Restoring the complex ecosystem of India’s sacred Arunachala Hill

There are many stories about the sacred Arunachala Hill, which rises alone from the surrounding plains to a height of 860m in India’s Tamil Nadu state. One of them is a story of restoration and rebuilding for a sustainable future –  of how dedicated volunteers helped reverse decades of wood clearing and burning that left the once-green Hill barren and dry by the 1970s. In some ways, it is a story that has echoes of the ancient stories of how the Hill came to exist.

By Sakthiprasanna – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=107609007

Australian ecologist John Barrie Button, who first encountered Arunachala in 1989 when he was invited to help local people reforest it, tells the mythic legend this way: ‘Shiva, Lord of Destruction and Re-creation, was asked to adjudicate an argument between Vishnu, Lord of Preservation, and Brahma, Lord of Creation, as to who had precedence. Having manifested Himself as a column of the pure light of consciousness, he bade each of them to find His limits; one to seek the lowest point, and the other the highest. Neither apparently was successful, and in their awe of Shiva’s brilliance, they pleaded with Him to take a form less dazzling, which mere mortals could then behold. Shiva agreed, and transformed himself into the form of the mountain, Arunachala, which has been venerated ever since.’

The nearest community, Tiruvannamalai, is a major Hindu pilgrim centre in Tamil Nadu that is home to the 10-hectare Annamalaiyar temple complex, one of the largest in India. It also is home to the Forest Way, a diverse group of volunteers who have worked together for more than a decade to restore its complex ecosystems and model sustainable living.They recognized that growing trees without dealing with the annual fires, as in the earlier regreening attempts, meant that the benefits were always localized

“These explorations have manifested in our work to restore the forests of the sacred Arunachala Hill, the creation and ongoing maintenance of parks for people and nature, and to the opening of a small holistic school surrounded by organic farmland. We also take environmental outreach work into local schools, and take local children out into nature. We are trying to learn to grow food according to nature’s ways, and to build with as little impact on the land as possible. We are a work in progress.”

It’s a challenging task, given the risk to a fragile and semi-arid ecosystem posed by thousands of pilgrims, goat herders who set fires to get fresh shoots to grow, illegal logging, and occasional lightning in scorching summers. When Button first saw the sacred Hill in 1989, it ‘was little more than a great mound of rocks’, he said. “The mountain ablaze was a common sight, deliberately lit to encourage the grasses used for thatching, and to discourage any trees or shrubs that may impede their growth. Not to mention the pyromania inspired by those coming to the mountain to pray for divine intervention to dissolve debt, or deliver a son, or cure a hernia, or an infinite number of other earthly needs. Shiva in his form of Fire was honoured with matches and cigarette lighters”.

The story of how Arunachala once again became green goes back to that time, when the Annamalai Reforestation Society invited Button to come and work with them. They knew that there had once been great forests that provided medicine and sanctuary for wild animals and they thought, despite much local skepticism, that it was possible to restore those forests. One of the volunteers suggested approaching the temple, which provided both water and protected areas for growing seedlings, and which controlled much of the mountain.

“We selected our plants to supply their needs in flowers and coconuts, as well as planting sacred constellations long neglected,” Button wrote. “In the following years we raised between 200 and 350 thousand saplings for planting on and around the mountain, and for sale to service the wages of our growing workforce. We planted at least 80 different species – diversity  – including shrubs and groundcovers, fast-growing pioneers, climax species, fruiting species, trees for timber, plants for medicines and other uses. Every plant was bunded with a micro-catchment arc to catch and localise water, silt and organic material.” Gradually, animals and birds not seen for decades became common, and great bamboo groves flourished.

The native forest plants nursery is at the heart of the Forest Way’s work. “Each year we raise tens of thousands of saplings, from over 100 indigenous species.” While most are planted on Arunachala’s slopes, they also provide trees to schools, to the forest department, various NGOs and private gardeners. As well as trees, the nursery grows medicinal plants.

“Collecting our own seeds increases our understanding of the favored conditions of a species, and our feeling for the forests that we are trying to re-grow. Learning how to germinate the many different species, watching the different ways they grow, it all serves to deepen our understanding of and empathy with the plants, and ensures that we plant out healthy young trees, grown with care and without toxic chemicals.”

The second wave of regreening Arunachala started in 2004, when the Tiruvannamalai Greening Society was created. In 2008, it became the Forest Way. At its heart were three people – engineer and educator V. Arun; conservationist Akila Balu; and British educator and environmentalist Govinda Bowley – and a great deal of local knowledge.

