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Forest Shrines and Sacred Groves

Impact of Changing Economy on the Kodavas

Veena Poonacha( retired director, Research Centre for Women’s Studies, SNDT Women’s University, Mumbai.

The article delineates the life-affirming values of caring for the earth among the Kodavas in Kodagu district, Karnataka. It argues that the coffee economy under colonial rule depleted the forestland, a trend exacerbated by the post-independence economic and forest policies. The full impact of these policies are apparent from the growing conflict in the area between wild elephants and humans.

Kodagu—the land of a thousand hills, primeval forests, and lush green valleys—lies on the summits and slopes of the Western Ghats in Karnataka. The splendour of the mountains encircled by clouds and early morning mists is perhaps what made the ancient poets exclaim, “This land of our birth is the loveliest chain of gold in Jambera, India” (Chinnappa 1924: 33–34). In more prosaic terms, scientists have described Kodagu (also known as Coorg) as a “micro hotspot of biodiversity,” for it supports a rich diversity of plants, insects, reptiles and animals. The land nurtures a “veritable pool of genetic diversity” (Raghavendra and Kushalappa 2011: 3). Second only to the sub-Himalayan region in biodiversity, the land is home to 1,300 species of plants spread over 700 genera and more than 160 families. Its forests contain some priceless tropical trees, such as sandalwood, teak and rosewood, as well as wild forms of cultivated plants(Kamath 1993: 114). These forests are vital for the sustenance of the local agricultural economy as well as soil conservation and moisture (Verma 2017: 10).

Changing Context of Kodagu

Kodagu is part of the Western Ghat mountain ranges that are spread over 1,64,280 km, traversing 1,500 km across six states in India. The report of the High Level Working Group (HLWG) set up by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change in 2013, also referred to as the Kasturirangan report, speaks of the biodiversity and the scenic beauty of the mountain ranges.1 It simultaneously points to the threat posed to the ecosystems of the Western Ghats by increased “human habitation.” The report indicates that while 60% of the Ghats is under “human dominated land use,” only 41% of terrain is still a “natural landscape,” wherein 37% of the natural landscape has very high biological richness, low fragmentation and low population density” (Government of India 2013: 1–9). It also includes world heritage sites, and tiger and elephant corridors. The Ghats’ forests are catchment areas for the major rivers of peninsular India, including the Krishna, Godavari and Cauvery. The ecological destruction of these forests and the consequent drying up of rivers will spell a death knell to the cities, towns and villages dependent on these rivers for sustenance (Singh 2017: 10).

However, taking a pragmatic view of the prevailing socio-economic requirements, the HLWG report balances development needs with the need to protect the environment. It identified certain areas as eco-sensitive areas (ESA) in need of protection, wherein any proposed infrastructure development projects should be scrutinised for their environmental impact.2 Kodagu is considered an ESA because it still has substantial areas of forestland. It has 1,45,661 hectares of forest cover: out of which 1,34,179 hectares comprise reserved forests, national parks, and sanctuaries, and 11,482 hectares comprise protected forests (Forest Department 2017). According to recent studies, the forest cover in Kodagu is shrinking at an alarming rate because ofill-conceived development projects and timber smuggling.3 In the last 40 years, it has lost 30% of its forests (Singh 2017: 10).

Disregarding the need to protect the forests, the Government of Karnataka reduced the mandatory requirement of instituting a 10-kilometre-long buffer zone around the forests down to 100 metres (Singh 2017: 10). This sets the stage for increased encroachment of forestland, poaching and timber smuggling. It will increase the existing conflict between the animals (such as tigers and elephants) and human communities. Moreover, since these forests are the catchment area for the river Cauvery, the destruction of the forests will create a water crisis for Karnataka and Tamil Nadu (Singh 2017: 10). Apart from climatic change, the destruction of forests has caused water scarcity, which compromises the survival of local communities dependent on agriculture and paves the way for human and elephant conflict (Government of India 2013: 18–26; Antony 2017: 10).4

