species that were not found in the forest reserves, including Actinodaphne lawsonii, Hopea ponga, Madhuca neriifoli and Syzygium zeylanicum. Out of 163 species of larger fungi, 49 species were endemic to the sacred forests. Thus, sacred forests are considered to be complementary to forest reserves (Bhagwat et al., 2006; Kahn et al., 2008). In particular, those located in cultivated landscapes serve as habitats for various plant and animal species, and potentially provide corridors that secure the connectivity of the habitats. (Bhagwat et al., 2006).

Moreover, the sacred forests centered on human activities play a significant role in the conservation of water and soil by promoting the nutrient cycle (Malhotra et al., 2001). In general, swamps and streams in the vicinity of sacred forests rarely experience the drying up of their water supply, and hence the local people have installed wells and tanks there to secure and use the water resources. The trees in the forests also serve to avoid soil erosion (Swamy et al., 2003) and the decomposition of the fallen leaves and branches promotes the nutrient cycle of the soil, producing fertile humus. The forests accumulate such humus in abundance and the nutrients make a major contribution to the improvement of the productivity of the adjacent agro-ecosystems such as tapioca or rubber plantations (Malhotra et al., 2001).

Challenges and Responses

In recent years, sacred forests have been facing several social, cultural and economic challenges that directly or indirectly undermine their relevant traditional functions of resource management. These challenges include agricultural expansion and associated encroachment, religious, cultural and demographic transitions, and ambiguity in the current property rights system (Khumbongmayum et al., 2004; Bhagwat and Rutte, 2006).

In Karnataka, where earnings from coffee exportation account for about 70% of the value of total exports, illegal conversion of the sacred forests to coffee cultivation land has been taking place. An increase in the market price can be a factor accelerating such encroachment. Sacred forests have also been encroached on for the cultivation of other plantation crops like ginger and banana, as well as for illegal logging (Chandrakanth et al., 2004).

Cultural change over time associated with the advent of modernization and urbanization has led to a devaluation of the traditions, customs, and religious beliefs that serve as the foundations for the conservation of the sacred forests. Now, many consider the traditional belief system as superstitious and only a few older people know the rituals. The younger generations are losing interest. As such, the violation of cultural norms and taboos no longer carries heavy consequences, which is leading to degradation of the sacred groves (Swamy et al.,2003; Ormsby and Bhagwat, 2010).

In addition, increasing immigration over the years for the purpose of agricultural labor and timber harvesting has generated new demand for land cultivation, settlement and such. Forestlands, including some sacred groves, have been targeted by the immigrants who may not share or value the traditions and beliefs associated with the forests (Chandrakanth et al., 2004; Ormsby and Bhagwat, 2010).

One of the other issues concerns the legal status of the sacred forests. In Karnataka, for example, while many sacred forests are managed by the village communities, the legal ownership belongs to the state forest government, and because these two entities vary in their policies on and underlying motives for using the sacred forest, discrepancies occur. In some instances, the State Revenue Department mistakenly records some state-owned sacred forests under the name of private planters, which makes it difficult for the village committees to enforce their informal rules on the sacred forests. In other instances, the state government itself can encroach on the sacred groves designated as reserve forests, for example, by constructing homes for the homeless, making them no longer the intact forests protected only for religious purposes (Chandrakanth et al., 2004).

Owing to such issues, the traditional methods for the conservation and management of the sacred forests have been impaired, causing the loss, reduction, and fragmentation of these forests and in turn, the loss of biological and cultural diversity as well as of the benefits provided by them. In Kodagu district in Karnataka, about 50% of the area of sacred forests is said to be have been lost during the 1900s (Chandrakanth et al., 2004).

