Near the great temple of Rameshwaram, crowds of worshippers bathe in the blue sea waters.
One of the holiest sites in India, Rameshwaram, an island in south India across from Sri Lanka, is visited by around a million pilgrims every year. It was through here that the hero king, the God Rama, traveled, thousands of years ago, on his journey to rescue his beloved wife, Sita, who had been abducted to Sri Lanka by the ten-headed demon, Ravana. As well as the great Rameshwaram temple, there are many other sacred sites on the island, such as the high hill where Rama stood and left his footprints as he planned his war strategy.
India is a land of sacred sites, and every year millions of pilgrims visit these sites to worship. There are far more pilgrims in India than in any other country in the world.
Unfortunately, not every pilgrim is environmentally conscious.
Like other pilgrimage destinations, the great temple of Rameshwaram, its environs, and the island’s other sacred sites, in their current state, leave a lot to be desired in terms of cleanliness.
Launch of the Rameshwaram Green Pilgrimage Initiative
On February 18, 2014, at the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation in Chennai, CPREEC (C.P. Ramaswami Environmental Education Centre), partnering with the Green Pilgrimage Network, launched the Rameshwaram Green Pilgrimage Initiative.
This is intended to be the first of a number of expansive projects designed to restore pilgrimage sites of India to a state of cleanliness and beauty befitting the sacredness of the sites.
CPREEC set up a beautiful Exhibit at the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation for Hindu Environment Week, the third week of February, which was open from February 18 to March 1st.
Dr. Nanditha Krishna, Honorary Director of CPREEC, introduced the Exhibit, which highlights the green pilgrimage concept and outlines some of the aspects of the renovation to be undertaken, including some of the considerable work already done by the organization Vivekananda Kendra.
Restoring the natural environment
As well as cleaning built-up areas and structures, the surrounding natural environment, along with the wild plants, animals, and birds, which are also sacred, all need to be protected from the unintended effects of multitudes of pilgrims.
Unfortunately, the prosopis plant, an invasive species, has taken over mile upon mile of land in south Tamil Nadu, crowding out all native plant species. It needs to be removed, and the native plants, upon which the birds and other wildlife depend, need to be replanted. CPREEC is uniquely qualified to do this restoration at Rameswaram; CPREEC botanists and other scientists have already restored 52 sacred groves in southern India over the past twenty-five years, creating living forests once again where there were recently only barren lands. Expert attention is given to replanting precisely the species that are native to each specific area.
A complex undertaking
The Green Pilgrimage Initiative at Rameshwaram will be a complex undertaking and is expected to take around two years – cleaning the environs, putting into place the means to assure that they will stay clean, and motivating both pilgrims and local residents, especially businesses, to adopt this as their own project. It will involve eliminating plastic bags, which are lethal to cows and other animals, creating self-help programs for women to make cloth bags that they can sell, setting up an ABC (spay-neuter) program for community animals – and a goshala for cows, who are now strolling in the streets.
When completed, this promises to be a major step forward in the ongoing struggle to turn back the tide of the deterioration of sacred sites in India.
A long history of environmental awareness
Mr. Gopal Patel spoke on behalf of the Green Pilgrimage Network, which is based in the UK, hosted by ARC, the Alliance of Religions and Conservation, and supported by the Bhumi Project of the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies. He is the Director of their program for Hindu sites in India and other countries.
The Bhumi Project already has in place agreements with several cities in India to undertake Green Pilgrimage Projects.
Puri, Varanasi, Kolkata, Rishikesh, Vrindavan, Ujjain, and Dwarka all held lively events for Hindu Environment Week, and he planned to visit several of them in the following days. The Hindu sites they work with are not just in India. In the U.S. they are partnering with twelve Hindu temples, ensuring that they are green and clean. They work in the UK, raising awareness, and also in Africa with one of the oldest Hindu diasporas that left India 100 or 200 years ago.
Hindu culture has a very long history of environmental awareness. Chanakya, born around 300 BCE, known as the Father of Medicine, for his role as one of the originators of the ayurvedic system of medicine, taught that pollution causes disease – a lesson we might well heed today.
In India all rivers are Goddesses who are to be protected from degradation. Chanakya also taught that we are to look upon all animals as children. If we go on a pilgrimage we should be frugal, eating only one meal a day and leaving nothing behind.
Mr. Gopal Patel, in his work with Hindu sacred sites in many countries, encourages them to be green and clean. He made the point that pilgrimage is important to every major faith, and the Green Pilgrimage Network works with other religious traditions too, for example, in Jerusalem and Assisi, Italy.
Mr. G. Vasudeo, Secretary of the Vivekananda Kendra, Kenyakumari, spoke enthusiastically about some of the work they have been doing renovating the teerthams (sacred tanks or pools) in Rameshwaram. Showing dramatic before and after photos, he explained how the run-down, polluted teerthams had been completely restored and are now clean and sparkling. All that remains to do is replanting the original vegetation native to each site, which will be carried out by CPREEC. Restoring the foundations of several of the teerthams is already a remarkable achievement.
Rameshwaram – a key sacred site
Rameshwaram is one of the sacred pilgrimage sites that ring India in the four directions – Puri to the West, Varanasi to the North, Kolkata to the East, and Rameshwaram to the South. There are, of course, many thousands of other sacred places in India. It is said that pilgrims who visit the holy site of Varanasi, along the Ganges, will not fully receive the blessing of their pilgrimage until they have also visited Rameshwaram in the South. It is, if you like, the second half of their sacred journey.
The significance of the Rameshwaram Green Pilgrimage Initiative would be hard to overstate. With success, it will demonstrate that it is really possible to have clean, eco-friendly pilgrimages in India, in which millions of pilgrims play an active role in maintaining the cleanliness and purity of their sacred sites. It will serve as a shining example, a green pilgrimage site that will inspire environmental awareness and cleanliness in so many other sacred sites throughout India.
To read more about CPREEC, click here.
To read more about the Green Pilgrimage Network, click here.
To read more about Vivekananda Kendra, click here.
© 2014, Text and photos, Sharon St Joan