Deepanwita Gita Niyogi
Dantewada (Chhattisgarh), May 21 (IANS/ 101Reporters): In central India's Bastar region, sacred groves hold a special place in community life, both spiritually and ecologically. Locally known as dev gudis, many of these groves are surrounded by dense forests that house several species of rare flora, including medicinal plants, and fauna. In fact, Jason Funk, the author of 'Securing The Climate Benefits of Stable Forests', once described India's sacred groves as "stable forests", in an email interview with this reporter.
However, many such sacred groves — some of which are over 1,000 years old — have either vanished over the years or suffered neglect as a result of encroachment, farming activities in and around them, uncontrolled cattle, and untamed growth of vegetation. It was in 2020 that Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel announced the revival and restoration of dev gudis to transform them into centres of learning, tourism and tribal culture.
The magical transformation of Chitalanka
Today, the Chitalanka sacred grove in Dantewada district is nothing short of transformed. It has an attractive gate welcoming tourists, a boundary wall, an open stage for holding cultural performances and tribal festivals, washrooms and drinking water facilities. It cost Rs 7.51 lakh to revamp the Chitalanka dev gudi, spread over 2.5 acres, with funds from the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) and the District Mineral Foundation (DMF).
In Dantewada's four blocks, the initiative targeted dev gudis in 143 gram panchayats. Of these, 110 have been completed, 30 are in progress, and work has yet to commence in three. In several instances, the forest department played a proactive role in helping the district administration revive the groves, supplying it with saplings from nurseries.
In fact, the district administration worked in tandem with the community, holding discussions with gram panchayats and also paying heed to the suggestions of the villagers with regard to which groves to target in each panchayat, fruit saplings to plant, and the kind of facilities required. The women, too, came forward and insisted on cleanliness in these pockets as dev gudis are revered as sacred sites.
Sunil Kumar Kashyap, the sarpanch of Chitalanka gram panchayat, told 101Reporters: "The place resembled a dense jungle with unkempt vegetation spreading everywhere. After sundown, some of us feared venturing into these places. But now, it attracts visitors in droves."
Residents planted saplings of fruit trees, while visiting artists painted the tree trunks in bright hues, Kashyap said, further adding that the district administration had given these dev gudis a new lease of life.
"Despite there being a sense of attachment, some of us weren't actively involved in protecting our dev gudis. People were making the place dirty. Now, the boundary wall keeps a check on intruders, and at night, the main entrance is locked. Encroachers trying to build houses near the edges are also discouraged," he said.
Celebration of life and the divine
All dev gudis have different gods or goddesses as presiding deities. Their representations are mostly hung from the ceiling inside a temple-like structure. Apart from weekly offerings, annual rituals are also observed at these places of worship.
At the dev gudi of Chhindnar village, devotees worship their deity every Tuesday, and even sacrifice poultry to appease them.
Balram Baska, the priest of Gamawada village, said the villagers have great faith in the deity Hiringaraj and have been worshipping Him since the time the village had only four houses.
"Though it was always a place of faith, it was not clean before the revamp. There used to be wild grass all around. Now, we have a fence that prevents the unwanted entry of outsiders," Baska told 101Reporters.
One good look around can confirm Baska's statement. Around the presiding place of the deity, naturally occurring large stones have been painted with great artistry, showcasing tribal dances, wild animals and tribal hunting processions. The place looks tidy and appealing.
Moreover, besides Chitalanka, Gamawada also received foremost attention under this initiative. It's protected by the Archaeological Survey of India because it houses memory pillars — structures erected in honour of the dead that are an integral part of tribal culture in Chhattisgarh's Bastar subdivision, of which Dantewada is a part.
Tulika Karma, Dantewada zilla panchayat president, informed 101Reporters that all the major tribal festivals here, like the Aam Pandum (mango festival) and Nuakhai (paddy harvest celebration), are observed at the sacred groves. As dev gudis are places of faith, it is believed that any information shared with the communities here must be taken seriously. Festivals and celebrations are the perfect occasions to address the villagers as everyone gathers during these times.
Nutrition and the seven rules of healthy living
In Dantewada, dev gudis have intrinsically been linked to the 'seven rules of healthy living', especially nutrition. These are 'pledges' taken by the community towards tackling malaria, malnutrition and anaemia, increasing institutional delivery rates, ensuring cleanliness in villages, upholding cultural values and achieving 100 per cent literacy rate — the seven rules or seven sutras.
As part of the emphasis on nutrition, the satrangi sutra (seven rules) team of seven women, who dress in white, with dupattas of different colours across their bodies, perform nukkad nataks (street plays) to spread awareness about these pledges. The team, part of the Rashtriya Gramin Ajivika Mission, or the National Rural Livelihood Mission, banded together in August 2020, trained by the district administration. Now, the group visits villages in Dantewada to spread their message through dance-drama, said performer Janki Yadav.
Elaborating on the need to link dev gudis with nutrition, Akash Chhikara, chief executive officer of the Dantewada zilla panchayat, pointed out that the district had high incidences of malaria and anaemia.
"Such issues cannot be resolved without community involvement. At dev gudis, people resolve conflicts and any decision made at such places is morally binding on everyone. Communities were involved right from the planning stage. The gram panchayats at the local level execute the rejuvenation activities," he told 101Reporters.
Since fruits play a vital role in fighting malnutrition, especially among women and children, several saplings of mango, chikoo, jackfruit, banana and guava are planted here. Besides feeding the community, these fruits can also be sold, and the money earned could be used to pay the security guards who keep vigil around the groves. In Gamawada, the name of the individual responsible for planting a sapling is also mentioned on placards in front of them, thereby inculcating a sense of ownership and pride in the practice.
These dev gudis have survived the test of time because of deep-rooted community beliefs, as well as restrictions that have kept outsiders at bay. While government intervention is welcome, it remains to be seen how far such initiatives continue to bear fruit and keep the groves alive — all while large tracts of forests in Chhattisgarh are falling prey to mining giants and other developmental agencies.
Deepa Gavali, from Gujarat Ecology Society, said that beautification is often not the right ecological approach. "Whenever such interventions happen, mostly local environment, culture and ethics aren't kept in mind. The best thing is to conserve groves as biodiversity rich areas or heritage sites. In Karnataka, for example, the government is planning to protect groves under community conservation areas."