The International Union for Conservation of Nature is the world’s oldest and largest global environmental organization. IUCN has been working for the protection of sacred natural sites, through its Secretariat offices and it’s Task Force on Cultural and Spiritual Values of Protected Areas (CSVPA), which is part of the World Commission on Protected Areas.
According to IUCN, Sacred natural sites (SNS) are natural areas of special spiritual significance to peoples and communities. They include natural areas recognized as sacred by indigenous and traditional peoples, as well as natural areas recognized by institutionalized religions or faiths as places for worship and remembrance.
IUCN opines that many sacred sites which have survived for hundreds of years act as important biodiversity reservoirs. However, their contribution to conservation has been largely overlooked and undervalued by state and conservation agencies, policies and laws. Many sacred natural sites are areas of great importance for the conservation of biodiversity. In fact, very often the reasons for protecting the spiritual connections between people and the earth, and for conservingbiodiversity in their lands, are inseparable.
A sacred site is an area which is regarded with reverence. For example, the cities of Badrinath, Kedarnath, Amarnath and Banaras are regarded as sacred. The sanctity is not restricted to temple towns alone.
Sacred sites are common among tribal communities. For the Todas of the Nilgiris, Kundah beyond Mukuruthi is the sacred resting place of their deity and no Toda will even set foot on the hill.Similarly, Kailasa in the Himalayas is sacred in the Himalayas and is circumambulated by pilgrims, as is Thiruvannamalai in Tamilnadu.
Badrinath, deep in the Garwal Himalayas, marks the northern geographic point of India's sacred geography. Gomukh, meaning cow's mouth, is located on a tongue of the Bhagirathi Glacier and is the source of the RiverGanga. Haridwar, one of the seven sacred cities of India, is located where the Ganga river enters the north Indian plains. Every 12 years a religious fair called the Khumbh Mela attracts millions of pilgrims for a sacrificial bath. Nasik in Maharashtra and Sangam near Allahabad are other sites of the Kumbh Mela bathing festival
Rivers lend sanctity to some places, either by being born there or joining another river there. The place of junction of two rivers is called a Sangam, of which there is a familiar illustration in the junction of the Muta and Mula, near Poona. Allahabad, also known as Triveni Sangam, is sacred to Hindus because three sacred rivers - the Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati (which is supposed to join them from beneath the ground) meet there. It is also called Prayag, or "the confluence". It is personified by a fish bearing on its back three goddesses. Similarly, Thala-Kaveri, the birth place of the river Kaveri in Coorg (Karnataka), is also considered sacred.
The subcontinent and the Ocean meet at Kanya Kumari, in Tamilnadu. The place is so sacred that a shrine is dedicated to a virgin goddess. Poetically, it is said that the Indian Ocean, with its two hands, the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal, washes the feet of the goddess of India, Kanya Kumari.
Places are considered sacred because of the sacred events that have occurred there at some point of time. The seven sacred Indian cities, a visit to which confers eternal happiness, are considered sacred for the following reasons:
Ayodhya - the birth and life of Sri Rama
Mathura - associated with the birth and exploits of Sri Krishna
Bodh - Gaya (Buddha Gaya) - where Buddha was enlightened under the Bodhi tree; Gaya - the city of Illusion
Kashi (Benares) - the supreme centre of the Hindu religion and Sanskrit learning; its deity god Vishvanatha, is famed throughout the length and breadth of India; Episcopal seats established by the great Saint Sankaracharya at Kanchipuram (Kamakshipita), Sringeri (Sharada Math), Puri (Govardhana Math), Dwaraka (Kalika Math) and Badrinath (Jotir Math).
Avanti or Avantika (Ujjayini) - the germs of all living beings are supposed to have survived the Flood preserved in the central image of Mahadeo on the great Mahakal temple, located in this city.
Rameswaram, located on the peninsula in southern Tamilnadu, is the southern axis of the sacred spaces delineated by the four sacred abodes of Vishnu. The place derives its sanctity from its traditional association with the presence of Rama, the hero of the epic Ramayana.
Amarnath, in the Himalayas contains a cave sacred to Siva, where a Sivalinga, formed naturally of ice, increases and decreases with the moon. Many pilgrims visit the sacred cave in the month of Sravana (July - August), and the natural phenomenon makes Amarnath sacred.