This article explores some deep-rooted indigenous cultural ethos of caring for the land, the trees and the animals, that still exists among the forest and agricultural tribes in Kodagu.5 The biodiversity of the forests has been conserved through a culture of restraint in the use of forest resources and by designating certain forests as sacred. Called devakadus, the cutting of trees, hunting and poaching in these sacred forests are proscribed by tribal religious sanctions.6

This article traces the alienation of the people from their environment under colonial political economy, particularly its land use and forest policies. The continuation of these policies after independence has meant that the forests are assessed more for their commercial value than their intrinsic worth. By documenting this historical process of alienation experienced by the indigenous communities, this article fills a gap in the report of the HLWG (2013). This technical report, written by geoscientists and environmentalists, provides a macro picture of the problem. It does not include in-depth, microstudies of specific areas, or elaborate on the cultural practices of various indigenous tribes and communities living in the Ghats, or critique the historical causes for their alienation.

In the writing of this history, I focus on one of the indigenous communities in Kodagu called the Kodavas. The Kodavas are a small kin-based community, who are described by 19th-century ethnographic records as “the principal tribe of the country and from time immemorial, the lords of the soil” (Richter 1870/1984: 117; Rice 1878: 218).7 As hunters and agriculturists, it is inevitable that their religion that evolved over time celebrates the earth and its bounty; each agricultural activity they undertook and each hunting expedition they went on, in the past, was an act of veneration of nature. The gods they worship resided in the sacred forests with the spirits of their ancestors walking through them. This focus on the Kodavas is not to suggest that the idea of the sacredness of the forest was restricted to the Kodavas. It was a shared ideal that protected the forests through the ages. The focus on the Kodava cultural ethos is because they dominated the socio-historical landscape of Kodagu and that the sacred groves they worship are the most numerous.

Sacred Groves

This land of dark, primeval forests, paddy fields, and green meadows, was throughout history a sparsely populated region. The cultural metaphor that defined the lives of indigenous communities, like the Kodava, Gaudas, Kembattis, Marangi, Kukka, and even the Jamaa Maaples, a Muslim community, was the veneration of the sacred groves.8 In India, this reverence for the forests finds expression in the “little traditions” of Hinduism.9 What is unique about the forest groves in Kodagu is that the Kodavas along with other agricultural, pastoralists and hunting communities forced the colonial state to recognise their rights to the sacred forests and groves (Raghavendra and Kushalappa 2011: 6). Accordingly, when the Indian Forest Act (IFA) of 1878, was made applicable to Kodagu province, vide notification No 13 of 1887, it did not deny the rights of the locals to these sacred forests. Categorised as “protected forests,” these groves were state property, but the local communities were involved in their maintenance. This entitlement was acceded to even when the more stringent regulations of the IFA, 1927 were made applicable to Kodagu, vide notification number 120 of 1930. The act, however, extended its purview over village commons and meadows (Government of Coorg 1936: 144; Utthappa 2011: 15–16).

Despite these restrictions on access to forests by the British, the people of Kodagu have been able to protect their sacred groves. What has developed is community-linked conservation practices; it means that although the forests are under the control of the forest departments, they are protected by the community, the temple trust or even an individual clan (okka). Consequently, a survey conducted by the forest department of Kodagu in 2011 reveals that there are 1,215 devakadus in Kodagu covering an area of 2,550 hectares (that is, about 2% of the district’s forestland). This means that there is at least one sacred grove in every 300 acres of land and that there is a devakadu in every village of Kodagu (Ragavendra and Kushalappa 2011).

The success that the local communities had in forcing the colonial state to recognise the entitlements of the village communities to the devakadu is significant when we consider the forest policies instated by the British who sought to protect the commercial enrichment of Britain. For the people of Kodagu, these sacred groves are the sites of worship and cultural performance of events that affirm lineage bonds and community identity. The ecological integrity of these forests is maintained through customary religious sanctions. Human entry into these areas, for worship, is also restricted (depending on the myths associated with the presiding deity) to a few hours in the morning or to a particular day of the week or month.

