India: Sivaranthagam Sacred Grove – Maheshwari and her tree



By Bushavali Natarajan

(reposted from the blog My Travelogue)


I’m pretty sure, you’ve heard of the movie ‘Life of Pi’. It won Oscars in 2013. A major portion of this movie was shot here in India, especially in and around Pondicherry aka Puducherry. One of the shooting locations was a sacred grove in the quaint little village called Sivaranthagam, which has a huuuuuge banyan tree!


Recently I came to know of the location of this tree through The Hindu newspaper and set out to this place. Its located en route to Villupuram from Pondicherry. So my first destination was Pondy and from there I took a local bus to a little town called Villianur. Enquiring here revealed to me that there’s a once a day town bus to Keezhur that went via Sivaranthagam which I felt was pointless to wait for. Autos are aplenty here. I took one and thank God, the driver knew of this sacred grove pretty well.


The present structure of the temple
The present structure of the temple


By the way, what does Sacred Grove mean? Sacred Groves are little groves or woods or mini forests that belong to a temple or have a religious significance. So what’s the religious significance here? Yup, there a mini temple below the huge banyan tree. The temple is called Ponni Amman Temple. The original temple has been here since the past few decades. However the present structure was built in 1994.


Puravi - terracotta Votive figures of Horses
Puravi – terracotta Votive figures of Horses


More than the temple, the tree is what totally took me by awe. More than the tree, it was the tree’s caretaker who took me by awe all the more. She is Maheshwari! Fondly called Amma!!! She is simple, clad in a saffron shirt and skirt and her matted locks wrapped as a bun atop her crown!


Maheshwari with her daughter-in-law and grandson
Maheshwari with her daughter-in-law and grandson


She came here when her son was a toddler and this tree and temple have been her home ever since. The donations by the devotees are the only source of livelihood for her. When she arrived here decades ago, the tree was little too, like her son. She nurtured the tree. Nurtured is a simple word to say. What she did was PHENOMENAL.


It’s a banyan tree and the essential characteristic of the tree is the aerial prop roots. The roots emanate from the branches and grow towards the ground. What she did was to wrap each aerial root with soil and manure, in a bag, in rainy days and help them grow soon. Once it hits the ground, she dug pits and planted them, again with soil and manure and placed a few heavy stones upon them, so they don’t spring back.


Once the roots hold on to the soil and ground, she removes the rocks! She ties up the roots that are closer to the stem, along with the main stem. She applies wet mud between them, so they hold on well!!! She has been doing this for decades and has planted several hundreds and maybe thousands of roots!


When she came here the tree was hardly 3 metres circumference at the stem. Today its 36 metres!!! The area the entire banyan tree covers – I have no idea!!! Its huge, covering several grounds of land! The number of birds, insects, snakes surviving because of this tree – may be millions!!!


How minuscule she is beside the tree
How minuscule she is beside the tree


There are quite a lot of ant hills within and around the tree. Many times abandoned ant hills become homes of snakes. She says there are 3 big snakes inside the main stem of the banyan tree which come out at night! There are several smaller ones too!!!


Today her son is a strong young man and does manual labour in the nearby town and is married. They have a little 10 year old boy. Her son’s family lives in the nearby town to facilitate his work and the kid’s schooling. But she has made the tree her home… She has built a little house beside the temple and that’s her home. When I went there, the daughter in law and grandson were there, thanks to the summer school holidays!


I really didn’t feel like leaving the place. I could stay there all day long – the chirps of the birds, hustle of the leaves, 2 awesome stray dogs that she takes care of, a few cocks & hens, cooling breeze, significantly lower temperature than the outside world!!! She was such a loving lady who almost hugged me when I was leaving! I never wanted to leave!!!!!


Do visit the temple. No matter what’s your religion, the tree and the lady are worth the visit! And as I always say, give to her generously. If you do not want to give in cash, give to her in kind like grains, spices etc. It’s not just for the temple. It’s for her. It’s for the tree. It’s for Mother Earth. It’s for the Rain. It’s for the several millions of living things that depend on that tree!!!




From Pondicherry: 18 km via Villianur, Vadamangalam, Ariyur towards Keezhur.

From Villupuram: 25 km via Kolianur, Valavanur, Ariyur towards Keezhur.

From Villianur: 9 km via Ariyur towards Keezhur.

You’re in the right track if you spot Sri Venkateshwara Medical College & Hospital when you come from Pondy and you’ve overshot when you come from Villupuram.

Several town buses are available from Pondy to Villianur.

A few buses are available from Villianur that goes to Keezhur via Sivaranthakam, but its pointless to wait for it unless you know its timings. Even if you know, returning from there would get difficult. Best way is to hire an auto for a round trip. Ask the auto driver for Ponni Amman Koil at Sivaranthagam. They will all know it!


Dedicated to my mom!


To read this in the original with all the other photos, click here


To read other posts on Bhushavali’s blog, My Travelogue, click here.


Photos: Courtesy of Bhushavali Natarajan


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