How the herbs grow

How many schools have a herbal garden, planted and tended by the students?

Well, this one does—in the Mudumalai National Forest, the G.R.G Memorial Matriculation Higher Secondary School lies on the Masinagudi Road.

We are there on Republic Day, which is January 26—this means that the younger students have the day off, though the high school age students do not.

The students are friendly and somewhat amused by our presence—or to be strictly accurate—they are not so much amused by Mr. Kumaravelu, as they are by me, the tall American with the camera.

Some are having a break, sitting on the grass, across a couple of pathways—they wave.

Others have just emerged from their classrooms, and seeing the camera, they, predictably, form themselves into rows. They smile.

Mr. Kumaravelu  knows the school well.  As Field Officer for the CPR Environmental Education Centre, which is based in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, on the East Coast of India, he has spent the past fifteen or so years traveling around the schools in the Nilgiri Hills near Ooty—still in the state of Tamil Nadu, but at the western most corner of the state.

The CPREEC, working along with state governments, organizes training programs for teachers, to integrate environmental education into the curricula—not just in Tamil Nadu—but throughout ten states in all of southern India–Andhra Pradesh, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra, Orissa, Pondicherry, Tamil Nadu and the territory of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

These states have a total of around 360 million people, greater than the whole U.S population, and a lot of them (around 30%) are children, so instilling in these young people the concept that the planet earth is worth protecting is going to make a gigantic difference to the future.

There are, by the way, in case you were wandering, 1,652 languages and dialects spoken in India  (according to Wikipedia – Demographics of India).

Teaching the teachers is the way the program is accomplished, with the far-reaching and practical focus of the CPREEC, under the guiding hand of Dr. Nanditha Krishna, the Honorary Director of the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation, which she founded, along with others, in 1966 and which in turn, jointly with the Ministry of Environment and Forests, then formed the CPREEC.

It would be hard to imagine a more significant role to play than that of inspiring the young people of India to value and care for the planet and the natural world.

A number of years ago, Mr. Kumaran, the Headmaster of the School brought together ten students from tribal families living in nearby villages and began to teach them.  This was a big breakthrough since often the children of tribal families did not go to school at all, and many of their parents are still illiterate.

From this beginning the school has grown to  800 students, ranging from 4 to 5 year olds all the way up through high school.

Half of the students are from tribal backgrounds, and the teachers also are either local or tribal people.

Because the Nilgiris are hills—an incredibly beautiful area extending over the borders of the three states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala—tribal people sought refuge in these hills over the centuries, as the populations of the town and cities continued to expand across the valleys and the flat plains below.

The Nilgiris are remarkable too because they are cool in the baking heat of the Indian spring and summer.  During colonial times, the British who were definitely looking for a cool spot, took over and developed the town now known as Ooty into a resort area. As mentioned in a previous blog, they also felt no qualms about taking over one of the most sacred temples of the Toda tribe and replacing it with a Church, now St. Steven’s.

A young girl from another region of India

At the school, 50% of the students graduate. The students do twelve years of schooling and then the girls go on to become teachers or nurses.

The boys learn to start small businesses. Remarkable progress is being made, particularly since, around hundred years ago, no Indian girls, not even from the upper classes, went to school. This lack of schooling for girls was due to the Moslem influence, which dominated parts of India, especially in the north, for hundreds of years.  Original Indian society did not discriminate against women and girls.

Both the girls and the boys will have a good future.  They will have learned to respect and value their own traditions, while at the same time being able to make a living as part of the modern world—thanks to the visionary and insightful programs of  both this remarkable school and the CPREEC.  They will value the planet  and do their best to protect it, setting an example for all of us.

Photos and Video:

Video: Sharon St. Joan

Top photo: Sharon St.Joan / Glimpse of the Nilgiri Hills

Second photo: Nikhil Gangavane / A boy from another region of India.

Third photo: Nikhil Gangavane / A young girl from another region of India

Tamil Nadu: More on Kurumba paintings

Three young Kurumba men

In the previous blog entry, India: Tamil Nadu: Paintings that save tigers

Mr. Kumaravelu, Forest Officer of CPREEC, and myself are meeting with three young men from the Kurumba tribe and an elder from the Toda tribe, in the Nilgiri Hills in western Tamil Nadu, India, this past January. The meeting continues.


They are showing us what is depicted in their paintings.

Traditionally, the Kurumbas are known to be medicine men, and they paint what are essentially magic rituals.  However, the three men I am speaking with are young, and they do not know a vast amount about the ways of their ancestors.

I am told that the older men, and especially the older women, would have a more extensive knowledge of the rituals and the ways of their people.

Still they can explain what is in the paintings and something about the ceremonies that they themselves have taken part in.

They, along with two other artists, have been making a living by painting for the past ten years, and the income from the sales of their paintings is shared with all the people of their villages. The C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation made it possible for them to carry on the tradition of painting, which had been on the verge of dying out.

The first Kurumba painting

In the first painting, there is a musical instrument made of bamboo resembling a flute, played by a fellow under a tree.  Other people are gathering around a shrine.

