Date of Award

Spring 4-16-2019

Semester of Degree


Document Type

Restricted Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph.D. in Environmental Science


Environmental Science, Division of

Major Professor

Stewart Diemont

Steering Committee Member

David Sonnenfeld

Steering Committee Member

Margaret Bryant

Steering Committee Member

Anne Feldhaus

Steering Committee Member

Neema Pathak-Broome


Sacred forests or sacred groves are patches of forest vegetation which are traditionally protected by local communities in parts of Asia, Africa, and Europe, because of their religious or cultural significance. Though sacred forests are a cultural phenomenon, in the last few decades most of the scholarly discourse has focused on their ecological significance. In this dissertation, I explore the local people’s perception of, and their relationship with, their sacred forests. I examine the values and beliefs associated with sacred forests by the local people who protect them, and how these values and beliefs have changed across generations. Additionally, I seek to ascertain what drives sacred forests’ continued protection. I conducted in-depth interviews and group meetings in five villages located in and around the Bhimashankar Wildlife sanctuary in the Western Ghats region of Maharashtra state in India. Here, each village had at least one sacred forest.

The sacred forests in the Bhimashankar region are dedicated to local gods or deities; in most cases they are dedicated to the deity Vandev (Forest God). Rules and taboos are in place against tree cutting, hunting, and extraction of forest produce. The interviews revealed that beliefs and values surrounding sacred forests are a complex interaction of traditional religion and evolving modern views of conservation. The elder generation associated mostly cultural and religious values with the sacred forests, while the younger generation also associated environmental and conservation values with the sacred forests. Trees are primarily viewed as god’s shelter, abode, and as entities which add beauty to the space. They are also considered important for rain, water and environment. Rules and taboos are followed because they are traditional, and people are in awe of the deity. Findings also indicate that along with perception change, changes have occurred in the rules, practices, festivals, and rituals. And, people expect further developmental changes in the sacred forest space. I argue that sacred forests are spaces created by humans that change and evolve with the changing socio-cultural and political background. They are an integral component of, the daily lives of the locals, and the surrounding landscape. For the continued protection of these sacred forests, conservation policies need to adapt to the changing local understandings of these sacred forests.

Available for download on Friday, April 15, 2022