Indian temple restores sacred forest stream flow

Compendium Volume 3 Number 2 January 2020

Sacred forests/groves are not uncommon in India, especially in the biodiverse Western Ghats mountain range. These groves are community-protected patches of forest ranging in size from less than a hectare to several hundred hectares, and they are often believed to house gods [Ormsby & Bhagwat 2010]. A particular temple in the Western Ghats just outside the small town of Meenangadi in the state of Kerala owns 30 acres of forested hillside regarded as sacred.

In a clearing at the bottom of these hills, the people of the temple erected a shrine over a small stream flowing from their forest. Eventually, they built an elegant structure around the shrine with an opening in the roof to allow rain to wash onto the shrine. Praying involves touching the sacred stream water.

A few decades ago, however, in need of revenue, the temple cut a few acres at the uphill edge of their 30-acre plot and sold the wood. Following the loss of this portion of forest came a decline in the flow of the stream connecting the remaining sacred forest with the shrine. During the seasonally dry months of March and April, the stream had begun to run dry.

Concerned, temple officials went to the mayor in search of a solution to the drying of their stream. Town officials connected the temple with Kerala’s forestry department, whose mission includes increasing “the inflow of water to the reservoirs by improving the tree cover / forest cover over catchment areas,” “managing forests in such a way that it protects and enriches the social and cultural values of the state,” “protection and expansion of mangroves, sacred groves and other highly sensitive ecosystem,” and taking “Kerala to greater heights in the matter of biodiversity conservation,” among other goals [Kerala Forests and Wildlife Department website].

Given a mission such as this, the forest department knew what to do. They agreed to help by reforesting the clear-cut uphill edge of the sacred forest. Using only indigenous species, they planted some 89 different varieties of trees and shrubs, including medicinal varieties, on 1.6 hectares. This project was completed about five years ago.

On an afternoon in late January this year, as a Paradise Flycatcher darted in and out from the edge of the sacred grove to drink and bathe a few meters upstream of the shrine, a trained ear could hear another couple of dozen different bird species calling from the surrounding forest. Temple staff members said they have indeed seen more birds now that the cleared forest has been replanted. And the stream no longer runs dry, not even in March and April.

Ormsby, Alison & Shonil A. Bhagwat, 2010, Sacred forests of India: a strong tradition of community-based natural resource management, Environmental Conservation 37 (3),  

For the full PDF version of the compendium issue where this article appears, visit Compendium Volume 3 Number 2 January 2020