Nanditha Krishna  &  Sharon St Joan

Five miles south of the city of Tiruvannamalai, southwest of Chennai in Tamil Nadu, is the Sacred Grove of Paavupattu.  An oasis of peace and beautiful trees, it was the first of 52 sacred groves restored by CPREEC (C.P.R. Environmental Education Centre).

The villages of Kollakudi, Nadupattu, Vallimalai, Kattanpoondi, Paavupattu, Eeradi, Elikuthi, Parayampattu, Nachanandal, Kachirapattu and Mathur boundaries converge at a common circular Reserve Forest covering about 1000 hectares. An Ayyanaar temple is situated at the north-west corner inside the forest area on about 3 acres land. On the eastern side there is a small tank, on the southern side there is an open well and nearby there is a hand pump. On the western side there is a check dam and a tributary canal; on the northern side there are big hilly rocks.

Terracotta horses of Paavupattu

The presiding deity is Sri Kannamadai Ayyanaar, depicted beautifully in stone in the sanctum sanctorum, flanked by images of Vinayaka and Mariamman. There are 2 mandapams built opposite each other, one for a statue of Veeran, while the main mandapam is reserved for Ayyanaar. At the entrance to the main mandapam, there are two dwarapalakas behind the mandapams, and several standing tridents. A small peetham, a small statue of a dog, and male and female figures praying, adjacent to a stone Nandi. There are many stone statues of elephants, horses, tigers, foxes, and Nandi which are placed in rows to look like an outer enclosure for the two mandapams. Huge mud statues of a horse, tiger and elephant – each about 10 feet high – stand on either side of the manadapams, at the erstwhile entrance. There are no prakarams at the temple now but some structures may have existed long ago. The stone and mud statues stand in the open without any roof.

Trees like the yellow oleander, Bengal quince, jujube or ber, white barked acacia, and tamarind provide shade for the statues and the temple.

Towards the eastern side of the temple, there is a stone Mariamman’s face beneath a tamarind tree, with some broken clay figures opposite. The local people regularly visit this temple to pray to Amman.

In November 1994, CPREEC was informed that there was  a famous temple called Paavupattu Kannamadai Ayyanar with a degraded grove. With the co-operation of the priest Mr. Aiyaswami and the 14 families attached to the temple, CPREEC planted trees in the grove and directly engaged in fencing, watering, mulching, and other maintenance work. Over the course of many months, Mr. Selvapandiyan of CPREEC interviewed local elders in the nearby village of Paavupattu, to determine which trees had once grown naturally in the grove.  Then he started the work of restoration. At that time there was a severe drought in the area, which meant that there was no water available.  Water had to be brought in trucks for planting the trees and also as drinking water for the workers.  It was very hot work in the hot summer months.

After witnessing CPREEC’s work, the Tamilnadu Forest Department initiated plantation work on the northern side adjoining the site.

Mr. Selvapandiyan, CPREEC, restorer of the Sacred Groves

Very few large trees had existed earlier. In the twenty years since the Paavupattu grove was restored, the people of nearby Paavupattu village have faithfully taken care of the grove. All the trees are tall, green and wonderfully healthy.  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 offered to the deities of the grove.  There are small temple structures, while standing on platforms, or sometimes grinning from behind trees, are the remarkable folk statues, especially huge white horses or guardian spirits – all constructed of painted terracotta, one of the unique folk arts of Tamil Nadu.


One of the terracotta guardian spirits beside a tree.

 According to Mr. Aiyasami, the 85 year old poojari, the temple belongs to members of a clan of 14 related families. From the past six generations, the first son of each family has been appointed the poojari of the temple. The temple is situated within the boundaries of Kattampoondi.

However, once upon a time, his ancestors had built houses here and were engaged in agriculture. The present Unnamutham yeri (tank) and Kannamadai yeri (tank) were used for agriculture. Following family feuds, his ancestors had moved to nearby Paavupattu village for livelihood. The abandoned area later became a Reserve Forest due to the migration of the remaining people to different places. Now the tanks are used only by cattle and all irrigation activities have ceased. Once upon a time there were 34 tanks in the area but today only 7 tanks remain. Although the temple falls within Kattampoondi, it is called Paavupattu Kannamadai Ayyanaar since the poojari and other families hail from Paavupattu village. The poojaris earn their living through the offerings of the devotees and the sale of the small twigs available inside the grove. The amount earned though the yearly tamarind fruit action goes to all the 14 families.  There is an interesting story connected with this temple.  Once upon a time, the Nawab of Arcot with his army marched past near this temple.  The horses, elephants and dogs fell sick and fainted.  The local people suggested that this was because the Nawab had not offered his respects to the deity.  The Nawab then prayed to Ayyanaar for forgiveness and sprinkled sacred water on the animals. They recovered immediately and he could continue his journey. When he attained victory, he gifted 4.64 cents of punjai land to the priest and erected stone sculptures of animals – horses, elephants and dogs – inside the temple.

Apart from the Hindus, the Muslim community also conducts poojas in the Ayyanaar temple by the beating of drums. Some Muslim priests also visit this temple to drive away evil spirits from the possessed. The Muslims believe that they are following their ancestors’ instructions.

Throughout India, there are sacred groves in the thousands, although, sadly, many have fallen into disrepair over the centuries.  Some have disappeared entirely, swallowed up by development activities, or perhaps simply lying idle as wasteland, 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 people of India. They are home to the guardian spirits and deities who live on the sacred land among the trees.  Wherever the groves have been preserved, it is entirely due to the devotion and tenacity of the local people, who have protected their groves against the onslaughts of modern development.

In the past, every Indian village had a sacred 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 sacred groves are wonderful repositories of the animals, birds, and plant life of the area.  Some species can now only be found in the sacred groves.

A tree and a tank.

CPREEC, in each of the 52 restored sacred groves, has taken great pains to study the area and to learn from the local people the exactspecies of trees that used to grow there, so that they can be replanted, restoring the grove precisely to its original state.  CPREEC carries out the project, hiring local people to do the work.  After three years of renovation and support by CPREEC, each grove is returned to the village, and the local people undertake to preserve and maintain the sacred 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, animals, people, and the spirits who live there. 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 that, despite hardships and challenges, the earth and all her living children are alive and watched over from above.

Photos: © Sharon St Joan, 2013

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