When they plant pulses (beans and peas), for the success of the crop, they offer seeds at the shrine of the deity.  The name of the god is Thuppa Kata Devar.  To perform the puja (or offering), they use round leaves, a particular kind of leaf from the jungle trees, with boiled rice.  This is exactly the kind of tree whose branches are waving above the head of the fluteplayer in the painting. He has a friend nearby, who is perhaps the goatherd, along with three goats, one lying down in the shade.

In front of the shrine, people have marked out a place to plant a few seeds, and these seeds are being offered to the god.  The plants that grow in this spot will now belong to the god, and they will be used only for pujas.

Two gray-haired elders in the painting wear scarves and carry canes. One sits under a tree.

The second painting relates to a festival that takes place in the forest.

The second Kurumba painting

They explain to me that on occasion (I believe it is once a year), seven young men will go into the forest to make preparations for a big festival for all the people to worship the god Kumba Devar.  For this, they remain in the forest for seven days.  During this time they do not wear clothes, but only leaves, so that the animals will not perceive them as humans. They make no sounds while they are in the forest.  The god lives very deep inside the forest.  While in the forest, the young men collect and prepare all the food items that will be offered to the deity. On the seventh day, they will be joined for the festival by all the people living nearby.

The god who is worshiped is a small mud pot. (It’s not clear to me whether he also exists separately from the pot as a spirit who lives in the forest.) He is a male deity.  Grains are put into the pot with a 25 paisa coin.  Every year the pot is changed, and a new one is made to replace the other.  However the old pot is kept carefully in a cave, along with those used in the past.  For at least seventy years all the old pots have been collected and stored in the cave.  Prior to that there were other pots, one for each year, that were kept elsewhere.

Five generations ago, the Pala Kurumba started this tradition, around the time that they took up farming.  Before that time, the Kurumbas had been hunter/gatherers.  The purpose of the ritual offering is to ensure that the crops will be protected from animals and birds. They tell me that no animal or bird will come near the crops.

Another of the crops grown is corn, which is planted in April and harvested after three months.  Their ancestors used to hunt, but the law banning hunting is very strict.  Now they farm and herd goats; a goatherd always carries a stick.

In this second painting, seven women, each wearing a scarf or a sash, are carrying pots, Key Deva/Malinga Deva are names associated with the pots though I’m a little unclear as to exactly how– perhaps they are the names of the pots, which, again, I am told, are male.

Stones encircle the shrine, which has a thatched roof, and a stone is placed within the circle. The women will pour their seven pots of water over the stone.  If the water runs out over the edge of the circle, then there will be a good rain for the crops.

Nearby a number of drummers play various drums, and an elder, with white hair, stands looking on in the foreground, wearing a sash and carrying a cane.

The three men talk, more generally, about their customs. Clearly music is a major aspect of life. When they are farming, while one group is doing weeding, another group plays music to keep the workers from getting tired.  The musicians also play bells, which used to be made of bamboo, but now they are made of metal.

Mr. Kumaravelu, CPREEC Field Officer

In mid-April and in May, the rains come.

Later on, there is a harvest ritual, and following the harvest ritual, another ritual for the healing of people who are sick; music and boiled rice are essential in this ritual.

Also around the harvest time, marriages take place.

When a person dies, they take a river stone, and place it inside a large circle of stones, among the stones already inside the circle for all the others who have passed on. The soul of the person lives inside the stone.

They have also worshipped statues, but they themselves did not make the statues, others made them.  When they see an elephant, they worship it—and also a tiger—out of both fear and reverence.

Later, Mr. Kumaravelu, the CPREEC Forest Officer, tells me that in many parts of India, when someone dies, “After a few days a stone is taken to represent the dead person, and pujas are performed for it.” These are ancient rituals performed by people in the countryside.  He tells me that there are stone circles that he has come across himself.  Some are around 30 feet across, and they delineate the outside ring around the graves.

In this reverence for stones, there seems to be something very universal and archetypal. One is reminded of Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids.

This association of stones with the sacred is not unique to India.

Mr. Kumaravelu reminds me that even today, we in the west put a headstone on a grave.

Countless megalithic circles, pyramids, dolmens, menhirs, underground chambers—ancient and mysterious—abound all over the world and have an integral connection with the sacred. One comes across them in every corner of the earth—from the cold, windswept islands off the Scottish coast to deep in the South American rainforests.

The perception of stones as gods—or as divine entities related to the gods—travels a long way down through time–and seems never very far away.

To read about how CPREEC has enabled the Kurumbas to maintain and develop their traditional art of painting and how this has benefited the tigers of India, please see the previous entry or visit their website listed in the Blogroll.

To see a larger view of the Kurumba paintings or to buy a print, please go to the link to Fine Art America in the Blogroll.  Proceeds will go to benefit the Kurumbas.

India: Tamil Nadu: Paintings that save tigers

Ooty was gentle and peaceful as we sat outside the house.  There was a herb garden at one end and beautiful flowers hanging around the entranceway.  In January, it was not too warm.

