Sacred groves are patches of forest that rural communities protect and revere as sacrosanct. It is a reflection of ancient values of reverence for nature. Declaring a patch of forest near villages as sacred and protecting it on the grounds of religious and cultural beliefs is an age-old practice in many parts of India. Sacred groves also play a crucial role in the preservation of biological diversity. There are thousands of sacred groves in India. Sacred groves are known by different names in different regions as Than or Madaico in Assam, Matagudi, Devgudi in Chattisgarah, Dev Van in Himachal Pradesh, Jaherthan or Sarana in Jharkhand, Devarakaadu or Kans in Karnataka, Kaavu in Kerala, Devrai or Devgudi in Maharashtra, Umang Lai in Manipur, Law Kyntang in Meghalaya, Jahera or Thakuramma in Orissa, Orans in Rajasthan, Kovilkaadu in Tamil Nadu, Bugyal or Dev Van in Uttarakhand and Garamthan or Jahiristhan in West Bengal.
Some of the most magnificent sacred groves in the country are found in the Khasi Hills of Meghalaya, where almost every village is said to have had a grove, known locally as the law kyntangs. There are at least eighty sacred groves in Meghalaya alone. Mawphlang is probably the most well preserved among them and Ahalya and myself were keen to have a glimpse of it during our visit to the region.
After a short drive through enchanting landscapes we arrived at the small town of Mawphlang. A local guide was kind enough to accompany us. We drove past the entrance gate managed by a youngster in traditional attire after paying a small fee (the sacred grove is looked after and managed by the local community). What I saw would remain etched in my memory forever.
Rising up from the flat, barren landscape stood a vast green mass of trees. It was an incredibly beautiful sight. Outside the sacred groves there were clusters of ancient monoliths. These monoliths are stone structures that serve as respectful reminders of elders in the community who have passed away. I was informed that the vertical ones signify men, while the horizontal ones represent women.
As we entered the hallowed grounds, the light seemed to dim considerably. Inside it was dense and dark in complete contrast to the surrounding. The ground beneath was uncannily soft, with patches of green carpets of fallen leaves. Giant roots covered with thick moss spread across the ground. The majestic presence of each and every tree envelops you as you make your way in the warm, lush forest. The grove is reported to have more than four hundred different species of trees. It was truly as magical as I had imagined it. I feel sometimes that the network of the trees in the forest is much akin to neural and social networks!
The guide informed that not even a twig can be taken from the forest. Harm and misery befalls anyone who attempts to do so. It is also believed that the spirits and deities that reside in the groves protect the local population from various kinds of calamities. While showing us the wonders of the grove, he gently picked up a seed that is popularly called ‘Rudraksh’ and used in many religious ceremonies. After explaining to us its significance, he put it back where he found it. As we walked along in the dense forest, there were more megalithic stone structures. These stones are silent witnesses to numerous traditional beliefs and legends about the sacred forest, revered and preserved by local Khasi community.
I was also told that Maw means stone and phlang means grass. The Mawphlang sacred grove is believed to be the home of two guardian deities — one in the shape of a leopard (khlathapsim), believed to be the benevolent one, and the other in the form of a snake (bsein), deemed the opposite. According to local mythology, those who have seen the leopard god have led a life of prosperity, while those who have encountered the other deity, have been showered with afflictions. Wish I had a glimpse of the leopard!
Mawphlang was not merely an expression or representation of sacredness….it was sacredness itself ..
As Seneca commented eons ago, "When you enter a grove peopled with ancient trees, higher than the ordinary, and shutting out the sky with their thickly inter-twined branches, do not the stately shadows of the wood, the stillness of the place remind you that you are in the presence of a deity?”
More eloquently in the words of Lord Byron…
"There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore…
I love not man the less, but Nature more."