The importance of conserving sacred groves is recognized by the central government of India as some efforts are being made. In its Intensification of Forest Management Scheme which was operated during the national land policy of the 11th Five- Year Plan (2007-2012), the government set out the protection and conservation of sacred forests as one of the seven main components. Under this scheme, which requires the state forest governments to implement the majority of the work, the Kerala Forest Department has developed its own conservation program targeted at the selected sacred forests in the state .The program aims to bring accountability and the involvement of the general public to sacred forest conservation. The owner of the concerned forests shall develop and submit a management plan to the forest department, by which regular monitoring and maintenance of the forests at the community level are ensured and for which incentives are being provided (Karma Kerala, 2010). The central government of India has also paid attention to sacred forests from the viewpoint of biodiversity conservation. The National Biodiversity Action Plan (2008) sets out measures for the strengthened conservation management of sacred forests and the preparation of support policies for these forests, as well as for grasslands and pasture, as a priority issue toward the achievement of the 2010 Biodiversity Target of the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Scientists have pointed out the following required measures for the conservation of sacred forests (Chandrakanth et al., 2004; Bhagwat et al., 2005; Bhagwat and Rutte, 2006; Khan et al., 2008):

  • Legal and institutional reforms including clarification of the customary and land use rights of the local people, legal protection of the sacred forests for their religious and cultural value in addition to biological value and the empowerment of village-level management committees through their legalization and perhaps through their incorporation in the ongoing process of the decentralization of forest management in India, such as under the JFM program;
  • Granting incentives for the sustainable conservation management and alternative livelihood development for the local people;
  • Incorporation of sacred forests into biodiversity action plans at the local level and the preparation and implementation of a comprehensive conservation strategy;
  • Raising awareness among local people concerning the benefits from sacred forests (the provision of ecosystem services indispensable for the maintenance and improvements of their lives), as well as the need for sustainable conservation management;
  • Intervention and support by third parties for their management and conservation;
  • Conducting research to foster a better understanding of the socio-cultural systems and community institutions for the management of sacred forests, and their usefulness for the conservation of biodiversity.


Bhagwat, S.A.; Kushalappa, C.G.; Williams, P.H.; Brown, N.D. 2005. The role of informal protected areas in maintaining biodiversity in the Western Ghats of India. Ecology and Society 10(1), 8. http://www.ecology and (accessed 2011-08-25)

Bhagwat, S.A. and Rutte, C. 2006. Sacred groves: potential for biodiversity management, Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. 4 (10), p.519-524.

Chandrakanth, M.G.; Mahadev, G.B.; Accavva, M.S. 2004. Socio-economic changes and sacred groves in South India: Protecting a community-based resource management institution. Natural Resources Forum. 28, p. 102-111.

Chandrashekara, U.M. and Sankar, S. 1998. Ecology and management of sacred groves in Kerala, India. Forest Ecology and Management. 112, p.165-177.

FAO. 2010. “Global Forest Resources Assessment 2010 Country Report India”. docrep/013/al530E/al530E.pdf. (Accessed 2011-08- 25)

FAO. FAOSTAT. aspx?PageID=377&lang=en#ancor (accessed on August 7, 2011)

Karma Kerala. 2010. “The Sacred Groves of Kerala to be Protected by the Forest Department”. Karma Kerala. groves-of-kerala-to-be-protected-by-the-forestdept/. (accessed 2011-12-08)

Kerala Forest and Wildlife Department. 2009. “Sacred Groves. Kerala Forest and Wildlife Department”. php?option=com_content&view=article&id=75:sacr ed-groves&catid=37:common-trees. (accessed 2011- 07-15)

Khan, M.L.; Khumbongmayum, A.D.; Tripathi, R.S. 2008. The sacred groves and their significance in conserving biodiversity: an overview. International Journal of Ecology and Environmental Sciences. 34(3), p.277- 291.

Khumbongmayum, A.D.; Khan, M.L.; Tripathi, R.S. 2004. Sacred groves of Manipur – ideal centres for biodiversity conservation. Current Science. 87(4), p. 430-433.

Malhotra, K.C.; Chatterjee, S.; Srivastava, S. 2001. Cultural and Ecological Dimensions of Sacred Groves in India. Indian National Science Academy. 27p.

Ormsby, A.A. and Bhagwat, S.A. 2010. Sacred forests of India: a strong tradition of community-based natural resource management. Environmental Conservation. 37 (3), p.320-326.

Swamy, P.S.; Kumar, M.; Sundarapandian, S.M. 2003. Spirituality and ecology of sacred groves in Tamil Nadu, India. Unasylva. 213, 54. p53-58.