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.

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.

Sittanavasal and the invasive onion

A view of Sittanavasal

At the Sittanavasal site there is a sacred grove, one of over 50 sacred groves restored by CPREEC (C.P. Ramaswami Environmental Education Centre) in the past few years.

Dr. Nanditha Krishna, Honorary Director of CPREEC, who was instrumental in restoring this grove, as well as the others, recalls that when CPREEC first arrived in the mid-nineties to have a look at the Sittanavasal site, the area surrounding the great rock was a barren spot where nothing grew.  Over the centuries all the trees and other vegetation had been destroyed; land once sacred had fallen into disrepair and been forgotten.

The CPREEC program to restore the sacred groves in southern India has several interrelated purposes—a major goal is to protect the environment and the natural wilderness of India, by maintaining the groves that still exist and by restoring those that have been destroyed.

As is the case for the rest of the world,  forests and wilderness areas in India have been under assault, especially the last couple of centuries.  Farming has taken its toll, as have industrial development, economic development, and the tourist industry.  On land once called sacred, one may find anything from city blocks, to heaps of trash, to a factory, a shopping center or a hotel; sometimes one finds nothing at all—just an empty stretch of land with no trees or plants. In a surprising number of cases though, the village people have preserved their sacred groves and have not allowed their destruction.  It is the reverence for the land as a sacred place that serves as an incentive for the people living there to restore the natural environment.  For all the thousands of villages in India, each one once had a sacred grove.

Dr. Nanditha Krishna

CPREEC works together with the village people in each location.  They will assume responsibility for restoring the sacred grove, and in exchange the people there will agree to maintain it, not allowing it to fall into disrepair again.  This also means not allowing it to be used in ways that will harm the native plants and the habitat of the animals living there.  Everything that is a part of nature will be preserved and protected.  The accepted guidelines for each grove may differ.  In some groves, dry branches may be collected to use as firewood; in other groves, even this is prohibited.

At the foot of the great rock of Sittanavasal, nothing was growing by the 1990’s but grass.  There were no trees, vines, or flowering plants. It was a wasteland.  The professional people of CPREEC—botanists and environmental experts arrived.  They did extensive interviews with the village elders and researched the local area to determine exactly which plants were native to that particular location.  After all, there wouldn’t be much point in planting species that didn’t belong there.  Only original native species would be used to restore the sacred grove.

Very shortly they came across an unexpected difficulty.  Something was wrong with the soil.  It was strangely acidic, and they eventually came to the realization that this was a human-caused problem, but, amazingly, not a recent one.  Around 1,500 to 2,000 years ago, when the Jains lived there, as they were painting their incredibly beautiful frescoes on the walls, they were extremely careful, as always, never to harm any animals.

Sittanavasal - another view

The binding material in many types of paint was made from animal products.  This was not at all acceptable to the Jains, since they believed in doing no harm to any animals. So they had to develop paints that contained only plant-based products.  They achieved this by using an ingredient found in a particular species of onion, and subsequently, they planted lots and lots of these onions nearby in the ground, so that they would have the wherewithal to continue to manufacture their paints.

In saving the animals from exploitation, however, they unwittingly were harming the local soil.  Of course, they had no way to know that this was happening, and it was an ironic turn of events that the Jains, in protecting nature, were accidentally and unknowingly causing harm to the environment.

Once they realized that the invasive onion species was the cause of the imbalance in the soil, CPREEC spent countless hours removing the onions from the ground (they were still growing there 2,000 years later!) so that other plants would be able to grow again.  They got up nearly all of them, the soil became fertile again, and they were able to plant trees, flowing bushes, and vines—that have since grown into beautiful plants.

While we were visiting this past February, we did come upon an unexpected occurrence, a little onion remained right there in the ground.

Whenever CPREEC restores a sacred grove, they hire one of the people living there to serve as the grove’s custodian.  Rangam, the custodian of the Sittanavasal sacred grove, had accompanied us, up the steep stairway cut into the rock, so that we could see the ancient windswept site at the top—and then at the foot of the great rock, he led us along the pathway through the restored sacred grove, now lush with trees and plants which lend great beauty to the majestic rock.

Rangam, with the onion

Then Rangam came across the stray onion—right there at his feet growing in the soil.  He carefully dug it out of the ground and held it up—the offending alien onion.

(Although it is silly, I did feel a little sorry for the onion.  It will no doubt become a happy onion in heaven.)

How hard it is as humans to avoid causing harm to the earth. Even the ancient Jains, who managed far better than most of us do, could not avoid harming a bit of the planet, even as they were doing their best to protect the animals and the natural world.