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India’s Sacred Groves Are Resurrecting a Vanishing Forest

Ancolie Stoll takes care of one such site called Nilatangam, a 7.5-hectare afforestation project began by her European parents when Auroville was first established.

Nilatangam has tall trees from different parts of the world, but few native varieties. It shouldn’t be dense and sophisticated just like the forests of sacred groves. Instead, the trees are neatly placed, like crops in farmland, with walking paths and many room for natural replanting.

Stoll works with Blanchflower and Baldwin on the botanical garden and says she has recently planted more native species of the tropical, dry, evergreen type in Nilatangam. Between the cover of non-native trees from her parents’ time, she points to patches where she planted such saplings.

Over time, it’ll plant much more as latest species emerge, he explains. The process is slow, but she hopes to create an acceptable, dry, evergreen tropical forest inside just a few years.

Tropical dry evergreen trees dominate the 20-hectare Pitchandikulam Forest and Bio-Resources Center and the similarly sized Auroville Botanic Gardens. Baldwin, Blanchflower and their botanic garden team are working to map the range and variety of native species in Auroville.

Education is a key objective of botanic gardens and that is where Sathyamurthy plays a crucial role. During trips to Auroville forests and sacred groves, he teaches students concerning the ecological importance of forests and cultural heritage.

I feel what disciples can experience as Sathyamurthy guides me through Keezhputhupattu just after the heavy monsoon rains of November 2021. The smell of wet earth mingles with incense sticks and jasmine garlands as we pass shrines and flower vendors. Inside the forest we walk through ankle-deep pasty red soil; thick trees, two or three stories high, stand around us. Sathyamurthy continues unfazed, leaving the footprints of his rubber sandals.

He stops every so often to enlighten me in Tamil, with a little bit of English, concerning the medicinal or cultural uses of certain plants. It lists their scientific names and Tamil equivalents in quick succession. The iron tree kaasan in Tamil it has a special medicinal value. Women mash the leaves with rice and devour the mixture as an immune booster for postnatal recovery, she says. Tropical ebony, so-called karungali, is used to make musical and agricultural instruments. Its much wanted twigs are held on doors to ward off bad energies. We stop by often – it seems Sathyamurthy has a story for every plant and hopes his enthusiasm will encourage the scholars he takes into the forest.

Sathyamurthy believes that students will give the sacred groves of their villages a likelihood. She believes that such visits help construct relationships between trees and students. Students leave field trips with seeds, seedlings and recommendations on plant native trees on common land in their very own villages.

Educating the subsequent generation on the worth of those forests may very well be the important thing to their survival, as despite their shrines and importance to non secular groups, sacred groves should not spared the threats of urbanization, including mining for biomedical and cultural purposes.

For example, Keezhputhupattu receives a whole bunch of hundreds of devotees every 12 months, and it’s difficult for residents to manage strangers’ interactions with the forest. Tourists and shepherds are available too.

Outside the grove, Sathyamurthy notices three young men tearing at a tree. They manage to capture a big branch. After a protracted tug of the ropes, they tear off one branch from the tree. The leaves fall with a loud, exhausted rustle. The men merrily haul off their loot, presumably for medicinal or cultural purposes.

Sathyamurthy shakes his head disapprovingly and says there’s an urgent need to deal with the threat to the groves. He later tells me that he sees the lack of the sacred groves as an attack on his community’s lifestyle.

Therefore, seed collection, nurseries, tree planting and awareness of tropical dry evergreen forests are essential. If all the pieces is extracted, there is no such thing as a likelihood of regenerating the forest and “constructing a bank balance,” Blanchflower points out. Recreating a natural forest “puts energy back into the bank.”

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