Sacred Groves and Landscapes    
sunday 7th march at Lecture Hall, IGNCA, Mansingh Road 10.00 am - 12.30 pm  


In India groves are dedicated to the worship of ancestral spirits and also often attached to deities of the Hindu pantheon. They not only provide spiritual sustenance but have been instrumental in preserving valuable medicinal plants and trees, ponds, lakes, animals and entire ecosystems. One typical example is the Demajong area of Sikkim where a natural sacred landscape with its sacred mountains, rivers and lakes complements the Buddhist shrines with their myths and legends and their rituals and festivals.

This panel will discuss areas in the South West of the US where three cultures, Native American, Hispanic and Anglo have created their own sacred landscapes, the shamans of the Amazon forest and the political struggle for the sacred landscapes of West Papua, the Sahaydri - Konkan region in the Western Ghats of India where every village has at least one sacred grove and the role that UNESCO is playing in preserving the cultural and biological heritage of many forests, rivers, lakes, communities and mountains.   



"The Concept of Sacred Species, Groves and Landscapes: Ecological, Economic and Cultural Contexts" by
Professor P.S. Ramakrishnan (Delhi)

The concept of the ‘sacred’ in its socio-ecological sense has its origin in Vedic times, with the concept of ‘Aranya’, the ‘sacred forest’, revered by traditional societies living in the Indian region. Over time starting as pastoralists and then using settled farming practices they have evolved and managed a whole variety of resource use and management systems. With the increase in human populations and the increasing need for farming land the concept of ‘sacred forests’, referred to as ‘sacred groves’, can be seen as the starting point for the intangible values attached with ‘Nature’ and the linked natural resources around.

The concept of ‘natural cultural landscape’, with well-settled human habitations incorporated within, obviously, is the next step in the evolution of the ‘sacred’ in the eco-cultural context. With the evolving eco-technologies linked to land use management, socially valued species and traditional ecological knowledge, the Indian rural landscape is still home to these traditional societies living in a forested landscape.

In the contemporary context where large-scale deforestation and land degradation has lead to depleted natural resources, the still well-conserved forested ecosystems, the ‘sacred groves’ could be seen not only as learning grounds for sustainable ecosystem management, but also as the biodiversity resource base for implementing landscape restoration efforts. The ultimate objective in all these efforts being not only to conserve and effectively manage rapidly degrading ‘rural cultural landscapes’, but also directing our efforts towards reconstructing ‘urban cultural landscapes’.

A rapidly evolving effort is being made both in the developing and the developed world context where humans are trying to relate with ‘Nature’. They seek both tangible and intangible benefits. Indeed, such an approach is not only relevant for addressing the contemporary sustainability concerns linked with ‘human wellbeing’, but also for conserving the mutually supportive cultural and biological diversity that has implications for ensuring ‘global human security’.

Professor P.S. Ramakrishnan is Emeritus Scientist at The School of Environmental Sciences, JNU and Emeritus Senior Scientist at the Indian National Science Academy. He is an internationally renowned socio-ecologist with an integrative approach to conservation management of natural resources and the linked sustainable livelihood and development of human societies. His interests touch upon ecology, economics and ethics. He has published more than 450 research papers, 20 research synthesis volumes, (many of which have been converted to policy documents) and audio-visual documentaries. He is the author of ‘The Cultural Cradle of Biodiversity’, ‘Shifting Agriculture and Sustainable Development: An Interdisciplinary study from North-Eastern India’, and contributions to many UNESCO publications including ‘Traditional Ecological Knowledge for Managing Biosphere Reserves in South and Central Asia’, ‘One Sun, Two Worlds: An Ecological Journey’ and ‘Conserving the Sacred: The protective impulse and origins of modern protected areas’



"Conserving the Sacred Heritage of Humanity” by Dr. Ram Boojh (Delhi)

The sacred heritage of the humanity is manifested in variety of forms in every culture and tradition. Societies, from ancient times have been following various rituals and practices to honour the sacred, the divine, the mysterious, the supernatural, or the extraordinary. These practices are still followed by many societies particularly indigenous and traditional communities at special places known as sacred sites where the physical world is believed to be meeting the spiritual world. These sites are awe-inspiring natural places, sites connected to a deity, a saint or a hero, places where miracles happen, or special structures consecrated for worship or ritual. UNESCO over the years is involved in the protection and preservation of the sacred natural sites (groves, mountains, rivers and lakes, caves, even entire landscapes) through its designations e.g. world heritage sites, biosphere reserves (under the Man and the Biosphere Programme) and Geo-parks (designated under UNESCO’s IGCP Programme). The Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage.

