Ancolie Stoll takes care of such a space called Nilatangam, a 7.5 hectare afforestation project launched by her European parents when Auroville was created.
Nilatangam has large trees from different parts of the world but few native varieties. It is not dense and complex like the forests of the sacred groves. Instead, the trees are carefully spaced, like crops on farmland, with walking paths and plenty of room for plants to re-seed naturally.
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. Between the canopy of non-native trees from her parents’ time, she points to plots where she planted such saplings.
Over time, she will plant even more, when new species become available, she explains. The process is slow, but she hopes to create a true evergreen tropical dry forest within a few years.
Dry evergreen tropical trees dominate the 20-hectare Pitchandikulam Forest and Bioresource Center 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 in Auroville.
Education is a key objective of botanic gardens, and this is where Sathyamurthy plays an important role. During field trips to the forests of Auroville and the sacred groves, he teaches students about the ecological importance and cultural heritage of the forests.
I get a sense of what the students might be experiencing as Sathyamurthy guides me through Keezhputhupattu just after the heavy monsoon rains of November 2021. The smell of wet soil mingles with incense sticks and jasmine garlands as we we pass shrines and flower vendors. Inside the forest, we cross ankle-deep, pasty red soil; around us stand tall trees, two or three stories high. Sathyamurthy continues unfazed, leaving behind the footprints of his rubber sandals.
He stops from time to time to enlighten me in Tamil, with a little English, on the medicinal or cultural uses of certain plants. It shares their scientific names and Tamil equivalents in quick succession. An ironwood tree, called kaasan in Tamil, has special medicinal value. Women mash the leaves with rice and consume the mixture as an immune booster for postpartum recovery, he says. Tropical ebony, called karungali, is used for making musical and agricultural instruments. Its highly sought-after twigs are hung on doors to ward off evil energies. We stop frequently – it seems Sathyamurthy has a story for every plant, and he hopes his enthusiasm will inspire the students he takes into the forest.
Sathyamurthy thinks the students will give the sacred groves a chance in their villages. He believes that such visits help forge a relationship between the trees and the students. Students leave field trips with seeds, saplings and tips on how to plant native trees on common land in their own villages.
Educating the next generation about the value of these forests could be key to their survival, because despite their temples and their importance to religious groups, the sacred groves are not spared from the threats of urbanization, including quarrying. biomedical and cultural purposes.
Keezhputhupattu, for example, receives hundreds of thousands of worshipers each year, and villagers struggle to control outsiders’ interactions with the forest. Tourists and herders are also entering it.
Outside the grove, Sathyamurthy sees three young men shooting at a tree. They manage to get their hands on a large branch. After a long standoff, they tear off a limb from the tree. The leaves fall with a loud, exhausted rustle. The men happily drag their loot, presumably intended to be used for medicinal or cultural purposes.
Sathyamurthy shakes his head in disapproval and says there is an urgent need to deal with the threat to the groves. Later, he tells me that the loss of the sacred groves feels like an attack on his community’s way of life.
This is why seed collection, tree nurseries, tree planting campaigns and raising awareness about dry evergreen tropical forests are essential. If everything is extracted, there is no chance that the forest will regenerate and “build up the bank balance”, points out Blanchflower. Recreating the natural forest “puts energy back into the bank”.