The National Conference on Conservation of Sacred Groves to Protect Biodiversity is scheduled for February 12-14, but I don’t think I’ll be attending. The registration deadline has passed. Not only that, the conference will be held in Chennai, Tamilnadu, India.
Nevertheless, I’ve been reading about the sacred groves of India for some time now and have tried to imagine something analogous in our own culture. The investigation raises many issues.
For background, there’s no way I can summarize things more concisely than what is included in the conference brochure:
Sacred groves comprise patches of forested natural vegetation – from a few trees to forests of several hundred hectares – that are usually dedicated to local folk deities or tree spirits. These spaces are protected by local communities because of their religious beliefs and traditional rituals that run through several generations. They are known by different names in different parts of India.
Sacred groves are important repositories of floral and faunal diversity that have been conserved by local communities in a sustainable manner. They are often the last refuge of endemic species in the geographical region. The groves are associated with ponds, streams or springs, which help meet the water requirements of the local people. The vegetative cover also helps in recharging the aquifers and in maintaining the soil stability. With rapid urbanization, cultural diffusion of tribal and rural communities has been taking place over the last hundred years.
The values and taboos associated with traditional belief systems are rapidly changing throughout India. As a result, sacred groves have slowly started losing their status and are regarded as sources of revenue and encroached upon. Sacred groves are felled to raise commercial plantation, due to which several groves have disappeared. As a result, these repositories of ancient wisdom and diversity are being reduced to small pockets of trees and plants. As part of the UN Decade of Biodiversity, CPREEC is organizing a Conference on Conservation of Sacred Groves to Protect Local Biodiversity at Chennai on February 12, 13, and 14, 2011.
The major objectives of the conference are
❖ To promote scientific documentation and conservation efforts in the light of the cultural ethos
❖ To popularize sacred groves as ecological heritage sites
❖ To prepare a road map for sacred grove conservation in the broad canvas of biodiversity conservation
❖ To bring about synergy between culture, heritage, science and conservation
❖ To function as a pivotal point for future researchers in sacred groves and ecological heritage
❖ To create a knowledge bank and to disseminate relevant information
❖ To bring about policy initiatives and revitalize existing legislation to protect natural heritage sites
❖ To explore ways and means to identify sacred groves as “National Ecological Heritage Sites”
Over the millennia, sacred groves have been important to people around the world and a rich history is associated with the sites.
For now, let’s shift from India to Italy to examine this tradition. The Lex Spoletina (Spoleto Law) tablets dating from 315 BC were set as markers to protect the Bosco Sacro (Sacred Forest) dedicated to Jupiter, located near the town of Monteluco. The tablets warned:
Let no one damage this grove. No one must cart or carry away anything that belongs to the grove, or cut wood in it, except on the day when holy worship takes place every year. On that day, person may without offence cut wood as required for the procedure of worship. If any one does damage, he shall make sin-offering to Jupiter with an ox; if any one does damage knowingly and with wrongful intent, he shall make sin-offering to Jupiter with an ox, and moreover let there be a fine of 300 as-pieces. The duty of exacting the said sin-offering and fine shall be with the dedicator.
Centuries later, St. Francis of Assisi frequented the same sacred grove. The Lex Spoletina tablets are now on display at the National Archaeological Museum of Spoleto.
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