Earth Expeditions
Panorama of lush Western Ghats valley
An Indian Deity
Villagers plowing with oxen, planting rice
Rain-splattered, heart-shaped leaves circle a trunk
Ganesh figure in a sacred grove
Langur monkey in tree
Bundles of emerald green rice stalks in rice paddy
Four small, soot-blackened stone deities
Long-horned cow ambling by a rocky field

Course Overview

Journey through the stunning ecological, cultural, and spiritual landscapes of the Western Ghats, where people, wildlife, and deities meet in sacred groves and forest temples.

We will journey through the rich ecological, cultural, and spiritual landscapes of the Western Ghats, exploring sacred groves and forest temples where wildlife, people, and deities meet. The Western Ghats region is a biodiversity hotspot, home to diverse local ecosystems with an abundance of plant and animal species found nowhere else. The existence of sacred groves in the Western Ghats predates recorded history. In sacred groves, remnant forest patches are revered and protected by local communities, and these forests provide biological, social, and spiritual benefits.

With more than 13,000 sites documented across India, sacred groves are important at many levels. For conservationists, sacred groves can be seen as essential refuges for plants and animals struggling to survive in the face of rampant development and environmental destruction. For social scientists, sacred groves are valued as centers for community life. For the spiritually inclined, sacred groves transcend earthly bounds, allowing people to commune with gods and other powerful beings that offer protection, enlightenment, absolution, or guidance.

In this course, we seek to better understand the relationship between people and nature and will address specific questions about a sustainable future. What is the cost of misunderstanding or ignoring the spiritual dimension of sacred sites? How can models of sustainability be expanded to include local knowledge and local values? What unique opportunities do sacred sites provide for community participation in environmental stewardship?

The award-winning Applied Environmental Research Foundation (AERF) is our partner and host in India. AERF has worked with communities in the Western Ghats for more than two decades to support groundbreaking work on sacred groves and conservation. 

Course Themes

  • Biodiversity of the Western Ghats
  • Understanding ecological, cultural, and social value of sacred groves
  • Spiritual ecology and conservation
  • Local ecological knowledge
  • Inquiry-driven learning
  • Participatory education
  • Community-based conservation

A typical Earth Expeditions day in India is likely to include:

  • Visits to sacred groves, temples, and other field conservation sites
  • Dialogue with experienced local conservationists
  • Student-led discussions on key course topics
  • Lectures
  • Engaging with local communities
  • Open inquiries
  • Journal writing


India is a spectacular country of tremendous biological and cultural diversity, a place where ancient traditions coexist alongside modern cities in one of the world’s largest democracies. The natural environments of India range from deserts to tropical forests, from beaches to Himalayan peaks. India has more than 400 wildlife sanctuaries and is home to elephants, hornbills, wild dogs, crocodiles, tigers, and rhinoceroses. As the birthplace of four world religions, India has helped shape cultures across Asia and beyond.

"I appreciated the way this course integrated sociology, community connection, and science into each field experience. I loved working with AERF and having the opportunity to interact with people from local communities in the Western Ghats."

- Shana B., Washington, D.C.

Planned Sites in India

Western Ghats

All of our course locations lie in the Western Ghats, a lush and dramatic landscape, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as well as one of the most important conservation regions on Earth. The rain that falls in the Western Ghats feeds many of India’s major rivers. We will be in the northern section of the Western Ghats (in the Sahyadris hill range), which has received comparatively little conservation attention.

Amba Wildlife Corridor

India is seeking to reverse a tragic decline of ecologically and spiritually important species by establishing and protecting a system of reserves and corridors. While in Amba, we can gain an appreciation for the ecological importance, impacts, and conservation strategies happening in this region including the spiritual aspects of hornbills, palm civet, tigers, fish tail palm, and other animal and plant species, in sacred groves. 


Sri Velneshwar is an ancient temple by the sea, located on the shores of the Indian Ocean. The colorful temple grounds are decorated with paintings and carvings depicting deities and local stories. Many plant and animal species frequent this area including monkeys and many species of birds.

(Course locations are subject to change.)

Dragonfly Workshops Web-Based Learning Community

Upon acceptance into the program, students will join instructors and classmates in Dragonfly Workshops' collaborative Web community to complete pre-trip assignments. After returning home, students will continue to work in their Web-based community through early December to develop projects initiated in the field, discuss assignments, and exchange ideas. All students should expect to spend two to three hours a week contributing to their Web-Based Learning Community from their home or school computer. Navigating the Web platform is easy--it's designed for people with no prior computer experience. To learn more about this unique Web experience, visit

More Information

For more information on the admissions process, physical requirements, and more, please visit Admissions and/or FAQs.

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Course Details

Notes from the Field


Wyaghreshwar temple, Western Ghats, India.

Rubi Hurtado

Producer at Univision Communication and co-founder of Kuyayky Foundation from Miami, Florida

Rubi investigated the relationship between conservation and religion by comparing animal imagery in traditional vs. sacred grove temples. Students in the India course develop diverse methodologies to better understand and support human-nature co-existence.

Program Costs

AERF Video: Earth Expeditions India










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