A tradition of maintaining sacred groves and forests still survives in India . Many trees are considered to be sacred and plants reverred for their medicinal value were protected since ancient times, in these groves and forests. As these patches of forests are associated with some diety, there are generally taboos against felling of any trees, collection of fire wood and sometimes, even against the plucking of leaves or removing of dead wood.
As the natural forests have dwindled with the advance of human settlements and the spread of agriculture , these ‘Sacred groves’ form little pockets of virgin forests that have conserved the original flora and fauna of the area.
Recently, I visited the sacred grove ‘Nagvechi rai’ in Bicholim taluka in North Goa. The word ‘Rai’ denotes a sacred grove or forest in Konkani. The village ‘Nagve’ which it is associated with has been depopulated and resettled in historical times, hence any ancient traditions associated with this ‘rai’ have been lost. There are several carved stone plaques of the Goddess within the grove which the local people still worship, yet no legend persists of when they were placed in the grove.
The plaque of Gajalaksmi is the largest among the stone sculptures scattered in the forest. The two elephants pouring water on the enthroned Goddess Lakshmi symbolise the live giving monsoon rains that have always brought prosperity and rejuvenation to India.
Not far away stands the plaque to ‘Tarini’ the Goddess on the boat, who ensures safe passage and was the patron goddess of riverine trade in ancient times. Note the two rowers on her boat and the fish jumping out of the water.
Two more statues of the Goddesses Brahmanimaya and Kelbai are also placed nearby. The villagers have started a recent trend of dedicating one stone block to the grove for every house built in the village, hoping to eventually build a temple enclosing the deities, a plan vehmently opposed by historians and nature lovers.
WIth the villagers protecting this grave from any human interference , it was beautiful to see how nature had slowly come into her own. The webs of ground spiders sprawled around the ground, with the hunters ,who were waiting in ambush, retreating deeper into the funnels as we peeped in.
Seasonal wildflowers were in bloom and the calls of Langur monkeys and Pied Hornbills resounded through the grove.