Journal of Environmental Protection, 2011, 2, 967-973
doi:10.4236/jep.2011.27111 Published Online September 2011 (
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. JEP
Traditional Ecological Knowledge, Sacred Groves
and Conservation of Biodiversity in the
Pachmarhi Biosphere Reserve of India
Chandra Prakash Kala
Ecosystem & Environment Management, Indian Institute of Forest Management, Bhopal, India.
Received March 21th, 2011; revised July 19th, 2011; accepted August 23th, 2011.
The sacred groves in the Pachmarhi Biosphere Reserve (PBR) of India were studied to understand th e concep t of tradi-
tional ecological and biodiversity conservation systems. A questionnaire survey was conducted in the selected villages
of the PBR along with the survey of sacred groves. In 10 selected villages of the PBR 7 sacred groves were managed by
Mawasi and 16 sacred groves b y Gond tribal communities. Differen t deities were worshipped in the sacred groves and
each grove was named after the deity dwellin g in the respective sacred grove. A total of 19 such deities were recorded
during the survey worshipped by the local people. In study area, various traditional customs associated with sacred
groves were in practice. The sacred groves were rich in plant genetic diversity and were composed of many ethno-
botanically useful species, including wild edible fruits, medicinal plants, fodder, fuelwood and timber yielding species.
Given the importance of co nservation of biodiversity and ecos ystem attempts shou ld be made to maintain the sanctity o f
sacred groves.
Keywords: Sacred Grove, Biosphere Reserve , Biodiversity Conservation, Traditional Ecological Knowledge, Gond &
Mawasi Tribe
1. Introduction
The indigenous communities still practice some cultural
linkages between social and biophysical ecosystems. They
have not only co-ev olved wi th the sur roundi ng envi ronm ental
conditions but also they h ave mai ntai ned i t in a di vers e and
productive state on the basis of traditional practices and
beliefs [1,2]. The necessity of natural resources for hu man
survival had made them to evolve a system having some
customary laws and practices, which in long run might
help to conserve the surrounding natural resources. Religion,
being a powerful instrument for convincing people, has
always been used for meeting the desired objectives of the
society. The various relig ious philosophies have contributed
significantly in the conserva tion of forests, biodiversity and
landscapes by promulgating customary norms, practices and
beliefs. However, wi th the advent of commercial interests in
the forests and biodiversity, in most parts of the world, the
indigenous philosophy and practices including religious
approach adopted by the local comm unities for conservation
of biodiversity have generally overlooked [3]. Weakening of
traditionally inherited conservation practices and dominance
of commercial interests over the period of time have invited
several irregularities and concerns in the conservation and
managem ent of natu ral res ourc es.
Fortunately, some prominent live examples of traditional
forms of biodiversity conservation still exit and in practice,
which include the philosophy of sacred groves, sacred
species and sacred landscape. The evidences suggest that
sacred grove concept of biodiversity conservation had
adopted by various indigenous communities worldwide,
such as, aboriginals of Australia, Caucasus Mountains
community, ancient Slavic people, German tribes [4],
Greek and Romans, Kikuyu of Africa [5], and Mbeere
tribe of East Africa [6]. Before the spread of Christianity
and Islam the sacred groves covered much of the Middle
East and Europe. The sacred grove concept is still relevant
and exists today, especially in many parts of Asia, Africa
and Mexico [7]. In India, over 13,720 sacred groves have
been enlisted [8] that ex ist across diverse topography and
climatic conditions from down south to north however,
the actual number is thought to be much larger than that
The sacred groves, in India, are known by different
Traditional Ecological Knowledge, Sacred Groves and Conservation of Biodiversity in the Pachmarhi
968 Biosphere Reserve of India
names at different places, such as ‘Devray’ in Maharastra,
Devarkand’ and ‘Siddarvanam’ in Karnataka, ‘Oraans’,
Kenkari, Malvan’ and ‘Yogmaya’ in Rajasthan and
Saranya’ in Bihar [9,10]. In tribal region of Jharkhand
and Orissa sacred groves are popularly known as Jaher
[11]. Though there are studies on sacred groves in India
[e.g. 1,7,12-16], the Pachmarhi Biosphere Reserve of
Central India in Madhya Pradesh state has not yet been
explored on this aspect. Besides, the present study at-
tempts to an aly ze the trib a l people views on sacred groves,
their traditional significance and gender issues associated
with sacred groves in the Pachmarhi Biosphere Reserve.
