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CEE Himalaya integrates religion with biodiversity conservation and environment protection

In ancient times, trees were worshipped in the form of sacred groves, and animals were taken care of as form of Gods. However, with the current religious practices adopted, the trend seems to have been reversed causing unsustainable harvest of plants and endangering of animals. RCE Srinagar with CEE Himalaya launched an education programme to study the religious practices adopted and their impact on biodiversity and environment. The month of Shravan, (Indian Hindi Calendar) usually around July-August, known as Sawan, attracts a large number of devotees to offer leaves, flowers, and fruits of wild plants and worship snakes. These activities contribute largely to temple waste including non-biodegradable items like plastics. The teams of RCE Srinagar and CEE Himalaya visited the Boothnath temple in Indiranagar, Lucknow, India to study this issue. They launched the awareness campaign for the devotees, temple staff, vendors and snake charmers outside the temples and plant collectors to acquaint them with the various environmental issues.

Religion in India is accompanied by various beliefs and faith to appease the Gods and Goddesses. As believed, temples are the abode of deities, who are worshipped by offering flowers, plants, milk, sweets, money, several food items especially sweets animal slaughter etc especially during the festival time. One such sacred event is the month of Shravan, the fifth month of Hindu calendar, usually around July-August, popularly known as Sawan. Devotees throng in large numbers in the temples on the four Mondays of the month, known as Shravan Somwar, offering flowers, fruits and leaves of several wild and cultivated plants to pay allegiance to Lord Shiva. Snake worship on these days is also one of the popular believes to mark devotion towards Lord Shiva, who, according to Hindu mythology, adorns Nag (Cobra) in his neck. Milk offering to the Shivalinga and snakes is considered an important part of the religious ceremonies. The snake charmers and vendors are seen outside the temples in large numbers on these sacred days.

As part of the environment awareness campaign, CEE Himalaya took initiative to look into these religious practices and the effects it has on the surrounding environment and biodiversity. As part of environmental education programme, a visit to Boothnath temple in Indiranagar, Lucknow was organized to get an insight into the environmental issues associated with the religious practices adopted. The organization launched the awareness campaign for the devotees, temple management and staff, vendors engaged in selling offering items and snake charmers outside the temples and plant collectors to acquaint them with the various environmental issues.

The Loss of Biodiversity Problem

Flora

The plants offered to the Gods are usually wild plants such as Canabis sativa (grass), Aegle marmelos (Bael, stone apple, wood apple), Datura stramonium (datura), Nymphaea stellata and Nymphaea nouchali (blue lotus, star lotus, water lily), Calotropis procera (Aak, milkweed) , Nelumbo nucifera (lotus), Rauvolfia serpentine (sarpgandha) and cultivated plants like rose, marigold, champa, and sunflowers. These plants are collected from the wild by unscientific methods often overharvesting them and causing severe damage to plants and trees, inhibiting their regeneration. The plant collection is usually done by the locals who are not aware of the scientific collection methods and the harm they are causing by improperly collecting wild plants, for example by plucking the plants from the roots. These plants are then sold by the vendors outside the temples to devotees visiting the temples.

Fauna

Snakes are a powerful mythological symbol in Hindu culture and are used for religious purposes mostly around the month of Sawan. The onset of monsoons are a distressful condition for snakes because their shelter places get flooded, making them vulnerable for poaching. The reptile is usually surrounded by various myths leading to brutal treatment of the animal which has an important role as both predators and prey. They feed on rodents and frogs, preventing the menace otherwise caused by rodents to the crops. In India around 25% of the crop produce is destroyed by rodents and these figures are bound to increase with dwindling population of snakes.

Among the many myths surrounding the reptile is that they dance on the tune of snake charmers while the fact is that snakes cannot hear. This is one of the ways of attracting the crowd to watch the snake whose attention is focused on the swaying object, the been (flute) and it moves along, more as a defense mechanism for the snakes. Another popular belief is that snakes drink milk. Whereas, milk is an alternative to water for the dehydrated snake. Often snakes are killed by the locals to prevent it from biting. Snakes are as harmless as any other creature until provoked otherwise and they feel threatened. Also, the majority of snakes are non-poisonous. Lack of awareness on this issue is the major reason that these reptiles are in danger of becoming an endangered species.

Skill Development for Alternative Livelihoods

Temples have become a source of livelihood for not only temple staff, but plant collectors, the vendors outside the temples and snake charmers. Many snake charmers are dependent on the skills and art of snake charming tor earn their livelihood. Various socio-economic factors, like caste divisions and low levels of education act as an impediment for the community to choose other alternative sources of income. Also the business of selling religious offerings like flowers, milk, and incense sticks has become an important source of income during this time of the year. However, the vendors keep changing their jobs depending on the needs and festivals but such is not the case with snake charmers whose only source of income is through their art of snake charming.

