Home Feature Forests are temples

Forests are temples

By Hugh & Colleen Gantzer
We have been reading an article under the byline of Pramod Dalakoti, TNN. Its headline reads ‘AFTER PM’S VISIT, 1k +TREES IN JAGESHWAR TO BE AXED’. These trees are the very valuable Himalayan Cedar or Deodar. The word Deodar comes from the Sanskrit word “devadaru” which means wood of the Gods.
These stately trees are respected in their own right. But the report also goes on to say that the Jogeshwar Dham is a group of 125 shrines under the Archaeological Survey of India. It is situated in a deodar forest area where these trees are revered as Shiva-Parvati, Ganesh and the Pandava brothers.
The head priest of Jageshwar temple, Hemant Bhatt, is quoted saying: “These trees are extremely sacred for us.” Clearly, therefore, this is a sacred forest. Such forests are found all over India. In Kerala they are referred to as Sarpa kavus, or snake shrines. In Meghalaya they can be entered only by the priestly Lyngdoh Clan. In Karnataka we sat in a dense forest and witnessed a tribal ceremony in worship of forest deities. In the Nilgiris we were privileged to join a congregation of Todas where a girl placed a lamp in a hollow tree to acknowledge the paternity of her expected child. In a forest glade in Kerala we were privileged to take part in a shamanistic ritual where a devotee became possessed and began to foretell future events. Also in Kerala we were blessed by the Head Priestess of a forested snake shrine by raising her hand cupped to represent the hood of a cobra. Then, in Odissa we visited the most famous forest shrine in India: the Jagannath Temple.
Lord Jagannath, his sister Subhadra and their brother Balabadra are the principal deities of this famous temple. Legend has it that they were brought to Puri from their original tribal homes in a dense forest. They are still totemic wooden deities carved from specially chosen neem trees. Once every zodicial cycle, 3 new deities are carved. Then, on the chosen night a blindfolded priest uses his covered hand to extract the “spirit substance” from the hollowed interior of the old deities and places them carefully in the newly carved idols. This is their consecration. No one knows what this ‘spirit substance’ is. When the newly carved deities have been consecrated, the old de-consecrated images are buried.
Much of the reverence given to neem trees must have risen because of their highly reputed medicinal properties. This also applies to the deodar. But, quite apart from the pragmatic reason why some trees are held in high regard, the fact is that this entire wooded area is worshipped as a sacred forest. A sacred forest is a green temple and must be given due reverence. It is also an ecological power house spreading its rejuvenating properties far beyond its boundaries. Its canopy of trees break the force of rain and hail, its wide-spreading roots stop erosion, and its aquifers recharge springs, green the land, and this in turn enhances the natural web of life. The winds carry seeds beyond its boundaries, the foliage of its trees captures carbon dioxide, increases oxygen and pumps carbon into the sink of its timber.
In short, it creates the only long-term self-sustaining answer to the growing menace of climate change. We wonder why our Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change has been crashingly silent about the menace of the proposed felling of the 1,000 deodar trees in this sacred forest. We strongly suspect the malign presence of the voracious timber lobby. Deodars are among the most valued timber species in our State. But we must remind our babus and netas with iching palms that elections are not won on facts but on perceptions.
We have noted the insidious way that the Prime Minister has been inserted into the scheme of felling worshipped trees in a sacred forest. Nowhere has anyone said that the PM has approved the massacre of 1,000 sacred deodars. That, however, is the impression that seeks to be conveyed by the Timber Lobby.
Finally, ancient temples whether of stone or cedar should not be destroyed.

(Hugh & Colleen Gantzer hold the National Lifetime Achievement Award for Tourism among other National and International awards. Their credits include over 52 halfhour documentaries on national TV under their joint names, 26 published books in 6 genres, and over 1,500 first-person articles, about every Indian state, UT and 34 other countries. Hugh was a Commander in the Indian Navy and the Judge Advocate, Southern Naval Command. Colleen is the only travel writer who was a member of the Travel Agents Association of India.) (The opinions and thoughts expressed here reflect only the authors’ views!).