A magical childhood, part one


From her earliest childhood, her father and mother used to drive from Bombay to Madras, where they would stay for two or three months in the summer.

They would drive along the back roads and would always stop along the way at a couple of wildlife sanctuaries. They are no longer there now – replaced by factories or businesses.

Nanditha outside FoundationIMG_8511

One of India’s leading environmentalists, Director of CPREEC  (C.P. Ramaswami Environmental Education Centre) and President of the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation, and author of many books, including most recently Sacred Plants of India, Dr. Nanditha Krishna has always been fascinated by the natural world. She credits her family, especially her father and her great-grandfather for introducing her to the wonders of nature when she was a child.

At the wildlife sanctuaries they visited along the road to Madras, they would see many birds, and lots of leopards, tigers, elephants, deer and gaur. Gaur is the Indian bison; they are not the same as water buffalo. The gaur is the tallest species of wild cattle, and they are still found today in the forests of India.

Dr. Krishna recalls the leopards as being “very curious.”  “The tigers were very shy and would just disappear.” “Spotted deer were dainty and elegant.”  “Sambar deer were big.” There were wild boar and several different species of monkeys – macaques and langurs. There were also Malabar squirrels which are large tree squirrels, called giant squirrels. She saw a black panther once. “It was magical.”


They would go from Bombay to Bangalore – off the main road and off the beaten track. The Dandeli forest is the second largest wildlife sanctuary in Karnataka; the river Kali and its tributaries wander through the forest.  Bandipur National Park is adjacent to Mudumali National Park, with the Moyar River running between them. “We saw so many animals – mongoose, snakes, peacocks. And a huge variety of birds.”

Whenever they drove up to Ooty, a town in the hills of the Nilgiris, leopards and tigers would often cross the road. “When a herd of elephants was on the road, you would have to stop and wait because they could be unpredictable. The gaur were also unpredictable.”

When they saw leopards and tigers, her father and she would get down out of the car and go through the trees to have a look. Her mother, like mothers everywhere, was worried about their safety. “My mother was always shouting at my father, ‘Don’t get down!!’”


Whenever they saw a leopard, her father would say, “Come, let’s go as near as we can.”  They would watch the leopard, and the leopard, equally curious, would watch them too. “Animals don’t attack unless they feel threatened or are hungry. They were just as curious about us as we were about them.”

“In those days, the animals were very curious, but the tigers were so shy.”

After serving for several years as the Dewan (Prime Minister) of the state of Travancore, Dr. Krishna’s great-grandfather, Sir C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar, who is remembered as one India’s greatest statesman, went to live in Ooty where he spent the summer months and sometimes part of the winter. He lived there from 1948 until he passed away in 1966.

During this time he was the Vice-Chancellor of two Universities. When Nanditha was there as a child, C.P., as he was known to his friends, (she called him Thatha or “Grandfather”) would take her for daily walks into the forests.  This is one of the most beautiful regions of India, with steep green hills, covered in green vegetation, dotted with rocks and boulders.  The road there makes a steep climb, with many hairpin turns, up from the Mudumalai Forest or from Coimbatore. Ooty was popular with the British because of its cool, temperate climate.

cropped,edited CP as young manIMG_8522

On their walks, C.P. showed Nanditha how to find edible berries and which berries were poisonous. Because he had an excellent western education, as well as a profound knowledge of  Indian culture, he would often quote English poetry. If they saw a yellow flower, he would quote from Wordsworth’s poem about the daffodils  –

“I wandered lonely as a cloud

That floats on high o’er vales and hills,

When all at once I saw a crowd,

A host, of golden daffodils; …”

She remembers him fondly, “He understood the beauty and harmony of nature. He knew places in depth…he taught the art of silence.” Often, they would simply “sit and watch a lake or a river.”

To be continued in part two…  

Top photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/96109131@N00/ Wikimedia Commons / “This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.” / Mudumalai Forest in Tamil Nadu.

Second photo: Sharon St Joan / Dr. Nanditha Krishna outside the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation.

Third  photo: Rakesh Kumar Dogra / Wikimedia Commons / “This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.” / A Malabar Giant Squirrel, or Indian Giant Squirrel, in the Mudumalai Forest.

Fourth photo: Yathin S Krishnappa / Wikimedia Commons / “This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.” / Leopard in the Kabini Forest Reserve, Karnataka, India.

Fifth photo: Courtesy of the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation / C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar as a young man, early twentieth century.

To visit the website of the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation, click here.

To find Dr. Nanditha Krishna’s book Sacred Plants of India on Amazon, click here.

