Sacred groves are tracts of virgin forests that have cultural or spiritual significance for the people who live around them. They have been protected by communities around the world for a variety of reasons, including religious practices, burial grounds, and water shed value. As a result of this the rich biodiversity of these forests are protected.
In Meghalaya sacred groves represent a long tradition of environmental conservation based on indigenous knowledge by the tribal communities. They are among the few least disturbed forest patches which are serving as the natural treasure house of biodiversity and a refuge for a large number of endemic, endangered and rare taxa. The general term for sacred groves in the Khasi Hills is 'Khlaw Kyntang' or 'Law Kyntang' or 'Law Lyngdoh' while in the Jaintia Hills it is called 'Khloo Blai'. The sacred groves in the Khasi Hills and Jaintia Hills District are fundamentally based on the traditional religious belief of the tribals i.e., Khasis and Pnars, which is called Seng Khasi and Niam Tre respectively. They believed that a forest deity called 'Ryngkew', 'Basa' or 'Labasa' in the local language, resides in these sacred groves which protects and provide for the well being of the village community. In these forests cutting of trees, plucking of flowers, fruits, twigs are not allow and it is believed that if done so, the deity would get offended and caused bad things. Various rites and rituals are performed periodically in these forests. There are 79 sacred forests covering approximately 9000 ha. Area with average size varying from 0.01 ha to 1200 ha (Tiwari et al., 1999).
At least 50 rare and endangered plant species of Meghalaya are confined to these groves (Tiwari et al., 1998). Recently, about 125 sacred groves in the state have been surveyed and mapped by the Meghalaya Forests Department as a part of an ongoing exercise
Remarks of various authors on Sacred Groves:
- Considered as a sanctuary of ancient angiosperms and the Cradle of flowering plants where angiosperms have diversified. (Takhtajan 1969)
- Represent the sole remaining natural forests outside of protected areas and may be key reservoirs of biodiversity.
- Conserve habitats that are not represented in the current protected area network.(Bhagwat & Rutte 2006)
- Are relic forests and may be the only remaining climax vegetation of an area, although now disturbed as a result of human actions (Gadgil & Vartak 1976; Khiewtam & Ramakrishnan 1989; Kalam 1998; Tiwari etal. 1998; Upadhya et al. 2008)
- Provide ecosystem services, such as erosion control, maintenance of water quality (Tiwari et al. 1998), conservation of soil, maintenance of hydrological cycle and natural dispersal of seeds of useful species. (Khan et al. 2008)
- Are moist tropical and humid subtropical forests.(Upadhya et al. 2003)
- Posses a great heritage of diverse gene pool of many forest species. (Khan et al. 2008)
- Serve as a home for birds and mammals, and hence, they indirectly help in the conservation of living organism. (Islam et al. 1998)
- Helps in maintaining the desirable health of ecosystems, reduce habitat destruction, conserve the viable population of pollinators and predators, serve as the potential source of propagules that are required for colonization of wastelands and fallows, conserve the indigenous flora and fauna and preserve the cultural and ethical practices developed through indigenous knowledge of generations. (Ramakrishnan and Ram 1988; Godbole et al. 1998; Godbole and Sarnaik 2004; Tiwari et al. 1998 a,b; Singh et al. 1998)
Studies on Biodiversity of Sacred Groves:
- Jamir and Pandey (2003) measured the plant species diversity of three sacred groves and found a total of 395 species, 14% of which were endemics.
- Tiwari et al. (1998) found that species diversity was much higher in sacred forests than in disturbed forests.
- Upadhya et al. (2003) studied two sacred groves in Meghalaya and found that the sacred groves had high species richness and represented high diversity forests
- Khan et al. (1997) surveyed the botanical literature for Meghalaya and realised that 4% of species (133) were found only in sacred groves
- A total of 546 vascular plants, were recorded from the five sacred groves of Jaintia Hills of Meghalaya (Upadhya 2002, Jamir and Pandey 2003)
- 91 species encountered in five sacred groves in Meghalaya are either rare, endangered in Meghalaya or endemic to North East India or Meghalaya. Out the 91 species, 60 species are endemic to North East India or Eastern Himalayas and 51 are rare to Meghalaya and 26 species are endemic to Meghalaya
Sacred groves in Meghalaya are now increasingly coming under threat as the tribal way of life changes. The area under sacredgroves is also shrinking and quite a few have been turned into degraded forests. The erosion of traditional values and deterioration of sacred groves in recent times is, however, as a matter for concern.