Ancient magic in Auroville: A tiny forest holds hope for the future

North of the township is a magical grove of trees that an ardent group of residents delight in, study and protect.

Published : Mar 11, 2024 16:30 IST - 7 MINS READ

A view of the Aranya Forest and Sanctuary at Sri Aurobindo International Institute of Educational Research (SAIIER), Auroville.

A view of the Aranya Forest and Sanctuary at Sri Aurobindo International Institute of Educational Research (SAIIER), Auroville. | Photo Credit: T. Singaravelou

It has been over 30 years since I first discovered the sacred grove of Puthupet, in Tamil Nadu’s Villupuram district; and I still have a powerful sense of joy when I wander into this little forest remnant around 12 km north of Auroville, where I have lived my entire adult life. Of course, there have been extraordinary changes during this time but there is still a sense of magic when I see the ancient trees firmly rooted in the sandy soil, resolute against the challenges that they come up against, be it the raging winds of cyclones racing in from the Bay of Bengal or the ever-increasing development around the temple standing at the centre of the grove. I see magic as I stand beneath the dense dark green canopy of the Garcinia trees, or as my eyes work their way up the complex fluted trunks of Drypetes sepiaria.

This small patch of forest, and indeed it is tiny, just eight acres, is the best example of the tropical dry evergreen forest that remains relatively intact, to be found within a radius of over 150 km. A fragment of the ecosystem that once covered the majority of the coastal belt of the Coromandel region.

Kindling embers

These days the best time to visit the forest is in the light of the full moon, as the soft illumination forgives the carelessly abandoned garbage that pilgrims bring as they come to the temple for worship. Plastic, plastic everywhere, save for the places that have been meticulously cleaned and swept to accommodate the ever-expanding footfall and the newly created shrines underneath the trees, which reduces the forest’s resilience by reducing the next generation of young saplings.

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Fortunately, with a forest like this, is it easy to kindle the embers: be it the diverse flowering events of ebony and ironwood trees, or the flashing colours of the butterflies and birds, the forest is an enriching and dynamic friend to have.

A uniquely beautiful tree in Auroville.

A uniquely beautiful tree in Auroville. | Photo Credit: T. Singaravelou

For me, it has given meaning and direction for the past 30 years. When I first arrived in Auroville in 1991, fresh from studying ecology and forestry in the UK, I thought I would stay for a few years, gather experience of tropical forestry from the restored lands of Auroville, and then move on to other jobs around the world. However, the complexity, beauty, and sheer necessity of conservation associated with the forest have held me a willing captive till this day.

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It is rare. There is less than 0.05 per cent of this forest remaining in pristine condition. All of the reserve forests found in our region have suffered a high level of disturbance during the colonial period to provide fuel wood for the iron industry (in the 1700s there was a large iron foundry south of Pondicherry for which all the forests of North and South Arcot districts were leased out for the collection of charcoal). Later, the forests were simply harvested for charcoal to keep the trains running when coal was in short supply during the World Wars. Subsequent land use has tilted toward cash crops such as eucalyptus, or other exotic fast-growing timber or paper pulp species. Therefore, the regenerative composition of these reserve forests is heavily skewed towards the more resilient species such as the Albizia amara or Dichrostachys cinerea.

 A still from the documentary, Ever Slow Green: Re-afforestation in Auroville, South India (2020).

 A still from the documentary, Ever Slow Green: Re-afforestation in Auroville, South India (2020). | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

With this rarity of the tropical dry evergreen forest comes an urgency, a race to restore or recover before it is too late. But there is hope yet. As this forest is so beautiful in its mature form, it was easy for me to join the community at Auroville which had worked to restore the land there, and to delve deeper into the complexities of its constitution: to observe the flowering and fruiting patterns of the species, and then to understand the idiosyncrasies of each seed and the secrets to unlocking their germination. This story has been beautifully told in the movie Ever Slow Green available on YouTube.

