Some history of Arunachala and efforts to protect it – updated

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There has been a long term struggle in many place in the world to preserve and protest special places from the changes that come with modern life. One place this has been happening is in South India, with the ancient sacred mountain, Arunachala, in Tamil Nadu. Access to the mountain, and especially the rite of circumambulating around it, pradakshina or Girivalam which is done by millions of people is important to many South Indians, and to an increasing number of westerners who live or visit here. This post gives history of the struggle, from the early 1900s to today, using historical posts, article that I wrote while I lived here, and newspaper articles from recent times. Altogether the story is hopeful, that citizen actions can help preserve and protect Arunachala.

In 2016 a new chapter in the struggle started when the Tamil Nadu state government decided to widen Girivalam Road. This was started without any local consultation, with ancient trees felled, and ugly ditches dug to start widening the road. Local people were outraged and protested, stopping the work. Becuase of the publicity the Indian court system, specifically the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in Chennai took up the matter. As of 23 August, 2016, the destruction of the precious Arunachala environment has been officially halted by court order.

The long term issues of Arunachala preservation and access have not been resolved though. Maybe the involvement of the NGT will help. Certainly there is now a good forum to deal with issues and concerns for the Girivalam Road pradakshina route. What is not at all dealt with, though, is access to and protection of the Inner Path, and adequate government support for fire prevention and suppression.

Old photo of Arunachala

Old photo of Arunachala

Below are links, first to David Godman’s website, then to an Arunachala Samudra article on the legal battles in the late 1990s. These show the long term issues and concerns, dating back to the time of Ramana Maharshi.

Next is a series of posts from this blog fro 2009 – 2012, on Inner Path encroachment and finally the ban on Inner Path pradakshina.

Finally there are clips and links from a series of newspaper articles about the 2016 Girivalam Road issues.

Together they show a long lasting concern about how to protect Arunachala. That effort continues to this day. The recent protests that stopped – for now – destructive tree cutting and digging on the pradakshina route demonstrate that protests and publicity can create an environment where favorable governmental action is possible. I think that it will finally require some kind of citizen, government and Forest Department group with real power to administer and protect Arunachala. Is there anyone or any group that is ready to do the work to make this mappen?

Bhagavan’s Deposition on Arunachala

This article gives information about the earliest time, in the 1930s, when the Indian government was attempting to take control of area on Arunachala from the big temple, and Ramana Maharshi.

Environmental concerns and the courts – 2001

I think it is good for people interested in preserving Arunachala now read this post to see what happened about 20 years ago. Some of the westerners involved in this were of the group that started the Arunachala reforestation effort in the late 1970s.

Danger to Arunachala Averted

Encroachment on the Inner Path is a long standing problem. A land owner put up a fence right next to the inner path, shown in this post from Sept. 2009.

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Making a new Inner Path segment on Arunachala

By November, 2009, local devotees made a new Inner Path segment to bypass the fence, by moving the path closer to Arunachala.

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What is next for development next to Arunachala’s Inner Path?

By December 2009 the owners of the property offered this property to rent. I don’t think this ever happened, and they eventually put in an orchard, and built two small houses that they rent out. These are within 100 feet of the Inner Path. A farmer is allowed to build one house for his own use on this kind of agricultural land. He is not allowed to build two houses for rental. The last time I saw these (in 2015) they were still there. Illegal, I think, but no enforcement.

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Return of Leopards to Arunachala Shows Successful Environmental Restoration

In 2010 we found what is likely a leopard track near the mountain. The last leopard was spotted here in the 1930s. This shows the success of the Arunachala reforestation effort started in the late 1970s by Westerners (Australians) with some local support. What a success story for an effort started by Westerners who love Arunachala. Too bad the Indian government and Forest Department can not figure out how to use and support these Westerners who freely contribute to Arunachala, Tiruvannamalai, and India.

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Planting Trees Around Arunachala – Trees in the Ground now

In 2010 the Forest Department was trying to help the environment by planting many thousands of trees on the west and north side. They expect most to die, only 3% survival rate expected, I heard from a knowledgeable person.

