Kerala’s eco-friendly serpent abodes disappearing (Feature)

April 12th, 2010 - 1:01 pm ICT by IANS  

By T.G. Biju
Kochi, April 12 (IANS) They are age-old ecological havens - groves with thickly foliaged trees, shrubs, lizards and frogs in abundance and snakes like the cobra as the reigning god. Now these sacred ’sarpa kavu’, or shrines dedicated to the serpent god dotting the Kerala countryside, are fast disappearing and the state government has stepped in to conserve them.

Thousands of these sacred serpent groves - small forests attached to temples surrounded by agriculture land - owned mostly by Nair and Brahmin families through generations are facing a threat to their existence due to collapse of the joint family system and the changing socio-economic scenario.

“The major threats to the existence of the sacred groves in Kerala are the disappearance of the old joint family system (tharavadu) and partition of the family property as well as the changing socio-economic scenario,” says a state forests and wildlife department report.

In most cases, the shrine and its surrounding areas are inherited by people who have no faith in the serpent god or no interest in maintaining the sanctity of the kavu, it said. “In such instances, either the kavu will be totally denied or sometimes only the deity will be retained and the big trees and the habitat will be totally converted for other purposes,” it said.

In some cases, the new generation keeps only a symbolic representation of the grove by keeping just the oldest or the largest tree in the grove.

In the olden days, when the joint family system was in vogue, maintenance of the kavu was easy because the pooled-in family wealth went towards upkeep of the temple and its rituals.

The Kerala government is keen to preserve these groves.

Environment and Forest Minister Binoy Viswam told IANS: “We are going to launch a state-wide campaign next week to create awareness among the people about the importance of the sacred groves in our eco-system.”

In the first phase of the campaign, the state government would give Rs.20,000 to trusts that own sacred groves. The money would go towards identifying the rare trees and herbs found in the groves, Viswam said. The state government is also planning such aid to families that own sarpa kavus.

“On a rough estimate Kerala has about 5,000 small and big sarpa kavus,” the minister said.

P.N. Kesavan Nair, a retired school principal, said the decline of the sarpa kavu is a severe blow to the ecological system of the state. “Most of the sacred groves owned by traditional Nair families in my village have been destroyed,” said Nair, who is now settled in Kochi city.

The size of the sacred groves vary from small patches of land to as much as 20 hectares.

“The vegetation in the groves is luxuriant and with multi-layered trees mixed with shrubs, lianas (woody vines) and herbs. The ground is humus-laden and abundant with fungus and ferns,” says the forests and wildlife department report.

The sacred groves act as an abode for many rare, endemic, endangered plant species as well as those with medicinal properties. Besides preserving biological diversity, these groves are also responsible for water and soil conservation.

“This is evident from the perennial nature of ponds, wells and tanks, which are situated near the sacred groves. The fertility of the agro-ecosystems is very high due to the humus and nutrients generated in the sacred groves,” it adds.

(T.G. Biju can be contacted at

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