Trees that communicate

I have always loved trees. In the south of England, where I grew up, I playing among majestic oak and beech trees. In Scotland, where I studied for five years, the Scots pine was the iconic tree, standing tall in a denuded landscape of the Highlands, a landscape cleared of forests over the millennium for reasons of economy and politics. There is something about their presence, solidity, and seeming permanence that gives me a feeling of security. I often talk to them, never expecting direct responses, but always with the knowledge that they listen, absorb and then communicate after some time through the subconscious.

The author in Auroville Botanical Gardens.

The author in Auroville Botanical Gardens. | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

It is this love of trees that always draws me to nature, to the spaces where one can experience the expression of the past. I have been fortunate to have lived in Auroville, a place that people seeking new ways of living and interacting are drawn together. It is a honey pot, attracting organisations and individuals looking for alternative approaches and innovative ideas. Through this, I have been able to develop meaningful relationships with several people who are passionate about the same topics as I am, which has over the years led to amazing opportunities to heal lands that have been degraded. Within these projects, I have developed my own passion and drive to seek larger challenges with respect to restoration in this era of industrialisation.

Cover of Trees of South India.

Cover of Trees of South India. | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

In the same way that I was captivated as a young adult by experiencing the richness of tropical ecosystems, I am now mesmerised by the complexities of our current situation as we strive to continue our economic development but recognise the importance of a stable and resilient environment. One that can support our society with the essential basics such as clean water, breathable air, and functioning ecosystems required for agriculture, as well as stabilising the extreme temperatures and rainfall events that are becoming more regular.

Over the past years, we have been gathering experience and expertise, through collaborations with government organisations and industrial groups. Our work with the Ramco group, through the restoration of their post mining sites in Pandalgudi, in Virudhanagar district, has become an iconic project, inspiring confidence that best practice is possible in mine rehabilitation. This gives hope that many other sites can be resiliently rehabilitated with native species to create nature-positive outcomes that have numerous social and community benefits in locations that are currently forgotten or uneasily ignored.

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The challenge of the moment is to expand the awareness of society at large to the resources that are embedded within the native ecosystems. Currently, the majority of tree plantations, both private and institutional, are carried out with a small palette of species that are familiar and easily available in nurseries. The Miyawaki forestry technique, associated with high-density, fast-growth urban plantations that are practiced in India today, is a totally distorted version of the original practice that was developed in Japan, which promoted the plantation of native trees and shrubs at a high density to ameliorate degraded mines sites; in India today, plantations are mainly with trees that are not native to the specific region.

Engaging communities

The use of native species, mixed as a healthy balance of flora has definite advantages for local species of butterflies and birds, so important for their roles in pollination and pest control; there are also demonstrated benefits in restoring groundwater and soil regeneration. There are amazing young people, passionate about the environment, creating local start-ups for ecological restoration and bringing up native plant nurseries, but we need to turn the general population’s gaze in their direction to ensure that each year their nurseries are emptied of seedlings, thus encouraging them to scale up and increase their production. It is also important to continue to improve the quality of plantation, ensuring community engagement and persistent aftercare to carry the seedlings through the initial year or two in the often harsh degraded areas.

Government school students at the National Nature Camping Programme held at Auroville Botanical Gardens in Puducherry on January 28, 2015.

Government school students at the National Nature Camping Programme held at Auroville Botanical Gardens in Puducherry on January 28, 2015. | Photo Credit: S.S. Kumar

There is a lot to engage in, but at a foundational level, the magic of the forest is there to sustain. This leads me to a plea to find ways to open up forests and wild places to those who are truly interested, engaged, and working with nature. To create opportunities for young people to spend time in nature, immersed in the wild, and at the same time to provide them with examples and opportunities for engagement, be it collecting native seeds, removing invasive exotics, assisting with wildlife census, or simply experiencing nature at a large scale. There is need for active engagement, building of networks and a conscious decision to think outside the box.

Paul Blanchflower is the co-author of Trees of South India and is the director of the Auroville Botanical Gardens.

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