Sacred Groves:

Environmentalism and Religious Revival in Tamil Nadu
































Eliza F. Kent

Department of Philosophy and Religion

January 23, 2004



In recent years, environmental NGOs, botanists, specialists in traditional medicine and anthropologists in India have shown an enormous interest in the pan-Indian phenomenon of “sacred groves,” small forests or stands of trees associated with a temple whose produce is set aside for the exclusive use of the deity (see bibliography).  The beliefs and practices surrounding these groves show considerable variation, as does their floral composition, their size and their embeddedness in concrete relations of property and patronage.  Known by a variety of different names—koyilkadu  “temple-forests”, samitope “god-grove”, and devarakadu  “god-forest”--they have in common the effect of having led to the conservation of pockets of abundant and diverse flora and fauna in areas otherwise denuded by rapid deforestation.  With the deepening of the global ecological crisis, environmental activists have claimed the sacred groves of India as an ancient indigenous ecological tradition.  One NGO, the C.P. Ramasami Aiyar Environmental Education Center (CPREEC) in Chennai, initiated a project in 1993 to restore or preserve sacred groves in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, seeking to consciously and systematically enlist this practice in a culturally sensitive reforestation effort.  Where innumerable state-sponsored reforestation schemes have failed because they were not able to enlist local support, the sacred groves projects appear to be having considerable success, as measured by the fact that whenever they restore a sacred grove, residents from adjacent villages frequently request that a sacred grove be restored  in their village (Agarwal).  I would argue that this project entails more than just utilitarian goals.  It also communicates an inspiring utopian model of society, according to which the failures of the recent past can be reversed by developing more culturally sensitive methods that draw on the best elements from the ancient indigenous past, updated for the present.  In the process of this kind of cultural adaptation of the old or the “traditional” to meet new needs, what exactly is retained as valuable or essential, and what is rejected as worthless, harmful or inessential?   What criteria, spoken or unspoken, guide the process of selective adaptation that underlies the revitalization of tradition? 

Contribution to Existing Scholarship on Religion and Ecology

This project seeks to build on a wave of scholarship on religion and ecology in India that arose in the 1990s that mines Indic religious thought for the ideological resources for supporting an environmental ethic  (e.g. Gadgil and Guha, 1992; Nelson, 1998; Chapple and Tucker, 2000).  While establishing a solid foundation for further work, this scholarship has been largely confined to Brahmanical texts written in Sanskrit (where by Brahmanical I mean discourse that represent the point-of-view of Brahmans, the highest caste according to traditional Hindu accounts of the social order).  Only a few studies have examined the environmental significance of non-Brahmanical religiosity (Gold).  As intended, however, this wave of scholarship has contributed to an increase in environmental campaigns that explicitly utilize religious discourse to mobilize popular support.  A few ethnographic studies have examined such  religiously-inspired environmental campaigns (Sullivan, 1996; Haberman, 2001; Sharma, 2003).  They suggest that numerous factors complicate the translation into actual practice of the reverence for nature evident in Hindu texts and rituals.  These factors include  pressing material and social needs, competition within local constituencies, and conflict between local constituencies and outside agencies  who are often urban-based, English-literate NGOs.  More research is urgently needed to discern the limits and possibilities of utilizing religious discourse in mass mobilization campaigns such as these, especially in the context of the intense politicization of religion that is becoming  the norm in India today. 