© Sharon St Joan, 2015

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


The Baigas and the sacred trees

Bamboo Forest, Arunachal

An April 12, 2012 Times of India article by Lemuel Lall, TNN, describes how the Baigas are protecting their forests.  The tribal people stand with their bows drawn and arrows ready to fly, confronting Forest Department workers who are intent on cutting the trees.


The Baigas are a people in the Dindori district of Madhya Pradesh, living in the Ranjara jungles, where they have lived for countless generations, worshipping the trees as gods.


The village panchayat (leader) had been holding frequent meetings and lodging protests with the Forest Department against the felling of the trees. Finally, he had had enough, and he asked every man, woman, and child to stand armed with bow and arrow to defend the trees, not allowing a single one to be cut.


The Dindori Conservator of Forest, L.P. Tiwari explained that they were only cutting dead wood, and that it was necessary to do this to follow a government arrangement to provide some wood to other local people to be used as firewood.  He said that not allowing any wood to be cut could lead to massive resistance and the start of illegal logging, as has happened in Uttarakhand, so they must stick to the agreement. He hopes an understanding can be reached with the Baigas.


The Baigas maintain that the trees are their gods and that cutting any of them is entirely unacceptable.


Though it’s easy to appreciate the logic of the Forest Department, who are probably doing their best in a difficult situation to prevent further destruction of the forests.  Still one’s heart goes out to the Baigas.  After all, a tree is a god, isn’t it?  And if we all bravely defended the trees and never allowed a single one to be cut, wouldn’t the world be a different planet – where life and the sacred beings of nature are loved and respected — and where the animals’ homes are protected and preserved?


Photo: / http://www.theodora.com/wfb/photos/india/india_photos_5.html / Source: National and state government agencies of India / Bamboo forest, Arunachal Pradesh


To view the original times of India article, click here. http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Madhya-Pradesh-tribals-defend-their-gods-with-bows-arrows/articleshow/12631209.cms

1700 years — from the Council of Nicaea to the forests of India, Part Two

1700 years — from the Council of Nicaea to the forests of India, Part Two


Continued from Part One

Vision of an underwater world

Again, this is not essentially a theological discussion, but rather it is a look at how a question of belief was used to gain power – to usurp power and to use it to turn aside an original, spiritual intent.  It set a pathway for hundreds of years of history that were to follow – not just for the west, but ultimately for the whole world.

The Council of Nicaea established the doctrine that Jesus Christ is in fact God.  Now one would naturally suppose that this would be a good deal for the followers of Jesus.  But there is a school of thought that says that it turned out to be just the opposite—a really unfortunate thing. Now, instead of being able to feel an immediate connection with the magical, mystical Jesus, a being of love and compassion, there was no direct connection at all.  Instead, from that time onwards, one had to go through a priest, and only the priest could have a spiritual connection with God – nobody else could.

Now there are priests in most religions, and many of them are very kind, good, gentle people.  Some of them have upheld the strengths of societies for thousands of years. Nothing here is meant to detract from that – or to disparage in any way the many thousands of brave Christian saints and martyrs, who were genuinely heroic and sincere in their faith.

But there is a difference between the positive use of power and oppressive dominance.  And the western world was heading down a path that would lead to the latter.

We all know that order is necessary in the universe.  Without it the trains, the buses, and even the planets would all run into each other.

There is order too in the natural ways of animals. When a mother hen guides her chicks along the path,  she may give a stern knock or two to a wayward one who keeps wandering off—because they need to stay together to be safe and to find food.  She is the mom, and she organizes which way the family is going.  She is clearly in charge, and her use of power is positive; it keeps everybody safe.

This natural order of things is entirely opposite to the kind of dominance that the chicken farmer exercises.  He fattens up the chicks, not for the chicks’ benefit, but to get them ready for the chopping block.  He too is in control, but there’s a big difference.  His is not a nurturing control, but is the control of exploitation.

The Council of Nicaea, in determining what one should believe and how one should practice one’s faith, set a precedence of dominance that endured for centuries, and that ultimately helped set the course for how the modern world relates to many things, including the environment.

The terra cotta horse is an offering to Ayyanaar, spirit of the forest.

It started out harmlessly enough.  But, in the view of many, it took out all the mystery and magic of the original Jesus; it set up rules, organized, codified, and generally put everything firmly and irreversibly into the physical realm, under the control of the bishops. For the Church as an institution, there was no more seeking the Kingdom of Heaven – only a consolidation of earthly power.