2. Methodology
2.1. Study Area
The Pachmarhi Biosphere Reserve (PBR), one of the 15
biosphere reserves of India, lies between 20°10' to 22°50'
N latitude and 77°45' to 78°56' E longitude. PBR was
established on March 3, 1999 in the Satpura Range of
Madhya Pradesh. It spans over 3 districts of Madhya
Pradesh – Hoshangabad, Betul, and Chhindwara. The
total geographical area of PBR is 4926.28 sq km, of
which 524.37 sq km is under the core zone and remaining
4462.93 sq km comprises the buffer zone [17]. PBR con-
sists of three wildlife conservation units, the Satpura Na-
tional Park (524.37 sq km), the Bori Wildlife Sanctuary
(518.00 sq km), and the Pachmarhi Sanctuary (461.37 sq
km). Satpuda National Park is designated as the core zone
of PBR and the remaining area including the Bori and
Pachmarhi sanctuaries constitutes the buffer zone (Figure
1). In general, the temperature of PBR ranges from 11˚C
to 42˚C [18].
PBR endows with rich plant and animal diversity. The
forest vegetation of PBR is classified as subtropical hill
forest and tropical moist deciduous forest [18]. The for-
ests in PBR provide shelter for many wildlife species
Figure 1. Location map of the Pachmarhi Biosphere Reserve in India.
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. JEP
Traditional Ecological Knowledge, Sacred Groves and Conservation of Biodiversity in the Pachmarhi 969
Biosphere Reserve of India
including tiger, leopard, wild boar, barking deer, guars,
cheetal, and Rhesus macaque. PBR is equally known for
its cultural diversity, as it is inhabited by number of tribal
and non-tribal communities. The major tribal group was
Gond in the study area. Because of the numerical strength,
the Gond tribe dom inates the central p arts of Indi a and the
Central Province was known as Gondwana state, as the
Gond ruled this part of India in the past [19]. The social
or ga ni z at io n o f t h e G on d r ev ea ls th a t t h ey ar e d i vid e d i nt o
clans, such as, Arpanche, Bariba, Dhurwe, Erpachi, Imne,
Kakoria, Karskoley, Naure, Padram, Sarbeyan, Sarada,
Sivarsaran, Vallabey, Barkare, Barkey, Batti, Eke, Kumre,
Porta, Tekam and Wike.
2.2 Survey Methods
For the study of sacred groves, the villages in buffer zone
areas of PBR, close to the boundary of Satpuda Tiger
Reserve, were surveyed. A total of 10 villages in buffer
zone of PBR namely Sawarwani, Shahwan, Fatepur,
Singhpur, Anhoni, Bandi, Deokoh Bodalkachhar, Khara
and Taperwani were selected for intensive study of sa-
cred groves and associated traditional biodiversity con-
servation knowledge. The selected villages were domi-
nated by tribal communities, mostly Gond and Mawasi
with their offshoots (Table 1). The door to door ques-
tionnaire survey was conducted in the selected villages of
PBR. In most of the villages, generally the male mem-
bers were available for interviews, however, female were
also cooperated during the interview.
Through questionnaire survey the information was
collected on the name of sacred grove, its locality, size of
grove, occurrence of plants in the sacred grove site, dei-
ties worshipped, history or folklores and gender issues
associated with such groves. Besides, the local people
were encouraged to give their views and perceptions on
the sacred grove with respect to the cultural, ecological,
economical and conservation perspectives. During the
field work, the sacred grove sites were also visited with
the local knowledgeable people for preparing the list of
species and associated knowledge with such sacred
groves. Participant observations were also employed and
information was collected by participating in various
cultural activities of the local tribal peop le.
3. Results
3.1. Sacred Grove—Traditions and Values
The study reveals the occurrence of 7 and 16 sacred
groves in the study villages of the PBR managed by the
Maw asi and Gond tribe, respectively (Table 2). The name
of grove was given on the name of deity worshipped in the
groves. A total of 19 such deities were recorded during the
survey worshipped by the local people. The deities wor-
shipped in the sacred groves may also differ across the
different tribal groups and their sacred groves. There were
some common deities of both Gond and Mawasi tribes,
such as, Khedapati, Hardula and Budha Deo. Most of the
groves were located outside the villages however some
were very close to the village boundary. The average age
of grove was between 150 to 200 years, as reported by the
local people. The maximum size of sacred grove in the
study villages was about 0.60 hectare.
