The Lyngdoh Mawnai Sacred Grove, West Khasi Hills, Meghalaya: Mapping and analysis of disturbance

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Dept of Botany, Lady Keane College, Shillong – 793001

*Corresponding author: K.L. Chaudhary; email-


The Lyngdoh Mawnai Sacred Grove, representing humid sub-tropical montane forest, is a fairly well preserved sacred grove, covering an area of 20.84 ha, of which about 0.09 ha area was non-forest and 1.9 ha was degraded to various extents. The tree density was found to 1126 ha-1. Anthropogenic disturbance in form of wood cutting, burning was visible in the peripheral regions while wood-cutting and clearance of ground vegetation for collection of edible fruit was seen within the dense forest area. Disturbance in form of cut stems especially in the 5-12 cm diameter class was found in both – the peripheral as well in the forest interior with peripheral areas exhibiting higher cut stems (26%) than the interior (14% ) of the total stems ha-1.

Keywords Sacred grove, mapping, Meghalaya, West Khasi Hills, Lyngdoh Mawnai sacred grove


Sacred groves are patches of forest of varying sizes set aside by indigenous communities on account of religious beliefs, as perennial sources of water, as resource centres, as burial grounds amongst others from times immemorial.

The size of the sacred may range from a few trees to large tracts. They have survived through ages and are generally seen to be in better condition than other neighbouring forests (Tiwari et al., 1998; Negi, 2012) and have a higher concentration of medicinal plants unique to them compared to state-owned reserve forests (Boraiah et al., 2003). These forests are a rich storehouse of biodiversity (Khan et al., 2008). In Meghalaya Khan et al. (1997) found 133 species, representing 4% of the total flora (3331 species) to be found only in the sacred groves.  Of these 133 species, 96 were endemic. The boundaries of sacred groves in Meghalaya are usually well defined. They are marked, using stones called ‘mawpud’.

An increase in interest in sacred groves around the country is evident from the fairly large number of publications in the last decade – in form of new reports of sacred groves, both from areas where they had been previously reported as well as from areas where they had not been reported from earlier (Basu 2009, Samati & Gogoi 2007, Agnihorti et al., 2012, Garg & Singh, 2013). However, this institution is under great strain and its very existence is threatened. Gadgil & Vartak (1976) in their study of sacred groves of Maharashtra located 23 sacred groves of which 5 had been completely destroyed while 3 were partially degraded. In Meghalaya too a number of sacred forests are partially degraded. Swer, Nongkrem and Nonglang Sacred Groves (Upadhaya et al., 2008), Sangslia, Ialong and Raliang (Ormsby, 2013) have been reported to be partially degraded due to extraction of biomass, forest fire and cultivation. Change of faith, beliefs and customs, migration and tourism, population increase, economic deprivation and encroachment may be considered the root causes which lead to the degradation and even complete loss.

Many sacred groves have also been intensively studied in Meghalaya as well as in other parts of India, but none, at least in Meghalaya, have been mapped so far. There exists only rough estimates about the area occupied by sacred groves; thus accurate information about their total area is completely lacking. This study aims to fill this gap. As a first step in this direction, mapping of a relatively well preserved (but threatened) sacred grove – the Lyngdoh Mawnai Sacred Grove has been attempted along with a study of disturbance and the factors responsible for it. Preliminary phyto-sociological sampling was carried out to determine the forest composition and to get an estimate of disturbance of the forest.

Materials and methods

Study site

The Lyngdoh Mawnai sacred grove is located at 25º 34′ 56.0591″ N latitude and 91º 35′ 57.5555″ E longitude, in the Mawnai village of West Khasi Hills district of Meghalaya, about 65 km north-west of the capital city Shillong (Figure 2). It lies on the northern slope of a moderately steep hill on the southern side of the Mawnai village, is owned by the Lyngdoh clan of the village, with the Sordar-Kur (the head of the clan), Kur
Lyngdoh (Lyngdoh clan) heading its management. The forest is sandwiched between two villages – the Mawnai village to its north (the village of the owner-clan) and the Mawphyrnai village to its south. The eastern and southern sides are bordered by degraded pine forests. The peripheral areas of the sacred grove, especially the western, southern and eastern areas show distinct signs of anthropogenic disturbance.


The forest boundary was mapped using a GPS (Garmin Map 78s, Garmin Inc.) with a local guide, with knowledge of the boundary of the sacred forest. The disturbed areas falling within the forest boundary were also delineated using GPS as were the areas facing disturbance in form of ground clearance within the forest. The GPS tracks were visualized in Quantum GIS (QGIS) and Google Earth softwares. QGIS was used for area calculation and map preparation. Limitations: The accuracy of mapping is limited by the accuracy of the GPS unit. The error is higher in portions of steep slope where satellite visibility becomes limiting.

