In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Sacred Trees, Groves, and Forests

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews: Environmental Histories
  • Textbooks: Arboriculture

Hinduism Sacred Trees, Groves, and Forests
Albertina Nugteren
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0192


The topic of sacred trees, forests, and groves may be seen as a subset of various entwinements between the natural and the religio-cultural. In many sacred geographies, the botanical continues to connect the present with the past, the material with the symbolic, and the contemporary ecological with the traditionally sacred. Most people—and even residents commuting certain urban trajectories on a daily basis—may tend to look past India’s ubiquitous tree shrines. Sacred trees are so much a part of the visual “wallpaper” of Hindu lived religion and street life that they are often overlooked. This is different for a number of trees with iconic status, such as the Great Banyan in the Botanical Garden at Howrah, Kolkata, or the banyan on the premises of the Theosophical Society in Adyar, Chennai. Some of these landmark trees have official heritage status. In addition, we find devotional claims about “incarnations” of mythology-derived prototypes, such as an akṣayavaṭa (immortal banyan tree), a kalpavṛkṣa (wish-fulfilling tree) or a pārijāta (paradise tree). Individual trees may be accorded sacrality for various reasons, and we see this expressed in ritual, spatial, and material practices. In the case of sacred groves and forests, we notice the same intertwinement of the botanical and the cultural, but on a grander spatial scale and in another register. A ritual focus on a particular tree or a particular sacred center within such a grove or forest often coexists with various degrees of resource exploitation and slackening of taboos outside the ritual center. Sacred groves and forests may have been numerous in the distant past, and as such have left multiple traces in Indian heritage, varying from cultural dichotomies between civilized life and wilderness embedded in Hindu art, temple architecture, and epic literature to ongoing associations with seasonal festivals, ancestral traditions, timber, medicine, and the generally numinous. Historically, as a result of, among other things, Mauryan state tax systems, changes in ownership and stewardship, population pressure, shifts in value and belief systems, and overall commoditization of land and its produce, there has been a gradual decrease of forested landscapes in both quantity and quality. Since the reappraisal of such groves and forests as hot spots of biodiversity some decades ago, they have become the focus of renewed national and international attention, but their ecological and cultural “sanctity” has proven to be no guarantee of effective conservation. This bibliography starts with General Overviews: Environmental Histories. This historical overview of the modes of interaction between increasing human populations and the natural world is followed by Textbooks: Arboriculture. In this section, traditional knowledge of cultivation is reassessed in view of contemporary interests. Today, such early “scientific” manuals are increasingly referred to, not merely because of the relevant scientific-technical knowledge they contain, but also because they play a significant role in multilayered postcolonial efforts to redefine the Hindu heritage. The two main sections are Sacred Trees, and Sacred Groves and Forests, which include various subsections on related themes. The article concludes with Critical Discourses, consisting of four critical debates on the nexus of religion, nature, and culture, as they are (or could be) relevant to both the academic study of Hinduism and “on-the-ground” environmental activism.

General Overviews: Environmental Histories

Depending on the approach and time period, general volumes on the Indian habitat, including the topic of (sacred) trees, groves, and forests, may vary greatly. In recent decades, some valuable environmental histories of South Asia have appeared. These historiographies focus on the crucial reciprocal relationship between inhabitants and their environment. Hill 2008 offers the most succinct overview, ranging from the prehistoric to the present, and covering the entire subcontinent: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. Grove, et al. 1998 offers the most comprehensive treatment. Arnold and Guha 1995 includes rich scholarship focused on India in terms of local variations on global patterns. The title of Gadgil and Guha 1992, This Fissured Land, is indicative of the tone of alarm both authors use. Sivaramakrishnan 2009 is written from the point of forest history. Sinha, et al. 1997 and Squatriti 2007 challenge the general “new traditionalist” tendency to assume a precolonial pre-urban equilibrium.

  • Arnold, David, and Ramachandra Guha, eds. Nature, Culture, Imperialism: Essays on the Environmental History of South Asia. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1995.

    Provides studies of various phases in India’s environmental history, but, partly as a result of its focus on imperialism, some articles tend to present local variations as degradations mono-causally brought about by imperial inroads and colonial interventions.

  • Gadgil, Madhav, and Ramachandra Guha, eds. This Fissured Land: An Ecological History. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1992.

    It is argued that the transition from early hunter-gatherer societies to extensive agricultural ones led to an environmental crisis as early as the 4th century CE. The editors eloquently yet honestly speak of a patchwork of prudence and profligacy over millennia. A village-level conservation system of prudent resource use, partly inspired by religious ethics, proved to be a relatively successful response until British rule with its colonial forestry practices.

  • Grove, Richard, Vinita Damodaran, and Satpal Sangwan, eds. Nature and the Orient: An Environmental History of South and Southeast Asia. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998.

    Detailed passages on, for instance, indigenous plant knowledge, the impact of colonial forestry, and ongoing coal mining, as well as cosmo-geographies and sedentarization processes of India’s tribal communities, provide welcome insights into locally varying environmental economies.

  • Hill, Christopher V. South Asia: An Environmental History. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2008.

    Ranging from prehistory to the present, this volume offers the first chronologically organized environmental history of the Asian subcontinent. Especially useful is the historiography of the Mauryan Empire, which gives an indication of early state commoditization of forests and fields. Simultaneously, it was the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka who initiated the best-known ancient state-sponsored social tree-planting and conservation campaign.

  • Sinha, Subir, Shubhra Gururani, and Brian Greenberg. “The ‘New Traditionalist’ Discourse of Indian Environmentalism.” Journal of Peasant Studies 24.3 (1997): 65–99.

    DOI: 10.1080/03066159708438643

    Provides an alternative reading of Indian environmental history. Among other things, the authors contest that women, forest-dwellers, and peasants were primarily the keepers of a special conservationist ethic, a narrative that has gained traction among ecofeminists such as Vandana Shiva; as well as the neo-traditionalist claim that colonialism, modernity, and development were exclusively responsible for the degradation of nature in India.

  • Sivaramakrishnan, K. “Forests and the Environmental History of Modern India.” Journal of Peasant Studies 36.2 (2009): 299–324.

    DOI: 10.1080/03066150902928280

    Written from the vantage point of forest history, this essay explores the definitions and management of boundaries between wildness and civility in relation to various aspects of social life in modern India. By looking at environmental history through the lens of “lived landscapes,” the author is both syncretic (by leaning on the scholarship of many others in various fields) and innovative.

  • Squatriti, Paoli. “Introduction: Nature’s Past and Present Environmental Histories.” In Natures Past: The Environment and Human History. Edited by Paoli Squatriti, 1–15. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007.

    When looking closer at the spatial dimensions of changes through long-duration studies, there is little evidence for a pre-Mughal and precolonial equilibrium. Instead, the use of land, water, wildlife, and trees in various historical moments and regional transformations has varied depending on transregional trade, wars disrupting artisanal productivity, in- and out-migrations, and the rise and fall of landed gentry.

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