The Gond and Mawasi were so keen in the sacred
grove concept that still today they used to establish and
earmark some areas close to newly established human
settlement in case of their rehabilitation from the core
zone to the buffer zone areas of the PBR. The Khedapati
grove of Khamda village in PBR was one such example
in which the grove was reported to establish about 35
years ago with the establishment of the village due to
construction of Tawa Reservoir and subsequent rehabili-
tation of villagers in the buffer zone of the PBR. The
villagers retained the village name – Khamda at the new
site including the culture and traditions associated with
biodiversity, ecosystem and environment. In view of this
they selected a site and some plant species as the abode
Table 1. Profile of the major study villages.
Villages Total Household Total Population Communities
Sawarwani 82 683 Gond, Yadav and Schedule Caste
Shahwan 56 263 Gond, Ray and Vishwakarma
Fatehpur 27 290 Gond
Singhpur 210 1200 Gond, Mawasi, Yadav and Ray
Anhoni 120 775 Gond and Yadav
Bandi 35 500 Gond and Karar Patel
Deokoh 30 352 Gond
Bodalkachhar 40 289 Gond
Khara 105 820 Gond
Taperwani 48 362 Gond
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. JEP
Traditional Ecological Knowledge, Sacred Groves and Conservation of Biodiversity in the Pachmarhi
970 Biosphere Reserve of India
Table 2. Status of sacred groves in the studied villages of the PBR.
Communities Name of the Groves Deities Wor-
shipped Plants Symbolized as Abode of DeitiesAge of the
Grove (Ap-
Grove size
Khedapati Khedapati Madhuca indica, Zizyphus jujuba, Sho-
rea robusta Dendrocalamus strictus,
Ficus religiosa
200 0.60 hectare
Sidhmaraj Hardula baba Tamarindus indica, Shorea robusta,
Ficus benghalensis, Madhuca indica 150 Few trees
Doval Deo Budhadeo Shorea robusta, Madhuca indica, Hard-
wickia binata Dendrocalamus strictus,
Ficus religeosa, Solanum nigrum,
Tamarindus indica
150 0.40 hectare
Dongardeo Dongarbuda Shorea robusta, Madhuca indica, Ter-
minalia bellirica 200 0.20 hectare
Maile Devi Meile Madhuca indica 150 - 200
Hardula/ Kunwar Deo Hardula Madhuca indica 200 Few trees
Bari Mata Bariyam Devi Madhuca indica, Shorea robusta 150 - 200 Few trees
Khedapati Khedapati Shorea robusta, Madhuca indica, Ficus
religiosa, Dendrocalamus strictus, Ter-
minalia bellirica, Ficus benghalensis,
Mucuna pruriens Phyllanthus sylves-
tris, Phyllanthus officinalis, Buchanania
200 - 250 0.20 hectare
Bagh Deo Bagh Deo Madhuca indica Not known Few trees
Budha Deo Budha Deo Shorea robusta, Dendrocalamus strictus,
Ficus religiosa, Butea monosperma,
Madhuca indica, Ficus benghalensis ,
Aegle marmelos
Not known 0.10 hectare
Sayenebuda Sayenebuda Ficus benghalensis, Madhuca indica,
Butea monosperma, Buchanania lanzan 150 Few trees
Bari mata Bari mata Madhuca indica, Shorea robusta 150 Few trees
Sidhbaba Sidhbaba Tamarindus indica Not known Few trees
Bajranj Bajranj Madhuca indica, Tamarindus indica,
Azadirachta indica, Anogeissus pendula,
Hardwickia binata
200 - 300 Few trees
Hardula Hardula Madhuca indica, Shorea robusta, Hard-
wickia binata, Butea monosperma 150 0.10 hectare
Gowal baba Gowal baba Phyllanthus officinalis 150 - 200 Few trees
Kuripan Kuripan Shorea robusta, Madhuca indica 200 Few trees
Dhobal Deo Dhobal Deo Madhuca indica 150 - 200 Few trees
Balkhan Balkhan Shorea robusta 150 - 200
Siddha Baba (water
god) Siddha Baba
(water god) Ficus benghalensis , Shorea robusta,
Terminalia bellirica, Hardwickia binata,
Butea monosperma, Calotropis gigantea,
Madhuca indica
Not known 0.20 hectare
Nagdeo Nagdeo Phyllantus officinalis, Madhuca indica Not known 0.20 hectare
Gowalbaba Gowalbaba Madhuca indica, Terminalia chebula,
Semecarpus anacardium Not known 0.10 hectare
Matabai Matabai Azadirachta indica, Ficus religiosa,
Semecarpus anacardium Not known 0.10 hectare
of some local deities to continue their tradition. The vil-
lagers who were mainly Gond used to pay high respect to
Mahuwa (Madhuca indica), as an important tree species
not only for its multipurpose fruit giving nature but they
used to worship the Goddess Khedapati in Madhuca in-
dica in their former village.