Project Goals

The main goal of this project is to investigate how a particular NGO has used religious discourse to elicit support for a particular environmental campaign.   A secondary goal is to collect materials for a longer-term research project into the history of sacred groves in Brahmanical and non-Brahmanical Tamil religious texts.  I am seeking funds so that I can travel to India to continue my research on the impact of the C.P. Ramasami Aiyer Environmental Education Center.  Through interviews with priests of and visitors to the temples located in a few carefully selected sites, I hope to provide an ethnographic complement to the largely textual work on sacred groves and provide a rich account of the local meanings and beliefs attributed to sacred groves by the people who work, worship or live nearby them.  I also hope to analyze the effect that the NGO-sponsored restoration projects has had on the beliefs and practices surrounding the grove by comparing both restored and unrestored groves.  Finally, I hope to contribute to scholarship that analyzes the convergence, intentional or unintentional, between the ideology of environmental movements that seek to harness religious sentiments in the service of nature and the ideology of Hindu communalists who do the same in the service of consolidating the economic, political and social power of Hindus in a religiously pluralistic society (Sharma, 2003; Sinha, Gururani and Greenberg, 1997).

Presentation of Hypothesis Guiding this Research Project

Interviews with the CPREEC staff that I conducted in the summer of 2001 indicated that the CPREEC’s main technique for inspiring action to restore and replant local sacred grove sites has been to establish a correspondence between environmental degradation and the diminishing strength of people’s religious faith, particularly  the taboos that formerly are said to have kept people from using forest produce in sacred groves.  Therefore, their public education campaigns are aimed at reawakening people’s traditional “fear and faith,” which they regard as having been eroded by modern materialism and excessive rationalism, in order to strengthen people’s commitment to care for and preserve these islands of biodiversity.   My analysis of the literature produced by CRPEEC’s Sacred Grove Restoration project indicates that the  manner in which this NGO targets customary practices and styles of religiosity for revitalization in the service of nature is decidedly selective.  Like many other scholars and activists interested in India’s sacred groves, they enthusiastically celebrate the environmental impact of the sacred groves, but are ambivalent or openly critical of some of the ritual practices associated with them.  Significantly, while they contribute considerable resources to the communities  they work with (including plant matter, soil testing and expertise in horticulture), they do so with one condition: that the people agree to ban the practice of animal sacrifice at that site. While the thought of animal sacrifice is disturbing to many, it bears mentioning that  the practice also constitutes one of the main distinguishing features that differentiate Brahman from non-Brahman forms of worship.  Sacred groves in Tamil Nadu are generally dedicated to deities who are worshipped almost exclusively by non-Brahman castes.  The CPREEC, on the other hand, is guided by the reform-minded Brahmanical values of its founder.  Given this discrepancy, it is hard not to see the ban on animal sacrifice  as an attempt to impose Brahman values on non-Brahman groups.  This dynamic is not specific to CPREEC; several scholars have observed a general trend towards the Sanskritization of sacred groves, which sometimes can have a deleterious effect on the ecological health of the groves (Chandran and Hughes; Kalam).  One question that has guided my own inquiry into this project has been, what has been the effect of this ban on the groves themselves and on the meanings attributed to the groves by local people?

According to most popular and scholarly descriptions of sacred groves, the principal reason why forest produce is not exploited is people’s belief that the forest belongs to the deity (Parajuli and Apffel-Marglin, 2000; Hughes and Chandran, 1997; Kalam, 1996; Gujar and Gold, 1989).  As the deity’s home and exclusive domain, the territory within its boundary and all it contains--from fruit shining on the branches, to fallen logs and leaf matter--are all protected by the deity.  Bhoju Ram Gujar and Ann Gold’s work on sacred groves in Rajasthan provides a vivid portrait of the reciprocal relationship between the groves and the deities who preside over them: a vibrant, healthy grove filled with butterflies and bird song not only testifies to the ability of the deity to protect it from harm, and but also demonstrates nature’s enthusiastic response to the presence of the sacred (Gujar and Gold 1989, 216).  People in Rajasthan, as in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere, tell lurid stories of the divine punishment these deities mete out to transgressors into sacred groves, who, knowingly or unknowingly, defiled the purity of the woods or attempted to harvest forest produce inappropriately.  These tales link the violation of the groves with the sudden onset of illness or freak accidents, turning anomalous, unsettling accidents into meaningful events that may remind the forgetful, or the arrogant, of the intimate, if unequal, relationship between humans and gods.