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Digging up Arunachala’s Inner Path

In 2011 there was another big disruption on the Inner Path, by Parvati Hill at the western end of Arunachala.

Tractors had blocked the path and were building a high wall of dirt. This turned out to be a big water holding tank. The only problem is that not much water comes off Parvati Hill and this tank has never held much water in the years after it was built. A big disruption of the environment and Inner Path. This was done with good intentions, I think, but it worked out poorly due to lack of knowledge of Arunachala by the Forest Department.

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Arunachala in Flames

In the hot season, May 2012 there started a series of fires on Arunachala, the worst that we had seen here.

I must note that the group that the people who fight these fire is a group of locals trained and employed by a Trust run by a western man. The Forest Department may send someone out when there is a big fire, but it is to talk with this fire crew, and then to take credit with his Fire Department when the fire is put out. There would be no group to put out Arunachala fires were not for this western man, and the western people who give him financial support.

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More Fires on Arunachala

Another big fire, this one on the west end of Arunachala, that burnt Parvati Hill, and into Arunachala. Very close to where we lived then, the closest part of the mountain to us.

arunachala after fire

Permits Needed Now for Arunachala Inner Path Pradakshina

The Forest Department, to protect from fires, started asking people who walk the Inner Path to get permits. Even though none of the fires was near the Inner Path, and no Westerners, who were the main users of the Inner path, have ever been associated with such fires. The procedure required a special trip to the office of the Forest Department, and it is not at all efficient in the permit issuing business. It took us about an hour to get our one-day permit for the next day. When we went the next day, there was no one from the Forest Department on the Inner Path, no person to check our permit.

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After the Fire on Arunachala

There were three big fires in the 2012 hot season. This posts shows a walk through one of the fire areas eight months after the fire. There was a lot of damage, but some plants survived and are starting to grow back already.

after fire map

New Arunachala Inner Path Segment to Bypass New Barbed Wire Fence

By 2012, when Inner Path traffic had slowed down, another property owner on the North Side, next to the now established “farmer’s” property from 2009, wants to stake out his property rights. He puts up another fence several hundred feet long, across the Inner Path.

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In August 2012, the Forest Department brought in earth moving equipment to dig into Arunachala’s soil and build barriers so the people – and sadhus – would have a problem when trying to go into the forest. So, after a while, locals would find another route, and there would be another path around the new barrier so they could still get into the forest. .

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Arunachala News – Loudspeakers on Girivalam Road

To try to show they are making things better for girivalam on the main road, they installed a series of loud speakers next to Girivalam Road. They would play “Arunachala Siva” chants. Actually I kind of liked it, and did not find it intrusive.

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Breaking News: Arunachala Inner Path Pradakshina banned by Forest Department

Later in 2012, the Forest Department announced their “Ban on Girivalam,” prohibiting Arunachala Inner Path use. This path has been used by Ramana Devotees for at least 50 years, and the actual use probably dates to Ramana’s day.

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Additional Barriers put up to block Arunachala’s Inner Path

Even after the ban was put in place, people continued to walk the Inner Path. There was not much enforcement. For the most part there were just two Forest Department people to enforce all Forest Department rules around Arunachala. And, being good Tamils, they ate their breakfast about 9 AM and did not go on patrol until after they ate. And I think they left about 4 PM. So walkers knew they could go early or late. A few walkers were apprehended by the Forest Department, and at least one story circulated about one one getting their passport seized by the Forest Department – though, I think, this is not legal.

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Arunachala Inner Path Closure

A few months later, in 2013, the Forest Department put up 2 or 3 signs, warning of the closure, at main Inner Path entry paths. These efforts have reduced, but not eliminated, Inner Path use. You can still find Arunachala guides who will take you. I bet that local Westerners still go early and late in the day. I still walked into the forest, but not on the Inner Path, almost every day until we left in 2015. The biggest reduction in foot traffic was with groups of Indians. From maybe 2010 Indians started using the Inner Path as a daytime alternative toi the road for girivalam. Often we saw groups of maybe 10 – 20 Indians taking Inner Path pradakshina. Some people thought this increase in Indian Inner Path use was at least partially due to my blog, where I had written many posts about the Inner Path including the first detailed photo series on it. I had a leader of one of these groups of Indians stop and thank me; he recognized me from the blog.

