Pichavaram, the mangrove forest


By Sharon St Joan


The water is not deep at Pichavaram, maybe two or three feet. It is dark green. Waterways run between the islands of mangrove trees. Pichavaram lies along the coast of the Bay of Bengal, in south India.


In February, 2015, our rowboat sailed quietly along the waterways which came together, parted, divided again. The water rippled peacefully.



Beautiful great egrets landed on the mangrove trees, taking off and circling, then returning. In the shadows, a little yellow bittern waited, perched on a mangrove root near the water’s edge, half-concealed behind the leaves and branches, watching hopefully for his dinner to swim by.


When cyclones come, the mangrove roots, which sink deep into the mud below the water, protect the mangrove forest from destruction and the land from erosion. Along one side, the mangrove trees of Pichavaram have been cleared to make way for grazing goats. This is unfortunate since, without the protection of the mangrove roots, the land is left open to being washed away. The expanse of the mangrove forest is being whittled away, bit by bit.


Like the roots of the peepal tree, the roots grow down from the Mangrove branches into the water. The leaves are thick and dark green. This is the second largest mangrove forest in India, with the Sundarbans of West Bengal being the largest. Pichavaram lies 142 miles (229 kilometers) south of Madras (Chennai).


Seven or eight hundred years ago, the mangrove forest, called tillai, extended several miles further down the coast, all the way to Chidambaram. It was a major feature of the temple at Chidambaram and determined its name, the Tillai Nataraja Temple. The presence of the mangrove forest formed an integral part of the ambiance of the temple.


Today only the northern part of Pichavaram remains, covering about 1,100 hectares (2,718 acres), and several miles now separate the temple from the forest, which is home to 177 species of birds, mostly water birds like herons, cormorants, egrets, and pelicans.



In their fascinating book, Sacred Plants of India, Dr. Nanditha Krishna and Mr. M. Amirthalingam recount several legends about the sacred mangrove forest.


The young sage Madyadinar, having learned the four Vedas and the six shastras (holy books), asked his father what more he might do to attain enlightenment. His father guided him to go to the mangrove forest near Chidambaram, where he would find a lingam, a stone representation of Shiva, under a tree. He traveled there, bathed in the sacred pool, then built a hut for himself and a leafy canopy to protect the lingam from the sun and the rain. There he lived, worshipping Shiva. After a while he was granted the gifts of the strong limbs of the tiger and the power to see in the darkness. Then he was called Vyagrapada, meaning “tiger feet.”


The sage Patanjali, an incarnation of Adi Sesha, who is the divine serpent that serves as a couch for Lord Vishnu, had a great longing to see the dance of Nataraja. Nataraja means Lord of the Dance, and is one of the names of Shiva. Patanjali asked Lord Vishnu for permission to go to the mangrove forest near Chidambaram, and with permission granted, he traveled there and met Vyagrapada. Together, they were allowed to witness the sacred dance of bliss, the ananda tandava, performed by Shiva. It is believed that this sacred dance performed by Lord Shiva continues until this day.



When King Simhavarman, who had an illness, heard that the two sages Patanjali and Madyadinar (Vyagrapada) were at the mangrove forest worshipping Shiva, he went there to visit them and ask their blessings, hoping to be healed of his condition. Vyagrapada advised King Simhavarman to bathe in the sacred pool, which he did. He was miraculously cured, after which his skin shone with a golden hue. Following this the king was called Hiranyavarman, which means gold-plated. Gold was dug from a nearby well and, in gratitude for the king’s healing, was used to cover the roof of the temple, which is today still covered in pure gold. Several palaces were built to the east of the temple for King Simhavarman.


At the Chidambaram Temple, in the months of June and July, the Gods are worshipped in special ceremonies, using twigs from the mangrove tree.


Like many Indian trees and plants, the mangrove is a sacred, healing tree. Latex from the mangrove tree is poisonous, but it is used externally to cure wounds and injuries. It is also used to treat nervous disorders and ulcers. The seeds are used to cure leprosy and as an antidote for poisonous bites.


Photos: Sharon St Joan

Top photo: Mangrove roots grow into the water.

Second photo: Great egrets.

Third and third photos: Visitors in another boat.


To find “Sacred Plants of India” on Amazon, click here.


© 2015, Sharon St. Joan




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