That reliance on deep local knowledge has had a lot to do with its success. Chief seed collector C. Parasuraman, 35, looks after the shaded mother bed where seeds germinate. “I learnt germination techniques for different seeds through trial and error. A dip in boiling water or acid, for example, can mimic what a bird’s alimentary canal would do for seed distribution in nature,” he says. K. Maasilamani, 51, who leads a team of up to 50 workers from the nearby village of Adaiyur, knows the hill so well that it is like “he has a built-in GPS and Google Earth map inside him.” Maasilamani’s wisdom helps in balancing the needs of different groups — villagers, forest officials and project coordinators. “I explain to them [other workers] that plants are like our children,” he told The Hindu.

With help from donors, including Button’s organization, the Forest Way has deployed 30 permanent and 80-odd casual workers during the planting season, aided by fluctuating numbers of active volunteers. Each year, with the monsoon rains, around 15,000 young trees from more than 70 indigenous species are planted on the slopes of Arunachala. Up to a hundred people rush to get the trees into the ground as early as possible, which gives them the best chance to survive the long and hot summer. The ground around young saplings are mulched and a small catchment is created to collect any summer rain.

Shristi Films on You Tube Jan. 4, 2018

A key factor in the successful reforestation of Arunachaya has been resolving the issue of commonly-occurring forest fires. Setting such fires dates back decades, in order to promote the growth of a type of wild lemon-grass that was used locally as thatching for houses. Fires spread widely as grass-cutters burned off stubble and so the grass came to dominate the entire hill. While the demand for thatch has dropped as people switch to concrete roofs, the predominance of lemongrass still poses a threat of fire because it is so flammable.

The fire prevention strategy is fourfold. It includes education in the communities at the base of the hill, which has led to the creation of a team of young fire-fighting volunteers who are often the first on the scene of a fire. During the dry season, five people are employed as full time firewatchers, who advise hill climbers of the fire risks and provide early warning when a fire starts. Each year about 14 km of fire breaks are made on Arunachala, completely removing all ground vegetation across a strip 10m wide. Finally, all fires that do occur are fought, using branches with green leaves which are used to beat flames down. 

“When I was a child, when we saw the hill burning, nothing would be done about it because our elders would say someone with stomach pain must have lit camphor as a prayer,” says Vijaya, who coordinates the firewatchers.

But the Forest Way volunteers are modest. “While tree planting has been a great success, and it gives us immense pleasure to see the young sapling growing steadily, all these efforts are dwarfed by the natural re-growth across the entire Hill in the years since the fire has been stopped..We are reminded how efficiently and dramatically nature will recover if only given the chance.”

The increased tree cover has meant that the soil now absorbs more water. Rainwater runoff has decreased, and seasonal streams flow more slowly and last longer after the monsoon has ended, making it easier for more trees to survive. 

The most intensive efforts have been in the Forest Park, which covers 15 acres at the foot of the hill and from which the tree planters set out. “Crucially, the Forest Park is a place where local people, especially children, can meet and begin to know the forests of the region.” The park’s deeper soils and higher water table create a different kind of forest than that on the slopes. However, it is stressed as privately held land is converted from crops to building plots. A few well laid out paths allow people to wander without disturbing the plants, benches by the ponds allow them to sit quietly and observe. “The Forest park is contiguous with the Children’s park and the Arboretum, making a substantial area of public land at the foot of the Hill that we have managed to protect for people and wildlife alike, from the all too powerful forces of ‘development’.”

Since 2009, the Forest Way has run an alternative school called Marudam (farmland in the Tamil language) that focuses on sustainable living and includes the school building, an adjoining eight-acre organic farm where much of the school’s food is grown, a sapling nursery and a playground with handcrafted equipment. In 2012, the school was formally recognized by the Board of Elementary Education.

The school children take part in all farm activities, from mulching to thrashing the harvested paddy. The urine and dung of the seven cows that live on the farm is used to produce manure and biogas. By 2017, Marudam was home to 5 families, 23 teachers and 70 children.

Sources:

With over 2 lakh trees, this NGO is regenerating a forest in Tamil Nadu. Your Story, Dec. 6, 2017.

The Forest Way website.

Restoring Arunachala, the sacred hill, in Taml Nadu, India. Rainforest Information Centre

These 5 Families Gave Up City Life to Run a Solar-Powered Alternative School on an Organic Farm! The Better India, Mar. 8, 2017

Holy hill gets its groves back. The Hindu, Apr. 1, 2017

Schooling for curiosity. Business Line, Mar. 10, 2018