In Langscape Magazine Articles

Protecting Biodiversity in Dakshinkali, A Sacred Grove in Kathmandu Valley, Nepal

A Photo Essay by Sheetal Vaidya and Asha Paudel

Dakshinkali is a sacred grove located at 1550 m of altitude about 22 km south of Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu. It is a local symbol of divinity, devoted to the Goddess Kali. Hindus consider Kali to be the supreme, dark female power whose role is to destroy evil. Therefore, people worship her as a mother figure during religious festivals and marriage ceremonies, and whenever they seek solace. The Indigenous dwellers of two nearby villages  —  Pharping, inhabited by Newar people, and Chaimale, inhabited by Tamang people  —  have traditionally been involved in careful and respectful stewardship of the grove. The grove as well as the Seshnarayan pond located within it have long been closely integrated into the lives of people living in the neighboring districts, Lalitpur and Khatmandu.

The grove supports rich aquatic and terrestrial flora and fauna, as well as abundant water resources that surrounding households access through tap water. Everywhere around the world, traditional ecological knowledge and spiritual beliefs teach people to treat sacred natural sites with respect. In Dakshinkali, people hold a strong belief that the grove’s vegetation is under the protection of the Goddess Kali. Hence, they deem many plant species found there to be holy. The belief that plants are manifestations of the gods restricts their exploitation, and traditional taboos protect rare and threatened plants from extinction. Integration of many medicinal plants into rituals by the Indigenous people has played a huge role in their conservation.

The forest patches of Dakshinkali, however, are no longer free from anthropogenic pressures. Several political, economic, and social issues often challenge management through the traditional system. The abandonment of sustainable practices in favor of the conveniences brought about by development  —  such as road construction, non-biodegradable waste pollution, and illegal harvesting of rare and endangered species  —  is among the causes of loss of the sacred grove’s pristine features. Biodiversity loss is an ongoing problem, creating a serious need for long-term revitalization and sustainable management efforts. Awareness programs for local people about the value of rare and endangered species as well their importance for the very existence of the Dakshinkali deity are essential steps to be undertaken urgently to ward off the ongoing devastation of the area.

Acknowledgements. We are thankful to the high-spirited people in Dakshinkali who shared with us information, anecdotes, cultural references, and traditional knowledge of this sacred grove. We highly value and appreciate the time they gave us to explain their values and beliefs.