The sacred groves were rich in plant genetic diversity.
These groves were composed of many ethnobotanically
useful species, including wild edible fruits, medicinal
plants, fodder, fuelwood and timber yielding species. Of
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. JEP
Traditional Ecological Knowledge, Sacred Groves and Conservation of Biodiversity in the Pachmarhi 971
Biosphere Reserve of India
the total plant species documented from the sacred
groves, the fruits of many species were used as food and
also for performing various religious functions. The most
important fruit yielding plants was Madhuca indica, fol-
lowed by Buchanania lanzan, Ficus benghalensis and
Ficus religiosa. The local people used to collect these
fruits mainly for their own consumption, and sometime
depending upon the quantity of collection they used to sell
the produces in the local market. The Gond and Mawasi
used to prepare local liquor from the flowers of Madhuca
indica. People also used to collect plants for curing dis-
eases from the sacred grove site. In some cases before col-
lection of such medicinal plant species, they offered a co-
conut fruit and local liquor m ade of Madhuca indica.
The villagers also disclosed the fact th at the soil in the
sacred grove site remained more fertile than the adjacent
sites of the village. This was possible due to high bio-
mass and accumulation of high organic contents in such
sites and further decomposition and nutrients release in
such ecosystems. The farmers, who had agriculture land
in the proximity of such sacred grove, had reported rela-
tively higher productio n of grains in such lands. Besides,
such farmers had noticed the higher moisture contents in
their land. The local people also reported that sacred
grove used to provide the shelter and food for many
wildlife species including varieties of birds and butter-
Traditionally, some gender issues were associated with
the sacred groves, especially with respect to the collec-
tion and use of resources. There were some specific pe-
riods in which the people were not allowed to enter the
sacred groves. Before entering the sacred grove women
were advised to take bath. During monthly menstruation
women were strictly prohibited going inside the sacred
groves, as there was a strong belief that it might defiled
her or the deities living in the sacred grove. Similarly, the
members from the deceased family were not allowed to
enter the sacred grove sites until the completion of puri-
fying rituals. The villagers generally performed the puri-
fying ritual at 10th days of the death of the person. People
strictly followed these customary norms in view of their
own welfare as well as their deities and society.
3.2. Traditional Management of Groves
The villagers themselves maintained the sacred groves
with a great passion and sanctity. The traditional institu-
tional mechanisms have been helping the local people in
maintaining the sacred groves. The ‘padihar’ (saman) has
given the responsibility to take care and worship the vil-
lage deity in sacred groves (Figure 2). The local people
were allowed to enter and worship the village deities in
sacred grove. Mostly the head of the village or Padihar
Figure 2. Worshipping deity in the sacred grove by Padiyar.
collected the fruits from the sacred grove, particularly
Madhuca indica and Tamarindus indica. There were
some customs and cultural practices associated with col-
lection and generally there was no restriction on the col-
lection of fruits, however the local people were afraid of
collection from the sacred groves. There was a general
belief that since sacred groves were pure, the gatherers
might be pun ished by spirits and deities for unauthorized
collection of natural resources, though all deities were
not considered unsafe. People always feared to go inside
the sacred grove of Khedapati, as Khedapati was ac-
knowledged the supreme deity of the tribal communities
living in PBR. A belief was also associated with the old
tree species that old trees in sacred grove generally the
haunt of evil spirits, and as old as the tree, greater the
chances of evil spirits to inh abit. The local people feared
to go to such places, even in the noon and evening. Chil-
dren and pregnant women were not allowed to visit such
During present investigations, in 3 sacred groves,
Bauhinia vahlii, an important ethnobotanical species was
found. Leaf of Bauhinia vahlii was used for making cups
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. JEP
Traditional Ecological Knowledge, Sacred Groves and Conservation of Biodiversity in the Pachmarhi
972 Biosphere Reserve of India
and plates and the stem was used for making rope, none-
theless the individuals of this species growing in the sa-
cred grove were not exploited for such purposes by the
villagers. Besides, there was no provision of cutting the
plant species from the sacred grove. In case of not fol-
lowing such customary norms, the lawbreaker was im-
posed monetary penalty by the village council.