The sacred heritage is not limited to tangible and intangible forms but also encompasses creativity and pluralism in all dimensions of our societies as has been strongly affirmed in the 2001 UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural. UNESCO has built a legal instrument through which indigenous peoples are recognized as custodians of cultural diversity and biodiversity.

This paper considers the role of UNESCO as an important instrument for conservation, sustainable development, education and research through international recognition of our sacred heritage. These UNESCO projects are  designed for inculcating values, fostering peace and harmony, promoting human well being and health and protecting traditional knowledge systems. 

Dr Ram Boojh is currently working with UNESCO New Delhi office as Programme Specialist looking after UNESCO’s interdisciplinary programme in Ecological and Earth Sciences and Natural Heritage. His major responsibilities include the coordination of the MAB (Man and the Biosphere) programme, SACAM (South and Central Asian MAB) Network, focal point for the UN Decade for Education for Sustainable Development (DESD), Coordinator World Heritage Biodiversity Programme and natural heritage programme. He also coordinates the UNESCO-Macarthur project on Cultural landscapes as the basis for biodiversity conservation in northeast India.

His distinguished academic career includes a Masters in Botany and a Doctorate in Ecology. His earlier experience consisted of working on the ecology of Sacred forest Groves in Northeast India.



'If Trees Could Speak' by Jay Griffiths (UK)

One ancient part of the sacred practice of the shamans in the Amazon forests is the use of the hallucinogenic medicine ayahuasca, which they refer to as a “plant teacher.”  For them, nature is “minded” – and I will explore the idea of “forests of knowing” and other practices based on the time I spent with them.  My talk will also include my experiences in the forested highlands of West Papua, where nature is considered not only an aspect of sacred geography, but also is considered a “freedom fighter” in political terms.  Too often, the sacredness of trees or forests is considered something which is only manifest to indigenous cultures.

I will talk about the anti-roads protests in Britain in the mid-nineties, when protesters lived in the woods, often in tree houses, to prevent roads being built through woodlands.  A crucial aspect of their protest was the sacredness of trees and groves, and they gloriously and deliberately (and often also wittily) embodied the pagan earth religion of these lands. 

Photo Adrian Arbib                          Jay Griffiths is a British writer, whose work includes a book on the politics of time, and a book on wilderness.  She has written for many publications including the Guardian and the London Review of Books.  With her first book, she won the 'Discover' award for the best first-time non-fiction writer in the USA.  With her second book, she won the inaugural Orion book award.  She spent seven years travelling, reading and writing her most recent book, 'Wild: An Elemental Journey' which explores the relationship between indigenous peoples and their lands, and which celebrates the wildness within language and the human spirit.'


Expressions of the Sacred in an Ancient Landscape: Modern Religious Architecture and the American Southwest  by Karla Britton (USA)

                                             The architectural historian Vincent Scully wrote, “The first fact of architecture is the topography of a place and the ways in which human beings respond to it with their own constructed forms.” Nowhere does this link between landscape and architecture seem more forcefully expressed than in the mountainous deserts of the American Southwest. From the time of the arrival of the first inhabitants such as the Anasazi people, and reinforced by the arrival of European explorers and settlers almost five centuries ago, these landscapes have been experienced as enchanted, mythical, and sacred. Drawn to the topographies formed by high desert plains, dramatic canyon lands, striking silhouetted buttes, and the seemingly endless sky stretching across the boundless horizon, diverse cultures have came to regard themselves as an integral part of this particular landscape and to echo its shapes and evoke its spiritual depths in the buildings they have constructed. This paper focuses on the ways in which the drama of the landscape of the American Southwest continues to be interpreted by a great variety of peoples as “sacred ground.”

