Stone carving of Hindu god Ganesh
Rain-splattered, heart-shaped leaves circle a trunk
Villagers plowing with oxen, planting rice
Panorama of lush Western Ghats valley
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 the fates of 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 the fate of wildlife, people, and deities meet. The Western Ghats region is well known to conservationists as 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 in return 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 multifaceted relationship between people and nature, and we will address specific questions about a sustainable future. To the conservationist, resource manager, or educator, 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? From Mount Meru in the Hindu tradition, to the Garden of Eden in the Christian tradition, to the wild haunts of our childhoods, how common are sacred sites and what forms do they take? 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
  • Spiritual ecology, religion, and conservation
  • Understanding ecological, cultural, and social value of sacred groves
  • Western and Eastern modes of understanding nature and the self
  • Local ecological knowledge
  • Ethnoecology
  • 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
  • Lectures
  • Student-led discussions on key course topics
  • Engage with local communities
  • Open inquiries
  • Journal writing


India is a spectacular country of tremendous biological and cultural diversity, a place where ancient religious 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.


Bhimashankar Wildlife Sanctuary (BWS) is a highly significant sacred site in part because it contains a revered Shiva temple, one of 12 core Shiva temples (or Jyotirlinga) in India. The BWS receives more than half a million visitors a year, creating environmental issues in the surrounding communities and forested ecosystem. Bhimashankar has been a focus site for AERF for many years, and their work here includes setting up conservation agreements with local communities to relieve poaching. Bhimashankar Wildlife Sanctuary has 12 sacred groves and is the source of the Bhima River, part of the Krishna river basin.

Amba Wildlife Corridor

India is seeking to reverse a tragic decline of ecologically and spritually 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. 


The Applied Environmental Research Foundation has worked for over a decade in the Sadavali region (Sangameshwar Block), a diverse area covering more than 10 valleys with several important villages, temples, and sacred groves where we will explore a range of conservation practices and successful community engagement strategies.

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

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