In central India's Bastar region, sacred groves hold a special place in community life, both spiritually and ecologically. Locally known as dev gudis, many of these groves are surrounded by dense forests that house several species of rare flora, including medicinal plants, and fauna. In fact, Jason Funk, the author of 'Securing The Climate Benefits of Stable Forests', once described India's sacred groves as "stable forests", in an email interview with this reporter.
However, many such sacred groves some of which are over 1,000 years old have either vanished over the years or suffered neglect as a result of encroachment, farming activities in and around them, uncontrolled cattle, and untamed growth of vegetation. It was in 2020 that Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel announced the revival and restoration of dev gudis to transform them into centres of learning, tourism and tribal culture.
The magical transformation of Chitalanka
Today, the Chitalanka sacred grove in Dantewada district is nothing short of transformed. It has an attractive gate welcoming tourists, a boundary wall, an open stage for holding cultural performances and tribal festivals, washrooms and drinking water facilities. It cost Rs 7.51 lakh to revamp the Chitalanka dev gudi, spread over 2.5 acres, with funds from the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) and the District Mineral Foundation (DMF).
In Dantewada's four blocks, the initiative targeted dev gudis in 143 gram panchayats. Of these, 110 have been completed, 30 are in progress, and work has yet to commence in three. In several instances, the forest department played a proactive role in helping the district administration revive the groves, supplying it with saplings from nurseries.
Sunil Kumar Kashyap, the sarpanch of Chitalanka gram panchayat, told 101Reporters: "The place resembled a dense jungle with unkempt vegetation spreading everywhere. After sundown, some of us feared venturing into these places. But now, it attracts visitors in droves."
Residents planted saplings of fruit trees, while visiting artists painted the tree trunks in bright hues, Kashyap said, further adding that the district administration had given these dev gudis a new lease of life.
"Despite there being a sense of attachment, some of us weren't actively involved in protecting our dev gudis. People were making the place dirty. Now, the boundary wall keeps a check on intruders, and at night, the main entrance is locked. Encroachers trying to build houses near the edges are also discouraged," he said.