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India’s Sacred Groves Are Resurrecting a Vanishing Forest

Ancolie Stoll tends to one such space called Nilatangam, a 7.5-hectare afforestation project started by her European parents when Auroville was first set up.

Nilatangam has tall trees from different parts of the world but few indigenous varieties. It isn’t dense and complex like the forests of the sacred groves. Instead, the trees are neatly spaced, like crops on farmland, with walking paths and plenty of room for plants to naturally reseed.

Stoll works with Blanchflower and Baldwin at the botanical garden and says that, at Nilatangam, she has recently planted more native species belonging to the tropical dry evergreen type. In between the canopy of nonnative trees from her parents’ time, she points to patches where she’s planted such saplings.

Over time, she will plant even more, when there are new species available, she explains. 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 Pitchandikulam Forest and Bioresource Centre and the similarly sized Auroville Botanical Gardens. Baldwin, Blanchflower, and their botanical garden team are working to map the extent and variety of native species within Auroville.

Education is a key goal of the botanical gardens, and this is where Sathyamurthy plays an important role. During field trips to Auroville’s forests and at the sacred groves, he teaches students about the forests’ ecological importance and cultural heritage.

I get a sense of what the students might experience when Sathyamurthy guides me through Keezhputhupattu just after the bountiful rains of the November 2021 monsoons. The scent of wet soil mingles with incense sticks and jasmine garlands as we pass by shrines and flower vendors. Inside the forest, we walk through ankle-deep, doughlike red soil; around us stand stout trees, two to three stories high. Sathyamurthy continues unperturbed, leaving behind footprints from his rubber sandals.

He occasionally stops to enlighten me in Tamil, with a smattering of English, about the medicinal or cultural uses of some of the plants. He shares their scientific names and the Tamil equivalents in rapid succession. An ironwood tree, called kaasan in Tamil, is of particular medicinal value. Women crush the leaves with rice and consume the mixture as an immunity booster for postpartum recovery, he says. The tropical ebony, called karungaali, is used for making musical and agricultural instruments. Its much sought-after twigs are hung on doorways to ward off evil energies. We stop frequently—it seems like Sathyamurthy has a story for every plant, and he hopes his enthusiasm will inspire the students he takes to the forest.

Sathyamurthy feels that students will give sacred groves a chance in their villages. He believes such visits help in forging a relationship between the trees and the students. The students leave the field trips with seeds, saplings, and tips on how to plant native trees on common lands in their own villages.

Educating the next generation on the value of these forests could be the key to their survival, for despite their temples and importance to religious groups, the sacred groves aren’t spared from threats of urbanization, including extraction for biomedical and cultural uses.

Keezhputhupattu, for instance, receives hundreds of thousands of devotees every year, and villagers find it hard to control outsiders’ interactions with the forest. Tourists and herders trespass too.

Outside the grove, Sathyamurthy spots three young men yanking at a tree. They manage to get hold of a large branch. After a protracted tug of war, they tear one limb off the tree. The leaves fall with a loud, exhausted rustle. The men merrily drag away their spoils, presumably to be used for medicinal or cultural purposes.

Sathyamurthy shakes his head in disapproval and says there’s an urgent need to address the threat to the groves. Later, he tells me that a loss of the sacred groves feels like an attack on his community’s way of life.

This is why seed collection, nurseries, tree-planting drives, and awareness about the tropical dry evergreen forests are essential. If everything’s extracted, there’s no chance for the forest to regenerate and “build the bank balance,” Blanchflower points out. Re-creating the natural forest “puts energy back in the bank.”

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