Sacred groves, the water wizards of Uttarakhand

A study from Uttarakhand finds that water from sacred groves conforms to all WHO standards of potability and is of better quality than water from surrounding areas.
Auli Bugyal, a meadow in Uttarakhand. Auli Bugyal, a meadow in Uttarakhand. (Photo courtesy: Sandeep Brar Jat via Wikimedia Commons)
Auli Bugyal, a meadow in Uttarakhand. Auli Bugyal, a meadow in Uttarakhand. (Photo courtesy: Sandeep Brar Jat via Wikimedia Commons)

Sacred groves are undisturbed or preserved patches of vegetation or forested areas located on the outskirts of villages, towns or plains that are conserved by communities by dedicating them to local folk deities or ancestral spirits. Locals believe that these forests belong to deities and their destruction could anger them, a belief that has functioned well as a means to protect these small patches of forests.

Valuable sources of water

Sacred groves play an important role in preserving biodiversity by supporting and protecting a range of birds and animals. They also help in soil and water conservation. The forests of sacred groves are found to have a greater watershed value in terms of water yield and quality than other types of landscapes. Ponds, streams or springs found in the sacred groves serve as water sources for the area around the year even when other water sources go dry. The vegetative cover, on the other hand, helps in recharging aquifers, improving the soil stability and in preventing soil erosion.

Sacred groves of Uttarakhand

Experts estimate that the total number of sacred groves in India could be in the range of 100,000 – 150,000. The figure below shows the distribution of sacred groves in different states in India.

Around 133 sacred groves have been documented from the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand. They are locally known by various names such as Deo Bhumi and Bugyal (sacred alpine meadows). The groves are dedicated to local deities such as Chandrabadni Devi, Hariyali Devi, Kotgadi Ki Kokila Mata, Pravasi Pavasu Devata, Devrada and Saimyar and are believed to be protected by them. The most commonly found trees in the groves include Turnip-root chervil, Himalayan cedar, Sanjeevani, Indian Barberry, Himalayan firethorn and Indian valerian.

The groves of Uttarakhand serve as a gene pool of diverse species of plants and animals that inhabit the forests. Various traditional practices sustained by the local communities play an important role in preserving threatened plant and animal species in the region.

Assessing the quality of water

Surface water in the form of springs of sacred groves is commonly used for drinking, irrigation and domestic purposes in Garhwal region of Uttarakhand. However, not much is known about the quality of this water.

A study "Surface water quality in sacred groves of Garhwal Himalayan region" published in Current Science made a comparative assessment of surface water quality from sacred groves with that from the surrounding areas and also tried to assess the impact of the type of trees in the forest on water quality.

The water quality of surface water samples from streams in three sacred groves namely Hariyali Devi, Tarkeshwar and Ravigaon of Garhwal region was compared to that from the surrounding areas. Water quality of oak-dominated and deodar-dominated forests was also compared as a part of the study.

Vegetation in the sacred groves enhances water quality

The study showed that the water samples of all the three sacred groves conformed to WHO standards for potable water and was of much better quality than that of water from the adjacent sites. The type of forest and ground vegetation was found to impact the quality with water from oak-dominated forests having better quality than that from deodar-dominated forests which showed higher levels of hardness and Total Dissolved Solids (TDS). This is because oak-dominated forests support better growth of ground vegetation than deodar forests. Lesser ground vegetation makes the soil in the deodar forests much more vulnerable to erosion.

The study provides valuable information on the role of sacred groves in maintaining high-quality water resources that serve to meet the drinking water needs of local communities in times of water scarcity.

These water wizards are under threat

Sacred groves are, however, disappearing at a fast rate due to various reasons like diminishing faith in traditional belief systems that maintain them, rapid urbanisation, pollution, developmental interventions such as road, railway track and dam constructions, sand mining, destruction of forests for agriculture and commercial forestry, encroachment, increasing pressures due to livestock grazing and fuelwood collection.

It is time the vital role of sacred groves in water conservation is recognised. Efforts in the form of encouraging participation of local communities in protecting them, preventing grazing, pollution and deforestation, etc need to be taken up to prevent their deterioration.

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