Vegetation analysis

Sampling of the woody species was undertaken in 2013 by laying 30 quadrats of 10m × 10m in form of a transact measuring 20m × 150m across the the forest. All woody plants with a dbh greater than 10 cm were measured. Cut and coppicing stumps were also included. The specimens were identified using the regional floras (Balakrishnan 1981-1983, Haridasan & Rao, 1985-1987, Kanjilal et al., 1934 -1940). The Herbaria of Botanical Survey of India, Eastern Circle Shillong was consulted for correct identification of species.


Dominant species

The dominant trees of the sacred grove include Castanopsis prupurella, Castanopsis tribuloides, Michelia sp, Syzygium cumini, Litsea salicifolia, Lithocarpus dealbatus, Engelhardtia spicata, Ficus sp. and Prunus nepalensis forming the canopy layer with an height of about about 25m.The sub-canopy layer is formed by Citrus latipes, Macropanax disperma, Glycosmis cymbosa, Casearia glomerata, Schefflera hypoleuca, Schefflera venulosa, Sarcococca prunformis, Coffea khasiana, Symplocos spicata, Persea odoratissima, Cimmamomum zeylanicum and Eurya acuminata. In the degraded portions, Pinus kesya is dominant with Symplocos spicata and Engelhardtia spicata forming the sub-canopy layer.

Total area of the sacred grove

The total area of the sacred forest was determined to be 20.84 ha. Of the total area, 0.087 ha (0.42%) was non-forest area, which was under residential and agricultural purposes; 0.25 ha (1.19%) was under degraded broadleaf-pine forest; 0.35 ha (1.66%) under shrub area and 1.34 ha (6.43%) under pine forest. That is, a total area of 2.02 ha (9.71 %) of the sacred grove was not dense forest, leaving only 18.82 ha (90.29 %) under dense forest. These have been summarized in Table 1.

Within the dense forest area, there are several patches ranging from 0.016 ha – 0.35 ha where wild fruit-yielding trees such as Castanopsis purpurella (Sohot) and C. tribuloides (Sohot), Citrus latipes (Sohkynphur), Prunus nepalensis (Sohiong), Docynia indica (Sohphobtet) and Myrica esculenta (Sohphi) grow gregariously. These areas are located on the southern part of the forest, at or slightly below the ridge line. The forest floor under these wild fruit-yielding tree patches have been cleared away to ease fruit collection, which are either consumed locally or sold in the market. Seven such areas were found, which cover an area of 1.11 ha (5.90% of the dense forest area; 5.33 % of total forest area). There was considerable disturbance due to complete clearance of ground vegetation including almost all seedlings, saplings and small trees, leaving only the large trees. These have been summarized in Table 2.

Besides these, a large part of the peripheral area of the forest on the eastern, southern and western sides shows distinct signs of anthropogenic disturbance, which include cutting of trees of all diameter classes, burning and invasion by weedy species.

Table 1: Forest areas under different categories


Total area (ha)

As % total area

Degraded broadleaf-pine forest



Shrub area



Pine forest



Total disturbed forest area



Non forest area (Cultivated fallow)



Total disturbed area



Dense forest area



Total Forest area



Table 2:
Wild edible fruit collection areas

Fruit collection areas

Enclosed Area


Total Area


As % total area


As % dense

forest area (ha)

Sohkynphur 1





Sohkynphur 2


Sohot 1





Sohot 2

















Total area





The map of the sacred grove is given in Figure 3, as a boundary to give an idea of the forest and aid its visualization in high resolution imageries (such as Google Earth), while the more detailed map (Figure 4) shows the different categories of forests and non-forest areas along with the areas where ground vegetation has been cleared-off to aid wild edible fruit collection.

Disturbance in the sacred grove

Anthropogenic disturbance was distinctly visible all along the periphery of the forest. The disturbance was seen to be more in the western, southern and eastern sides, which have either footpaths (eastern and western boundaries) or motorable road (southern side) and are closer to the habitation areas. The disturbance includes: (a) Cut stumps: about 80% of stems in diameter class 1.5-5 cm (dbh class 10-15 cm; total density 125 stems ha-1) were found to be cut, while about 20% were cut in the diameter class >5-12 cm stem diameter class (dbh class > 15-40 cm; total density 1025 stems ha-1), with an overall percentage of cut stems being 26% (300 cut stems ha-1; total density 1150 stems ha-1). (b) Tree density, canopy height and stem diameters lower than the grove interior. (c) Stem base of live trees chipped away, injured portions burnt. (d) Degraded soil condition, soil compaction, low litter accumulation. (e) Grazing by cattle and dung remains. (f) Ground vegetation low, lianas absent and/or presence of non-native species such as bamboo, grasses, Lantana camara, Polygonum sp, Rubus ellepticus, Eupatorium adenophorum, Urena lobata, Pouzolzia hirta, Commelina benghalensis, Osbeckia sp, Melastoma sp, Lyonia ovalifolia etc.

