Category: restoration of forest groves


By Sriya Narayanan

Once a sparkling village bustling with biodiversity and economic activity, Nenmeli in Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu, had watched its green cover fade over the years.

The village lands deteriorated over time

A grueling water scarcity issue followed. Young residents were forced to migrate to cities to look for work and the elderly stayed behind. Over time, the hill and the land near the village became barren. “What was a hundred acres came down to two or three acres,” says Dr Sudhakar, Director, CPR Environmental Education Centre.

Dr Sudhakar with folk art

Dr Sudhakar, who has been coordinating efforts to restore groves such as these since 1993, explains that many villages in South India have a tradition of demarcating specific forests as divine, particularly those attached to temple land, in order to safeguard the wildlife and trees, while also ensuring the ecological balance of the area. “In fear and favor of God,” he says, adding that the religious attachment is far more than mere symbolism, but a way to protect a precious ecosystem by tying it into practices that eventually become a way of life.

Over many years, Mr. R. Selvapandian of CPREEC (now retired) directly managed the work on the sacred groves, spending many months or years on each site, overseeing all aspects of the restoration from start to finish.

Mr. Selvapandian and Dr. Nanditha Krishna

Restoring the forests

In general, when CPREEC restores sacred forests, (they have so far restored 53 sacred groves), they rely on accounts from the village elders to be able to replant exactly the same trees that were there previously. However, in the case of Nenmeli, there was no living memory of the very ancient forest and the tradition of worship from the past. The degradation of the forest that had taken place over time had left a barren, lifeless hillside, surrounded by acres of land that had also deteriorated. The village leaders asked CPREEC to restore the ancient land, as closely they could, to what must have been there in the past, so that it could once again be a place of great beauty, peace, and spiritual connection.

A protective deity

It is common for villages to have a ‘kaaval deivam’ (Tamil for protective deity) that safeguards the village, and conduct annual festivals to worship and celebrate the deity. The village people feel enormous respect for their sacred groves. In reality, taking care of these groves is also an act of self-preservation, for there is a ripple effect in the way it sustains human well-being.

Seeking recovery

When villagers from Nenmeli approached CPREEC’s Sacred Grove Restoration Project in 1995, they were looking to inject new life into the land that had become barren and give it a fighting chance at recovery. Dr Sudhakar and his team took on the responsibility and followed a standard process that involves carefully planned planting projects and a three-year maintenance program after which the management of the restored land is handed back to the villagers.

Trees of Nenmeli

He differentiates CPREEC’s planting efforts from similarly well-intentioned, but misguided attempts where corporate organizations might plant saplings without adequate thought to their future caretaking or the suitability of those species to the area. The Sacred Grove Restoration Project, in contrast, takes care to aim for and achieve a 90% survival rate for the newly planted vegetation, bringing it to a point where it is self-sufficient.

The whole village is involved

Another important feature of the Project is the wholehearted and spirited contribution of the village’s residents to the restoration. The locals were instrumental, for instance, in cultivating a flourishing herbal garden while the entire village community took avid interest in CPREEC’s extensive training program. “We raised awareness on soil conservation and the water table and took these educational materials to schools and colleges as well,” says Dr Sudhakar. He upholds Nenmeli as a model eco-village and reveals that the concerted effort included walling the hillock in the center of the grove in the form of check dams and trenches to prevent soil erosion and desilting the two water-tanks attached to it.

He’s delighted to describe how the well in the area soon saw more than eight feet of water during even the driest of summers and how an erstwhile four acres soon blossomed into 25 acres. His favorite observation, however, pertains to the wildlife that silently and eagerly crept back into the now-replenished grove. “Porcupines, snakes, hares, and rabbits… oh, and as many as 39 varieties of birds!” he says of the result.

Once considered eccentric

He recalls how he and his ilk were considered eccentric back in the late eighties when they started sounding the warning signs about environmental disasters and how it took several decades for the restoration movement to finally gain force. With the guidance of CPREEC co-founder Dr. Nanditha Krishna, his team soldiered on, determined to give back to Mother Earth in exchange for everything she had provided us. “It was a mission, so one does not give up. We’ve come full circle,” he says, referring to how students as young as 18 are taking an interest in environmental protection today and how there’s a significant demand for conservation efforts.

