Citizens' initiative

Green hope amidst ruins

Print edition : September 20, 2013

The Tree Fest meeting on August 25 under an 800-year-old banyan tree. Photo: S. James

Recording the speeches at the Tree Fest and blogging or putting them on social media. Photo: S. James

A. Muthukrishnan, green crusader and political activist. Photo: S. James

Green Walk's 25th trek to Samanarmalai, on August 25. Photo: S. James

Activities at the Tree Fest. Photo: S. James

The turnout at the Tree Fest organised by Green Walk at the foothills of Samanarmalai could indicate the start of a strong people’s movement for the protection and restoration of heritage sites.

IN Madurai, the people who gathered under a banyan tree at the foothills of the Samanar Hills in Keelakuyilkudi on August 25, a Sunday, put a final seal of sorts on the battle against the mining mafia. The occasion was a “Tree Fest”, which was held to mark the 25th walk of “Green Walk”, an informal group of people led by A. Muthukrishnan, a green crusader and political activist, that has been walking on roads less travelled for the past two years to learn about neglected monuments.

On August 25 morning, more than 600 citizens showed up to express solidarity with the group on the issue of protection and restoration of heritage sites in and around Madurai.

The half-day meet was held under an 800-year-old banyan tree near a lotus pond with the Samanarmalai and the Karuppanasamy temples in the backdrop, a region that has many ancient Jain abodes and natural caverns, cave temples and inscriptions, now threatened by quarrying. It marked the progress Green Walk has made, and still has to make, since 2010.

By the time all those who had turned up dispersed, they were confident that nobody would dare mount an onslaught on historical sites for commercial gain. “Nature and heritage cannot be propaganda,” says Muthukrishnan. “You have to feel for them to take over guardianship.” He adds, “I was waiting for the right moment. The Tree Fest was our striking moment as people attended in large numbers and showed their willingness to align with an activity for a cause.”

The key to any movement is the ability to motivate people with as little effort as possible. Green Walk did not market the Sunday event but through the walks it had conducted over the past 24 months, it had disseminated information and generated awareness. And support poured in from human rights movements, environmental organisations and eco-justice and direct-action groups across Tamil Nadu.

The best part of the event was that entire families turned up for the early morning trek up the Samanarmalai and later sat through the proceedings when experts and activists spoke about the need to protect the environment and heritage, the influence of Jainism on Tamil traditions and literature, how the social history of Tamils was embedded in these monuments, and how people could only respond to what was happening around them if they were aware of the issues. Muthukrishnan says it is a good idea to politicise a movement because it easy to educate people when you win them over.

It all began four years ago when the State government constituted a committee to look into the feasibility of cracking the “Yanaimalai”, a hillock in the shape of an elephant in a sitting posture on the outer fringes of south Madurai, purportedly to create a sculpture park to promote tourism. The residents of Othakadai and nearby villages recognised that there was a hidden agenda aimed at helping the mining lobby and took to the streets for 10 months to prevent any damage to the hillock, which they worship as a divine creation.

The agitation inspired Muthukrishnan to publish a well-researched 2,000-word essay on nature activism in the Tamil monthly journal Uyirmmai in February 2010. It evoked tremendous response.

Some of his friends urged him to acquaint them with Yanaimalai’s history. He took 35 of them on a tour of the hilltop, with the folklorist Professor Sundarkali sharing the historical details.

“They had to get a feel of the place to understand its importance. The lecture, the walk, the ambience, all worked on them,” says Muthukrishnan. He added a personal touch by bringing along a packed breakfast, which they shared sitting near a natural spring. They wondered whether more such walks could be organised. Muthukrishnan saw an opportunity: “If you are ready to be there, I am ready to organise,” he said. And thus Green Walk was born.

From that first walk to the 25th, Green Walk grew steadily, attracting people of all ages and from many professions. No registration or membership fee is required to join. “Anybody can be a part of our walks on the last Sunday of every month and talk about it at their workplaces and homes.”

It is amazing how new faces join every walk attracted by word-of-mouth accounts. Muthukrishnan thinks many families come for the fun of trekking together and in the process also learn something about history and heritage. “But the Tree Festival was not just about tourism, trekking, photography and history. I see it growing naturally and becoming a strong people’s movement in future,” he says confidently. Seeing the day’s response, several others echoed his sentiments. “People come here voluntarily to enjoy a family picnic and carry away an important social message,” said S. Rajan, an electrical engineer and a Green Walk core group member.

“The Jaina beds around Madurai are more than 2,000 years old and are part of the heritage of Tamils. It is our duty to protect these monuments. I am happy to see that Green Walk is building up into a people’s movement and am sure it will be able to protect these monuments,” said the Tamil cultural scholar Tho Paramasivam, inaugurating the festival.

C. Santhalingam, a retired State archaeological officer, who collated information about the monuments over 23 walks, said, “Only those who are passionate about the subject can turn this into an overwhelming people’s initiative and safeguard our monuments from being plundered by vested interests. Today’s event is indication enough that people are serious, concerned and interested in protecting heritage.”

The feminist Kutti Revathi liked the informal set-up of the event where children were engaged in activities while their parents attended the session, hungry stomachs were taken care of, and as many women as men were present. “This is like a big cultural movement; the involvement of women is crucial to its sustenance,” she said, adding, “nature is like God to common people. Bring a woman into such a movement and everything around will get protected.”

The documentary film-maker R.R. Srinivasan from the Chennai-based Poovulagin Nanbargal described the Tree Fest as a “green political movement”. “Such meetings make the local people realise the importance of heritage spots in their place and inculcate a sense of belonging in them,” he said.

Citizens have a responsibility to make change possible through personal involvement. Green Walk’s Tree Fest seemed to be the beginning of one such change.

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