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Join the Effort to Declare Arunachala as a World Heritage Site

In 2012, alarmed by the problems with preserving Arunachala, while maintaining access to the mountain, concerned people around the world started an attempt to have Arunachala designated as a World Heritage Site. I think the effort is stalled now. At the time I thought a major issue with the World Heritage Site proposal is that the World Heritage organization requires a local organization, made up of the various interest groups, to control and administer the Site. And that does not exist in Tiruvannamalai. Maybe if it did, these various problems like the current issues of Inner Path access, fire control, and making a safe girivalam route, would have a forum in which deal with Arunachala issues, to share information, needs and then to make plans.

Establishing Arunachala as a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Detailed document on the proposal to create a World Heritage Site for Arunachala. Statement of the need, the advantages, the process, and the benefits for a sustainable solution for Arunachala.

Arunachala WHS ancillary docs

Documents in support of WHS effort. These include a number of legal documents, WHS past effort documentation, and a report on The Current Worldwide Reach of Arunachala.

Times of India article: “Removing Encroachment from Girivalam Road

Published June 10, 2016.

Quoted from article:

Tiruvannamalai: Widening and beautification work of the Girivalam path around the Annamalai hills in Tiruvannamalai is gaining momentum. The project, taken up under the Comprehensive Road Infrastructure Development Project, was allocated 65 crore by the state government.

The project was aimed to facilitate the devotees thronging the temple town to perform Girivalam during full moon days. During Chithra Pournami and Karthigai Maha Deepam festival, over 10 lakh devotees converge to offer prayers and perform Girivalam.

The Hindu article: “girivalam path widening project has stirred up a hornet’s nest”

July 6, 2016

Quoted from article:

On July 1, activists and a section of villagers stopped an earth mover from proceeding with felling of trees near the Sonagiri forest. Then they met the Collector with a petition to stop the project. The Collector immediately suspended the work and promised to consult the protesters before proceeding. Meanwhile, National Green Tribunal barred the officials from proceeding with felling of trees.

Collector inspects girivalam path

July 7, 2016

Quoted from article:

An earthmover removes trees along the ‘girivalam’ path

District Collector A.Gnanasekaran inspected the girivalam path on Wednesday in view of the protest against the ongoing path-widening project.

On July 1, activists and a section of villagers stopped an earth mover from proceeding with felling of trees near the Sonagiri forest. Then they met the Collector with a petition to stop the project. The Collector immediately suspended the work and promised to consult the protesters before proceeding. Meanwhile, National Green Tribunal barred the officials from proceeding with felling of trees.

Times of India, July 7, 2016
Quoted from article:
07_07_2016_006_079_011

Nature lovers and environmentalists in Tiruvannamalai fear a future dwindling in the biodiversity of the Sonagiri sacred grove with the district administration planning to clear trees from a portion of the grove that is located along the Girivalam path, in the temple town of Tiruvannamalai. The NGT order banning the felling of trees along the path has come as a relief though.

District administration authorities plan to carry out road widening work in the portion of the grove, which is close to the edge of the existing Girivalam path. Green activist Sangeetha Sriram, who is also a resident of Tiruvannamalai, said the grove is spread over two acres of land, which is the last patch of natural forest. “Sacred groves are a repository of local biodiversity and they cannot be re-created, once they are destroyed,” she added.

The Hindu, July 9, 2016
Quoted from article:
Mindless act:Roots of the trees that are exposed and damaged in trench digging work along the girivalam path in Tiruvannamalai.— Photo: C. Venkatachalapathy

Mindless act: Roots of the trees that are exposed and damaged in trench digging along the girivalam path

Despite the Collector’s order suspending felling of trees along the girivalam path and a directive by the National Green Tribunal barring chopping of trees, some trees may still find their life cut short due to the trench work being carried out from the Chengam Road junction towards Adi Annamalai area.

According to activists, the trench has been dug so close to the trunks of the row of trees that their roots have been severed. The trenching has also loosened the soil. This has triggered panic that the trees may eventually die. Activists and devotees are also worried that the trench and the drain that may come up might soon turn into a garbage dump, making the place untidy.