In Tamil Nadu, the deities who reign over the groves are those traditionally associated with the protection of boundaries.  Amman goddesses like Mariamman and Kaliamman shield villages from disease; fierce hero-gods like Karuppaswami (the “dark god”) and Muniandi are often enlisted in the service of other gods as body-guards and stand watch at the thresholds of temples; and Aiyannar, mounted on his horse, patrols the boundaries of the settlement, the paddy fields or the village tank.  As befits their use of violence to protect the social order, these deities are, with the exception of Aiyannar, all non-vegetarian deities, whose worship involves bali, the sacrifice of animals, mostly fowls and goats.  Even Aiyannar  frequently has a body-guard deity such as Virabhadra or Muniandi, who receives animal sacrifices in the close proximity of the shrine to his lord.  As many scholars of religion in India have noted, the protective function of these deities is often combined with moral ambiguity: at the same time that they shield their worshippers from harm, these quixotic gods can also inflict it when offended or neglected (Hiltebeitel, 1989). When people suspect a supernatural cause for trouble in their lives, one favored method for uncovering it is a possession ritual, in which a medium, a ko∂angi or samiyadi, enters a trance-state enabling a god to speak and act through his or her body.  The possessing deity can then tell whether he or she or some other lesser deity has sent the affliction, and what needs to be done.  Often, the remedy to having offended or neglected the deity is sacrifice.  The offering of a chicken or goat, or a vegetarian substitute such as a rice packet stained with red kumkum powder, may make up for the moral lapse that led to the god’s displeasure, whether a forgotten vow, a taboo unknowingly violated, regular worship that has gone undone.  Based on my preliminary research and reading, my hypothesis is that the different beliefs and practices described here--the taboos on the use of forest produce, tales of divine punishment for transgression, possession rituals to ascertain the will of the divine, and sacrifices to restore harmony between humans and deities--together constitute the ideological system that limits human exploitation of the natural resources of the groves, what the staff at the CPREEC glossed as people’s “fear and faith.”  One question, the answer to which only further research could ascertain, is what happens when one of these components is eliminated? 

Description of Research Agenda

With funds provided by the Colgate Research Council, I would like to visit several sites in Tamil Nadu that the CPREEC has identified as sacred groves (Amrithalingam), some which have been restored and some which have not.  Since I have no base-line to determine what the groves were like before the restoration project was undertaken, it will be necessary to conduct interviews at sacred groves that have not been restored.  I visited two such groves in 2001, outside Pondicherry and Madurai, but so quickly that I was not able to conduct formal interviews.  My goal would be to ask questions and gather materials (such as oral and written sthalapuranas, mythological accounts of the history of the temple) that would elicit the significance that people attribute to animal sacrifice, the nature of the deities that preside over the grove, and the natural lushness of the grove.  Rather than simply assuming that local people have been coerced into the adaptation of Brahmanical Hinduism at the expense of more local versions that endorse practices such as animal sacrifice, I would like discern what may motivate people to embrace a more Brahmanical variety of Hinduism, the degree to which they actually do so, and what affect doing so has on both the grove itself and the religious beliefs and practices surrounding it.   


Agarwal, Bina.  “The Gender and Environment Debate: Lessons from India.”  Feminist Studies 18.1 (1992): 143-155.


Chapple, Christopher K. and Mary Evelyn Tucker, eds. Hinduism and Ecology: The Intersection of Earth, Sky, and Water (Harvard, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2000).


Gadgil, Madhav and Ramachandra Guha.  This Fissured Land: An Ecological History of India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999).


Gold, Ann Grodzins and Bhoju Ram Gujar,  “Of Gods, Trees and Boundaries: Divine Conservation in Rajasthan” Asian Folklore Studies  48 (1989).


Haberman, David, “River of love in an age of pollution.”  In Chapple and Tucker,  eds. Hinduism and Ecology: The Intersection of Earth, Sky, and Water (Harvard, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2000).


