The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, February 16, 2003
Lead Article

Ecology & environment
The sacred groves of Manchar
T. Jahnavi

A Koli woman stands inside the Ahupe Devrai
A Koli woman stands inside the Ahupe Devrai

DEVRAIS, the sacred groves on the Manchar hills, Pune, western India, are home to several 1000-year-old vines which look like massive trees and can curl up like horseshoes. They are also home to an older tribal tradition of preserving nature and coexisting with it.

The groves are the only forests around the barren landscape of Pune, reared and worshipped by the tribal community of Mahadeo Kolis. The luxuriant forests are habitat to a variety of wildlife including Shekru, the giant Indian red squirrel, a sacred animal to the tribals. Each tribal village has at least one Devrai of five acres or more. Some like Aghane have three, each dedicated to a separate tribal deity. Each Devrai also has a temple (either made of mud and reed or with bricks) where the diety is housed.

There are some common rules for all tribals to preserve the Devrais. No one can pluck leaves or fruits, or even pick a fallen fruit or flower. The tribals cannot collect firewood from their Devrai. The dead wood can only be used in community kitchens during the annual festival for the deity. In Sakeri and Tathawadi villages even shoes are not allowed inside the Devrai.


Basically, any form of human interference is discouraged. The villagers rely on human conscience rather than a system of penalties to maintain the ecological balance."This Devrai is for Bahiroba (the diety)," says Dharma, a villager from Ahupe. "Bahiroba will protect the Devrai. We cannot take even a dry leaf for our private use from here. If we do, Bahiroba will appear in our dreams and question us. And the dreams will continue till we return his leaf to him." Simple myth but a powerful and effective way to protect the endangered forests.

Only once a year each family is allowed to take one bamboo from the Devrai.

An 800-year-old vine in the Ahupe Devrai. Some of its branches are thick enough to support the weight of a full-grown man
An 800-year-old vine in the Ahupe Devrai. Some of its branches are thick enough to support the weight of a full-grown man

But only if the bamboo is needed to make a swing for their children or a bin to store their grain. Says Kusum Karnik of Saashwat, an NGO working with the Kolis since the early 1980s, "This is the beauty of tribal law. You get according to your need, not according to your right."

Like any tribal tradition and heritage in the country, the Devrais have also been under threat for more than a decade. In 1984, the Ahupe Devrai nearly got sold to contractors. Says Karnik, "The Devrai is usually not regarded as village property but given in trust to the temple priest. A contractor tempted priest Langhi's family to sell the Devrai for Rs 70,000."

The ruthless buyers tried to split the community. The contractor told the villagers that people like Karnik were depriving them of Rs 70,000 by opposing the sale. But a series of meetings between activists and villagers finally decided in favour of the grove and the buyers were forced to leave.

A tribal symbol carved on an ancient pillar outside the temple in the Tirpad devrai
A tribal symbol carved on an ancient pillar outside the temple in the Tirpad devrai

Tribal divine law also did its bit. Legend goes that the day the Langhi family accepted an advance of Rs 500 for the grove, a snake entered their house. They were too frightened to go in for any further transactions. This was a traumatic but very useful experience for the Kolis. They had to be on their guard against developers and anyone who didn't respect or understand their deep connection with the forest.

The government has also disturbed their world by constructing the Dimbhe dam, displacing 24 villages. However, even the government has not dared to intervene in the Devrai world. It confines their development activities to building schools.

The area of land covered by the Devrais may not be very large, but the richness and variety of plant life flourishing here make them precious.

The tribal faith in the sacred laws of the forests stems from the understanding of the human-forest relationship. The Devrai is not just a protected patch of forest but a valuable gene pool. Like in the Devrai of Tirpad village, a bush of chichurde— a bitter, pea-sized variety of brinjal, grows which the tribals sometimes use as a vegetable.

The Kolis rarely consume more than what they need; they mostly eat coarse grains like naachni (ragi) and saava that they themselves cultivate. A coarse variety of rice with a lentil is the common diet. Fruits, vegetables and seafood is also consumed. Most homes have their poultry.

To many city people, the Devrai forests may appear idyllic islands in a sea of consumerism and environmental degradation. But they are actually beacons showing how humans can preserve nature against all odds. —WFS