He also speaks of how the government allows the Project to develop the land and provides funding for its maintenance. “The amount spent is more than worthwhile, given its priceless benefits to society,” he says, elaborating that the carbon sequestering properties of these trees is of particular importance.

Despite having worked on these projects for over three decades, Dr Sudhakar is untiring in his efforts, drawing inspiration from Nature itself. He marvels at its ability to come back to life from apparent extinction and take care of itself – and all of us – simply by being given the space and time to exist undisturbed. Meanwhile, Nenmeli’s Sacred Grove Restoration Project is now a success story that inspires many others to dream of the same possibility for their own hometowns, and a living, breathing reminder, that when we put our minds to it, life as we once knew it, can begin all over again.

Photos:

Top photo: Dr. Sudhakar / The restored sacred grove of Nenmeli

Second photo: Sharon St Joan / Dr Sudhakar, holding a sculpted bird, the artwork of island young people

Third photo: Sharon St Joan / Mr. Selvapandian and Dr. Nanditha Krishna

Fourth photo: Dr. Sudhakar / The planted trees of Nenmeli, now around thirty years old

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© Forest Voices of India, 2022

How to help

CPREEC’s (CPR Environmental Education Centre) work helps restore the natural beauty and health of India’s ancient forests, while guiding young people toward careers that benefit both their own future and the world of nature.

You can help! Click on the donate button, above and to the right.

Thank you so much!

Most of us cannot speak Tamil; however, if you take a moment or two to look at this beautiful video – somewhere in the middle, you will be able to get an idea of the peaceful, graceful surroundings of the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation….

Under the leadership of Dr. Nanditha Krishna, the CPREEC (C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Environmental Education Centre) in Chennai, India, has restored 53 sacred groves, over the past thirty years – bringing back the original flora and fauna and restoring these small forests with the same species of plants and animals which always lived there in the past, providing once again beautiful tranquil lands which the people living nearby had treasured in the past. Each village in India once had a sacred grove. Now, the village people themselves maintain and care for these restored sacred forests and the abundant wildlife that live there.

These ancient sacred groves represent one of the amazing traditions of India, which has traditionally valued and preserved the life and the beauty of the natural world.

Dr. Nanditha Krishna is an environmentalist, art historian and well-known author of over twenty-five books about the art, culture, and the natural world of India. Among these are Hinduism and Nature, Sacred Animals of India, and Sacred Plants of India.

Listening to this short video, you will be transported to the city of Chennai where you will be among the tall, peaceful trees of the CPREEC and CPRA Foundation centers, yet not far from the busy city life of nearby streets.

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Pexels.com

Thank you for being our home. Thank you for your sacred beauty.

May your lands be blessed and released from harm. May your oceans and waters be clean and safe for all the beings who live within them. May your forests grow tall, and your wild lands be green and filled with life. May your rocks, cliffs, and sacred mountains tower in majesty.

May your life and your spirit be healed that you may be strong and well – that your children – the birds, the animals, the plants, and all peoples — may live in peace and wellbeing.

May you be freed from oppression, tyranny, and the hand of death that you may be well once more, as nature intended. May the forces of the harmful shadow dwindle, vanish, and be gone – returned to non-existence. May the phantom demons of hate leave – fallen into the abyss, never to return.

May the beauty of your sacred spirit fly in the wind on the wings of birds, run with the swift feet of the four-legged ones, and swing with the gentle, waving branches of the juniper trees.

May all your life and your sacred spirit be blessed, honored, revered, restored, and whole.

May the sun, the moon, and the stars bless you with their radiant light and their presence.

May you rise again in joy, power, and magic, in this age and in the age that is to come.