This topic engages the three dominant cultures: the Pueblo people, whose culture for some represented an exemplary form of life; the Hispanic population descended from the first European settlers; and the more recently arrived Anglos. Four representative works will be explored both for their distinctiveness, but also their common patterns of relationship to the geography: the ruins of the Pecos mission; the modern spaces of the Dar al-Islam Foundation in Abiquiu by Hassan Fathy; the monastery of Christ in the Desert by George Nakashima; and Walter de Maria’s Lightning Field. Questions to be explored include: How does modern sacred architecture of the American Southwest extend on the tradition of landscape as a dominant theme? How might these works expand our understanding of an architectural regionalist identity and character? What parameters evolve out of this discussion for articulating modernist interpretations of the sacred?  

Karla Britton teaches the history of architecture and urbanism at the School of Architecture at Yale University. In February 2009, she was an invited participant to the first International Festival of Sacred Arts in Delhi where she presented on the theme of Contemporary Sacred Architecture at the Sacred Spaces panel sponsored by UNESCO. Before coming to Yale, she taught at Columbia University and was Director in Paris of its Architecture Program, “The Shape of Two Cities: New York/Paris.”  She received her PhD in Architecture History and Theory from Harvard University, her MA in Comparative Literature from Columbia University, and her BA from the University of Colorado. Her area of teaching and research is in alternative modernisms, including the monograph Auguste Perret (2001), published by Phaidon in both English and French editions. She teaches on the topics of Modern Architecture and Religion, and is organizing an international conference at Yale on Sacred Architecture of the Middle East. With Dean Sakamoto, she edited Hawaiian Modern: the Architecture of Vladimir Ossipoff (2007) and she is editor of the forthcoming Constructing the Ineffable: Contemporary Sacred Architecture. She is also the author of Modern Urbanism to be published by Yale University Press. At Yale, she has taught both graduate and undergraduate students, including the Masters of Environmental Design program, and has taught with faculty of the Yale Divinity School and Institute of Sacred Music. She is also Resident Director of the Berkeley Center at Yale.


Sacred Groves: Culture and Conservation, a new Approach by Dr. Archana Godbole (India) 

Sacred Groves are relic forest patches traditionally protected by communities in reverence of a deity. In the absence of statutory protected areas and in the wake of mass deforestation in some parts of India, Sacred Groves form important repositories of forest biodiversity and provide refuge to many plant and animal species. India has over 13,000 documented sacred groves.  

Sacred Groves are not only important sites for regional biodiversity but also provide vital ecosystem services to local people. Often streams and rivers originate from sacred groves or wells and tanks are seen within or near the groves which form important water sources for the rural population. They are also culturally important for various religious and cultural events connected with local deities.

These community forests are under tremendous pressure and threat from encroachments for agriculture, grazing and developmental activities.

Almost every village in the Sahaydri-Konkan region in the North Western Ghats has at least one sacred grove ranging from just a few to hundreds of acres with different names -Devrai, Kadu, Devarkadu, Sarna and others to describe them. Together these groves created a network of patches within the landscape often connected by seed dispersing birds.  

This paper will discuss how enhancing and reviving cultural and conservation opportunities at community and landscape level can lead to a regeneration of these fragmented patches.

Dr. Archana Godbole is a conservation practitioner, working as a conservationist for the last 15 years. She is the Founder director of Applied Environmental Research Foundation (AERF) and the conservation of sacred groves is both passion and commitment. She firmly believes in the indigenous knowledge of local communities and its role in conservation of biodiversity. A plant taxonomist by training with a Ph.D. in Ethnobotany , she   has conceptualized, coordinated and managed many projects at AERF. She is a fellow of LEAD (Leadership for Environment & Development).

Dr. Godbole is a member of the steering Committee of the specialist group on Sacred Natural Sites, a Task Force of CSVPA (Cultural and Spiritual Values of Protected Areas) part of the IUCN‘s (International Union for Conservation of Nature )  World Commission on Protected Areas. She has received the prestigious Whitely Associate Award for her work of Conservation of sacred forests in the north western ghats of India in 2007.






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