Hiltebeitel, Alf, ed.  Criminal Gods and Demon Devotees: Essays on the Guardians of Popular Hinduism   (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1989).


Hughes, J. Donald and M.D. Subash Chandran.  “The Sacred Groves of India: Ecology, Traditional Communities and Religious Change.” Social Compass  44.3 (1997): 413-427.


Kalam, M.A. Sacred Groves in Kodagu District of Karnataka (South India): A Socio-Historical Study.  Vol. 21 of Pondy Papers in Social Sciences.  (Pondicherry: Institut Français de Pondichéry, 1996).


Nelson, Lance E.,  ed.  Purifying the Earthly Body of God: Religion and Ecology in Hindu India   (Albany, N.Y.: SUNY, 1998).


Nelson, Lance E.  “Reverence for Nature or the Irrelevance of Nature? Advaita Vedanta and Ecological Concern.”  Journal of Dharma  1991;16(3):281-299


Pramod Parajuli and Frédérique Apffel-Marglin,  “'Sacred Grove' and Ecology: Ritual and Science.” In Chapple and Tucker,  eds. Hinduism and Ecology: The Intersection of Earth, Sky, and Water (Harvard, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2000).


Sharma, Mukul.  “Saffronising Green.”  Seminar  516 (2003).  Available at: [accessed January 23, 2004].


Sinha, Subir, Shubhra Gururani and Brian Greenberg. “The  ‘New Traditionalist’ Discourse of Indian Environmentalism.”  Journal of Peasant Studies 24, 3 (April 1997): 65-99.


Sullivan, Bruce. “Paradise Polluted: Religious Dimensions of the Vrindavana Ecological Movement.”  In This Sacred Earth: Religion,  Nature, Environment. Edited by R.S.Gottlieb (New York: Routledge, 1996): 565-571. 



Longer Term Research Plans

This project on the sacred groves of Tamil Nadu constitutes my second major research project.  My first research project had to do with changing gender roles within non-elite, low-caste Hindu communities that converted to Protestant Christianity in colonial South India.  Several years in the making, it has resulted in several articles and essays, along with a book due to be published by Oxford University Press in February, 2004.  Studying Christianity in a non-Western setting has certainly given me a richer appreciation for the adaptability of religious traditions, and also for the dynamics that fuel religious change.  In addition, it has given me a distinctive take on Hinduism.  In learning about the religious backgrounds of low-caste Hindu converts to religion, I also learned a lot about what one might call Dalit Hinduism, the Hinduism of low-castes and untouchables, the kind of Hinduism that is evident only in the margins of classical religious texts and which has not been given much scholarly attention until recently.  I would argue that the embrace of more Brahmanical forms of Hinduism by non-Brahman groups also constitutes a variety of conversion, with some of the same issues at stake: the good intentions of urban, literate folk as they seek to bring about reforms in the lifestyles and beliefs of people they regard as less sophisticated than themselves, and the less overt, but equally compelling interests that motivate the latter to cooperate with the bearers of a new, purportedly more civilized way of worship.  Taking conversion as one’s object of study raises the level of magnification, as it were, on the old familiar problem of religious change, such that one examines how individuals, or more often groups of individuals, come to embrace a new religious world-view, along with a new set of values, ideals, rituals and practices.  The process of conversion, I would argue, is where the rubber hits the road.  It is where you can see concretely how people draw on the resources available to them, both from their received traditions, and from the newly offered religious beliefs and practices of the religion they are converting to, to create meaning in a changed or changing social context.  What becomes apparent is that missionaries, of whatever ilk, far from simply imposing their ideas on the docile minds and bodies of converts, end up engaged in a serious game of tug of war with converts over the significance of practices and beliefs embedded in both their old religion and the new one. 

