By Sharon St Joan
The water is not deep at Pichavaram, maybe two or three feet. It is dark green. Waterways run between the islands of mangrove trees. Pichavaram lies along the coast of the Bay of Bengal, in south India.
In February, 2015, our rowboat sailed quietly along the waterways which came together, parted, divided again. The water rippled peacefully.
Beautiful great egrets landed on the mangrove trees, taking off and circling, then returning. In the shadows, a little yellow bittern waited, perched on a mangrove root near the water’s edge, half-concealed behind the leaves and branches, watching hopefully for his dinner to swim by.
When cyclones come, the mangrove roots, which sink deep into the mud below the water, protect the mangrove forest from destruction and the land from erosion. Along one side, the mangrove trees of Pichavaram have been cleared to make way for grazing goats. This is unfortunate since, without the protection of the mangrove roots, the land is left open to being washed away. The expanse of the mangrove forest is being whittled away, bit by bit.
Like the roots of the peepal tree, the roots grow down from the Mangrove branches into the water. The leaves are thick and dark green. This is the second largest mangrove forest in India, with the Sundarbans of West Bengal being the largest. Pichavaram lies 142 miles (229 kilometers) south of Madras (Chennai).
Seven or eight hundred years ago, the mangrove forest, called tillai, extended several miles further down the coast, all the way to Chidambaram. It was a major feature of the temple at Chidambaram and determined its name, the Tillai Nataraja Temple. The presence of the mangrove forest formed an integral part of the ambiance of the temple.
Today only the northern part of Pichavaram remains, covering about 1,100 hectares (2,718 acres), and several miles now separate the temple from the forest, which is home to 177 species of birds, mostly water birds like herons, cormorants, egrets, and pelicans.
In their fascinating book, Sacred Plants of India, Dr. Nanditha Krishna and Mr. M. Amirthalingam recount several legends about the sacred mangrove forest.
The young sage Madyadinar, having learned the four Vedas and the six shastras (holy books), asked his father what more he might do to attain enlightenment. His father guided him to go to the mangrove forest near Chidambaram, where he would find a lingam, a stone representation of Shiva, under a tree. He traveled there, bathed in the sacred pool, then built a hut for himself and a leafy canopy to protect the lingam from the sun and the rain. There he lived, worshipping Shiva. After a while he was granted the gifts of the strong limbs of the tiger and the power to see in the darkness. Then he was called Vyagrapada, meaning “tiger feet.”
The sage Patanjali, an incarnation of Adi Sesha, who is the divine serpent that serves as a couch for Lord Vishnu, had a great longing to see the dance of Nataraja. Nataraja means Lord of the Dance, and is one of the names of Shiva. Patanjali asked Lord Vishnu for permission to go to the mangrove forest near Chidambaram, and with permission granted, he traveled there and met Vyagrapada. Together, they were allowed to witness the sacred dance of bliss, the ananda tandava, performed by Shiva. It is believed that this sacred dance performed by Lord Shiva continues until this day.
When King Simhavarman, who had an illness, heard that the two sages Patanjali and Madyadinar (Vyagrapada) were at the mangrove forest worshipping Shiva, he went there to visit them and ask their blessings, hoping to be healed of his condition. Vyagrapada advised King Simhavarman to bathe in the sacred pool, which he did. He was miraculously cured, after which his skin shone with a golden hue. Following this the king was called Hiranyavarman, which means gold-plated. Gold was dug from a nearby well and, in gratitude for the king’s healing, was used to cover the roof of the temple, which is today still covered in pure gold. Several palaces were built to the east of the temple for King Simhavarman.
At the Chidambaram Temple, in the months of June and July, the Gods are worshipped in special ceremonies, using twigs from the mangrove tree.
Like many Indian trees and plants, the mangrove is a sacred, healing tree. Latex from the mangrove tree is poisonous, but it is used externally to cure wounds and injuries. It is also used to treat nervous disorders and ulcers. The seeds are used to cure leprosy and as an antidote for poisonous bites.
Photos: Sharon St Joan
Top photo: Mangrove roots grow into the water.
Second photo: Great egrets.
Third and third photos: Visitors in another boat.
To find “Sacred Plants of India” on Amazon, click here.
© 2015, Sharon St. Joan