Catholicism, or official Christianity as it was for centuries, is by no means unique in following this trajectory — but it does provide an excellent example of how to destroy the life of the spirit. The fourth century AD has long been recognized by some as a pivotal moment when one could say that the life of faith fell out of heaven and down to earth.  It set the followers of the gentle Christ off on a path of dominance.

Over the centuries the impulse to maintain firm control led to greater and greater violence.  Heresies had to be suppressed, as did witches, infidels, and mostly just about anybody who didn’t fit into the right mold.

After massacring an estimated 60,000 citizens of Jerusalem in the First Crusade, succeeding crusades followed a similar pattern, including crusades in southern France in the thirteenth century against the Cathar heresy, in which tens of thousands of French citizens were massacred.

The Inquisition followed, in which people were burned at the stake – witches, scientists, heretics. In England people were burned at the stake for translating the Bible into common English.  Translating the Bible into the common language was a no-no because it undermined the power of the Church as the sole intermediary between God and man.

This sort of thing never happened in India. For one thing no one was burned at the stake. For the most part, the tradition of ahimsa has always been followed, and is still strongly in place today.  The saints and heroes of India practiced austerities; they fasted, they may have starved themselves.  But the eastern spiritual tradition does not advocate dominance, suppression, or the massacre of heretics and dissenters.

A girl collecting fallen branches as firewood, in the sacred grove Puthupet.

Instead, in the land of Hinduism, everyone pretty much tries to get along.  Varying and entirely opposing schools of philosophy co-exist and respect each other.  There is a presence of kindness.

India has not been entirely immune though from this cult of dominance that has spread across the earth. One of the primary targets of this pursuit of dominance is the natural world.  The natural world is about life. Dominance is about death, and because it is about death, it is a danger to all living things – the animals, the birds, the people, the air, the oceans, and the forests.

Going back to history again for a moment — along the way, with the advance of “civilization”, the New World was “discovered” (though it had been there all along).  An untouched continent, where 600 million bison roamed across vast planes.  Within one hundred years, only 600 of these magnificent animals remained.  This was the advance of a wave of death.  This kind of wholesale destruction of nature and the animals never happened in India.

The forests in India, and at one time all over the earth, are sacred forests, filled with spirits, beings and presences, as well as the sacred birds, animals, trees and plants.  They are holy places. But to the invasive spirit of modern “development”, they are no such thing – only an opportunity to take what is on or under the earth – trees, plants, coal, oil, minerals, all is to be taken.  And the implied question that is posed is, “What good is a forest if it cannot be useful?”

Very ancient sacred trees at Puthupet.

For those with these intentions, there is no perception whatever of sacredness, and even worse, one has a sense that it is not just that the forests are being destroyed in the name of greed, but that even if there were no products to be taken from them, that they would be destroyed anyway – precisely because they represent the wild, the sacred, the holy, that which is not controlled by man, that which belongs only to the Gods.

One is reminded of the ten-headed demon Ravana, who killed the monkeys of the forest who so heroically fought on the side of Rama.  They were miraculously brought back to life by Brahma.  The demon waged war against the monkeys because they were sacred creatures who were emblematic of the forests.

This war is not over, and the forces that seek the destruction of the natural world and all that is sacred are alive and well. Standing up to defend the innocent, the sacred, and all the living world is what is required – and clear sight about what is actually occurring in our world today.

Restoring the sacred groves, the sacred forests, and inspiring the young, and all people, to view the natural world with reverence — and refusing to abandon the forests to the forces that seek to destroy them —  is one of the most worthwhile things that one can do in life.

Top photo: Public domain / Illustration by Edmund Dulac for the Japanese fairy tale “Urashima Taro / A fisherman rescues a turtle and visits a magical underwater world.

Second photo: Sharon St Joan / A magical horse, an offering to the spirit Ayyanaar at the sacred grove Puthupet.

Third photo: Sharon St. Joan /A girl collecting fallen dead branches for firewood at Puthupet.

Fourth photo:  Sharon St Joan /Very ancient trees at Puthupet.

Puthupet: The opening of the Conference on Sacred Groves

Drums and flutes procession

A booming procession of flutes and drums marched down the central pathway of the sacred grove of Puthupet in Tamil Nadu, in southern India.  Photographers ran along beside the procession, dignitaries followed the musicians, students gathered laughing and smiling on the sidelines, village people sat beside tables of wares, with children running helter-skelter, dogs in the background slept or scrounged for a snack, a truck was parked randomly on the pathway, its cab brilliantly decorated with painted blue birds.  And over all, hung the branches of ancient trees.  Lining the pathways leading off into the Puthupet sacred grove were more beautiful old trees, draped in thick vines, that, amazingly are a thousand years old.