As I mentioned before, during my trip to Tamil Nadu in the summer of 2001 I established contact with the NGO whose work forms the focus of my research.  It was through their help that I have identified several sites that would be good candidates for visits in the summer of 2004.  Through that initial foray I have developed enough knowledge about sacred groves to participate on two panels dedicated to religion and ecology in India in general (one on sacred groves in India in particular).  In the process, I’ve become acutely aware of the wide semantic range of the word “sacred grove.”  A long term goal, perhaps two years down the line, would be to clarify the history of the terms used by Tamils to refer to these sites in the context of Hindu temple history in Tamil Nadu work, based on a textual study of Tamil sthalapuranas (myths that describe the sacred history of a particular temple) from the late medieval and early modern period. 


Timeline - July 9 - August 12

Week One

July 9: Fly from New York City to Chennai

July 10-11: Acclimatize

July 12-14: Interviews with staff at C.P. Ramasami Environmental Education Center to obtain information about exact location of and directions to restored sacred groves

July 15: Travel to Pondicherry


Week Two

July 16-18: Visit Aiyannar temple in Pondicherry, unrestored sacred grove #1; interview priests and visitors to the temple; photograph site, collect versions of temple myth-history.

July 19-21: Consult with scholars at the École Française d’Extrême-Orient, Pondicherry regarding textual sources for the study of sacred groves, and visit in evenings at the Aiyannar temple. 

July 22: Travel to Pudukkotai, visit temple in Namasamudiran (restored sacred grove #1). 


Week Three

July 23-25: Visit temple in Namasamudiran, interview local residents, priests and visitors to temple, photograph site, collect versions of temple myth-history,.

July 26: Travel to Salem (or alternate destination, depending on consultation with staff at CPREEC), visit restored sacred grove #2.

July 27-29: visit temple in restored sacred grove #2, interview local residents, priests and visitors to temple, photograph site, collect versions of temple myth-history.


Week Four

July 30: Travel to Madurai

July 31-Aug. 4: Visit temple to Pandiswamy, outskirts of Madurai (unrestored sacred grove #2), interview local residents, priests and visitors to temple, photograph site, collect versions of temple myth-history, if possible.

August 5: Travel to Thanjavur, consult with scholars at the Saraswati Mahal Library, premeire center of scholarship on Tamil scriptural texts, regarding textual sources on koyilkadu, samitoppe, etc. (indigenous terms for sacred groves).  


Week Five

August 6-7: Consult with scholars at the Saraswati Mahal Library.

August 8: Travel to Chennai

August 9-12: Meet with staff at CPREEC; consult with scholars at the Roja Mutthaiah research library and the Mozhi Institute for Language and Culture regarding textual sources in Tamil on sacred groves.  


Back Home

3-4 months: Translate salient portions of interviews and collected texts

3-4 months: Write up results into article suitable for publication in scholarly journals such as Journal of Asian Studies, Modern Asian Studies or the Journal of the American Academy of Religion


Proposed Budget



Current exchange rate (January 23, 2004): 1 USD$=45 Indian Rupees


A. Equipment Description









B. Supplies and Services


1.  Wages for research assistant to accompany me on visits to temple-sites (based on previous trip in July 2001, 500 Rp/day.  18 x 500 Rp =9000 Rp)

2.  Transcription of interview audiotapes to notebooks (based on previous trip in July 21, 1000 Rp/audiotape; 18 x 1000 Rp =18000 Rp )










C. Travel


1.      Roundtrip plane fare from New York City to Chennai, India (UAL, connect through Frankfurt Germany)

2.      Train fare (five trips at 11 USD/fare)

3.      Hiring auto-rickshaws (32 days at 200 Rp/day = 6400 Rp)









D. Living Expenses


1.  Given the exchange rate and the low cost of living in Tamil Nadu, a reasonable per diem is $40/day or 1800 Rps.  32 x $40 = $1280






E. Student Wage











Brief Professional Resume




Ph.D.   The University of Chicago, History of Religions.  1999, with distinction.

