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.


Millions of years in the past, at the site where Sittanavasal is now, in the Pudukottai district of Tamil Nadu in southern India, a mountainous rock emerged over time out of the earth. It still stands there today, and at some point thousands of years ago, Jain monks went on a steep climb up to the top of the solid rock extending hundreds of feet high, and, with only a narrow path to follow along the ledge on the far side of the rock; there they made their way to a low-ceilinged natural cave, known as Eladipattam. In the cave they carved out seventeen stone beds and stone pillows, where the monks slept, and no doubt they spent long days and hours in meditation in this remote, mystical place high above the universe, where only the wind travels.

One of these stone beds contains a text in the Brahmi script, in the Tamil language, which may date back to either the first century BC or, as the sign says, to the second or third century BC.  Other Tamil inscriptions are from later on around the eighth century AD. Unfortunately, there is also a lot of modern graffiti.

It’s not certain how long Jain monks remained in this spot—at least until around the ninth century AD, since a nearby Jain rock-cut temple contains frescoes from that period.

The temple, Arivar-Koil is very small, with just two rooms; in one room are three life-sized sculptures of Jain saints. The one to the left is Parsvanatha, the 23rd Thirtankara, and across from him sits a Jain teacher. The third figure is thought to be another Thirtankara. Jain beliefs are complicated; the Thirtankaras are neither gods nor humans, but they are enlightened beings.  Jains are known for their particularly strict adherence to the teaching of ahimsa, or non-violence, which is common to all the spiritual traditions originating in India.

Several million Jains live in India today; however, they now represent less than one percent of the population.  In earlier centuries, following the first century AD, both Buddhism and Jainism held sway on the Indian subcontinent.  After that time Hinduism gradually regained its position as the predominant religion of India, and Buddhism especially took hold throughout the rest of Asia.  As a general rule though, there has been neither violence or animosity among the various spiritual traditions native to India, and, for the most part, they have co-existed with mutual respect and the recognition that they hold similar value systems.

The innermost room of the Arivar-Koil temple contains in the ceiling  a circular feature, and the room itself is an echo chamber.  Our guide, who knew yoga breathing techniques, was able, by breathing completely silently, to cause the entire room to be filled with a very loud sound of the syllable, Om.  No one else there could produce this effect although the rest of us tried.  We could, by uttering out loud the sound Om observe that the sound grew louder and louder as it reverberated in the room.  But only the guide could produce the remarkable effect of his silent breathing producing a loud audible sound, amplified through the circular feature in the ceiling.  So much for the principles of science that lay down the laws of physics, of what can be true and what can’t, since clearly physical laws do not allow sound to come from nowhere—but a loud sound did indeed spring out of the silence of the temple.

I was reminded of one of the tombs at Sakkara, in Egypt, where there is a room also cut out of a single solid stone, no larger than eight feet by ten feet, where when one made a sound, the room picked up the sound and echoed it in a remarkable way.  One is reminded also of the myths of ancient Britain, where it is said that Merlin transported giant standing stones by sound alone—and even that there are standing stones, among the 10,000 stone circles scattered throughout the British Isles and Brittany, that have the power to move by themselves in the night—who knows, perhaps they do.

In the temple at Sittanavasal, there are also frescoes, beautiful works of art, some are identical to those found in the Brihadeswara Temple in Trichy not too far away.

The paintings on the walls are remarkable, done with great sensitivity and artistic skill. The central painting is of a pond with lotuses that are being picked by monks, fish, animals, and by the ducks and swans that live in the lake.  Other paintings also feature flowers and plants.

Sittanavasal carries to this day a sense of peace and the presence of the otherworldliness of the ancient Jains who led lives of self-sacrifice and devotion.