An anthropologist visits orans in Rajasthan

Orans are traditional sacred groves found in Rajasthan. These are community forests, preserved and managed by rural communities through institutions and codes that mark such forests sacred. Orans have significance for both, conservation and livelihood. The author visited two orans in Alwar district in Rajasthan and in this article, she writes about her observation.
26 May 2023
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Since ancient times, communities in Rajasthan have preserved these orans, and their lives have been inextricably entwined with them. (Image: Ranjita Mohanty)
Since ancient times, communities in Rajasthan have preserved these orans, and their lives have been inextricably entwined with them. (Image: Ranjita Mohanty)

It’s a day in late June 2022.  The sun is fierce. I am in Rogda village, in the Aravali hills in Rajasthan.  As I walk into the village, I see a big pond filled with water; it was like an oasis. I would learn soon that it is johad, a traditional water harvesting system to capture runoff water during monsoon. I keep walking and now I am amidst trees. I am on a one-day trip to observe and understand the nature and significance of sacred groves for rural communities, who are mostly pastoralists and agriculturists.

Aman Singh, whose organization KRAPAVIS (Krishi Avam Paristhitiki Vikas Sansthan) works on revival of orans in Rajasthan, is accompanying me. He points out to a huge patch of green field up in the hills. There is a denuded hill on the other side. The green field is a village forest – oran, a sacred grove. We are walking among trees and bushes. All this land up there on the hill and in the village where we are belongs to the sacred grove of Rogda. 

Dietrich Brandis, the first Inspector General of Forests in India, wrote about the sacred groves of Rajasthan in the late 19th century. His account mentions abundance of such groves in the dry regions, and rules that regulated use and protection of sacred groves. These village forests ranging from 10 to 400 hectares are traditional ways of preserving trees and other flora and fauna found in forests.

Orans also augment and sustain traditional water resources found in village forests in the form of johad, nadi, talab, baori etc. These along with springs and rivulets found in forests are water resources that sustain both livestock and humans. Orans are found in arid and semi-arid areas and belong to communities whose livelihoods depend on forest and agriculture, namely indigenous communities, pastoralists and farmers.    

We find a shade under a tree to rest. I cast around and see a number of trees - dhok (Anogeissus pendula), neem (Azardirachta indica), peepal (Ficus religiosa), babul (Acacia nilotica), ber (Zizyphus mauritiana), and kair (Capparis decidua). Orans are a source for livestock grazing as well as a source for several minor forest products such as honey, herbs, fruits, nuts, medicinal pants, firewood etc., which people collect for their domestic consumption as well as for sale in the market. Food from sacred forests protect people during times of drought.

Besides providing livelihoods to rural communities, orans also perform other ecosystem services that nature provides as a protector and regulator of life on the earth. KRAPAVIS has surveyed 100 orans across Rajasthan and has prepared an atlas that lists ecology and biodiversity of orans.

Sacred groves, as the name conveys, are sacred in nature and are associated with god/goddess or a saint, a temple, or a shrine; in some villages a tree or a spring is considered sacred. There are often local deities associated with oran. Bhairubaba ki Bani in Surer village in Alwar district is named after Bheruji, a local deity. Devnarayn Bhagwan ki Devbani in Saitana village in Ajmer district is associated with Devnarayan, a folk deity, who is considered an incarnation of Bishnu, a mainstream Hindu deity. Oran in Vijaypura village in Alwar district called Garwarji Maharaj ki Bani is associated with a saint, Garwaji Maharaj.

French sociologist Emile Durkheim defines sacred as a collective representation of what a community considered sacred, as objects of reverence. There are rules and rituals that protect the sacred, and as such are inviolable in nature. According to Durkheim sacred may not always be religious in nature but gets the connotation as people consider them different from profane, which comprises of everyday mundane activities or objects. Sacred is thus what people, collectively, set aside as objects that they revere, protect, and preserve. Collectively, they form rules that over time takes the form of tradition, passing from one generation to the next.   

