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.


Land of sacred anthills

The sacred anthill at Puthupet
The sacred anthill at Puthupet

Gold and red cloths are draped around the sacred anthill, with a blue one near the top.  Posters stand on thin stakes.  Nearby colored cloths hang from the branches of a sacred tree, some enclosing written prayers.  A trident stands in front of the anthill, where village people have placed their offerings of incense and flowers.

The anthill is near the entrance of the ancient grove of Puthupet, not far from the coast of the Bay of Bengal, near Pondicherry, on the east coast of India.  Really, it’s a termite hill, but these are commonly called anthills, and the insects are called white ants.  The home they have built is elaborate, several yards (meters) across—and rising maybe five feet (one and a half meters) high; it is home not just to ants, but to many other creatures as well, notably cobras.  It is known that cobras do often live in the anthills.

The trees form strange shapes

Everything here appears to be sacred, and the respect accorded the grove is no doubt the reason that it all continues to exist.  The sacred grove of Puthupet is thousands of years old.  It used to be that all of India was dotted with sacred groves and forests.  Some of these do still exist, and some have been reconstructed, but many have, sadly, been neglected in this modern age when the old ways are followed less than they used to be, and the lure of more secular life beckons.

A botanist with the C.P.R. Environmental Education Center has done studies of these sacred groves all over south India, and it seems that Mr. Amirthalingam knows every plant and tree—not only both their common and scientific names, but also the traditional medicinal use that they may have. (Perhaps he knows them individually too—one wouldn’t be surprised!) Of the thick, turning vines that wind themselves into fantastic shapes, he says that they are a thousand years old at least.  Puthupet covers an area around 40 acres (16.2 hectares).

As we walk along a broad path, to the left lies a shrine made of concrete—perhaps twenty feet long  (six meters) by ten feet wide  (three meters).  Along the span of one wall are lined up many impressive, standing terra cotta figures. These are the spirit Ayyanaar and his band of brothers.  He reminds me a bit of Robin Hood, as a folk hero, though that may be a mistaken comparison.

Every night Ayyanaar rides around the perimeter of the village with his companions,  encircling the village and the grove to protect them.  Most often he rides on a horse, though sometimes on an elephant instead.  A family is there at the shrine, with three children, to leave offerings to honor Ayyanaar.

Children, with their family, making offerings

As is true of ravens everywhere, the black and gray ravens of India are garrulous; they are having a cheerful squabble over a bit of food.  Not far away, a statue of the mythical swan, Hamsa, looks on, detached.  The stone she is made of is black from the incense offered to her.  The flight of the Hamsa recalls the escape of the soul from the wheel of life and death.

Hamsa, the mythical swan

Ahead is an army of horses in a clearing beside some stalls where offerings are being sold. Hundreds of horses—big and small ones.

Ayyanaar, his little dog by his side, along with a lion, under one of the horses

They can be bought and given as offerings to Ayyanaar, I guess to help him with his nightly rounds.  Under one of the horses, Ayyanaar stands, along with a friendly-looking lion and a dog at his feet. On the ground in one of the stalls where a man is standing—(it’s not clear to me whether he is a village priest or an artisan who makes the terra cotta horses—or maybe he is both)—are standing off to the side three stone snake statues; each one is two snakes, entwined together.

Sacred snakes in stone

Dr. Nanditha Krishna, the Honorary Director of CPREEC, who is an authority on the iconography of Tamil Nadu, says that the snake is a symbol of fertility and of wealth that comes from the earth. “The snake knows the secrets of the earth.”  On the back of his head the cobra has markings that resemble eyes.

A Hindu god normally has a snake to exemplify power or knowledge; for example, Shiva wears a snake around his neck, and Vishnu reclines on a snake.  Ganesha, the elephant god, wears a snake as a belt—a living snake, of course.  Kartikeya has both a snake and a peacock.  A snake canopies the head of Shakti, the Mother Goddess.

From the nearby village and from farther away, people come every Tuesday and Friday to make offerings to the sacred beings of the grove.  They bring a rice dish called pongal and offer lighted lamps.  Animal sacrifices can still sometimes take place in India, but not here. At Puthupet all the offerings are vegetarian.

17 varieties of vines grow in the grove, along with 12 different herbs, 20 species of shrubs and 42 different kinds of trees.  Dogs lie happily in the shade that falls from the plants.  A young girl is collecting fallen branches for firewood, along with her little brother.

The grove seems immensely peaceful, a place well-cared for and protected—thanks to Ayyanaar and his nightly rounds—and thanks to the respect and reverence that local people feel for that which is sacred in nature.

On the way north outside of Puthupet, we pass huge salt fields where men and women are collecting salt and drying it in large mounds.  There is a lot of salt available in these areas not far from the coast.

One of the ancient trees, with Mr. Selvapandian of the CPREEC

Puthupet is one of very few ancient sacred groves that have lasted intact through the centuries.  Next we will visit one that has been restored and brought back to life again.  Nenmeli, like so many others, had been neglected and forgotten and had become a wasteland, until it was restored by CPREEC, who have restored 50 sacred groves in south India.

To visit the website of the C.P.R. Environmental Education Centre, go to

http://cpreec.org <http://cpreec.org/>

To read the story of Nenmeli, scroll down to the one before the previous one.

Photos: Sharon St Joan