Reinventing the Gods’ forests (17 March 2018)

(My column in Mint Lounge, March 17 2018)

Sarpa-Kavu-3.jpg

Between 1816-20, when the British officers Benjamin Ward and Peter Conner conducted their geographical survey of southern Kerala, they found 15,000 groves in the region dedicated to local gods and conserved in the name of the divine. Known as kavus, these sacred sites varied in size but served essentially as patches of hallowed forest amidst swathes of territory exploited and tamed forever by man. The kavu in Mannarasala, for example, still covers 16 acres of land, preserving in its shade not only numerous species of plant and bird, but also thousands of venerated serpent idols. Elsewhere, a grove might be simply two-three trees, a few square feet cordoned off around it, pale remnants of what were originally more glorious spaces. That these groves are disappearing is old news—outside Kerala, in Coorg, for instance, the extent of devara kadus (Gods’ forests) came down to less than half in the last century, from 15,506 acres in 1905 to just under 6,300 acres in 1985. This has been the fate too of groves elsewhere in the subcontinent, from the saranas (“sanctuaries”) of Madhya Pradesh to the protected woods that the first inspector general of forests found in the Khasi Hills in 1897.

What sparked my interest in these “hot spots of biodiversity”, as some describe them, was ancient lore. For Malayalis, the grove is a familiar concept. Legend has it that after the mythical hero Parasurama reclaimed Kerala from the sea, the Brahmins he settled along the coast were challenged by serpent-worshipping Naga tribes. Eventually, after a great deal of violence put the immigrants to flight, a compromise was effected by the warrior sage: The Brahmins and Nagas would live together, provided, as one authority put it, the “colonists” set aside “a corner of every occupied compound to the abode of the serpent gods”. And so it was that kavus were first established, “left untouched by the knife or the spade, thus enabling the underwood and creepers to grow luxuriantly therein” ever since. So too, goes the story, the Namboodiris and Nairs, descendants of the two parties, began to dwell in peace, united in their protection of these groves and in the worship of the serpent gods believed to reside within. Over time, it became a mark of respectability and exalted lineage to come from a household with its own kavu, groves appearing, meanwhile, also beside temples and shrines.

Without romanticizing the motive behind these groves—some see them as purely environmental concerns, proof of wise ancestors seeking a balance with nature—it is clear that kavus in Kerala did play a role in maintaining the ecological health of the countryside. One official in pre-independence Travancore came across a kavu (“an interesting oasis in the open maidan”) in which he counted “129 trees of 17 different kinds”, from the jack and mango to the poison nut and bitter melon. Decades later, in the early 1990s, Madhav Gadgil and Subash Chandran, in the course of their research, also discovered threatened species that had survived in obscure Kerala groves. Religion and associated taboos were essential in preserving these sites, though. The 19th century botanist, Francis Buchanan, whom one would expect to have rejoiced at the sight of such “oases”, scoffed in Karnataka that they were merely religious “contrivances” locals invented to prevent the state from claiming public land. In Kerala today, serpent gods can be moved with mantras from their kavus and established elsewhere, on cement platforms in namesake groves, clearing the way for the axe to finally go where it was forbidden.

This, tragically, is what happened in my own ancestral place. There were half-a-dozen kavus on the estate. A great one, more than an acre in size, also housed an immense pond, water collecting during the rains and serving nearby fields well in times of terrible heat. Half a century ago, when a biscuit factory—of all things—was proposed there, my ancestors feared their gods enough to decline the offer. Some years ago, however, the priests conveniently moved the serpent deities into the principal family shrine, a few bushes hastily planted as a makeshift kavu. The original place, where legend said our goddess went to bathe, had no divine protectors now, no deity to secretly swing on its vines. Where mighty trees once stood, there were now saplings of rubber, the skies visible from the ground when all we could see looking up, not long ago, was an impenetrable blanket of green, rich and wild. There was, then, an ecological intention behind the groves perhaps, but it was fear of divine wrath that fortified the kavu against the avarice of men—with Parasurama’s deities gone, it was the god of profit who came to reign.

But instead of sentimentally lamenting the loss of kavus, we can learn from the past and build new groves for the present, this time seeking to protect them without halos provided by any gods. In the piece of the ancestral estate that my mother inherited, dozens are the trees my parents have planted, throwing out the ruinous rubber that had replaced towering old jacks and teaks. Birds, whose sounds we had forgotten, are making their way back, and while there are no serpents from grandmother’s tales, there are plants with flowers and trees with fruit. It is not a garden in the conventional sense but a chaotic patch of foliage and growth, an attempt at reviving what was foolishly destroyed. That, perhaps, is what we should seek to do in our own little ways—have corners of green in every maidan and every plot, in villages as well as the urban compound, growing free and seeking again to shroud the skies in the splendour of leaf.

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