© Sharon St Joan, 2021

Five miles south of the city Tiruvannamalai, which lies southwest of Chennai, in Tamil Nadu, can be found the forest grove of Pavupattu. An oasis of peace and beautiful trees, it was the first of 53 sacred forest groves restored by CPREEC (CPR Environmental Education Centre).
Thirty years ago, the grove came to the attention of Dr. Nanditha Krishna, Director of CPREEC; she and one of CPREEC’S officers, Mr. Selvapandiyan, went to visit the grove and found it very rundown. Over the course of many months, Mr. Selvapandiyan, who was the manager of the restoration project, spent his time first interviewing local elders in the nearby village of Pavupattu, to determine which were the trees that had once grown naturally in the grove. Then he set about doing the work of restoration.

Mr. Selvapandiyan recalls that at the time, there was a severe drought in the area, which meant that there was no water available. They had to bring in water from outside in trucks, to use for planting all the trees and also as drinking water for the work crews. It was very hot work in the warm months of southern India.

All the trees that can be seen now planted on the acres of the grove, are green and wonderfully healthy. Just a few of the larger trees had existed earlier. In the thirty years since Pavupattu was restored, the people of the nearby village of the same name have faithfully taken care of the grove. It is clean and well-kept, with no trash or litter, a lovely, serene place, home to a few dozen resident monkeys – and to the huge votive statues that the people have had made to offer to the deities of the grove. There are small temple structures, and standing on platforms, or sometimes grinning from behind trees, are the remarkable folk statues, especially of huge white horses, and sometimes the figures of guardian spirits in human form – all constructed of painted terracotta, one of the unique folk arts of Tamil Nadu.

Throughout India, there are forest groves – in the hundreds of thousands, though sadly, the majority have fallen into disrepair over the centuries. Some have disappeared entirely, swallowed up into shopping malls or other developed land, or perhaps simply lying idle, as waste land, occasionally visited by a few devotees who worship the remnants of a sacred site. A few have been maintained over hundreds or thousands of years.

These are the original spiritual sites of the local people of India. They are groves of trees because the trees themselves are believed to be especially sacred, and the people see them as home to the guardian spirits and the deities who live on the sacred land among the trees. Wherever the groves have been preserved intact, it is entirely due to the devotion and tenacity of the local village people, who have protected their groves against all the onslaughts of modern development.

In the past, every Indian village had a forest grove, which was the heart of the spiritual life of the people. The trees could never be cut down, the animals and birds could not be disturbed. Sometimes it was even forbidden to gather dead fallen branches for firewood. The land was sacred and could not be used for mundane purposes. Where they still exist, the forest groves are wonderful repositories of the animals, birds, and plant life of the area. Some species can now only be found in the forest groves.

CPREEC, with each of the 53 groves they have restored, has taken great pains to study the area and to learn from the local people the exact species of trees that used to grow there so that they can be replanted, restoring the grove precisely to its original state. CPREEC provides the funding for the work and carries out the project, hiring local people to do the work. After three years of renovation and support by CPREEC, each grove is turned over to the village, and the local people undertake to preserve and maintain the forest grove which has traditionally always been theirs.

Preserving and restoring these beautiful and peaceful places of greenery and sacred trees, habitat for many kinds of birds and wildlife, is profoundly significant – first of all, for that grove and for the plants and animals who live within the grove and the people who live nearby. And, on another level, what could be more important than restoring and maintaining a small part of the planet earth? Each grove stands like a shining beacon, a reminder of the beauty, grace, and living nature of the earth and all her children.

© Forest Voices of India, 2020

 

Forest Voices of India
– conducts charitable fundraising services for environmental charities, especially in India.

How you can help

The CPR Environmental Education Centre
(CPREEC)
in Chennai, India

– Safeguards water

– Revives tribal arts

– Runs ecological study projects for students

– Restores forest groves – planting trees, improving water sources, and providing places of peace and joy for both wildlife and village people.

To help, click on Donate and choose CPR Environmental Education Centre.

Sending this link to a friend is another great way to help.

Bless you for caring!

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Forest Voices of India conducts charitable fundraising services that relate to promoting awareness of tree and environmental conservation and promoting research, education and other activities relating to the environment.