‘Areas of land having special religious significance
to local inhabitants and communities’ (Oviedo and Jeanrenaud, 2007, Upreti et al., 2017). ‘Sacred’ has different
meanings to different communities, at the basic level it denotes respect and
‘set aside’ for purposes of the religious belief. These are religiously managed
community forests and they often represent the relic climax vegetation of the
region. Named differently in different parts of India viz., Law lyngdhoh in Meghalaya
(Upadhyay et al., , 2003), Kovil kadu
in Kanyakumari (Ramanujam and Praveen 2003), Dev bhumi in Uttarakhand (Bisht
and Ghildiyal, 2007, Singh 2011), Kavu in Kerala, Sarna and Deorai in Madhya
Pradesh (Sinha, 1995), Oran in Rajasthan, Jaherthan and Garamthan in West
Bengal, Deovan in Himachal, Ummanglai in Manipur, etc., these groves are mainly
found in areas dominated by tribal’s and managed by local people for various
reasons. The existence of such undisturbed pockets is mostly due to certain
taboos, strong beliefs, supplemented by mystic folklores (Gadgil and Vartak,
1975 Singh 2011). Sacred forests are part of a broader set of cultural values
that different social groups, beliefs or value systems, traditions attach to
places and which ‘fulfil humankind’s need to understand, and connect in
meaningful ways, to the environment of its origin and to nature’ (Putney,
2005). The term ‘sacred natural sites’ implies that these forests are in some
way holy, consecrated, and so connected with belief systems. Sacred natural
sites are just one of many domains where religions or belief systems interact
with nature. The first scholar to document sacred groves of the State was D.
Brandis, the first Inspector General of Forests, who wrote about occurrence of
sacred groves in 1897 (Rao, 1996).  There
are important elements to take into account regarding indigenous or traditional
spirituality. In 2007 the recognition of the political status of indigenous
peoples provided by UNDRIP (the United Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous
Peoples) has significantly increased awareness of the deeper dimensions of
oppression and of resilience (UNDRIP, 2007). The first report on the sacred
sites is the Census report of Travancore of 1891 in which Ward and Conner
(1927) reported about 15,000 sacred groves in Travancore. Historical records,
legends and the folk songs, particularly certain devotional songs like
“Thottampattu” sung in praise of Lord Ayyappan throw light on sacred groves of
ancient Kerala. Thottampattu” believed to have been composed during 500-600 AD,
names 108 major “Ayyappan Kavus” and mention about numerous “Ayyappan Kavus”
distributed all over Kerala. Most people believe that we have an obligation to
avoid the extinction of species and races and the destruction of ecosystems
caused by our own actions (WWF, 2005). A symbiotic relationship exists between
cultural and biological diversity. This relationship is an important factor for
ensuring sustainable human development. Nature provides light, food, water, and
air through living process of creative renewal. This awareness of life in
nature as a precondition for human survival led to the worship of air, light,
food, and water. Different situations and histories gave rise to a large
diversity of spiritualities among indigenous peoples, which is largely made up
of a body of beliefs, values, and practices intimately connected to nature. At
a landscape level, anthropologists have long recognized the sacred status that
cultures have given to nature not only in specific sacred sites (e.g. Frazer,
1890) but also in larger areas of cultural significance and entire landscapes.
Many sacred natural sites have been well protected over long duration and have
seen low levels of disturbance. Sacred sites also represent ancient and profound
cultural values. After the 2003 Congress, IUCN’s Specialist Group on the
Cultural and Spiritual Values of Protected Areas (CSVPA) that had formed in
1998 continued the work on guidelines for the management of sacred sites (Wild
and McLeod, 2008). CSVPA has since advanced a significant amount of work on
sacred sites and species including this volume, Mallarach and Papayannis, 2007.
The urge for the protection of sacred natural sites have also been recognized
by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the UN Permanent Forum on
Indigenous Issues. The CBD in 2004 developed the Akwe Kon voluntary guidelines
for the conduct of environmental, cultural, and social impact assessments
regarding proposed developments that may affect sacred forests and on lands and
waters traditionally used by indigenous and local inhabitants (Secretariat of
the Convention on Biological Diversity, 2004). At the political level, as
described before, the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights
of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) is an important benchmark. Article 12(twelve) in
particular provides significant political advantage for developing policies for
the protection and recognition of sacred natural sites at the national level.
It states:

Indigenous peoples have the right
to practice, manifest, develop and teach their religious and spiritual
traditions, ceremonies and customs; the right to maintain, protect, and have
access in privacy to their religious and cultural sites; the right to the use
and control of their ceremonial objects; and the right to the repatriation of
their human remains. (UNDRIP, 2008)

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Traditional
African religions often viewed land and its resources as communal property that
belonged not only to the living but also to their ancestors and to future
generations (Omari, 1990). In other cases, the relationship between people and
the land was a matter of spiritual concern, and such religions have been called
“profoundly ecological” (Schoffeleers, 1978). Studies of sacred forests and
other sacred sites throughout Africa shows that spiritual beliefs and religious
can sometimes be the motivation for conservation of natural resources
(Schoffeleers, 1978; Omari, 1990; DormAdzobuetal., 1991; Ntiamoa-Baidu, 1995).
In north eastern India about133 species of native plants are presently found
only in sacred groves, presumably having been extirpated from unprotected areas
(Khan et al., 1997). Traditional
conservation practices in the form of nature worship have played an important
role in protection and conservation of Indian biodiversity (Bhagwat and Rutte
2006). In the Kodagu district of Karnataka, local communities have
traditionally protected forests patches, which are dedicated to the local
deity. Such forest patches reserved in the name of local deity, are called
sacred groves ‘Devakad or Devarakadus’. Forest fragments in Kodagu that exist
in the form of sacred groves contain trees, epiphytes and lianas, understory
plants. The proximal surrounding matrix is dominated by relatively recent
coffee plantations, many of which have maintained native tree cover within
them. This tree covered coffee matrix surrounding the forest fragments in
Kodagu have helped in maintaining tree diversity within fragments by providing
connectivity to other fragments as well as the reserve forest, thus making the
effect of fragmentation less severe (Bhagwat et al.,  2005a). They act as
a reservoir for native, endemic, and endangered floral species and as an
important source of propagules and genetic diversity (Elouard 2000; Boraiah et al.,  2003; Bhagwat et al.,  2005 b). There is a
wide variation in the size of sacred forests. Some of them are small fragments
of forest less than one hectare, and others are more extensive, spanning
several hectares (Ntiamoa-Baidu 1995; Malhotra et al.,  2007). Sacred
forests have been protected around the world for a variety of reasons,