8 February 2008
There is a tropical dry evergreen forest (TDEF) in the village of Sendrakillai (in the state of Tamil Nadu), 60 kilometers south of Pondicherry, that serves as a sacred grove for the 2,000 people of the village. There are five temples in the sacred grove, and this grove, unlike the two TDEF in Pondicherry, is protected and used in a sustainable manner by the villagers.
Niranjan Kumar and a fellow student were the first people to study this ecosystem in December 2006 in their final year at the Salim Ali School of Ecology and Environmental Sciences at Pondicherry University. They categorized 54 species of trees and 48 species of liana (woody climbers) in the 12 hectares grove. The forest is the main source of medicinal plants and trees, edible fruits and tubers and firewood for the village. There is a family of nadivaithyam (traditional healers) that treat the villagers using plant extracts from the forest. (There is no hospital in or around the village.)
Entrance to main temple in the sacred grove
There are two horses and guards that lead to the main temple of the sacred grove. The temple portico is flanked by two dogs. The villagers believe that if you whisper your prayers into the ears of the horses or dogs, your prayers will come true within the week. (Before he left the village, Niranjan prayed for a good job in an NGO and he landed up at Shuddham!)
On the last Friday of the month of thai (the harvest month which begins with the Pongal festivities), Tamilians celebrate Laksha Deepam – one lakh (a hundred thousand) lamps. (This is the 62nd year that this village has celebrated Laksha Deepam.) The deepam are filled with a mixture of five different oils: nallennai (sunflower), pinnaennai, vilakuennai (neem), malataennai (groundnut or peanut), and thengaennai (coconut). (One of the oils prevents the wicks from being blown out by the wind.) 20 years ago, one family sponsored the entire festival. Now, they collect donations from the village and surrounding areas for the celebration.
Families participate in both the filling and the lighting of the deepam as the sun begins to fade. As the figure of the god is brought along the path from the village into the sacred grove, accompanied by a drummer, firecrackers light the sky and assault the eardrums (some of the firecrackers only produce noise).
Vendors set up their wares in a carnival atmosphere (with mobile rides – mini ferris wheels and merry-go-rounds and games – balloon shooting and ring tosses) and families come from neighboring villages by bus, trucks, and on foot to offer their prayers and to celebrate into the night.