Sacred Groves & Wetland Possibilities: Notes from a Field Trip

A team from Pitchandikulam (Joss, Bubesh, Sneh, Daniel and Jonathan) spent a day visiting sacred groves and wetlands in the Auroville bio-region.

1) Puthupet Sacred Grove

Puthupet was our first stop to see best and worst practices in looking after sacred groves, the areas of indigenous forest cared for by temple administration and the people who worship there.

Sacred grove outside Puthupet temple, Tamil Nadu
Sacred grove outside Puthupet temple, Tamil Nadu

Joss and the Pitchandikulam team have been working at Puthupet on and off for over forty years. For years in the early days, Auroville botanists did phenological studies here, coming each week to take measurements of patterns of plant flowering, fruiting and growth of the many indigenous species. This gave us our first database of detailed botanical life cycles, which was invaluable for our early coastal forest replanting initiatives.

The study of that grove led to our documenting another 200 groves from Sriharikota to Point Calimere.

In the early 2000s Pitchandikulam initiated programmes of conservation and protection with the communities adjacent to the sacred grove, with watchmen in the forest for several years helping to protect it, clean it and help local people understand how and why to look after it. It was a beautiful example of a thriving sacred grove.

After a few years, government interventions all over Tamil Nadu saw them take control of many forests, including this one. This resulted in what we see today: the severing of the link between the community and the forest, and the resulting garbage catastrophe. The temples were leased out to private organisations who proceeded to develop them commercially, and thousands of pilgrims from outside were encouraged to come in; the community was removed from its stewardship, roads were built to facilitate mass tourism and rubbish started to pile up in the sacred grove. Today the grove is a beautiful, mature forest filled with a heartbreaking amount of plastic trash.

2) Seaside plantation in Kunimedu Kuppam

Our next stop, the seaside plantation, down by the sea at Kunimedu Kuppam (Tamil: kuppam fishing community) is extraordinary. The forest runs right down to the tideline on the beach in soil that is extremely inhospitable – almost 100% sand.

kunimedu-kuppam-beach-3
Forest in the sand, Kunimedu, Tamil Nadu

The facts of badly-planned planting in this soil are self-evident, with black corpses of dead trees planted by local government lying on the ground on the opposite side of the road.

Pitchandikulam Forest have planted two areas there – a project collaboration with the Forest Department to plant four acres in two stages, where, with the participation of the local fishing village, we protected and then cared for the seedlings for four years, working with local women’s cooperatives to grow and water the plants from a hand pump. Now, with no fencing at all, the growth is outstanding – 80% of the species planted have survived and thrived in the years since, with no watering, cultivation or intervention of any sort.

Our plans for this area are to plant ten more acres, involve four local women’s groups in growing the seedlings, planting and caring for them – establishing a locally-run nursery in the process.

3) Sacred grove in Urani

Sacred grove, Urani, Tamil Nadu
Sacred grove, Urani, Tamil Nadu

This is an example of a beautiful village-managed sacred grove: Pitchandikulam started working with the village twenty five years ago to document the forest. It is a wonderful counter-example to the horror at Puthupet of how a forest can be managed and protected by a local community who take pride in its upkeep.

The old stone temple has now been supplemented by a new, much bigger temple, paid for by a neighbouring private landowner, but the sacred grove is still protected by the local community, and as such, it is free of rubbish.

It is one of the best examples of climax coastal forest, also in relatively sandy soil, similar to Puthupet, and both Puthupet and Urani are used by Pondichery University School of Environmental Studies for fieldwork and research.

4) Medicinal Plants Forest in Kurumburam

An in-situ conservation medicinal plants forest.

The only reserve forest in the area – approximately 500 acres of diverse, regenerating forest. Half of it was recently declared again as having reserved status, and it is currently protected and regenerating well.

In-site medicinal conservation forest, Kurumburam, Tamil Nadu
In-site medicinal conservation forest, Kurumburam, Tamil Nadu

Possible interventions are working with the Forest Department to introduce well thought-out species. We suggest to conduct a supplementary botanical survey of both places, in order to complement the detailed botanical survey of this site that exists. Previously we have done transects in the forest, and we would hope that these markers can be used again for a comparative survey.

This site has huge potential, perhaps for an interpretation centre, but it would need to be looked after well.

5) Kurumburam Yeri

A local man-made traditional water management system: a traditional tank (yeri) that was constructed to increase the productivity of Tamil Nadu, modelling knowledge from Chola times as to how to conserve and distribute water.

The site itself is three hundred acres at least, flat and relatively empty at this point of the dry season, attracting cormorants, egrets, sandpipers, lapwings and many other wetland birds, as well as being as a watering hole for local cattle and other wildlife. There is also the occasional barringtonia acutangula tree and cane.

There is an exciting idea to create a protected bird sanctuary here: planting at least 150 species in and around the tank, especially species that live in water, like Barringtonia and acacia nilotica, that provide superb habitats for birds.

Many migratory birds come from abroad, to nurture themselves from the Kazhuveli wetlands and to restore this nearby Yeri is a superb opportunity to create another migratory habitat for wetland birds.

Already 50,000 birds visit each year during migration, but with the proliferation of prawn farms in the wetlands, roosting areas are under threat.

6) Munnur tank and pottery

One of the best examples of tank bund plantation with palmyras. A lot of big trees have been removed, and it is a wonderful example of a palmyra-studded bund (the earthen dam built to hold and control water distributuion over 500 years ago, with sluice gate and manually operated gates to supply surrounding rice fields).

Historically this was a complex and efficient way for farmers to work together and bring about community consciousness and cooperation – sadly a rare phenomenon today.

Bund tank, Munnur, Tamil Nadu
Bund tank, Munnur, Tamil Nadu

Munnur has three hundred temples, as the name indicates – (Munnur – three hundred in Tamil), but our next destination was to visit a potter. His workshop was an Aladdin’s cave of water jugs, cooking pots, lamps, chattis (flower pots) and dishtis (statues you put in front of your house). Having helped to set up his workshop under SEDAB, we went to help him fix his broken potting wheel.

7) The palm leaf medicine man at Olagapuram

Jonathan holding an antique Tamil medical manuscript
Jonathan holding an antique Tamil medical manuscript

Sri Nagaraj Mudliya and his wife, the parents of Dr. Logonathan, an 11th generation healer who helped Joss create the Pitchandikulam ethnomedicial forest, under the FRLHT programme (Foundation for the Revitalisation of Local Health Traditions) in 2000. Sri Nagaraj is a traditional eye-doctor. In his back room is a treasure trove archive of palm leaf manuscripts, written in Telugu and Tamil, detailing Siddha knowledge passed down over the generations. Some of his medicines are also over a hundred years old, as in Siddha tradition, medicines improve over time, like fine wine. It was a real pleasure to see this invaluable archive, and hold these priceless manuscripts in our hands.

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