India’s Sacred Groves Are Resurrecting a Vanishing Forest
Ancolie Stoll envisions one such space called Nilatangam, a 7.5 hectare reforestation project started by her European parents when Auroville was first established.
Nilatangam has tall trees from different parts of the world but few native varieties. It is not as dense and complex as the forests of the sacred forests. Instead, the trees are neatly arranged, like crops grown on farmland, with walkways and plenty of space for the plants to naturally sow seeds.
Stoll works with Blanchflower and Baldwin at the botanical garden and says that, in Nilatangam, she has recently grown more native species of tropical dry evergreens. In the midst of non-native trees from the time of her parents, she pointed to plots where she had planted such saplings.
Over time, she will plant more, as there are new species, she explains. The process is slow, but she hopes to create a suitable tropical dry evergreen forest within a few years.
Tropical dry evergreen trees dominate the 20-hectare Pitchandikulam Forest and Biological Resource Center and the similarly sized Auroville Botanical Gardens. Baldwin, Blanchflower and their botanical garden team are working to map the extent and diversity of native species in Auroville.
Education is the primary goal of the botanical garden, and this is where Sathyamurthy plays an important role. On field trips to the forests of Auroville and to the sacred groves, he teaches students about the ecological importance and cultural heritage of the forest.
I understood what students might be going through as Sathyamurthy guided me through Keezhputhupattu shortly after the heavy rains of the November 2021 monsoon. The smell of damp earth mingled with incense and jasmine wreaths as we passed. temples and florists. Into the woods, we walked through the red, powdery, ankle-deep soil; All around us were skinny trees, two to three stories tall. Sathyamurthy continued calmly, leaving footprints from her rubber sandals.
He stops occasionally to enlighten me in Tamil, with a little English, about the medicinal or cultural uses of certain plants. He shares their scientific names and Tamil equivalents in quick succession. Ironwood tree also known as kaasan in Tamil, has special medicinal value. “Women grind the leaves with rice and use the mixture as an immune booster for postpartum recovery,” he said. Tropical ebony, known as karungaali, used for making musical instruments and agriculture. Its much sought-after branches are hung over doorways to ward off bad energies. We stop by often—Sathyamurthy seems to have a story for every tree, and he hopes his enthusiasm will inspire the students he brings into the woods.
Sathyamurthy felt that the students would create opportunities for sacred groves in their villages. He believes such visits will help build a relationship between the trees and the students. The students ended the field trip with seeds, seedlings and tips on how to grow native plants on communal lands in their villages.
Educating the next generation about the value of these forests could be key to their survival, for despite their shrines and importance to religious groups, sacred forests remain untouched. away from the threats of urbanization, including extraction for biomedical and cultural purposes.
For example, Keezhputhupattu welcomes hundreds of thousands of devotees each year, and it is difficult for villagers to control outsiders’ interactions with the forest. Tourists and herders also trespass.
Outside the forest, Sathyamurthy spotted three young men tugging at a tree. They managed to get a big affiliate. After a long struggle, they tore a branch from the tree. The leaves fell with a tired rustle. The men happily pulled away their booty, perhaps used for medicinal or cultural purposes.
Sathyamurthy shook her head disapprovingly and said there was an urgent need to address the threat to the forests. He later told me that the loss of the sacred forests was like an attack on his community’s way of life.
This is why seed collection, nurseries, promotion of tree planting and awareness raising about tropical dry evergreen forests are essential. Blanchflower points out that if everything is exploited, the forest will not have a chance to regenerate and “build up a bank balance”. Natural forest regeneration “puts energy back in the bank.”