Token strike on July 20 over girivalam project

From the article:

People from various walks of life have come together to highlight the need to protect the flora and fauna along the girivalam path. They have formed the Tiruvannamalai Girivalam Path Environmental Protection Committee, and have demanded that the State government give up the project to widen the girivalam path.

The committee, during its meeting held on Sunday, decided to call for a token strike on July 20 urging the government to withdraw the project. Accordingly, shops in Tiruvannamalai town will be closed from 9 a.m. to 12 noon. At the same time, the committee would form a human chain from Dr. Ambedkar statue to Kamarajar statue, a press release said.

Only 125 of 847 Girivalam trees marked to be cut

From the article:

Amidst the ongoing protest against the widening of Girivalam path, the district collector of Tiruvannamalai has submitted a report before the southern bench of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) saying, out of 847 trees identified by authorities, only 125 trees were proposed to be cut.

Earlier, based on a newspaper report, the tribunal after taking suo motu cognizance of the matter had restrained the authorities from going ahead with felling of trees on July 4, 2016.

J Muhilan of Tiruvannamalai had also filed a petition seeking directions to Tiruvannamalai district authorities to stop expansion works without obtaining mandatory clearance.

Girivalam path has 14th century link

From the article:

Hoary Path:One of the five sculptures depicting the Pandiyan symbol found in different spots along the path in Tiruvannamalai.— Special Arrangement

One of the five sculptures depicting the Pandiyan symbol found in different spots along the path in Tiruvannamalai.

The girivalam path widening project that has come under flak for environmental reasons faces another charge now – infringement of the heritage site. Reference to the path goes back to 14 century. Inscriptions in relief sculptures found around the path term it as ‘Vikkirama Pandiyan Thiruveethi’.

Move to widen girivalam path in Tiruvannamalai will affect ecosystem

Quoted from article:

<p>Tiruvannamalai temple<br></p>

CHENNAI: The Tamil Nadu government’s move to widen the girivalam path in Tiruvannamalai by felling trees would affect the ecosystem of the area, said residents on Monday.

A group of farmers and others from Tiruvannamalai were in Chennai on Monday in connection with a hearing on the issue in the southern bench of the National Green Tribunal. However, the NGT hearing didn’t take place, and it has been postponed to Thursday.

CHENNAI: A group of local residents, abutting the sacred Mount Arunachala Hill in Tiruvanamalai, thronged National Green Tribunal (NGT) here to vent their ire against the alleged felling of trees to widen Girivalam pathway, despite an interim stay by NGT bench.

Mostly farmers and natives, who for generations have preserved and protected the scared grooves and forest vegetation of the hill, claimed that contractors are continuing to execute the road widening project by cutting trees indiscriminately, though the district administration on record maintains to have stopped all the work pending further orders from the tribunal.

Update June 28, 2016

Chandi Devi
Friends,

GOOD NEWS FOR NOW!!
ARUNACHALA has worked its GRACE on everyone.!!! ❤️🌳❤️

Our stay order is standing. The Judge said NO TREES WILL BE CUT. The govt has to come up with another plan.

The Collector for TIRUVANNAMALAI was transferred last night. We now also need to wait for new Collector.

Next Court date is 17th August!

Keep praying for the beautiful life giving trees and a green, shaded walkable for all Girivalam Heritage Path. ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️

Did you know that this path was laid over 600 years ago?! Yes, there’s proof! Awesome!!

CHENNAI: WIDENING the Girivalam path at the Arunachala Hills in Tiruvannamalai, which is mired in controversy over felling of trees, is to be reviewed by an expert panel, headed by a retired IFS officer. The panel is yet to be appointed.

Though locals and activists pressed for cancelling the work that would entail cutting 125 full-grown trees, the southern bench of National Green Tribunal (NGT) declined while assuring them to protect the green cover in the hills. …

Meanwhile, the Highways Department, is executing the project, sought modification in the interim stay passed by the NGT. Jayasekharan, Tiruvanamalai Divisional Engineer, Highways Department, told Express that the collector has assured in his affidavit that no tree would be felled in Sonagiri forest area, which forms 5.2 km out of total 14 km.

