The forests of South Asia were diverse and vast, and in a region suffused with nature worship the tree reigned supreme. With roots reaching into prehistory, belief in the spirituality and supernatural powers of trees continues in South Asia.
Numerous references to sacred trees occur in literature and scriptures. In depictions on the seals of the Indus valley culture of c.3000 BC, the tree is a recurring motif in the arts of the sub-continent, appearing in architecture, sculpture and painting.
Image: This shows Dronacharya dying, pierced with many arrows, under a large ficus tree. He is watched over by Krishna and the five Pandava brothers.
Sacred groves, dedicated to local deities or ancestral spirits, are found all over the sub-continent. Protected from over-use by local communities because of traditions born out of religious beliefs, they have been preserved over many generations. Thousands of sacred groves have been documented, ranging from a few trees to forests of many acres.
Such sacred groves are of increasing interest to nature conservation because they help preserve threatened plants and animals. Fortunately, many sacred groves remain and many villages continue to observe traditional practices. Environmentalists are working with local communities, recognizing that traditional knowledge and sacred practice are important elements in the conservation of the environment. The groves, besides harbouring plants and animals, are crucial for soil and water conservation.
Many of these groves exist because of the cultural practices of indigenous peoples and various tribes of India. They may operate within the Hindu caste system, but maintain their own traditional beliefs which are pre-Vedic. Some of these tribes are the Santals, the Coorgs, the Bishnois, the Oraons, the Garos, Khasis, the Bhumias, and the Murias.
The Bishnois of western Rajasthan are a well-known example of the numerous tribes who venerate nature. Their name refers to the 29 principles of morality and conduct which their presiding deity Lord Jhamba devised. He was a historical figure of the 14th century. Compassion for all living beings was most important and it was stipulated that they were never to fell trees and kill animals. Khejri trees (Prosopis cineraria) and the black buck are particularly protected. The Bishnois' veneration of the khejiri tree has a practical aspect. It recognises the tree's usefulness in providing fodder, food and building materials.