Surla in north Goa and Cavrem in the south are characterized by their bright red landscape stripped of the green cover by rampant mining. But between the red, that dominates the mining ravaged region and the odd clusters of cashew and coconut plantations, that a few locals are struggling to keep alive, a couple of patches of tall natural forests stand splendidly.
Most of the forest cover in the mineral rich regions has been put to sleep, to excavate the wealth lying below it, with the exception of these few patches that have survived by virtue of being sacred groves or devrai or vanrai. Touching these could, for the mine owners, mean pressing the religious and sentimental nerves of the villagers.
Purvatli devrai in Surla is a rare patch in the region of about 5,000 sq m of natural cover and is the very basis of the ancient religious practices of 6,000 villagers.
"At the foot of the Purvatli devrai are 70 to 80 hectares of paddy fields. For generations, the harvest never went to the village unless the first cooked rice from the produce was offered in a ritual ceremony to the spirit of the devrai. The paddy fields now lie uncultivated as they are useless following years of layering with mining silt, but apart from the paddy offering all the other religious practices continue to date as they have been going on for generations," Surla plantation owner Uday Natekar said.
The family of Uttam and Shevanti Volvoikar resides in a house bordering the sacred groves and has served as the guardian of the devrai for years.
"Women cannot enter the devrai when they are menstruating. You cannot cut trees from the groves. We have to sacrifice a goat and make other offerings as prescribed at different times of the year and there are several other restrictions imposed on the villagers to keep the sanctity of the devrai. If any villager does anything offensive, till date my family can hear the spirit of the devrai crying at our door during the night. We have to then ask for forgiveness," Uttam said.
Until the mining ban, excavation was taking place threateningly close-within 500 meters-of the devrai.
Though mining activity has been temporarily halted, Surla's two existing groves-Purvatli devarai and Kontinnchi devarai-are today a far cry from their original glory.
"The cover in the devrai was so dense (until most of the forest cover was swallowed by mining) that not a ray of sunlight would fall on the ground below the trees. Many trees in the devrai are now dying as there is no forest cover in the surrounding areas," Shevanti said.
Sacred groves are mostly located on mountainous areas and the devrai could be an ancient system to protect the water source of the village, Natekar said.
The devrai are full of trees and plants known for their medicinal wealth.
"From an antiseptic to cure for cold and ring worms, the devrai has medicines to offer for all illnesses. Till date, going to the doctor is our last resort," plantation worker Sadanand Volvoikar said.
It does not mean that devrais have been unaffected by the onslaught of mining. Mahardando is a third sacred grove in Surla, which has been partly claimed for mining, but attempts were made to appease villagers by shifting the main place of worship to another site in the hamlet of Baiyam.
"No one from the village was willing to use an excavator in the devrai. A Muslim from outside the region was brought for the job. Even the mine owners performed several rituals to ask for forgiveness before mining began," an elderly villager said.
Cavrem is a village of tribals in the interiors of Quepem taluka that witnessed some of the most aggressive protests to regulate ruthless mining activity in the region. Nilesh Gaonkar, who spearheaded the movement, said, "One of the reasons devrai cannot be claimed by mine owners is that it is land which for generations does not belong to any one person. But in Cavrem our lives are so closely interwoven with practices in the devrai that no mine owner will think of harming its sanctity anytime soon." [TOI]