Some of these groves, like Chomanamale in Kadiatnadu and Iruli Bane in Kunkingeri, worshipped by the Kodavas are considered so sacred that people do not enter them. In addition, Kodagu is also dotted with sacred groves dedicated to Ayyappa, the hunter god, and Muthappa, the protector of animals, where hunting is banned, as it is believed that these are sites where the gods hunt. The Kodavas also do not hunt in the forest groves in which are located the memorial shrines (kaimadas) dedicated to their ancestors. The worship in these shrines are restricted to a clan, or a particular village or cluster of villages. In contrast, the Igguthappa, the god of agriculture, is worshipped by the entire community. It is he, who is consulted, before the commencement of the harvesting of crops. His temple in Paliknadu is a beautiful structure built in the Kerala–Dravida style, against the backdrop of an inaccessible forest grove known as the Iggutappa Devakadu. Similarly, the forests near the temple of the river goddess Cauvery in Tala Cauvery is a sacred forest left untouched by humans (Ragavendra and Kushalappa 2011: 4–10).

Most of the forest shrines I have visited are simple, unpretentious structures set against the backdrop of a rugged mountain peak, clothed in greenery. These shrines are protected by tall majestic trees and an overhanging canopy of forest vines through which sunlight filters down. The play of light on the deity carved out of a rough-hewn stone or moulded out of iron into a symbolic trident evokes a sense of timeless sanctity. The silence in the shrine is only occasionally shattered by the chirping of birds.

Along with the ritual worship conducted in these shrines, festivals are organised in the groves to affirm the unity of the community, the village or a group of villages. Some of these festivals are occasions for the coming together of different castes and communities. These forest groves located in the outskirts of the village (urukadu) are dedicated to goddesses like Bhagavathi, Bhadrakali and Chamundi. Worship in these shrines are conducted by non-Brahmin priests (Srinivas 2003: 180–81). Representatives of different communities associated with the temple ritual have specific roles to perform in these rites of worship. This apart, certain consecrated trees in each village have a circular platform, known as pavithra kata, built around it; these trees are the focal point for worship, where devotees assemble and organise cultural events. Some, though not all, pavithra katas have a crudely carved stone representation of the village deity.10

This culture of restraint in the use of earthly resources extends to all aspects of the Kodava culture. There were restraining norms observed even in forests where hunting was allowed. On certain days in the week, Kodavas did not hunt, since those were the days when god Ayyappa, the mighty hunter god, was on a hunting expedition with his dogs. People propitiated Ayyappa with offerings of terracotta images of dogs and other animals so that they were safe while on a hunt. Hunting was also restricted to certain seasons. It commenced after the worship of weapons in the festival of Kailpod. The weapons were then distributed by the clan elder with a solemn injunction restraining their use.11 The sacredness of the earth is also indicated in their songs and dances as well as the prayers offered to the river goddess Cauvery, and Igguthappa, the god of agriculture, before commencing agricultural activities.

These cultural norms in Kodagu are living traditions that are transmitted orally from one generation to another as the people celebrate the earth and the seasons in the sun. The tradition is fast losing its meaning because of the growth of market economy that has skyrocketed the commercial value of land. The questions that need answers are as follows: (i) what was the socio-economic and political frames which supported this kind of a cultural ethos; and (ii) what were the factors that triggered a shift in the approach to land and forest resources. To do this, I turn my attention towards the precolonial economy and its transformation during the colonial and postcolonial periods.

Precolonial and Colonial Kodagu

While it is not possible to trace here the ancient roots of these customary forms of worship, we can examine, from textual sources, the precolonial socio-economic structure, 200 years prior to the British annexation of Kodagu in 1834. The precolonial land use system seems to support these traditions (Wodiyar 1911). Paddy fields were divided into plots of various sizes known as wargs (holdings). Attached to these fields was the bane land demarcated by a sist (that is, a stone); these holdings were then recorded in the revenue books. The size of the bane land (largely comprising forests varied from 4 or 5 acres to 300 acres). It was intended to meet the farmer’s needs for firewood and fodder; therefore, only a small part of the bane land was cleared to grow vegetables and fruits required by the household. In addition, there were large stretches of forestland dedicated to the village deities (devakadu) and those reserved for the use of the entire village community (urukadu).

