The changing character of sacred groves (kaavu): Tiny oases rich in floral and faunal biodiversity converted due to urbanization – Tamil Nadu & Kerala

Many small towns across India also have sacred groves. The kaavus of Kerala are managed by the government, temple trusts, local community, or even privately. In Thrissur, there are as many as 970 such kaavus in the district, of which 220 are in the heavily populated urban taluk of Thrissur. These kaavus are tiny oases rich in floral and faunal biodiversity, many less than an acre in area. They contain rare trees such as the south Indian kanak champa, which is categorized as vulnerable in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. They also host a number of birds, bats, butterflies and insects. While there are presiding deities from mainstream Hinduism in these kaavus, the serpent god is popularly worshipped. Thus many of these groves are called sarpakaavu (sarpa meaning snake). A visit here can be a soul-stirring experience. To stand amidst the towering trees draped with creepers, allowing little sunlight even at noon, lit by a lone lamp under the snake shrine, can leave anyone with a sense of awe. The character of these kaavus is, however, changing. Some are being used as garbage dumps by city dwellers, while others are converted to modern temple structures with the trees eventually surrounded by concrete or even cut down.

Source: Cities and Canopies: Trees in Indian Cities by Harini Nagendra & Seema Mundoli, Penguin Random House India, Gurgaon 2019 (p. 109)

Native and imported, sacred and ordinary, culinary and floral, favourites of various kings and commoners over the centuries, trees are the most visible signs of nature in cities, fundamentally shaping their identities. Trees are storehouses of the complex origins and histories of city growth, coming as they do from different parts of the world, brought in by various local and colonial rulers. From the tree planted by Sarojini Naidu at Dehradun’s clock tower to those planted by Sher Shah Suri and Jahangir on Grand Trunk Road, trees in India have served, above all, as memory keepers. They are our roots: their trunks our pillars, their bark our texture, and their branches our shade. Trees are nature’s own museums.

Drawing on extensive research, Cities and Canopies is a book about both the specific and the general aspects of these gentle life-giving creatures.

Cities and Canopies is not a book that will be forgotten in dusty libraries. And even though it is tucked away under the “Gardening” section on Amazon India and, as Mundoli narrates, bookshops are unsure whether to categorise it as fiction or non-fiction, this is clearly a mainstream book for all readers. It’s a book that will make you smile, it’s what you will gift to other city dwellers, it has riddles you’ll tell with your children and it’s what will trigger conversations with your family about shared memories around a certain tree.

Source: “The stories of our roots”: Book Review and interview with the authors by Aditi Tandon on 19 June 2019
Date visited: 6 March 2020

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One of the finest examples of traditional practices in India based on religious faith which has made a profound contribution to nature conservation has been the maintenance of certain patches of land or forests as ‘sacred groves’. – Dr S.M. Nair | Learn more >>

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