In the sacred grove interior, (a) about 13% of stems in diameter class 1.5-5 cm (dbh class 10-15 cm; total density 60 stems ha-1 ) was found to be cut, while about 14% were cut in the diameter class >5-12 cm stem diameter class (dbh class > 15-40 cm; total density 1093 stems ha-1 ), with an overall percentage of cut stems being 13.8% (213 cut stems ha-1; total density 1553 stems ha-1 ). (b) Clearance of ground vegetation, especially in the areas where wild fruit-yielding trees were found and along the trails through which people traverse the sacred grove. (c) Signs of fire (burnt stumps and ash) as poachers awaited their prey to return in the evening (especially during the winter) was visible and (d) Removal of branches and twigs of naturally fallen trees after cutting. Though cutting of both diameter classes appear similar in percentage terms, stems with 5-12 cm diameters were found to be cut more often (2.5 times more) as compared to the <5 cm diameter class. It can be because of (a) their higher density in the sacred grove compared to <5 cm diameter class (b) higher volume of the larger diameter class, which provides more fuel (c) may be used directly in the hearths, saving time needed to split larger logs (d) easy to cut and carry.

The low diameter stems would have a very low volume, while cutting a larger tree would be more risky in terms of noise generated and the time taken to cut and carry away, increasing chances of detection.


The sacred forest area of 20.84 ha is much smaller than what was previously estimated for this forest (80 ha, Tiwari et al. 1998). The entire area of the sacred grove is not dense forest, but has degraded broadleaf-pine forest, pine forest, shrub area and a portion was even agricultural fallow. Only 18.82 ha was dense forest, which indicates the degradation that this forest has faced in the past. Anthropogenic disturbance still continues and was distinctly visible all along the periphery of the forest, probably a consequence of being in the vicinity of the two villages, both of whom no longer follow their indigenous religion. Since the performance of rituals in the sacred grove were stopped about fifty years back, the emotional attachment and reverence towards the sacred grove and the resident deity must have decreased, which is probably evident in the quantum of disturbance within the sacred grove. With the most crucial element in the establishment and maintenance of the sacred grove compromised (i.e. reverence and emotional attachment), it was only a matter of time before the forest was seen as just another forest patch,  orthy of pilferage for quick, short-term gains by the unscrupulous (responsible for removal of valuable timber at night using machinery and trucks), probably to be followed by the poor and destitute (firewood, fruit extraction. Though theft of large, valuable timer trees has now been checked to a great extent by the community, the cutting of trees for firewood continues unabated. This not only corroborates but provides a quantitative estimate to the finding of Ormsby (2013) that in Meghalaya, the main sacred grove resource desired for use was firewood. Thus, cutting 5-12 cm diameter woody stems for firewood probably forms the most important source of threat to the sacred grove. There were instances of chipping and burning of basal portions of live trees of higher diameter classes, with an aim of injuring and finally killing the tree, so that it can be extracted away later as firewood. There was no sign of accumulation of woody stems in the areas where the ground vegetation was cleared for fruit collection, indicating that the cut stems had been removed. All these point to the paucity of firewood for the local populace, who then extract it from the sacred grove. Other forms of disturbance to the sacred grove come from poaching of birds and animals from within the sacred grove, allowing grazing inside the sacred grove, collection of fruits for sale in the market; clearing away the ground vegetation completely to ease fruit collection.

Sacred groves have been recognized as important refugia for the rare and threatened plant species (Jamir et al., 2006), birds (Deb et al., 1997) and it is true for this grove as well. The forest is home to many RET species such as Aeschynanthes sikkimensis, Anoectochilus roxburghii , Balanophora dioca, Citrus latipes, Mahonia nepalensis, Malaxis sp, Melodinus monogynous, Cyathea gigantea, Sarcandra glabra, Todallia asiatica, Tupidanthes calyptratus. The sacred grove under study is a source of NTFPs to the people of the village, provides water for the rice fields of both the adjacent villages, is a source of two minor streams flowing into the Mawnai village, is a source of two springs (which now have been abandoned in favour of the Government water supply), is a source of bees for local apiculture, and would likely be contributing nutrients to the fields in its vicinity, thus providing valuable ecosystem services to the villages. However, the threat to the sacred grove is serious and the residents of the two villages need to be sensitized and alternatives to firewood should be to the residents to decrease the pressure on the sacred grove. Long term conservation needs an incentive for the effort to be put in by the local community and Kumar (2009), provides an example where it has been
successfully implemented by introducing a medicinal plantation, providing information and technical support in the available area within the sacred grove in Konkan Region in Western Ghats. In Meghalaya, it can, besides the above mentioned ways, be achieved by using the sacred grove itself as source of piped water to individual homes rather than form a source far away as is being done now. It can be argued that this has the potential to ensure the long-term dependence of the people on the services provided by the sacred grove and increasing the conservation effort put in by the community.


We express our gratitude to the Principal, Lady Keane College and the Head, Department of Botany, Lady Keane College for allowing the use of Laboratory facilities. We also thank the Rangbah Kur, Kur Lyngdoh, Mawnai village, for the kind permission; to Shri M. Lyngdoh who assisted us in every effort and to Mr. A. Ryntathiang and Mr K. Marbaniang, our guides in the sacred forest.


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