So began The National Conference on Sacred Groves, this past spring  —  well, the full title is “The National Conference on Conservation of Sacred Groves to Protect Biodiversity,” held February 12, 13, and 14, in Tamil Nadu, India, and organized by CPREEC, the C.P. Ramaswamy Environmental Education Centre, based in Chennai (sometimes called Madras).

Inside the meeting hall, conference attendees gathered, including speakers who had traveled from all over India to talk about their scientific work studying, researching, and preserving, the sacred groves of India. A ritual lamp was lit by Shri R. Sundararaju, Director of the Tamil Nadu Forest Service, who has done a great deal to preserve the sacred groves.

Shri R. Sundararaju and Dr. Nanditha Krishna

Dr. Nanditha Krishna, Honorary Director of CPREEC, the organization hosting the conference, described how their work restoring sacred groves had come about.

They had discovered that it was simply “not enough to talk about the environment and to train teachers.”  More was needed—a “micro-level example of a perfect environment.”  So at CPREEC, they began a search for such an example, and they found it in the sacred groves of India. “In my opinion a sacred grove is a magical place,” Dr. Krishna said.  CPREEC has restored 52 sacred groves in Tamil Nadu.  “25 villages have asked us for technical help… This is replicable at the local level.”

They have documented 13,000 sacred groves, 702 in Tamil Nadu alone.  “Nenmeli [another sacred grove that CPREEC restored] was a wasteland—50 acres are now covered in happy plants.”  Jackals and porcupines have returned.

For restoration of a sacred grove to succeed, “local people must be interested and willing… We get to know about the local plants from the elders.”

“Sacred groves comprise parts of forests, and they are protected by local spiritual tradition….Often they are the last refuge of endemic species.”

With the rapid urbanization that has taken place over the last 100 years, much of these traditions of sacred groves have been destroyed.  Trees have been felled for development; there has been widening of roads, and new roads have come up where once there were sacred groves.  The object of the Conference is to look at sacred groves as national heritage sites.

“Without the spiritual aspect of our lives, we will just have more trees cut,” Dr. Krishna concluded.  It is, however, more and more of a challenge to protect them as the population grows.  The tradition of India is that every village had its sacred grove.

Shri C. Achalender Reddy, of the Indian Forest Service, Secretary, National Biodiversity Authority, followed, speaking on the theme that “spiritual tradition and science can go together…such traditions have preserved knowledge.”  He talked about the sacred groves as repositories of genes and about the crucial importance of genes. “These gene pools in the form of sacred groves will play a major role in the coming years…Some species have been growing and have been preserved around temples.”

“It’s important that our children do not forget about their roots,” he added, “These are living laboratories for all our children to learn about nature.”  He pointed out that, “legal backing is essential to preserve the sacred groves.”

Students invited to attend the Conference

Dr. P.S. Ramakrishnan, INSA (Indian National Science Academy) Honorary Senior Scientist, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, mentioned that he had grown up in a small village in south India. “There are over 10,000 sacred groves in this country…some are rapidly deteriorating…how much do we know about these sacred groves?”  He continued, “Biologists and scientists need to do a good job…we need to learn lessons from these sacred groves.”

Shri R. Sundararaju, Indian Forest Service, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and Chief Wildlife Warden, Forest Department, Government of Tamil Nadu, who had opened the ceremony by lighting the lamp, presented some very telling examples of the unique contribution of sacred groves. Very sadly, as many as 96% to 99% of the vultures in India have succumbed to a drug that was being used to treat cattle, a drug that has now been banned.

One ingredient that has helped the vultures has been water that has been found only in certain seeds in some sacred groves.  These kinds of discoveries can be essential for the recovery of species.  Maintaining the forests of sacred groves also protects land from insect imbalances.  He stressed that the Forest Service works for the people, and their job is to protect the environment for the people. “We need to protect sacred groves as the repository of species, so that they are not lost forever.”

The ways that preserving the environment are of benefit to people need to be conveyed to the public, he said.  “If this is known, there will be more support for the sacred groves.” He also called for more studies of human/wildlife conflicts, which can be a major issue in India, affecting many people’s daily lives.

As the trees in the background listened and the dogs slept, this inspiring beginning of the Sacred Groves Conference came to the close of the first day.

The two days to follow were to be technical sessions (technical, but fascinating all the same) to take place back in Chennai at the C.P. Ramaswamy Aiyar Foundation.

Photos: Sharon St Joan,

Top photo: Drum and flute procession at Puthupet

Second photo: Shri R. Sundararaju, Dr. Nanditha Krishna

Third photo: Some of the students who were invited


To visit the website of CPREEC, click here.