Conservation vs Preservation: The Devrai of Koyna

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Written by Arushi Arora & Arnaz N. Dholakia, Students of  FLAME University

Thirty hours of field visits and hundreds of observations! A place blessed with such biodiversity merely requires our appreciation. The 30-hour fieldwork was enthusiastically steered by members of the Wildlife Research and Conservation Society (WRCS). A local field assistant and resident of the nearby Bopoli village, Mr BalkrushnaBhomkar, lovingly and locally known as Bunty, helped facilitate a spiritual connection with nature by taking us to his village and devrai(sacred grove). While detailing the history of the shrine, he recounted how he would sit and count the carvings on its windows but would get a different number each time.

A Walk through the Forest, Devrai, Torane Village (Photo Credits) Arnaz N. Dholakia)

Bunty, accompanied by Mr. Sunil Kale (Project Officer at WRCS), led us – an excited group of Environmental Studies students from FLAME University, along with our instructor for the course ‘Conservation & Society’ – Prof. AbhineetyGoel. FLAME University encourages experiential learning through field visits and outbound activities, thus, connecting the bridge between classroom learning and real-life experiences. We visited numerous nurseries and plantations in the Vanzole& Karate villages of Koyna Wildlife Sanctuary, located in the Satara District of Maharashtra, India.

While we learnt about WRCS’s reforestation and community conservation, we also had the wonderful opportunity of interacting with local villagers, farmers, teachers, and even school children. This article is brimful with the experiences of seven graduating students and their visit to a devrai in Koyna’s Bopoli village.

Bunty spoke excitedly of the biodiversity of his devrai– the fruits he would eat, the medicinal plants he would collect and the diseases they could cure, and even the animals he’d encountered as a child. The devrai in the village of Bopoli is home to the kuldevi(goddess) AmbeMaa. In the grove, the fruits and flowers are understood to be prasad (sacrament). This meant that prasadcould neither be plucked nor new prasadintroduced in the groves. This practice enabled the maintenance of the sacredness of the forest.

The tall canopy of the forest did not allow much sunlight to penetrate into the soil. However, this did not hinder the growth and beauty of the mushrooms underneath, among hundreds of other plants and shrubs. The thorns on the branches of the trees were like human nails. This is a defence mechanism of many citrus trees against wild animals that are native to the forest.

The Jamunkapedh (Java plum tree) bore delicious fruits which the locals often consumed. Their consumption patterns were need-based instead of greed-based so as to allow the forest to grow naturally. The chirping of birds during the early hours of the morning held the power to unite the human and the spiritual. These birds often sat on the treetops of the diverse devrai.

Some of the tree species in the devrai were the kalpvrikshaa(age tree), bibatree (Semecarpusanacardium), umber tree (Ficusracemosa), anjanitree (Memecylonumbellatum), kokum (Garcinia indica), bharlimad(aids in curing kidney stone), kadhipatta (curry leaves), karwanda(Carissa carandas), tulsi(holy basil), lemon, and green chillies, among a plethora of other species.

Thus, it came as no surprise that the dense devrai was home to local animals such as sambar (a type of deer concentrated in South Asia), bhekar (a type of deer), shekroo (giant squirrel), pisuri(mouse deer), and makde(monkeys).

Edible Mushrooms, Tulsi Plant in the Devrai (Photo Credits Arushi Arora)

There was a clear distinction in the condition of the forest in the devrai versus its surrounding villages and forests. “Conservation”, as understood through literature,  is human beings’ attempt to establish a sustainable relationship with the environment, while still allowing the extraction of natural resources. On the other hand, “preservation” refers to setting aside regions that must remain free of detrimental human impacts. In simpler terms, preservation can be viewed as an attempt to maintain the sacredness of a region by leaving it untouched.

When we visited the devrai, one thing was certain. The trees there were far denser and more diverse than those in other villages like Wantade and Karate. In fact, Bunty even pointed out a 200-year-old mango tree that had existed much before AmbeMaa’s shrine was constructed.

Quite apparently, the devrai seemed to be a benchmark for undisturbed vegetation. The forest surrounding the devrai was, thus, well preserved and, in fact, had been providing the locals with essential resources for decades, if not generations. One can fairly assume that it was shraddha (devotion) and love for the deity that kept the locals from monetising the devrai as well.

However, this stood in contrast with the land WRCS had been working on. For the last twelve years, they have been attempting to restore the heavily degraded region that has been afflicted with persistent tree felling and slash-and-burn agriculture. Their aim is to conserve the biodiversity of the region and to involve the locals in doing so. Convincing people to put the needs of the forest before theirs is, perhaps, the most difficult task of them all.

For us, it was quite obvious which path to sustainability was better. Conserving and regenerating hundreds of acres of barren land required excessive manpower, decades of patience, and funds that rarely existed. On the other hand, preserving the forest surrounding the devrai only required  consistency. Not only did the forest grow unhindered, but the locals reaped unmatched benefits. This distinction between the lush green, preserved forests and the barren, degraded, human-impacted ones led us to categorize them as sacred and pseudo-sacred

Thus, violation of sacredness leads to social consequences. Sacredness is not always deep-rooted uniformly amongst people. Humans are tempted to monetize any good or service in order to earn money. This also held true when we compared the sacred grove and the surrounding forests.

It is obvious that the work done by WRCS is a type of community conservation that not only caters to the well-being of the forest but also the local families who reside in these villages.

Every individual has a different understanding of sacredness and spirituality and this connection is purely dependent on their daily actions and activities. For instance, Bunty’s involvement in the regeneration of pseudo sacred land did not necessarily lead to a detachment from his sacred roots, thus, implying that the feeling of sacredness is ingrained in human beings and taught from an early age. But it is never too late to go back to your sacred roots: your sacred groves.

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