12 December 2006

Sacred Grove

Like many countries throughout the world, India has a long history of nature worship, and that practice continues today, especially through the veneration of forest groves. These sacred groves, which are dedicated to local deities or ancestral spirits, are protected by local communities through social traditions and taboos that incorporate spiritual and ecological values.

Thousands of sacred groves remain and many villages continue to observe traditional practices.

Each sacred grove has a residing deity and folklore associated with it. They are usually dedicated to one of the following:

Village gods and/or ancient spirits;
Snake gods and/or an incarnation of Vishnu,
Shaivite gods (located in dense forests);
Vaishnavite gods (located in dense forests).

The village sacred groves are generally dedicated to Amman, the goddess of fertility and good health.

From time immemorial, certain trees and plants in India have been invested with divine attributes. Hindus have been taught to worship and revere trees and plants in the belief that it would influence their own personal well-being. Evergreen trees were regarded as symbols of eternal life and to cut them down was to invite the wrath of the gods. Groves in forests were looked upon as habitations of the Gods.

The banyan tree occupies the pride of place amongst the sacred trees of India. It has aerial roots that grow down into the soil forming additional trunks. It is, therefore, called bahupada, the one with several feet. It symbolizes a long life and also represents the divine creator, Brahma. It is invariably planted in front of temples. The numerous stems of the banyan tree are even regarded as the home of gods and spirits. It was under a banyan tree that the Hindu sages sat in a trance seeking enlightenment and it was here that they held discourses and conducted holy rituals.

The trees generally associated with sacred groves are the Banyan, Peepul and Neem trees.

In Tamil Nadu there has always been a strong tradition of nature worship and animism. Adjacent to the land of Rangammal School for the Hearing Impaired, there is a small, perfect grove with a beautiful banyan tree and a stone icon representation of Kali Ma. This sacred site has been revered by local villagers for an indeterminate time.

I was fortunately able to be present during a puja at the Sacred Grove and was able to hear about a fascinating experience one of the local teachers had at the shrine.

She told me that years back, after hearing about the Sacred Grove, she decided to visit it and pray to the representation there of the Divine Mother in the form of Kali Ma. When she arrived at the Grove there was a live cock hanging upside down from the metal frame on the left hand side of the stone icon. (The frame actually says OM in the Tamil language).

The frightened confused cock severely hurt himself on the protruding metal prongs and it got messy and nasty at the shrine. Frightened and distressed the teacher ran back to the school leaving everything as she found it. She was to learn that a black magician had tied the cock upside down at the Kali Ma icon as part of a magic ritual that he was performing for a client. For the teacher things were getting worse and worse. First the cock and now a black magician! So, believing that the place was cursed, she vowed never to go back to Kali Ma at the Sacred Grove.

Unexpectedly a mysterious, unknown stranger went to the teacher and told her not to be frightened and that he had 'spiritually cleansed the Sacred Grove and Kali Ma wanted her to come each month and perform puja there.'

Since that time now many years ago, the teacher regularly goes to the Sacred Grove. Also once a month, as commanded by the Divine, she performs worship at the Kali Ma shrine. She told me that she has found answers to all her prayers at the Sacred Grove and she knew it to be an extraordinary and powerful site where wishes come true.

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