The importance of India's sacred tree groves to climate change

The preservation of sacred trees and tree groves is paramount in the fight against rampant deforestation in India. This is a unique practice that sadly is in decline;  in the interest of cleaner air and healthy communities, it needs to be promoted and preserved, not only amongst the Indian population but worldwide.

Louise Fowler-Smith May 29, 2024
Ancient terracotta horses dedicated to Aiyanar, the deity of the natural world, Tamil Nadu


It is not Christ who is crucified now; it is the tree itself, and on the bitter gallows of human greed and stupidity. Only suicidal morons, in a world already choking with death, would destroy the best natural air conditioner creation affords.[1]

John Fowles

It is undeniable that the most important issue for humanity now is climate change.  The level of CO2 in the atmosphere is presently the highest it has been in 750,000 years. Scientists have warned us that if humans continue to emit dangerous greenhouse gases the planet will warm at a greater rate and that the changes to the climate system will cause severe, irreversible impacts on people and ecosystems.

A significant percentage of total greenhouse gas emitted into the atmosphere is caused by agriculture, forestry and other land use.[2] Deforestation is particularly devastating because forests absorb carbon dioxide but when the forest is cleared it releases it, making deforestation an important source of carbon emissions.

But deforestation is still occurring at an alarming rate. According to the WWF (Worldwide Fund for Nature) 46-58 thousand square miles of forest are destroyed each year. Over the past 8,000 years humanity has destroyed approximately half of the world’s forests, mostly to enable agriculture. Scientists have estimated that since 1850, 30 percent of all carbon emissions have been as a result of deforestation.[3]

It has become obvious that governments alone cannot be relied upon to adequately protect the natural environment. Alternative agents of change need to be found.

India's sacred tree groves 
In 2003 I made my first research trip to India to learn more about sacred trees and tree groves. I knew that sacred tree groves had existed across most of the planet historically, but had ceased with the rise of monotheistic religions, such as Christianity. From the Middle Ages onward, the destruction of sacred groves in Europe ensued unabated, with the biggest impact happening in the 14th century when wood became a marketable product. The woodlands of central Europe had been destroyed by the 18th century, resulting in areas of unfertile wasteland. It has been estimated that the continent that we now call the USA was covered by 3.2 million sq km of forest before European settlement, with the forests along the Pacific coast considered the largest non-tropical rain forests on the planet. By the 21st century, only five percent of that original woodland remained.[4]
In India, however sacred trees and tree groves, some of which cover acres of land, have been preserved for centuries based on the belief that deities reside within them that in turn provide protection for the surrounding villages. It has been stated that India has the highest number of sacred groves globally, with estimates suggesting as many as 100,000 across the country.[5]
Reverence for nature is embedded in Indian religious culture, spanning many of the country’s traditions. Rather than denying indigenous beliefs several of India’s religions share an animistic worldview, centred on the idea that everything in nature is alive with spirit, making humans kin to animals, plants, and all things in the cosmos. Importantly, there are communities in India who still perceive trees as auspicious forms, to be venerated and protected. It is this broadening of the perception of the tree that interests me. How we perceive the natural world directly correlates with how we respond to it.

After witnessing the first example of tree veneration in a small tree grove in India, I realised the importance of this practice to the preservation of those trees. In my quest to discover more, I travelled across seventeen states of India over a ten-year period, taking hundreds of photographs, recording oral histories, and interviewing anthropologists and botanists who specialised in the field. This extensive research resulted in the publication of the book Sacred Trees of India: Adornment and Adoration as an Alternative to the Commodification of Nature, which seeks a renewed relationship with nature and argues that if humanity perceives the natural world as separate and exploitable, rather than as connected, honoured, respected and even worshipped, the chasm that has developed over generations between humanity and the natural world will only widen. More information about the book may be found here.

Sacred groves under threat

However, with the modernisation of India, sacred trees and groves are under threat, overwhelmed by the forces of capitalism, industrialisation, urbanisation, over-population, development, uncontrolled grazing, increased land value and the over-exploitation of resources.

We need to recognise the earth as a living reality and reinvent our relation to the earth as a species. One way in which we might achieve this change is through examining culturally potent perceptions of the natural landscape. One doesn’t have to be superstitious or religious to recognise the importance, even the divine nature, of our forests.

The preservation of sacred trees and tree groves is paramount in the fight against rampant deforestation in India. This is a unique practice that sadly is in decline;  in the interest of cleaner air and healthy communities, it needs to be promoted and preserved, not only amongst the Indian population but worldwide.

Spirit attendants on their horses, guarding the path to the main Aiyanar shrine, Tamil Nadu
Spirit attendants on their horses, guarding the path to the main Aiyanar shrine, Tamil Nadu


Representation of deities and sacred cobras under a sacred tTrees,. Nagaraja Temple, Kerala
Representation of deities and sacred cobras under a sacred tTrees,. Nagaraja Temple, Kerala


Sacred Deodar Tree, Nature Temple of Balu Nag, Himachal Pradesh
Sacred Deodar Tree, Nature Temple of Balu Nag, Himachal Pradesh


[1] John Fowles, quoted in Suzuki and McConnell, The Sacred Balance, 148.
[2] “Climate Change and Land: An IPCC Special Report on Climate Change, Desertification, Land Degradation, Sustainable Land Management, Food Security, and Greenhouse Gas Fluxes Interrestrial Ecosystems,” Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, January 2020, accessed [January 4, 2022date],
[3] Melillo, “Forests and Climate Change”.
[4] Hageneder, The Spirit of Trees, 58.
[5] Neha Jain, “Cultural Beliefs Protect Snakes in the Dwindling Sacred Groves of South-Western India”, Mongabay: News and Inspiration from Natures Frontline in India, 26 October 2020, accessed March 8, 2022,

(The author is an Australian environmental artist - - who also the founder of the Tree Veneration Society, a transdisciplinary, contemporary eco-arts collective focused on trees, their ecosystems and the protection of the natural environment Views are personal)

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