The three Kurumbas were young, all dressed in white, and one spoke English well.  An older gentleman, a Toda elder, was there as well.

The Nilgiri Hills are in the far western part of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu and extend into Karnataka and Kerala as well.  They are one of the most beautiful places in the world, with steep hills all covered in blue-green trees and gray rocks jutting up out of the hills, all looking as if it has been there for millions of years, which it has.

On the drive through the hills up to Ooty, I kept wanting to jump out of the car to take photos, but you just can’t do that on a steep incline, on a narrow road, filled with lots of traffic all jostling to get up hairpin turns, so I suffered, passing though incredible beauty. I even had a feeling that my camera by my side was suffering along with me.

Mr. Kumaravelu, who was my guide, is an extraordinary individual who does an extraordinary job as the Field Officer for the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve for the C.P.R. Environmental Education Centre.  Based in Ooty now, he also grew up there, and he had arranged the meeting with the three young Kurumba men.

When I asked him later how he had come to know them and how he had gotten involved in working in this area filled with forests and forest people, he told me that when he was a child, he had been from a family that was not very well off.  He had gone with his mother many times into the forest to collect fallen branches for firewood.  They occasionally came into contact with the Kurumba people, and he had gotten to know them.

Throughout his years growing up and beyond, he had continued to go often into the forests.  He remained in touch with the Kurumba and other tribal people in this way and would often stay with them.

The Kurumbas had caught a bus to come to our meeting.  Beyond the point where they caught the bus, there are paths through the forest to small villages where they live.

The main tribes in the Nilgiris are the Toda, Kotha, Irula, Kurumba, and Paniya.  The Paniya are mostly farm laborers.

In general, the Nilgiri tribal people were hunter-gatherers, who have, for the most part, gradually become farmers.  I had read that the Kurumbas are known for being magicians, so I was hoping that they would be able to tell me tales about flying through the air. This hope did not quite materialize.  Still they were fascinating all the same.

The tribal people in the Nilgiris now number around 24,000.  A few thousand of these are Kurumbas.  They have lived where they currently are for two or three thousand years.  The Irula used to be nomadic.  The Paniyas are widespread and are in Kerala too.

In the Kothagiri region of the Nilgiris—about 25 kilometers (15 miles) east of Ooty, near a Kurumba village called Vellaricombai, there is a prehistoric rock art site that is very ancient, 3,000 years old, known as Eluthu Paaria.  The Kurumbas say that these paintings were done by their ancestors. This is the village where the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation began to work with the Kurumbas, arranging for them to learn to do their tribal art paintings on paper, so that they could be sold as a means of livelihood for them.

The three Kurumbas who sit with me in the garden are Balasubramaniam, Krishnan, and Kannan.  All three are artists, and they have brought two paintings with them, which I am happy to buy.

A while ago the traditional art of painting of the Kurumbas was dying out.  Only one older man in the village knew how to paint, and he painted, just once a year, on the walls of the temple.

When the C.P.R. Ramaswamy Aiyar Foundation discovered him, around twenty years ago, during the course of a project documenting the arts of crafts of the Nilgiri tribes, they talked with him, and then hired him, first to teach his grandson, Kitna, how to paint.   The artist of the Foundation’s Art Centre showed them how to paint on paper instead of walls, and to use brushes instead of the traditional twigs, as well as water and poster colors.  Kitna then was able to teach twenty other young people how to paint, and in this way, their traditional painting was preserved and did not die out.

The traditional designs and forms are much the same as they always were; the difference being that now that the paintings were done on paper, they could be sold, and the Kurumbas were able to make a living.

This was helpful, not just to the Kurumbas themselves, but also to the animals of the forest, especially the tigers.  Dr. Nanditha Krishna, the Honorary Director of CPREEC, who was not along on this trip, but who I talked with later in Chennai, explained to me that the Kurumbas, with no way to make a living since they could no longer rely on their traditional hunter/gatherer relationship to the forest, had fallen into the habit of aiding poachers to catch tigers.

Along with other gods, the Kurumbas worship the hills and the animals, so they know the characteristics of each animal species and the ways of the forest.

Poachers are generally paid by middlemen; some are part of poaching rings that are being run from as afar away as China. Even the poachers themselves were not, in this case, local people, but they were paying the Kurumbas, who knew the forest well, to lead them to where the tigers could be found.

Once they had an alternate means of income, had attended the presentations of CPREEC, and had understood that the tigers are threatened with extinction and that they need protection, the Kurumbas stopped helping the poachers.  Instead, active, youth conservation groups were formed, and now they turn poachers over to the Forest Department for prosecution.  The number of tigers in the Nilgiris, in the areas where the Kurumbas are, has been increasing, though the numbers have been falling in the rest of India.

The three young men tell me that animals are like humans, and they have a right to live in the forest.

Next, more on tigers and what the Kurumbas have to say about their paintings…


To visit the websites of the C.P.R. Ramaswamy Aiyar Foundation and the C.P.R. Environmental Education Centre, please see the Blogroll above, on the right.

Photos: Sharon St Joan