Sacred groves are thus socio-cultural and ecological in nature. Festivals and other religious occasions associated with orans bring people together; cultural rituals such as worshipping trees and feeding birds support in preservation of nature and biodiversity. Orans are managed through elaborate rules that both prohibit and sanction their use.

Water source inside the oran (Image: Ranjita Mohanty)

A resident of the village tells us about the pastoralist community’s dependence on oran forests and water sources inside the oran. He tells us about seasonal migration in certain months, usually in the lean months when fodder is not readily available, when they take their cattle to other places, so as not to put too much pressure on vegetation and give earth some rest, and give time for forests to rejuvenate. They travel on the migration route that is fixed and familiar. It signifies a way of living that is dependent on nature and co-operation of other communities.

Another resident from the village joins the conversation. I am curious to know what binds people in the village to a common understanding that they must preserve forests. One of them says, come and see our mela – a village fair. It is also an invitation. The mela, held every year, is an occasion for every household in the village to participate in collective feasting. Fairs and festivals are regular events in orans. Festivals associated with a deity becomes an occasion for pilgrimage. In Devnarayan Bhagwan ki Devbani, an annual fair is held where pilgrims gather in large numbers and communal feast called bhandara is organized.

We leave Rogda and drive to our next destination, Sirawas village where we are to meet a sadhu, a priest, who has been assigned the responsibility for overseeing the village oran. Hari Om Das Maharaj says he has come to this temple as a priest to honour the request of people of the village who sent an invitation for him to assume the priesthood. I learn that this is a usual practice in Rajasthan. The priest looks after the temple as well as oran, and villagers provide food and other essential items to the priest.

Since many orans are classified under temple land, temple trusts and priests have been traditionally associated with conservation and protection of orans. There are orans which are registered as gochar/ common grazing land that fall under the revenue department and are managed by village panchayat/ gram panchayat. There are orans which are jointly managed by revenue department and forest department. Some orans are also managed jointly by temple trusts and forest department.

The local community’s engagement is an aspect that is found in orans regardless of agencies managing them. Such engagement happens in the form of village committee, gram panchayat, temple committee, or the committees formed by the forest department. “Disintegration of traditional institutions have impacted the nature and extent of community involvement in management of oran,” says Aman Singh.

We drive to Bhaktpura field centre of KRAPAVIS. As we sit outside, in the cool shade of trees, I hear the organisation’s work towards reviving orans. They have organized people in Rogda as well as in other villages to plant trees, protect forests, revive traditional water resources, observe the rules of protection of oran, and communal sharing of benefits. Livestock development and promotion of agricultural practices that can be sustained also constitute part of revival of oran. 

We discuss the degradation and threats to oran. Bhaktpura oran has been encroached upon by forest department to expand the boundaries of the Sariska Tiger Reserve. As restrictions are imposed on entry of villagers into forest areas, new forms of conflict between people and forests have arisen. These conflicts are between the state’s conservation efforts and livelihoods of the poor. This need not be so; people and forests can co-exist. But the state sees people as intruders whereas these very people have been the stewards guarding, preserving, protecting, and nurturing forests and biodiversity.

Besides extension of forest boundaries and enclosure of forests, orans have been losing their land due to several other reasons – urbanization, commercial use of natural resources, mining, encroachment on orans for agriculture, migration of rural communities to cities, breaking down of traditional belief systems, and changing attitude of people towards oran. Its challenging to protect sacred groves in the face of multiple threats local community forests face. It involves work at the community as well as at the level of policy, and forest administration.

Social and cultural connotations of orans need to be retold in multiple forms and particularly to communities without whom orans cannot survive the onslaught they are facing. Sacred after all is a social construct; hence how that construct can happen in different temporal contexts, as societies move from pre-modern to modern and from simple to complex, is to be given consideration. Ecology, economy and society are deeply interconnected but often society is missed out in ecological discourses and practices. The survival of orans in the contemporary times depends on working on both the sides simultaneously - social and culture on the one hand and environmental on the other.

Author: Ranjita Mohanty is a sociologist and social anthropologist based in New Delhi. 

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