Jharkhand’s sacred groves generally referred to as Sarna or Sarna sthal, are central to the Adivasi communities’ culture and heritage. These patches of forests with saal trees and a cluster of other tree species are places of worship for the Adivasis (indigenous people) in the state.
Groves, which are being worshipped since times immemorial are a cluster of trees where gods, goddesses, spirits are believed to reside. No one really knows for sure when and how humanity embarked on the veneration of trees and groves.
The utterance of the term ‘temple’ evokes in our mental canvas a precise structure of a building belonging to the Hindu, Jain, Buddhist or the Sikh faith. But prior to the emergence of classical religions that had prompted humanity to build imposing structures of worship and prayer, humankind worshipped in caves, rivers, waterholes, stones, megaliths, trees and sacred groves which were and still are their temples since hoary antiquity.
Sarnas found in abundance in the central and the southern parts of the state are temple groves of the Munda, Oraon, Asur, Baiga, Santhal, Ho, et al tribes. Much akin to panchwati of the Hindus, a Sarna too should house at least five trees. The only difference is that these five trees in a sarna should be saal a.k.a. sarjhoum (Shorea robusta). Saal, the holiest of the trees of the Adivasis is not sacred to the Hindus as for them it is the Banyan (Ficus benglaensis) or the peepal (Ficus religiosa).
Ritualistic oblations in sacred groves are still performed by numerous Adivasi and Hindu communities and even by people who have not completely deserted their aboriginal way of worship neither have they wholly adopted the Hindu mode of praying. This latter set of people who are colossal in number across the country worship and celebrate both tribal and Hindu deities and festivals respectively including a few of their own, adopt the non-Brahmanical mode of worship by appointing non-Brahmanical priests.
According to Prof. Subhashis Das, we may trace the worship of trees possibly both to the fecundity cult of hoary times when trees were held as deities of fertility and to the trepidation of forests owing to the prevailing belief in spirits; both malevolent and benevolent who are believed to dwell in jungles and trees, who rescued mankind in times of disease and trouble, if men were able to win the spirits’ favours.
The patches of forests with saal and a cluster of other trees such as mahua, neem and banyan among others, are places of worship for the Adivasis in the state. Saal is a must in these groves because the indigenous communities believe that Singh Bonga, the supreme deity, resides in the saal tree. Felling of trees, harming animals and plucking leaves are usually forbidden in these sacred spaces.
The prevailing belief among the communities and the tribes that worship in the different groves is that the gods, goddesses, spirits (could also be of the ancestors), or the benign bongas that dwell in them; all protect them and their families, cattle, their agriculture and villages from any looming menace.
The ancient sacred Hindu texts mentions about four types of sacred groves e.g. panchvati, sreevan, tapovan and mahavan. Mention of sacred groves can be found in a few ancient Sanskrit texts like that in Vrikshayurveda and even in Kalidasa’s Vikramorvashiyam. The Jain, the Buddhist and the Tamil Sangam literature also mention these groves.
Groves, which are being worshipped since times immemorial are significant spots of biodiversity too besides being a priceless heritage of our nation that should be preserved for posterity.