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The main temple of the Goddess Dakshinkali is surrounded by a lush sacred grove encompassing an area of 56 hectares. Upholding traditions and beliefs helps protect and conserve the uniqueness of the forest. Plants found here that are protected because they are considered holy (and several of which are endemic and have no English names) include: Aegle marmelos (wood apple), Artemisia indica (Asian mugwort), Buddleja asiatica (bhimsen pati), Betula alnoides (Himalayan birch), Cannabis sativa (hemp), Castanopsis indica (chestnut), C. tribuloides (chinkapin), Cynodon dactylon (Bermuda grass), Datura stramonium (thorn apple), Emblica officinalis (Indian gooseberry), Engelhardtia spicata (mawa), Ficus religiosa (sacred fig tree), F. benghalensis (banyan tree), F. benjamina (weeping fig), Michelia champaca (champak), and many more. This place is perhaps the last refuge for many such plant species. Photo: Sheetal Vaidya, 2015
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Betula alnoides is standing proudly for more than 200 years facing the main temple on the north. Locals believe that if somebody tries to harm the Himalayan birch he or she will immediately die by vomiting blood. Photo: Sheetal Vaidya, 2016.
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The Seshnarayan pond within Dakshinkali is imbued with deep cultural and historical significance. The holy complex was built by one of the Lichhavi kings of Nepal (400 to 750 CE) to guard the Kathmandu Valley below. The sacred water of the pool is believed to be the milk that flowed down from the udder of the holy cow Kamdhenu. This udder is now represented by a cluster of stalactites hanging from a cliff just above the main temple of Seshnarayan. Photo: Asha Paudel, 2016.
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Water from the pond is piped down or carried inwater tankers to provide drinking water to the households of Lalitpur District. People can be seen coming to the pond carrying their gagri pots to fetch drinking water from the water source. Water is also carried in buckets that are then emptied into the tankers for commercial water supply. Students from nearby hostels and monks from the gompa (Buddhist monastery) do their laundry here as well. Water was tapped from here to construct Nepal’s first hydropower plant in 1911, only 29 years after the world’s first hydropower project was realized in Wisconsin, USA. Photo: Asha Paudel, 2016
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An Indigenous Newar of Dakshinkali, Radhe Shyam Kapali, 58, makes a living in a small corner of the Seshnarayan pond by selling ritual butter lamps that his wife prepares. Photo: Asha Paudel, 2016
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People from all over the country come to worship Dakshinkali. Here, large crowds of people carrying offerings stand in line outside the main temple. Photo: Sheetal Vaidya, 2015
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Basu Dev Balami, 38, is in charge of the Dakshinkali Management Committee. He has authored articles about the cultural and historical significance of Dakshinkali. “We have observed a noticeable decrease in natural waterspouts in the surrounding forest as a result of climate change,” he argues. “Among the eight, four have completely dried up, which is a serious problem.” He was not aware of the need for the revitalization of biodiversity lost during road construction. Photo: Sheetal Vaidya, 2016
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Management of non-biodegradable waste left behind by devotees is a major problem. Plastic litter negligently discarded by worshippers is scattered everywhere  —  such as the plastic packaging that incense sticks come in, seen on the ground here. Cleaners are in charge of managing such litter, but the Dakshinkali Management Committee, the administration established in 1951 to look after the temple, is understaffed. Previous attempts to ban plastic, provide bins, and prohibit littering have failed. Photo: Asha Paudel, 2016
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biodiversity
A bright Indigenous young man, Ashish Basnet, 35, is involved in a local youth club called Naulo Abhiyan (New Venture), which volunteers for the management of waste in the Dakshinkali area. He and fellow club members have been striving for sustainable management, but their efforts are often stymied by lack of funds and the indifference of municipal authorities. “The youth would be highly motivated if the government supported their conservation activities by providing financial rewards as well as the logistic support they need,” he points out, adding, “There are large groups and families who gather for picnics and leave behind non-biodegradable waste like plastic. Very few participate in the clean-up campaigns. The most important steps to raise awareness about the health hazards of litter.” At present, the best hope for conserving the grove lies in making the public aware of how the ecological functions of such a grove benefits people and in bringing the area into Nepal’s protected area network. Photo: Asha Paudel, 2016
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In the Hindu tradition, accepting tika (red splotches prepared by mixing vermillion powder, rice, and yoghurt and applied on foreheads) from holy elders in a sacred area is one way of showing deep spiritual respect. Puja (the act of showing respect to a deity with rituals and prayers) is performed by worshipping the deity, which includes offering flowers, fruits, foods, and retrieving the blessed tika. People believe that if they pray to the goddess and offer sacrifice, she will assure their success and vanquish evil. Photo: Sheetal Vaidya, 2015
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The line-ups go on for hours, with people waiting patiently to enter the main temple and seek Goddess Dakshinkali’s blessings by touching her. Photo: Asha Paudel, 2016
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A recently built highway not only minimizes the distance between Kathmandu and Terai region of Nepal, but also gives worshippers from other parts of the country easier access to Dakshinkali. Furthermore, it has brought some immediate benefits to the people of Chaimale and the surrounding villages because they can now more conveniently transport their agricultural products. Previously they had to walk hours to transport beans, pears, and hog plums to the nearest center of commercial activities. Yet, road building is being done without previously conducting an Environmental Impact Assessment, which in Nepal is required by law before undertaking such development projects. As a consequence, the construction of roads traversing the grove has been threatening its biodiversity. Biodiversity is also endangered by a lack of facilities for proper waste management. Photo: Sheetal Vaidya, 2016
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Offering the indigenous biodiversity at the Dakshinkali market not only brings smiles to local women but also contributes to wild germplasm preservation. Pear (Pyrus communis) and Nepali hog plum (Choerospondias axillaris) are the main fruits of commercial value cultivated in local farms and sold in Dakshinkali. The women prepare juice, jam, and dried pickles to sell locally as well as to export. They do, however, face challenges in continuing to secure the economic benefits from these fruits, due to the lack of a reliable storage system. Photo: Sheetal Vaidya, 2015
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Locally famous as Jaributi Baje (“Herbal Grandpa”), Sanu Manandhar, 75, prepares various Ayurvedic medicines from indigenous plants, which he sells in bottles labeled with local names. He holds the knowledge of numerous plant species used in special rituals of the Newars and Tamangs, the two Indigenous communities of the surrounding area. “I have been doing this for 40 years,” he says, adding that he has the power of curing disease by chanting holy mantras. He believes that the Goddess Kali has bestowed him with this healing power. Photo: Sheetal Vaidya, 2016
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Prem Maya Balami, 64, sustains her livelihood by selling medicinal forest products, such as dried flowers of Bombax ceiba (cotton tree) and Rhododendron arboreum (tree rhododendrum) and dried leaves of Cinnamomum tamala (Indian bay leaf). Here she is seen removing the skin from rhizomes of Bergenia ciliata (hairy bergenia) to prepare a tonic to be given to her daughters-in-law who are in their post-partum period. “I lost my home during the recent earthquake,” she says. “I now live in a small hut in the field while my sons with their families have rented separate houses. But that does not stop me from taking care of their wives, at least when they are at this stage. The women have to take care of their health properly at such a time.” Photo: Sheetal Vaidya, 2016
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Economic pressure and lack of awareness are responsible for the local exploitation of threatened plants, such as orchids, whose trade is banned under the CITES international agreement. The possible consequences of illegal trade do not deter harvesting them for economic gain, even more so due to the lack of a monitoring system to prevent illegal plant gathering. Here, a man is seen selling plants that are protected by law. It is urgent to put a system in place to control the gathering of herbs, preserve biodiversity, and plan for future. Photo: Sheetal Vaidya, 2016
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Volume 5, Issue 2 | Editorial | Table of Contents | Subscribe | Buy | Donate

