In recent years, India's "sacred groves," small forests or stands of trees set aside for a deity's exclusive use, have attracted the attention of NGOs, botanists, specialists in traditional medicine and anthropologists. Environmentalists disillusioned by the failures of massive state-sponsored solutions to ecological problems have hailed them as an exemplary form of traditional community resource management. For, in spite of pressures to utilize their trees for fodder, housing and firewood, the religious taboos surrounding sacred groves have led to the conservation of pockets of abundant flora in areas otherwise denuded by deforestation.
Drawing on fieldwork conducted in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu over seven years, Eliza F. Kent offers a compelling examination of the religious and social context in which sacred groves take on meaning for the villagers who maintain them, and shows how they have become objects of fascination and hope for Indian environmentalists. Sacred Groves and Local Gods traces a journey through Tamil Nadu, exploring how the localized meanings attached to forested shrines are changing under the impact of globalization and economic liberalization. Confounding simplistic representations of sacred groves as sites of a primitive form of nature worship, Sacred Groves and Local Gods shows how local practices and beliefs regarding sacred groves are at once more imaginative, dynamic, and pragmatic than previously thought.
Kent argues that rather than being ancient in origin, as previously asserted by scholars, the religious beliefs, practices, and iconography found in sacred groves suggest origins in the politically de-centered eighteenth century, when the Tamil country was effectively ruled by local chieftains. She analyzes two projects undertaken by environmentalists that seek to harness the traditions surrounding sacred groves in the service of forest restoration and environmental education.
Note on Transliteration
Regional Map of South India
Introduction: Sacred Groves and Local Gods: Religious Environmentalism in South India
Chapter 1: Fierce Gods and Dense Forest: Sacred Groves near Madurai
Chapter 2: A Road Runs Through It: Changing Meanings in Malaiyali Sacred Groves in Tiruvannamalai District
Chapter 3: Mixing Botany and Belief: Guardian Deities and Their Forests in the Pondicherry Region
Chapter 4: Soteriology and Stake-holders: The Greening of the Auroville Plateau 1973-2007
Chapter 5: Sacrifice and Sacrality: Sacred Grove Restoration Projects Near Chennai
Eliza F. Kent is Associate Professor of Religion at Colgate University and the author of Converting Women: Gender and Protestant Christianity in Colonial South India (2004).