The assessment of land was only on the basis of rice cultivation at the rate of 1/10th the gross produce. The bane land was not taken into account for tax assessment. The actual tax paid by the farmers varied according to the nature of his holding. The farmers, who had hereditary rights over the land (jama ryots) and had to render military services, were entitled to tax concession while the others, sagu ryots, had to pay the full rate. Land (umbali land) gifted by the king for exemplary services was exempted from tax. The point to be noted in this discussion is the definition of what constituted “wasteland.” Under the Hukumnamma XI issued by Lingaraja Wodiyar, only paddy fields lying fallow for a certain number of years were considered wasteland. This land could be transferred to another farmer (Wodiyar 1811 in Curvengen 1911: 4–10; Lyall 1885/1936: 146–57).

Kodagu was administered as a separate province after British annexation and administered by the chief commissioner, subordinate to the Governor General, through the Resident of Mysore (Rice 1878: 25–26). After independence, Kodagu was constituted as a “C” state until its merger in 1956 with Karnataka (Kamath 1993: 103). Some of the fiscal issues confronting the colonial state included the assessment of land tax and forest policies. Regarding taxation of land, the British revenue system held that land tax could be revised from time to time unlike the earlier system of fixed land taxes. Similarly, altering the forest policies of the previous regime regarding community ownership of forests, the British policies placed forest and community land (bane) under state control; categorised as “wasteland,” this land could be auctioned by the government. Sale of this land was also encouraged. To encourage the growth of coffee plantations, the British treated forestland as “wasteland.” Most of the European and “native” estates were held under the wasteland rules, under which the land was put up for auction. The land so assessed was exempt from tax for four years and then assessed at a concessional rate.

Coffee cultivation: In the current context of environmental degradation, the HLWG report (2013) describes coffee plantations as an environment-friendly routine, because, coffee plantations require shade trees and support undergrowth. This, however, is not to downplay the historic destruction of the Ghat forests in Kodagu through the commercial introduction of coffee. Since 1854, both Europeans and Indians, destroyed extensive forestland to plant coffee. As Richter (1870/1984) writes:

Everyone who beheld a hillside covered with the rich luxuriant coffee shrubs was bewitched by its promise. Soon the Coorgs [Kodavas] too enriched by sale of forest land followed the example of the European planters and opened up large estates; public and private companies were formed to embark in lucrative speculation. Forest land was to be had from the Government for the mere asking and could be also purchased from the people. Cooly flowed in plentiful. Thousands of the finest forest land felled under the planter’s axe. (pp 95–96)

In the first three decades of the introduction of coffee, the total acreage of forests destroyed by both Europeans and Indians was 81,035. Large companies like Messrs Mateson and Co brought coffee under corporate holding by opening 7,000 acres of coffee estates in the north-eastern part of Kodagu. The wanton destruction of forests in the early years of coffee planting was because it was still at an experimental stage. Entire forests were denuded before the planters discovered the importance of shade trees for the coffee crop, which thereafter helped to conserve the forests to an extent (Elliot 1894: 275–300).

Forest laws: Under colonial rule, forests were categorised as “reserved” and “protected.” Reserved forests were intended to meet the demand for timber by the empire, while the protected forests were intended to protect its long-term interests. These laws restricted the rights of local communities but denuded the forests to meet the commercial interests of the British. Some of the finest trees, sandalwood, teak, kuve, poospar, blackwood, anjili, ebony hone, and irup were destroyed. (Richter 1870/1984: 162–72: Elliot 1894: 275–300). The IFA 1927 provided for any area of land to be notified as protected or reserved forests for colonial use. These policies exercised control over land that had multiple uses.

Postcolonial Policy

The economic frames established under colonial rule continued after independence. In Karnataka, the IFA 1927 was left unchanged until the 1970s. Forest conservation efforts, during this period, focused on timber such as teak, silver oak, and eucalyptus. It did not recognise the importance of fruit trees, plants, and shrubs to support animal and birdlife. The demand for commercial wood escalated between the 1950s and 1980s because of the growth of forest-based industries, such as paper, plywood, polyfibre, and matchwood. This demand led to timber smuggling (Kamath 1993: 114).

