India’s Sacred Groves Are Resurrecting a Vanishing Forest

Ankoli Stole is drawn to one such place called Neelathangam, a 7.5-hectare forest project started by her European parents when Orville was first established.

Nilatangam has tall trees from different parts of the world but there are some local varieties. It is not as dense and complex as the sacred tree forests. Instead, trees are spaced cleanly, like crops on farmland, with walking paths and plenty of space for plants to regenerate naturally.

Stoll works with Blanchflower and Baldwin at the botanical garden and says that, at Neelatangam, she has recently planted more native species that belong to the tropical dry evergreen variety. Amid the canopy of non-native trees from her parents’ time, she points to the patches where she planted such plants.

She explains that over time, she will plant even more, as new species become available. The process is slow, but she hopes to create a proper tropical dry evergreen forest within several years.

Tropical dry evergreen trees dominate the 20-hectare Patchandikulam Forest and Bioresource Center and similar Orwell Botanical Gardens. Baldwin, Blanchflower, and their botanic garden team are working to map the range and diversity of native species within Auroville.

Education is an important goal of botanic gardens, and this is where Satyamurthy plays an important role. During field trips to Auroville forests and sacred groves, he teaches students about the ecological importance and cultural heritage of forests.

As Satyamurthy guides me through Kezpothoptu after the heavy monsoon rains of November 2021, I get a sense of what students can experience. The scent of wet earth mingles with incense sticks and jasmine garlands as we pass shrines and flower vendors. Deep in the jungle, we wade through ankle-deep, floury red mud. There are trees two to three stories high around us. Sathyamurthy is restless, leaving footprints with his rubber sandals.

He occasionally stops to enlighten me, in Tamil, about the medicinal or cultural uses of certain plants, with a smattering of English. He shares their scientific names and Tamil equivalents in rapid succession. The ironwood tree, so called. Casson In Tamil, especially of medicinal value. He says women crush the leaves with rice and use the mixture as an immune booster for postpartum recovery. Tropical ebony, called Cringley, used to make music and agricultural implements. Its highly sought-after twigs are hung over doors to ward off bad energies. We stop often—Sathyamurthy seems to have a story for every plant, and he hopes his enthusiasm will inspire the students he takes into the forest.

Satyamurthy feels the students will give the sacred trees in their village a chance. He believes that such visits help build a bond between the trees and the students. Students leave the field trip with seeds, seedlings, and tips on planting native trees on common lands in their respective villages.

Educating the next generation about the value of these forests may be the key to their survival, as despite their importance to temples and religious groups, urbanization, including extraction of sacred trees for biomedical and cultural uses, has Not protected from threats.

For example, Keezhputhupattu receives millions of devotees every year, and villagers find it difficult to control the interaction of outsiders with the forest. Tourists and shepherds also trespass.

Outside the canal, Satyamurthy saw three youths crashing into a tree. They manage to grab a large branch. After a long battle, they tear a limb from the tree. The leaves fall with a loud, weary rustle. Males happily haul in their booty, presumably used for medicinal or cultural purposes.

Satyamurthy shook his head in disapproval and said there was an urgent need to deal with the threat to the plantations. Later, he tells me that the loss of the sacred trees feels like an attack on his community’s way of life.

This is why awareness of seed collection, nurseries, tree planting campaigns, and tropical dry evergreen forests is essential. If everything is taken out, there is no chance for the forest to regenerate and “build a bank balance,” Blancheflower pointed out. Restoring a natural forest “puts energy back in the bank.”

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