NGO, forest dept assessing sacred groves across Pune divn, encouraging residents to sustain beneficial traditions
At the moment, Biospheres is collecting data through drone cameras
A unique initiative is afoot to preserve the ancient concept of the ‘devrai’ in the biodiversity wealthy Western Ghats. By assigning worship to nature, the sacred grove notion has for centuries helped sustain maintain forest ecology – but, as traditions and mindsets evolve, the sacrosanct nature of these woodland pockets has slowly been fading. Now, in an attempt to better conserve them, various devrais in protected areas across Pune division — including Durgawadi, Ratanwadi, Tamhini, and more — are being assessed and documented by NGO Biospheres, along with the support of the forest department, in a firstof- its-kind project.
“Devrais have been observed in the forested areas of India for centuries. Tribes and villagers residing in them — even though they have deities — consider the nature around them to be sacred and consciously protect it. Unfortunately, residents of these areas are slowly moving towards more temple- centric cultures and traditions, in contrast to before. Their focus is shifting to performing rituals on temple premises,” explained Sachin A Punekar, founder-president of Biospheres, adding, “This is why we are planning to assess various sacred groves in Pune forest division’s protected areas. Our focus will not just be on documenting the flora and fauna, but also checking what aspects of it are used by the inhabitants in their daily lives; we will also document regional deities and make a sociocultural assessment.”
Biospheres has already started collecting data through drone cameras to understand the rate at which devrais are shrinking, while studying what is causing this decline.
Emphasising that there is no effective legislation or policy in place to conserve devrais, Punekar further informed, “More and people are getting access to devrais in the name of eco-tourism, without a systematic approach. These places were earlier remote, and the general masses did not have access to them. But, things have changed drastically over the last few years.”
Elaborating on the beliefs followed by devrai residents, he said, “Many age-old beliefs and rituals among such villagers indirectly nurture the local ecology. For instance, some do not harvest all their land — instead, they perform a ritual that involves keeping two flowers on each side of their deity’s idol, and watching which flower falls first. Then, that side of the village is harvested. This general system of belief strongly subscribes to the fact that if the ecology around is harmed or altered without the permission of the deity, the community will be cursed.”
While the ongoing assessment will study such social-cultural nuances that help ecology thrive, they will also delve into what measures can be taken to further protect local biodiversity.
Divisional forest officer (wildlife) for Pune, Shivaji Phatangade, told Mirror, “This project is at a very initial stage. We have started with understanding socio-cultural facets, while spreading awareness amongst residents on how some age-old practices are beneficial. In Bhimashankar, there are three devrais, whose residents’ practices are appreciated. We are motivating these communities to carry these traditions forward. For instance, these villagers have a habit of leaving out food for birds and animals, which helps in their survival — especially that of the Giant Squirrel or Shekru, a flagship species found in great numbers in this region.”
First published by Pune Mirror