Conservation Experience: Ecofeminism helps expand sacred groves in India

Ecofemists help expand sacred groves in India 2

The Sacred Natural Site Initiative regularly features “Conservation Experiences” of custodians, protected area managers, scientists and other’s. This time we are featuring the experience of Ms. Radhika Borde who has worked with and supported Adivasi culture and development both, as a researcher and activist. Radhika is currently a PhD. researcher at Wageningen University and Research Centre in the Netherlands and undertakes field research in india.  Click here for a full report on “Ecofeminism helps expand sacred groves in India”.


East-Central India is home to a great number of sacred groves. It is believed that these groves house a deity called Sarna Mata. According to local beliefs, Sarna Mata has grown unhappy with the deterioration she has witnessed in these groves over the past decades. Now, she expresses herself in the minds of local indigenous women, in the form of possession trances. This has given rise to a movement of protection, revitalisation and re-creation of sacred groves. These groves typically consist of a cluster of primarily Sal (Shorea robusta) trees, along with a few examples of other tree species.


The Sarna Mata movement is a peculiar case as its origin seems to lie in a spontaneous religious revival of the worship of Earth-based spiritual deity Sarna Mata by women of primarily the Oraon tribe. Sarna Mata is a pre-Sanskritic indigenous goddess and has long been understood to be the female compatriot of the supreme male deity.

While women’s participation was taboo in the traditional ritualistic worship of sacred groves, women now form the core of religious activities. According to these women, this radical change took shape during possession trances in which they believe themselves possessed by the Sarna Mata deity. While in the grip of possession, these women would vocalize what they believed to be the goddess’s anger at the deterioration of the societal scene, the environment and most specifically, her wrath at the neglect of the sacred groves where she presided. Women who experienced these possession trances in the early phases of the movement report being led to sacred natural sites that had been forgotten by their communities. The discovery of Sarna Mata in the depths of her own consciousness has provided these women and others with the energy to take up the cause of the regeneration of sacred groves – a task to which they are dedicating themselves with the greatest zeal. Nowadays, this movement consists of numerous Sarna Mata groups, spread throughout the region of East-Central India.


These sacred groves cut across all categories with regard to the levels of threat experienced by them. Some are protected, others threatened and endangered. As a result of the ecofeminist Sarna movement, more and more groves are being protected. The threats to these sacred natural sites are primarily the threats to the ecofeminist movement, rather than direct threats to the local ecosystems. The most prominent and obvious threat to this movement is Indian patriarchy. The expectation of feminine submissiveness is widespread in India and as a result the ecofeminist movement is looked upon with suspicion by some social groups. Cases of men attacking women who enter sacred natural sites have occurred. In other cases, ritualising women have been accused of witchcraft.


The groups of women who meet in the sacred groves that are located in almost every village cluster in the region are interested in forming themselves into bodies known as self-help groups, sponsored by the state and NGOs. These would function as micro-financing units, and would also enable women to initiate micro-enterprises involving the manufacture and sale of handmade products.

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