I am visiting India to learn of its sacred groves and to follow their contours as boundary markers in various contexts which are transforming age-old institutions with the familiar tools of fossil fuel, roads, electricity, and industrial production.
My first destination, Mangar village, is home to the sacred grove called Mangar Bani. This village was only connected to electricity sources about a decade ago, yet is located within ~10 km to a huge metropolis.
Mangar village is of the Aravali Hills, the oldest mountain range in the world, in Haryana, National Capital Region, India. The National Capital Region (NCR) includes three cities which grip the Aravalis: Delhi is perched right atop the Aravalis and is situated to Mangar’s north. Gurgaon and Faridabad fold around these hills like wings from the Northwest and Northeast respectively.
Delhi is the capital of the soon to be most populous country globally and is the second largest city in its own right at around 11 million. Delhi has saturated its space and its expansion is seen in the rapid development zones of Gurgaon and Faridabad. Here five star hotels and slums are signposts of city building while sleeping homeless or roadside beggars are the entrials of urban poverty.
Development, in the sense of industrialization, has its fair primers here: a host of deadly diseases, early mortality, and inequtiy in caste. Today’s Prime Minister, Norendra Modi, boasts of a rags to riches story and trumpets an industrial paradigm to lift the poor from poverty, and he is quite popular.
Let’s return to the task at hand.
I have questions for this place where urbanization and the sacred grove meet so glaringly. What does the sacred grove communicate at such a time as this in a place where Gods dwell and a community gathers in commitment to worship and protection?
It is a simple story that urban expansion causes land-use changes involving deforestation in forest ecosystems. Also, urbanization’s detrimental effects on sacred groves are widely evident. However, what can we learn about the city from this place? In the midst of contact, contest, and change, perhaps here we can see the city and sacred grove anew.
We know the urban ecosystem is of its own kind. The processing of inputs and outputs in such a system have a different character than other ecosystems. We see increases in monetary flows and cultural exchange. There seems to be a general increase in encounters with the other per unit area of space: more places of work, worship, education, and living. While the internet has brought aspects of urbanity into the hands of rural people through mobile devices, electricity is a relative novelty and connectivity is not a given in rural areas. Space is important here still. The urban is still faced as an outside actor pushing in.
In Mangar village encounters with the urban involve benign effects such as changes of clothes, happy effects such as improvement of transportation, or more regrettable consequences such as increases in disease or inequality.
It is urgent to find resolution between spaces of limitless construction and absolute limitation so that disruption and harm is not the prevailing story over peace and well being. The sacred in this sacred grove, a place of prohibited extraction punishable by bodily or psychological harm, makes a claim against destructive urban encroachment. It is here where a line has been drawn.
Just recently, 6/9/15, the chief minister of Haryana announced Mangar Bani to be a no construction zone and enacted a 500m buffer zone around its perimeter, providing formal protection onto this longstanding informal protected area.
This is a big step toward the conservation of this sacred grove in the face of heavy development pressure. Yet, urbanization is multivalent and pervasive. Poor regulatory enforcement still calls for strong local protection.
Such protection is key for on the ground monitoring as well as long-range conservation. It is important to ask then if urban expansion and encroachment corrode the character and strength of local institutions. In this case, does the sacred grove lose religio-cultural capacity as a community conserved area and take a turn toward the symbolic from what seems to be an at least one-thousand year praxis of protection? What is the effect of change in livelihoods that is driven by proximity to urban centers?
Given that the city seems to restructure matter with clockwork efficiency and cement strength, it seems likely that Mangar Village will become even more well acquainted with the city. From my experience in Mangar Village, I can see that an active discussion is now urgent between the city and the village. This discussion has been urgent since the rise of the city. Now, once again, a growing urban populace must take note of its activities, and highly industrialized nations must account for their urban context.
To do so is an invitation to encounter the sacred.