4. Discussion
Gond being a dominant tribal community in the central
India has enjoyed several benefits from the nature and
thus has determined the uses of natural resources from
historical past. Simultaneously, they have evolved strate-
gies for the conservation of such useful and valuable
biodiversity in view of their sustained av ailability. Gond s
believe in many gods and goddess and some of the Gond
deities are similar to the Hindus. Budha Deo is one of the
most venerated deities of Gonds. They also worship oth er
deities such as Bari Mata, Khedapati, Sidhbaba, Gowal
baba, Bajrang, Bagh Deo, Nagdeo and Sayenebuda. The
philosophy of worshipping deities in sacred groves, as
practices by Gonds, is similar to many other tribal com-
munities living in various parts of India [12,20]. Ay-
yappa, Aiyanar and Sasta in Southern India are the dei-
ties of woods, who used to guard the villagers and drive
away their enemies [6,21]. The religious persons in Gond
are Padiar (shaman) and Bhomka (priest), who enjoy a
high respect in the community. Gond and Mawasi have
their own calendar, which they use for different purposes
including collection of forest resources, cultivation of
crops and performing various relig ious activities.
The fear of Gods and Goddess in the community might
have been used as an instrument by the Padiar and
Bhomka for smooth functioning of society and main-
taining social cohesiveness. The concept of sacred groves
that revolves around the religious beliefs has brought
some special significance in the life of Gonds and their
associated tribal groups such as Mawasi in the study area.
The customary rules established by these tribal groups,
especially with respect to the sacred groves, have paved
the way for conservation of biodiversity from the his-
torical past.
The established customary rules may vary from place
to place and grove to grove but the goal is same, which
follows the similar philosophy. These traditional rules
often prohibit the felling of trees and the killing of ani-
mals, except when trees are required for the construction
and repair of religious buildings or in special cases do
allow collection of firewood, fodder, and medicinal
plants by local people [22,23]. As a result of these re-
strictions, the biodiversity in such sacred groves are pre-
served over many generations, and still exist today. The
sacred groves are the last home of some endangered spe-
cies, as observed in Kodagu district of southern Indian
state of Karnataka [24], and also are known to represent
the only exiting climax vegetation communities in
northeastern India [23]. Numbers of studies have sup-
ported the role of sacred grove in conservation of biodi-
versity across the different parts of India including West
Bengal [25], Northeast India [26] and Eastern Ghats [12].
In PBR, besides conservation of biodiversity, the role
of sacred groves is also important as a life support sys-
tem. The sacred groves help tribal communities by pro-
viding edible fruits, leaves, fibers and medicinal plants.
The people viewed that the required species if not found
elsewhere around their village surroundings, there are
high probability of occurrence of such species in the sa-
cred grove sites by the grace of their local deity. At pre-
sent, wh en in most p ar ts of th e wor ld th e fore st cov er an d
the biodiversity are dwindling; these sacred groves are
increasingly being recognized as the stronghold for pre-
cious biological species. More than 130 major ethnic
communities live in eastern Himalayan region of India
and it was not uncommon in the past to locate here one
sacred grove maintained by each village community [20].
The motive behind the foundation and evolution of
such sacred groves may vary. However, it has been shat-
tered in many parts of the world, especially in Europe,
Central Asia and Middle East, where sacred groves have
perished often without leaving a trace [6]. In contempo-
rary period there is a great concern of the people as well
as scientists working in the biodiversity conservation on
the management of such sacred groves. In few places
within India the sacred sites and sacred landscapes are
also reported threatened by various external factors [1,2].
It has led to the declining of plant species and other ma-
terials from the sites. It is perceived that the sacred
groves are not only important for religious values, which
contribute significantly in maintaining the village eco-
system and surrounding biodiversity [7], but they are also
culturally rich and living place of deities and spirits,
which has larger significance.
Given the importance of sacred groves in the conser-
vation of biodiversity and ecosystem, there is a need to
take care of such sites, and attempts should be made to
maintain the sanctity o f these sacred groves. People must
be made aware of such traditional conservation practices
and they should bear its sanctity and values in mind
while looking into commercial interests. It is importan t to
develop management approaches in order to encourage
the conservation of sacred groves. It is a need of hour to
recognize the values of traditional institutions of sacred
groves, the existing evidence for their effectiveness in
biodiversity conservation and create space for such con-
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. JEP
Traditional Ecological Knowledge, Sacred Groves and Conservation of Biodiversity in the Pachmarhi
Biosphere Reserve of India
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. JEP
cepts while framing local, regional and national conser-
vation policies and planning.
5. Acknowledgements
I thank the Director, Indian Institute of Forest Management,
for providing logistic support. Bhubaneswar Saber is ac-
knowledge d for help in g in coll ect io n o f fi eld d ata . T he
project was funded under the grant IIFM/RP-Int./CPK/2009-
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