Issue of wastes in the temples

The offerings made in the temple account for waste of degradable nature like flowers, plants and non biodegradable items like plastic containers for milk, plastic bags and other. This in turn contributes to river pollution, blockage of drains and more, increasing the existing environmental burden. The role of the temple management committee needs to be highlighted in the treatment of waste. The treatment of waste can be divided in the following steps, collection, segregation, composting and finally using compost as fertilizers.

 Collection followed by segregation of waste into biodegradable and non biodegradable is done primarily to use the biodegradable material for composting of the waste. The compost rich in nutrients can then be further used as fertilizers for crop.

Observations

For this purpose, a visit was organized by CEE Himalaya to the Boothnath temple in Indiranagar, Lucknow on 17th August, 2015 to get an insight into the snake charmers community.

Important details were fetched from the visit, about the Sapera (snake) community in Kalimati, near Sanjay Gandhi Postgraduate Institute of Medical Sciences (SGPGI), Lucknow locally known as the “Nath Community”. The community comprises of around 200-300 households dependent on the practice of using snakes to charm the crowd in fairs or for religious purpose, especially around the time of Nagpanchami (festival of snakes), Shivratri etc. This ancient practice has been followed over centuries and is passed on from one generation to another. Children are taught the art of snake charming at a very young change. By the age of twelve, they master the art and are rendered capable of earning their livelihood and increase the family income. An average income of snake charmers is estimated to be around Rs 3000-4000 per month. One of the sixteen year old snake charmer recalled how he started learning the art at a young age of five and it took another five years for him to master the art.

The snake charmers claim that they don’t intend to harm the snakes considering snakes as their ‘children’. One of them remarked. The snake charmers swear by their Guru Gorakhnath to release the snakes back into the wild after a month of captivity. They fear the wrath of their Guru and that they would lose their skills if they fail to fulfill their oath. The snake charmers catch the snakes, keep it for a month and during this time, they claim to take good care of the snakes and then release it back into the wild.

However the truth appears otherwise, the snakes are defanged cruelly to prevent them from biting. The horrifying practice starves them to a slow and painful death.  The fangs are regenerated within one month, but the reptile loses its ability to exist in the wild after a month of captivity.

The Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 renders the horrifying practice as illegal with cobras given protection under Schedule II, Part II of the act. Despite the fact, many snake charmers are dependent on the art of snake charming to earn their livelihood.

Conservation Education

CEE Himalaya realised through this study that wild plant collection was being done by unscientific means leading to unsustainable harvest. Plant collectors were recognized and educated  increasing awareness of biodiversity and better means of collecting plants.

The organization found out that the many myths surrounding snakes are still prevalent today, hence an awareness campaign was launched for clearing these myths among the devotees and snake charmers. The miserable conditions of the dehydrated snakes were recognized and the snake charmers were asked to feed the snakes with water instead of milk, which the famished snake only consumes as an alternative to water.

CEE Himalayas also took the initiative to make the snake charmers aware of the fact that removing the fangs of the snakes deprives the reptiles of their ability to exist in the wild even if released after a month of captivity. 

The organization also recognized the need of developing alternate models of occupation for the communities by assessing the skills they possess. Accordingly a skills development programme is needed to help them choose a different profession.CEE Himalayas feel that the indigenous knowledge of the locals should not be ignored. This will not only give them a sense of identity but also help in protecting the snakes getting killed and plants getting destroyed through ignorance about the species.

For solving the waste issue in temples, the organization launched an awareness drive for devotees, vendors and temple staff to minimize the use of plastics for containers and carry bags and use leaflets instead of plastic bags for making offerings to Gods.

Also the temple staff was encouraged to separate the waste and thereafter compost it to use it further as fertilizers. The temple management committee was asked to make composting pits in the temple itself so that the waste is treated in the temples and does not become a menace to rivers causing water pollution.

CEE Himalayas is involved in the Clean Ganga Campaign and is working towards restoration of health of the river in ‘nirmal’(pure) and ‘aviral’ (continuously flowing) state. The organization has contributed in awareness of plantation along the Ganga Ghats to combat desertification. Schools, communities, temples and Ghats have been included as part of the awareness campaign. Also, the organization is working rigourously in setting up of composting pits in temples for treatment of waste into green manure for crops.

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