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Sheetal Vaidya, PhD, is an associate professor of Botany at Patan Multiple Campus, Tribhuvan University, Nepal, specializing in plant systematics. With over 27 years of teaching experience, she has done research on diverse subjects such as molecular biology, floriculture, and biocultural diversity of Indigenous communities of the Kathmandu Valley.

Asha Paudel is an assistant lecturer at Amrit Campus, Tribhuvan University, Nepal, teaching about climate change and biocultural diversity in the high Himalayas. An accomplished field scientist, her interests also lie in pollination biology as well as plant systematics of the alpine regions of Nepal.


Further Reading

Adhikari, D. (2006). Hydropower development in Nepal. Economic Review, 18, 70–94.

Government of Nepal. (2014). Nepal Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan 2014–2016. Kathamndu, Nepal: GON, Ministry of Forests and Soil Conservation.

Government of Nepal. (2012). Nepal Population and Housing Census 2011, National Report. Kathmandu, Nepal: GON, National Planning Commission Secretariat, Central Bureau of Statistics.

Oviedo, G., Jeanrenaud, S., & Otegui, M. (2005). Protecting Sacred Natural Sites of Indigenous and Traditional Peoples: An IUCN Perspective. Retrieved from https://www.iucn.org/sites/dev/files/import/downloads/sp_protecting_sacred_natural_sites_indigenous.pdf

Sangal, N. C., & Sangal, P. (1998). Glimpses of Nepal. New Delhi, India: APH.


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