Concurrently, more and more forest area was brought under coffee cultivation: in the 1950s, the acreage under coffee was 44,408 acres in Kodagu, approximately 19.43% of the total planted area of coffee in India (Government of India 1953: 230). By the 1990s, the total area under coffee in Kodagu was 41,320 hectares of land, that is, 41% of the coffee grown in Karnataka (Kamath 1993: 210–41). Currently, the total area under coffee cultivation in Kodagu is 1,06,527 hectares (Coffee Board 2016). This expansion has occurred partly through the encroachment of forestland and partly through conversion of all other cultivable land to coffee. The 1990s ushered in the liberalisation of the Indian economy, which impacted the Indian coffee industry in many ways: (i) it weakened the hold that the Coffee Board of India, a cooperative of coffee growers, had over pricing and sale of coffee; (ii) it ensured a competitive price for coffee, but also escalated the cost of production; (iii) the rising cost of production alienated many small farmers from their land; and (iv) the conversion of land to other uses has not only depleted the land, but also undermined the customary ethos of caring for the earth (Poonacha 2000: 82–99).

The HLWG report (2013) sees coffee plantations as an eco-friendly option to save the forests. Historically, the rapid expansion of coffee plantations have been at the expense of the forests. Yet, undeniably coffee plantations have saved the green cover of this region. The destruction of forests, however, has meant that wild elephants are entering human habitats, making the lives of the villagers insecure. This is because the reforestation efforts have focused on commercial forestry rather than fruit trees, while no effort has been made to regenerate the water sources in the forests (Antony 2017: 10). Tourism promoted to save local economies has been through the sale of forestland for luxury hotels and getaway homes. Local communities are denied their entitlements in the name of conservation (personal interviews 2017).


This article has argued for the need to rethink development policies since the current model of economy is based on the over-utilisation of natural resources. It recalls the existence of a sustainable world view that conserves biodiversity. The lives of forest people, living in the tropical forests, were not necessarily easy; and yet the idea of the sacredness of the web of life prevailed. The representation of the sacred in Kodava cosmology was both male and female. If the male god Igguthappa presided over agriculture, it was the river goddess, Cauvery, who was the giver of life. Similarly, if the hunter god, Ayyappa, and the protector of animals, Muthappa, were represented in the sacred groves, the mother goddesess Bhagavathi, Bhadrakali, and Chamundi were worshipped in other groves. These mother goddesses are not benign consorts of male gods, they are ferocious and independent, like nature Itself.

The philosophical underpinnings of this sacred cosmology contrasts sharply with the values of domination over the earth, ushered in by colonialism into Kodagu less than 200 years ago. Colonial policies defined forests as “wasteland” and trees assessed for their commercial value rather than intrinsic worth. The continuation of this model of development, after independence, has exacerbated the destructive trend. The introduction of the coffee economy has contributed historically to the destruction of forests. However, it is now seen as eco-friendly and labelled “private forests.” This change in nomenclature serves to statistically conflate the total area under forests. It also provides the rationale for the sale of forestland to other private enterprises.

There is community rancour against these changes. The Coorg Wildlife Society and Save Kodagu, Save Cauvery campaign are struggling to protect the environment. There is political demand to break away from Karnataka in order to protect the land. However, their voices remain muted because of their lack of numerical strength. The way forward is to involve the forest communities in decisions affecting the land use in Kodagu as envisaged in the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act of 2006.


1 The HLWG was constituted by the Government of India, Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) on 17 August 2012 to suggest a holistic approach to sustainable development, while keeping in focus the preservation and conservation of ecological systems in the Western Ghats. The HLWG was expected to review the Report of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WEEP) set up earlier by the MoEF in 2011 and make fresh recommendations on protection of the Ghats. This was because various stakeholders were not happy with the stringent regulations formulated earlier by the WEEP report also known as Gadgil report.

