A narrow tree-lined pathway leads to bushy undergrowths of Manjamalai, a small patch of forest at the foothills of Sirumalai range. As the group of birders, botanists and nature lovers enter the thick canopy, colonies of honey bees buzz around bright yellow flowers on the wayside and flocks of parakeets call out from atop tall trees. After the short hike, we find ourselves in the midst of gigantic trees and there's a visible drop in the temperature as the leaves rustle in the gentle breeze. On the slight elevation of a sandy ridge, the colossal figure of the horse-mount Ayyanar statue comes into view, beneath which is a muddle of partly-damaged terracotta figures of horses and elephants in bright colours.
Manjamalai is one of the sacred groves identified near Palamedu in Madurai district. “A sacred grove or Kovil Kaadu, as it's known is an age-old concept of combining nature conservation and worship,” says Dr. Badri Narayanan, ornithologist and nature enthusiast, who has traversed across the state visiting a number of sacred groves. “A lot of these forest patches are found in Pudukottai, Sivagangai, Dindigul, Madurai and Pondicherry and wherever the old village deities are still revered, feared and worshipped.”
There's something mystique about a sacred grove, as it's always a desolate patch of greenery that's left to grow on its own. No one either plants them or takes care of these groves. It's a completely untamed patch of wilderness and some of them are just few kilometres away from the city. Over the past year, Madurai Green, under DHAN Foundation has been taking out tree walks to nearly 20 such sacred groves around the city, mostly in the pocket of Natham. “The cases of sacred groves are always fascinating as the villagers have interesting mythical stories for the subaltern deities and spirits which are believed to be inhabiting the grove. Apart from getting to know the history, one can also see many rare native species here,” says D Stephen, Professor of Botany, The American College. “The groves house a lot of rare native species of plants and trees and herbs of medicinal value. During our walks, we have also recorded a many wild berries and fruit bearing trees.”
“Sacred groves nurture a rich biodiversity and gene-pool of plants and animals. They are also a guide for us to know what kind of wild plants were native to the region. The groves are a great source of seeds which can be collected and dispersed elsewhere to propagate native species,” opines Narayanan. Though the groves around Madurai are mostly shrubby dry-deciduous forests, there are also big trees like Marutham or Kadambam that are found. “When a forest is left undisturbed, it becomes a perfect ecosystem supporting a food chain and hence sacred groves are home to a number of birds, reptiles, insects and even small mammals. Interestingly, one can hardly find seemai Karuvelam trees inside these groves.”
Narayanan compares Sacred groves to the Uyir Veli concept of Nammazhvar, which suggests that instead of a barbed fire fencing for a field, row hedges of boundary plants like cacti be grown. “So that, those plants provide the food source for the pest insects and birds, bringing down their dependency on the food crops grown in the field. It relatively brings down the usage of pesticide as well,” says Narayanan. “This could also be the idea of having a sacred grove amidst agricultural fields. Pest birds like peacocks roost in the groves and feed on reptiles there, than on the grains. It's a natural way of diverting or deterring the pests away from the fields.”
Chidambaram N of Madurai Green, notes that villagers observe strict discipline while entering a sacred grove. “There are lots of restrictions inside the grove, as people don’t even wear footwear. Even a twig is left untouched and no wood is taken for fuel. The trees and shrubs are not pruned or shaped and cattle are not taken grazing inside. We are planning to bring the walks as a book documenting the species in these groves.”
Forest and Faith
Few of the native species of trees found in the groves are: Karikittan (Zizyphus glabrata), Etti (Strychnos nux-vomica), Usil (Albizia Amara), Vaagai (Albizzia lebbeck), Alinjil (Alangium salvifolium), Kadamba (Neolamarckia cadamba), Marutham (Terminalia Arjuna) and Kaaya (Memecylon umbellatum).
Pachambaram (Ecbolium Viride), a rare shrub similar to Kanagambaram, with a greenish-blue bloom was identified at a sacred grove near Kottampatti.
Smaller mammals like Black-naped hare, Pangolins and Slender Loris, insect-eating birds and raptors like Grey-francolins, peacocks, owls and eagles are found in sacred groves. Reptiles and rodents are common and sometimes even pythons are found if the patch is adjunct to hillocks.
Vellimalai on Sivaganga Road, Sadayandi Kovil on Dindigul Road and Kopparapuli at Natham are some of the sacred groves near the city.