Pavupattu: Spirits among the trees

terracotta horses
Terracotta horses

Five miles south of the city Tiruvannamalai, which lies southwest of Chennai, in Tamil Nadu, can be found the Sacred Grove of Pavupattu.  An oasis of peace and beautiful trees, it was the first of 52 sacred groves restored by CPREEC (C.P.R. Environmental Education Centre)

Twenty-five years ago, the grove came to the attention of Dr. Nanditha Krishna, Director of CPREEC; she and one of CPREEC’S officers, Mr. Selvapandiyan, went to visit the grove and found it very rundown.  Over the course of many months, Mr. Selvapandiyan, who was the manager of the restoration project, spent his time first interviewing local elders in the nearby village of Pavupattu, to determine which were the trees that had once grown naturally in the grove.  Then he set about doing the work of restoration.

Mr. Selvapandiyan recalls that at the time, there was a severe drought in the area, which meant that there was no water available.  They had to bring in water from outside in trucks, to use for planting all the trees and also as drinking water for the work crews.  It was very hot work in the warm months of southern India.

Mr. Selvapandian, CPREEC, Manager of the Sacred Grove Project
Mr. Selvapandiyan, CPREEC, Manager of the Sacred Grove Project

All the trees that can be seen now planted on the acres of the grove, are green and wonderfully healthy.  Just a few of the larger trees had existed earlier. In the twenty-five years since Pavupattu was restored, the people of the nearby village of the same name have faithfully taken care of the grove. It is clean and well-kept, with no trash or litter, a lovely, serene place, home to a few dozen resident monkeys – and to the huge votive statues that the people have had made to offer to the deities of the grove.  There are small temple structures, and standing on platforms, or sometimes grinning from behind trees, are the remarkable folk statues, especially of huge white horses, and sometimes the figures of guardian spirits in human form – all constructed of painted terracotta, one of the unique folk arts of Tamil Nadu.

One of the terracotta guardian spirits beside a tree.
One of the terracotta guardian spirits beside a tree.

Throughout India, there are sacred groves – in the hundreds of thousands, though sadly, the majority have fallen into disrepair over the centuries.  Some have disappeared entirely, swallowed up into shopping malls or other developed land, or perhaps simply lying idle, as waste land, occasionally visited by a few devotees who worship the remnants of a sacred site.  A few have been maintained over hundreds or thousands of years.

These are the original spiritual sites of the local people of India. They are groves of trees because the trees themselves are especially sacred, and they are also home to the guardian spirits and the deities who live on the sacred land among the trees.  Wherever the groves have been preserved intact, it is entirely due to the devotion and tenacity of the local village people, who have protected their groves against all the onslaughts of modern development.

In the past, every Indian village had a sacred grove, which was the heart of the spiritual life of the people.  The trees could never be cut down, the animals and birds could not be disturbed. Sometimes it was even forbidden to gather dead fallen branches for firewood.  The land was sacred and could not be used for mundane purposes.  Where they still exist, the sacred groves are wonderful repositories of the animals, birds, and plant life of the area.  Some species can now only be found in the sacred groves.


A tree and a tank, or a pool.
A tree and a tank, or a pool.


CPREEC, with each of the 52 groves they have restored, has taken great pains to study the area and to learn from the local people the exact species of trees that used to grow there so that they can be replanted, restoring the grove precisely to its original state.  CPREEC provides the funding for the work and carries out the project, hiring local people to do the work.  After three years of renovation and support by CPREEC, each grove is turned over to the village, and the local people undertake to preserve and maintain the sacred grove which has traditionally always been theirs.

Preserving and restoring these beautiful and peaceful places of greenery and sacred trees, habitat for many kinds of birds and wildlife, is profoundly significant.  First of all, for that grove and for the plants, animals, people, and the spirits who live there. And, on another level, what could be more important than restoring and maintaining a small part of the planet earth?  Each grove stands like a shining beacon, a reminder that, despite hardships and challenges, the earth and all her living children are alive and watched over from above.

Photos: © Sharon St Joan, 2013

To visit the website of CPREEC  (C.P.R. Environmental Education Centre), click here.

6 thoughts on “Pavupattu: Spirits among the trees

  1. Wonderful read. Reminded me of the many sacred groves I encountered on my field work in west bengal

  2. This is great! As I said, the bloggers are giving the GOOD news! If you don’t mind, I will put a link to this post on my website next Saturday.

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