One of the earliest forms of worship among humans was the worship of nature – animals, water, the wind, rain and even the sun were all seen as divine symbols. But plants and jungles have always held a special place in human life, across continents and civilisations. Forests were seen as places ruled by mysterious laws beyond human comprehension.

Many European folktales and fairy tales are set in forests, replete with magical trees and plants. For example, the Mediterranean olive tree was very important in the Greek civilisation, and was considered sacred by them. The term “to offer an olive branch” means to bring in peace by renewing friendly ties with someone or something.

The ancient Romans had sacred groves where cults, groups of people who practised unusual forms of magic, met. Greek and Roman gods and emperors wore flowers as decorative headpieces. Laurel, oak, myrtle and grass crowns were worn as marks of honour and victory. Flora was worshipped as the Roman goddess of flowers and vegetation.

Druids, magicians whose rituals involved plants and forests, were an important part of the Gaul and Celtic tribes of Europe. The Celtics also worshipped Nemetona, the goddess of sacred groves. Native religion followers in Estonia, in northern Europe, worship thousands of forests as sacred groves even now.

In Japan, the Shinto people built shrines in sacred groves of cryptomeria trees. In southern China, near Yunnan, the Sani people worship Mizhi, a local deity of sacred forests. In Africa, many jungles are still deemed sacred, especially in Ghana.

In India, there are over 15,000 well-documented sacred groves. They are divided into tapovan (forests for sages and ascetics to offer penance), mahavan (jungle sanctuaries), and shrivan (sacred groves).

Indian temples have a close relationship with forests. Many temples have their own trees, called sthalavriksha. Most gods in temples are associated with particular plants, trees, flowers, fruits, seeds and other forms of flora.

Stories about sthalavrikshas show that safeguarding the environment was as important for the ancients as it is for us today. The following stories tell us that caring for various species of flora and fauna and protecting nature and its bounty are sacred duties.

Goddess of the forests

Aranya Devi Temple, Arrah, Bihar

Meet Aranyani, the goddess of forests. She is worthy of worship for being the guardian deity of sacred sanctuaries, woodlands and jungles.

Forests are considered to be the home of female energy, or goddess Shakti. They are believed to function under the protective control of female spirits, who can be both fierce and benign. In Bengali, the guardian spirit of the forest is called Bonbibi and in Kannada, she is called Vana Durga.

Aranya means “forest” in Sanskrit. While most of us fear wild places, goddess Aranyani is fearless, dwelling in the jungle amongst the fiercest of beasts and the most dangerous of terrains.

And don’t for a single moment think she prances about in grass skirts with green creepers twirled around her for jewellery! For Aranyani is most mysterious, as she is known to love to dance but can never be seen by the human eye. Villagers around her forests insist that they have heard her anklets tinkling as she goes traipsing about, leaves rustling on the forest floor after her footsteps.

The Aranya Devi Temple stands in a little town called Arrah in Bihar. Arrah comes from the Hindi word for saw, the serrated blade used to cut wood and mighty tree trunks.

This area was once the kingdom of Raja Mordhwaj. The king and queen desperately wanted a child, so they prayed to Goddess Durga, who appeared one night in the king’s dream and blessed him. Soon, the queen had a baby boy.

Their joy knew no bounds as they watched the young prince grow. One night, Durga appeared in Raja Mordhwaj’s dream again. This time, she had a painful demand. She wanted the king and queen to saw the prince in half and offer his flesh as sacrifice.

Unwavering in their devotion, the king and queen decided to fulfil the demand, and their son too was ready to offer his flesh to the goddess. The next day, the prince was made to stand at the palace altar, and the king and queen placed a saw over his shoulder. At that precise moment, Goddess Durga appeared before them and said that her cruel trick was only to test their faith in her, and she blessed the family with eternal happiness. The spot where the sacrifice was to have taken place was from that moment known as Arrah, or “the place of the saw”.

The east-facing temple in Arrah has a main shrine that houses not one but two idols of the goddesses Aranya Devi, who are worshipped as sister goddesses and are made of black stone.

Temple Tales Secrets and Stories from India’s Sacred Places

An excerpt from Temple Tales: Secrets and Stories from India’s Sacred Places, Sudha G Tilak, Hachette India.