2 The HLWG followed a detailed geospatial analysis through Satellite Remote Sensing of ESAs with the village as the unit. The ESAs are those areas which still represent a band of contiguous vegetation, rich biodiversity, low fragmentation and sparse population density. The report says that there should be no tolerance to environmental damage to these areas and efforts should be made to protect them (Government of India 2013: 43–97).

3 Examples of ill-conceived development projects include: (i) 400 KV high tension power line from Mysuru (Karnataka) to Kozhikode (Kerala) via Kodagu. It destroyed over a 1,00,000 trees; and (ii) a mini hydro-electric power plant to be located in the Brahmagiri Wildlife Sanctuary. Additionally, timber smuggling, in connivance with forest guards, illegal construction near game sanctuaries, and sand mining in the river Cauvery threaten the biodiversity of Kodagu.

4 The main crops grown in Kodagu are paddy (requiring abundance of water), cardamom and coffee. Because of the cash crops, the farmers are not necessarily poor, but water shortage and destruction of crops by elephants are making agriculture very difficult. Many farmers are abandoning paddy cultivation. The state response is to take away their land for housing projects rather than resolve the water crisis (personal interviews 2017).

5 Although sparsely populated, Kodagu like any other part of India is a complex sociocultural space. Immigration into Kodagu began after the opening up of the area to coffee plantations. The earliest migrants were Tamilian labourers from Tamil Nadu and Muslim traders from Kerala. Since the 1990s, agricultural labourers hail from far-flung states like Assam, Odisha and Bihar. The growth of tourism has also attracted many traders from Rajasthan.

6 This reverence for nature—a characteristic feature of indigenous societies—contrasts sharply with the world view shared by modern societies. Dependent on over-utilisation of natural resources, modern societies see nature as inanimate—a mechanistic conception born out of the growth of scientific developments of the 17th century. Further, the illusion that humans are at the top of the evolutionary chain, entitles them to exploit the resources of earth. In contrast, the ecologically sensitive worldview of tribal communities calls for the conservation and preservation of the natural world. It recognises that the indiscriminate destruction of planet earth will ultimately destroy us (Saraswati 2002; Knudtson and Suzuki 1992).

7 The Kodavas are not a Scheduled Tribe nor do they fit into the Hindu caste system. They are loosely located within the Hindu fold. They follow none of the rites and rituals prescribed by Hinduism.

8 The Jamma Maaples were members of the Kodava community who were taken as prisoners of war during the long-drawn-out Mysore Wars in the 18th century. On their return to Kodagu after the war, they sought integration into their former clans, but were not accepted within the Kodava fold. The point is that the deeply held belief in the sacredness of the forests continues even within a monotheistic religion like Islam in Kodagu.

9 In India, there are more than 4,125 sacred groves covering a forest area of 39,063 hectares. These groves have different names in different regions. They are called “Varan” in Rajasthan, and “Kavu” in Kerala. Karnataka has a rich heritage of sacred groves, called naga bana in Dakshina Kannada district and kaan in Uttar Kannada district (Ragavendra and Kushalappa 2011).

10 These devakadus in Kodagu can be categorised as follows: (i) those that belong to temples such as the Jina Basdi Kadu; (ii) privately-managed devakadus, such as the Muthappa devara kadu in Nemmale, Machangala devakadu in Kottangeri, and Bhadrakali devakadu in Balamuri; (iii) Paisari deva kadus that are located on government land and managed by the village community; (iv) Hole devakadu belonging to the aboriginal communities such as the Kembatti, Marangi and Kukka tribes; and (v) Karanova kadu or groves that are preserved in the memory of the ancestors. There are approximately 165 dieties revered in these forest groves (Raghavendra and Kushalappa 2011).

11 A traditional Kodava household was a joint family with the members of the clan living together in their ancestral homes. The weapons were stored in the sacred room and only taken out when required. The clan members no longer live in their ancestral homes. But they do get together for ceremonial occasions and for the celebrations of life cycle events of any clan member.


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Elliot, Robert H (1894): “Coffee Planting in Coorg,” Gold Sport and Coffee Planting in Mysore, Robert Henry Elliot and Alex Struik (eds), Westminster: Archibald Constable and Co.

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Updated On : 6th Jul, 2018


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