Politics of Cultural Commons: A Case Study of Sacred Groves in Central Kerala

Main Article Content

Vinay Sankar


Sacred groves or sacred natural sites (SNS) are defined areas of land and bodies of water with considerable socio-cultural and ecological value. This study attempts to analyse SNS using the framework of commons or common-pool resources and understand the implications regarding the access to and ecological sustainability of these sacred spaces. A set of ten groves from an inventory of sacred groves reported by the Institute of Foresters Kerala were chosen using purposive sampling to cover various types of custodianship and communities in the district of Thrissur. This district houses the most famous sacred grove in Kerala and is known for consecrating sacred groves and expunging spirits. A field survey employing an observation schedule and semi-structured interviews were undertaken focusing on the biophysical, socio-cultural, and institutional aspects of the SNS. Understanding the relationship between grove ecosystems and stakeholder communities was the objective of the study. The management of SNS in the study sites does not show much evidence of collective action. There is a tendency of SNS to become 'club goods' over a period of time. Regardless of types of custodianship, SNS exhibit properties of common-pool resources from an ecological point of view. Even when customarily managed along caste lines, access was not physically restricted. Recent constructions of concrete boundaries around SNS, conversion of groves to temples, and increasing intensity and frequency of rituals have changed the socio-cultural and ecological character of these spaces. The study shows that the perspective of the commons is inadequate to capture the underlying power dynamics of institutions of SNS. Understanding the transformation of SNS from being 'open' and inclusive to closed and elitist temple spaces need a different language of political ecology.


Download data is not yet available.

Article Details

How to Cite
SankarV. (2020). Politics of Cultural Commons: A Case Study of Sacred Groves in Central Kerala . Space and Culture, India, 8(2), 129-139. https://doi.org/10.20896/saci.vi0.774


Arnold, P. P., & Gold, A. G. (2001). Sacred landscapes and cultural politics: planting a tree. Ashgate.
Berkes, F. (2009). Community conserved areas: policy issues in historic and contemporary context. Conservation Letters, 2(1), 20-25.
Bryant, R. L., & Bailey, S. (1997). Third world political ecology. Psychology Press.
Burman, J. R. (1996). A comparison of sacred groves among the Mahadeo Kolis and Kunbis of Maharashtra. Indian Anthropologist, 26(1), 37-45.
Chandran, M. S., & Hughes, J. D. (1997). The sacred groves of south India: ecology, traditional communities and religious change. Social compass, 44(3), 413-427.
Chandrakanth, M. G., Bhat, M. G., & Accavva, M. S. (2004). Socio-economic changes and sacred groves in South India: Protecting a community-based resource management institution. Natural Resources Forum, 28(2), 102–111. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1477-8947.2004.00077.x
Chandrakanth, M. G., & Romm, J. (1991). Sacred forests, secular forest policies and people’s actions. Natural Resources Journal, 31(4), 741–756.
Chandrashekara, U. M., & Sankar, S. (1998). Ecology and management of sacred groves in Kerala, India. Forest Ecology and Management, 165-177.
Directorate of Census Operations Kerala. (2011). District Census Handbook Thrissur. New Delhi: Government of India.
Gadgil, M., & Vartak, V. D. (1976). The sacred groves of Western Ghats in India. Economic Botany, 30(2), 152-160. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4253716
Hayek, F. (1944). Road to Serfdom. New York: Routledge.
Hess, C. (2008). Mapping the New Commons. International Association for the Study of Commons (pp. 1-75). Cheltenham: SSRN.
Igoe, J., & Brockington, D. (2007). Neoliberal Conservation: A Brief Introduction. Conservation and Society, 432-449.
Institute of Foresters Kerala. (2016). Status Report on Sacred Groves in Thrissur, Kerala. Thrissur: Forest Department, Kerala.
Mahoney, J., & Thelen, K. (2010). Explaining Institutional Change- Ambiguity, Agency and Power. Cambridge University Press.
Mukherjee, R. (1999). Caste in Itself, Caste and Class, or Caste in Class. Economic and Political Weekly, 34(27), 1759-1761. Retrieved August 30, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/4408152
Notermans, C., Nugteren, A., & Sunny, S. (2016). The changing landscape of sacred groves in Kerala (India): A critical view on the role of religion in nature conservation. Religions, 7(4). https://doi.org/10.3390/REL7040038
Ormsby, A. A., & Bhagwat, S. A. (2010). Sacred forests of India: A strong tradition of community-based natural resource management. Environmental Conservation, 37(3), 320–326. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0376892910000561
Ormsby, A. A. (2011). The impacts of global and national policy on the management and conservation of sacred groves of India. Human Ecology, 39(6), 783-793.
Ormsby, A. (2013). Analysis of local attitudes toward the sacred groves of Meghalaya and Karnataka, India. Conservation and Society, 11(2), 187–197. https://doi.org/10.4103/0972-4923.115722
Ostrom, E. (1990). Governing the Commons. Indiana: Cambridge University Press.
Ostrom, E. (2005). Understanding Institutional Diversity. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Ostrom, E. (2010). Beyond Markets and States: Polycentric Governance of Complex Economic Systems. The American Economic Review, 641-672.
Robbins, P. (2012). Political Ecology-A Critical Introduction. Sussex: John Wiley & Sons.
Rutte, C. (2011). The sacred commons: Conflicts and solutions of resource management in sacred natural sites. Biological Conservation, 144(10), 2387–2394. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2011.06.017
Samakov, A., & Berkes, F. (2017). Spiritual commons: Sacred sites as core of community-conserved areas in Kyrgyzstan. International Journal of the Commons, 11(1), 422–444. https://doi.org/10.18352/ijc.713
Smessaert, J., Missemer, A., & Levrel, H. (2020). The commodification of nature, a review in social sciences. Ecological Economics, 1-10.
Vasan, S., & Kumar, S. (2006). Situating Conserving Communities in their Place : Political Economy of Kullu Devban. Conservation and Society, 4(2), 325–346.