Meenakshi’s sacred forest



On the left, the forest caretaker, on the right, Mr. Selvapandian.


The sun was warm in early February. The trees were beautiful and tall, having grown up in just a few short years on land that had been completely barren.


Under the expert guidance of Mr. Selvapandian, botanist and Project Manager of the C.P.R. Education and Environmental Centre, fifty acres have been transformed as part of a project of the Meenakshi Amman Temple. Launched in 2006, the project is being carried out by CPREEC on a plot of 300 acres of land owned by the temple, and eventually all these acres will be planted.


Organic vegetables are being grown on the acres near the trees. These are used for the free meals that the Meenakshi Temple provides for people.


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Ten acres of trees are part of the Nakshatra Rasi Vanam. By donating 1000 rupees, which goes towards the upkeep of the trees, anyone who wishes may have a tree planted; the species of tree will correspond to their own nakshatra, that is their own star or constellation, based on their horoscope.


Ten more acres are currently in the process of being planted.


Thirty additional acres have already been replanted with beautiful trees of many native species. The trees provided welcome shade, and there were smaller flowering plants and bushes as well. Everything was neat, clean and well cared for.



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Among species of trees planted in this grove are the following: Sandanavengai, Eezhilai Pavai, Jack, Padiri, Mango, Magizham, Karungali, Arasu, Thothakathi, Vanni, Banyan, Etti, Perunelli, Naval, Athi, Thippili, Punnai, Vilvam, Vanjikodi, Kadamba, and Illuppai.


Sandanavengai is the red sandalwood tree, used to produce various shades of red dye. The Jackfruit tree produces the largest fruit of any tree. The Padiri tree is the trumpet flower tree, the flower is a violet color. The Mango tree is well-known, and the mango is a symbol of renewal throughout Indian history and tradition. The Magizham tree is called bullet wood; it has glossy, dark, oval-shaped leaves. Karungali is ebony, a large tree that grows to around 90 feet. The Thothakathi is the rosewood tree. The Banyan tree is the gracious fig tree that develops numerous roots that descend from branches down to the ground. Thippili is the long pepper tree. The Vilvam tree is sacred to Lord Shiva. Illuppai are Wild olive trees (bassia longifolia).


The tree is sacred and is worshipped not only in India, but in virtually every ancient culture throughout the world. In India, reverence for the tree is an ever-present theme in the spiritual life of the country. Every temple has a temple tree which is draped with cloths and threads, representing people’s prayers. Stones with the engraved image of nagas, or snakes, surround the tree, placed there by worshippers praying to have children.


In replanted groves such as the Meenakshi Temple’s sacred forest – as well as bestowing their blessings on those for whom they are planted, the trees renew the land. Each tree planted provides a sanctuary for a whole mini-ecosystem—of plants, bushes, flowers, of bees and butterflies, of birds and insects; they preserve water and provide shade; they invite the return of squirrels and rabbits, foxes, and monkeys. They bring life, on all levels, spiritually and physically. They re-establish and heal the land.


This is true, of course, not only in India, but everywhere on earth where trees are planted; provided, that is, that they are the appropriate species native to that land, and that they are cared for, nourished, and maintained.


Planting trees is a way of returning life to the earth.



Sitting in the shade, under the extended branches of the trees, drinking coconut water, which had been kindly offered, while the son of the caretaker of the sacred forest played with his dog, one could only feel a sense of the profound peace that emanated from the souls of the trees.


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© text and photos, Sharon St Joan, 2014


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.