Dissertation: “Respectability: Gender and Conversion in Colonial South India.” 

Advisor: Wendy Doniger.  Readers: Frank E. Reynolds, and Norman Cutler

M.A.    The University of Chicago, Religious Studies. 1992

B.A.     Williams College, Religion and Women’s Studies.  1989, magna cum laude.




Colgate University, Hamilton, NY: Assistant Professor, Philosophy and Religious Studies Department, Sept. 2003- present.


DePaul University, Chicago, IL: Visiting Assistant Professor, Religious Studies Department, Sept. 2002 - June 2003.


Central Washington University, Ellensburg, WA: Assistant Professor, Philosophy Department, August 2000 - June 2001.


Denison University, Granville, OH: Visiting Assistant Professor, Religion Department, August  1999 - June 2000.


Oberlin College, Oberlin, OH: Visiting Instructor, Religion Department, August 1998 – December 1998.




Converting Women: Gender and Christianity in Colonial South India (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004). 


“Hinduism and Indian Ecstatic Religions,” in Encyclopedia of Shamanism, ed. by Mariko Walker and Eva Fridman (Santa Barbara, Calif: ABC-CLIO, forthcoming).


“Redemptive Hegemony and the Ritualization of Reading,” in  Riting Between the Lines: Popular Christianity in India, ed. by Corinne Dempsey and Selva Raj (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002). 


“Tamil Bible Women in the Zenana Missions of Colonial Tamil Nadu,” in History of Religions 39, 2 (November, 1999): 117-149.


“Ancestor Worship,” in The Encyclopedia of Women and World Religion, Serenity Young, Editor in Chief (New York: Macmillan, 1998).





Respondent for panel on “Sacred Groves: Houseplants, Cremation Grounds, Santal Spirits and Embedded Ecologies,” at at Annual American Academy of Religion Conference, Atlanta, Georgia, November 2003.


“Sacred Groves and Local Gods: Religion, Environmentalism and Nationalism in Tamil Nadu,” for panel on, “Groves, Gardens and Fields of Tea: Conceptualizations of Nature and Tradition in Contemporary India,” (co-organizer) 31st Annual Madison South Asia Conference, October 2002.


“Bus-Stop Sami: Transient Temples in Urban South India,” for panel on “Streets, Pathways, Passages, and Highways: The Cultural Logics of Urban Religiosity,” American Anthropological Association Conference, Washington, D.C.,  November, 2001.


“The Measure of Morality: Smallpox in South Indian Religious Discourse,” Association for Asian Studies Conference, Chicago, IL, March, 2001.




Tamil and Spanish (fluent)

Sanskrit, French, and German (reading ability)





Discretionary Research Grants from Colgate Research Council for 2003-2004


$500 publication grant to index forthcoming book, Converting Women

$300 grant from Discretionary Research Fund to index forthcoming book, Converting Women

            Results: Index completed, publication forthcoming in February 2004.

$542.48 to participate in American Academy of Religion Conference in Atlanta, Georgia to respond to panel on Sacred Groves

$395.02 to participate in American Historical Association annual Conference in Washington, DC, to respond to panel on religion and resistance to state-sponsored ideologies in modernizing nation states

            Results: Participation in two conferences directly related to on-going research and writing projects. 


Total: $1737.50


Previous Grants from Outside Sources


Committee on South Asian Studies Dissertation Support Fellowship, University of Chicago, 1997-99

Center for Gender Studies Research Grant, University of Chicago, 1998

Woodrow Wilson Dissertation Grant in Women’s Studies, 1997-98

Fulbright IIE Dissertation Research Fellowship, 1996-97

American Institute for Indian Studies Junior Research Grant, 1996-97

Foreign Language Area Studies Academic Year Fellowships in Tamil, 1992-95

American Institute for Indian Studies Summer Fellowship, Madurai, India, 1993