The fruits of the villagers' labour is evident here, says SOMA BASU

After a hassle-free and barely two-hour ride from Madurai, I almost beat a retreat from this RLT destination on seeing the closed huge iron gates. On second thoughts, I push the gate gently and the rusted chain gives way. A Forest Department board in green and yellow, however, welcomes all. Thoughts of a `real offbeat place' criss-cross my mind and I step in, a bit sceptical. And how the scene changes! A few seconds ago, I was standing on the National Highway 209 amidst the noise of passing vehicles. Now all that meets the eye is a promising green patch of serenity.The first few steps are prickly as the grass around is slightly overgrown. I carefully find my way on a narrow mud track. Luckily an informal brief from the DFO Dindigul helps me familiarise myself with Ayyankarkulam. As I stand at the entry point of the 20-hectare green cover, it is difficult to figure out the boundary of the plot, which was once a wasteland and has now been productively converted by local villagers and farmers. The maintenance of the place is shared by the Forest Department and people from the neighbouring villages of Silvarpatty and Ammapatty, who have grouped themselves into a Village Forest Council (VFC).

For a cool evening

I walk on watching out for creepy insects and rabbits hopping across and reach an ashram made of red roof tiles and bricks. The board outside reads `Ganamandapam'. It makes for a nice, breezy sit-out. The space is used to conduct meetings of the VFC. To me, it appears like a typical stall one gets to see in ethnic `haat bazaars' organised in big metros.A little ahead on the left stands a pyramid structure called the `shanthi mandapam.' It is dubbed a natural healing centre where one can "get the benefits of cosmic rays." With time on my side, I spend some quiet moments inside the pyramid, where people are requested to meditate. Meditation does not come easily to me but yes, it is cooler inside.

A `special' garden

I prefer the fresh air and take a walk in the `nakshatra vana' created with 27 special plants, each representing the stars of the Tamil horoscope. The star attraction here is a huge tree believed to be 200 years old. It is called the `Swamy tree' (botanical name Ficus religiosa). The remains of incense sticks, the earthen lamps and the red threads tied around the tree indicate that the place is frequented by worshippers. A voice from behind startles me. I see a young man suspicious of my presence. I explain to him the purpose of my visit and a smile lights up his face. He tells me that the `Swamy maram' is like a guardian, which is believed to protect humans, flora and fauna of the area. The locals offer prayers here regularly, he says. Perhaps that explains why the main gate is loosely chained.

Green cover

Son of a VFC member, he briefs me on how the place was cleaned up by enthusiastic villagers and inaugurated in 2001. The objective was to encourage farmers and others to grow trees to meet their requirement of food, fodder, fuel wood, small timber, fruit and medicines. Five years on, the fruits of their labour are visible. There are 34 types of fruit bearing and oil and cotton yielding trees, fuel wood, green manure and softwood trees.There are several model plots within the area now covered by mango, jackfruit, sapota, guava, tamarind, jamun, cashew, custard apple, nellikai, kilakai, neem, teak, rosewood, badam, bamboo and eucalyptus trees. "Over the years, the area has developed well but lack of inspection by the Forest Department has given way to laxity among villagers," the youth laments. The Dindigul to Coimbatore railway line runs through the green land here almost lending it a filmi touch. This setting can draw more people and revenue if only there is some publicity. For, this kind of a natural setting is hard to find these days. How to reach Ayyankarkulam is 12 km away from Dindigul town towards Palani on the northern side of National Highway 209. Once, on NH209, take a right turn at Ammapatty diversion. Ayyankarkulam is located in Silvarpatty village in Dindigul taluk. Old timers still call it by its previous name, Rangasamudram.