About 25 km south of Tiruvannamalai, on Tamil Nadu State Highway 9, is a small Sacred Grove, Kovil Kadu in Tamil. These sacred groves are an ancient tradition in India, predating the development of farming, and are mentioned in ancient texts, like Kalidasa‘s Vikramuurvashiiya, dating from 400 BCE.
Though these are not protected by the Indian government, they are often fiercely guarded by the communities nearby. Wildlife is protected; cutting of trees and collection of wood are almost always prohibited, though in some groves food gathering, like collecting of honey and fruit, is permitted. Often they are sources for Ayurvedic medicines. Since these areas have been protected from ancient days, today they are a great repository of biodiversity, with trees, plants and animal species preserved that are now rare in India. Officially, there are about 14,000 sacred groves in India covering an estimated 1000 sq. km., and about 500 in Tamil Nadu. No comprehensive survey of sacred groves has been done in India, though. Some sources think if this survey were done, they would number in excess of 100,000.
Usually the grove has a presiding deity, most often a local Hindu god, though sometimes it is a folk deity, like ayyanar or amman. Often, elaborate rituals and traditions are connected with sacred groves, associated with folk tales and folk mythology. It is thought that the presiding deity will administer punishment or even death to those who violate the rules protecting the sacred grove.
These groves are places where local villagers perform community worship, with annual festivals and ceremonies, and family rituals. While we visited the grove this time, an important rite of passage ceremony was just concluding: the first haircut (usually just for boys). Individuals also make offerings, usually in the form of a ceramic figurine. These offerings are to ask for boons, like good health, a bountiful harvest, or the birth of a child. Many of these figurines can be seen in the grove we visited.
Tirukkoilur is south of Tiruvannamalai, as shown in the map below. The grove is not shown on the map.
About 25 km from Tiruvannamalai, on the left side of the road, you will see the entrance to the grove. Turn here.
We parked our motor scooter and walked into the grove. It is a pleasant place, lined with trees (naturally), cool and shaded.
At the entrance to the grove there are several guardian figures, men with horses and dogs.
This guard has contemporary dress.
These are more traditional mustachioed figures, holding spears (like Murugan’s Vel), wearing dhotis and no shirts. This is how one would dress to go to the temple in the old days (and for some temples even today).
Behind these painted figures and are three unpainted terra cotta horses that give the impression of being much older. The middle one has collapsed, due to deterioration.
There are a number of people in the grove today–men, women and children.
When Carol enters the grove a number of the children run up to her. She is teaching them how to ‘fist bump’ instead of shaking hands. This always seems to delight the children, and the adults that look on.
Here is one of the boys who received his first haircut today, being carried by his sister. Maybe he is two years old, and she is six or seven? The black spots on his face are put there to ward off evil eye.
To the right in the grove is an old altar, holy lingam-like stones, surrounded by Trischuls (Siva’s trident) and spears (Murugan’s spear, Vel).
These stone lingams have fresh flowers today, and the large one has a fresh dhoti. The gods must be dressed for such occasions, too.
An oil lamp burns in a clever cement structure designed to shield the flame from wind and rain.
Ahead of us are a couple of swings, hanging by chains, from stone structures. There are figurines on the swings.
Next to Carol are a number of the same kind of figurines.
It is like they have a wide base for use on the swing. One of these figurines is yellow, from being sprinkled with holy turmeric. I wonder why this is only done to one of these figures?
In the rear of the sacred grove are the presiding deities.
The ceremony must be just about over now. The priest is bringing a camphor flame out and offering ‘light’ to all those here today (even Carol and me).
Next to the presiding deities is a fenced area. This is where the pooja was held today.
The main lingams are in the back row, decorated with flowers and dressed. The central one, the main one, also has broken coconuts sitting beside it. Plates of red kumkum, yellow turmeric, and white sacred ash– vibhuti, are beside the central plate. Money is in this plate, and the one in front of the main lingam. The turmeric is rubbed on the newly shaven heads of the young boys. Turmeric is anti- bacterial. Its use in such ceremonies is ancient.
After the ceremony, the priest collects the money. It is his payment for his role today.
Some people bow and pranam the presiding gods before they depart.
Here are the presiding gods, a male with two females goddesses, one on each side. The goddesses wear sarees, the male wears a dhoti. They all have fresh flower malas. I do not know who these gods are. They are probably local ones. Perhaps the main god is Ayyanar carrying vaaL , the sword?
The people are leaving the grove now. We are looking from the back towards the front of the grove. You can see this is a pleasant sheltered area–a central walkway surrounded by a thicket of trees.
Next to the presiding deities there are many clay figurines. I guess these have been given to ask for boons from the gods.
A few figurines are painted, most are not. Some look new, many seem old, some very old.
As people left they would swing the swings and give the figures sitting on them a nice ride. Then they would ring the bell at the top of the swing. The bell ringing is often done at special moments in temples, like just before lighting the arati flame. I think it is a way of calling the gods.
The priest is leaving now, pushing his bicycle out of the grove.
We had wanted to stop here today anyway. I am so glad that there was this function, so we could see, and photograph for you, one of the ways that the grove is still used as a vital part of the life of the local community.