“Let the tribunal decide related to works in Sonagiri forest area, but we request the activists and the court not to stall the work in the remaining 9 km. The stay order has hampered the work in the entire 14 km, which is leading to unnecessary cost escalations,” he said.

Video: Save the Girivalam Path

Tamil with English subtitles.

Girivalam, a spiritual walk around the sacred Arunachala Hill in Tiruvannamalai is at risk. Local administration is bent on expanding the road which will lead to loss of hundreds of trees and the last old growth forest at the base of the hill, not to mention all the rest of the non-human beings that will be affected by this..

Green light for Afforestation Fund Bill

The Bill establishes the National Compensatory Afforestation Fund and a State compensatory afforestation fund under each State.

The Rajya Sabha on Thursday unanimously passed the contentious Compensatory and Afforestation Fund (CAF) Bill, 2016 that allows States to access nearly Rs. 42,000 crore and channel into afforestation projects. While several parties had sought amendments over the weeks to the text of the Bill, none of them was formally moved.

Greater powers

The Bill, which establishes the National Compensatory Afforestation Fund and a State Compensatory Afforestation Fund under each State, was passed after Environment Minister Anil Dave assured the House that all objections raised — such as the provisions of the Bill vesting greater powers in the forest bureaucracy than on resident tribals; the possible violation of tribal rights, and gram panchayats not having the final say in deciding what kind of forests could be grown — would be addressed within the Rules of the Bill.

Parliament passes a historic Bill to increase green cover and protect wildlife in India

NEW DELHI: A much awaited Bill, meant for unlocking over Rs 42,000 crore fund for compensatory afforestation and wildlife protection, was passed by the Parliament. The Rajya Sabha finally on Thursday approved the Bill after the government assured the Upper House that it would make enough provision in rules to safeguard the interests of forest dwellers and tribals.

The Lok Sabha had passed it – Compensatory Afforestation Fund (CAF) Bill – during the budget session in May.

 Girivalam path: NGT may pass interim order today

August 23, 1016

Ecological damage:Activists had alleged that trees were being cut and uprooted in the process of widening the Girivalam path.— Photo: Special Arrangement

Ecological damage:Activists had alleged that trees were being cut and uprooted in the process of widening the Girivalam path.— Photo: Special Arrangement

The Southern Zone Bench of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) based in Chennai that has taken up the case against the Tiruvannamalai girivalam path widening scheme is expected to pass an interim order on Tuesday.

Request turned down

According to the petitioners, in the last hearing held on August 17, Justice Jyothimani turned down a request by the Highways Department for applying tar above the base layer of ‘macadam’ (consisting blue metal and cement) that was already laid on the flanks of the existing road in order to widen it.

He also observed that a mud surface was more suitable for widening the road than tar or cement as it also goes well with the ambience and nature of the place.

At the hearing, the Highways Department was asked to desist from starting any work in the meantime.

Completing outer ring road will obviate girivalam path expansion

The Hindu, September 1, 2016

An alternatve:A section of the ring road on the outskirts of Tiruvannamalai town.— Photo: C. Venkatachalapathy

An alternatve:A section of the ring road on the outskirts of Tiruvannamalai town.— Photo: C. Venkatachalapathy

Girivalam path need not be widened to pave way for emergency vehicles

The Tiruvannamalai ‘girivalam’ path widening project that is being criticised as posing threat to nature and heritage has been stayed by National Green Tribunal (NGT). A two-member expert committee set up by the NGT would look into the possibility of widening the path without damaging nature. The committee would also explore alternatives to enable the movement of emergency vehicles during ‘girivalam’ on pournami day.

The government wanted to widen the ‘girivalam’ path in order to apportion it into two and allot one for devotees walking around the hill and another for the movement of emergency vehicles on full moon days when the existing path becomes crowed.

Now, the activists and devotees who are opposing the widening project suggest that completion of outer ring road that remains half completed for several years would provide better alternative for the movement of emergency vehicles than widening the ‘girivalam’ path.

 

 

 

 

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2 Responses to “Some history of Arunachala and efforts to protect it – updated”

  1. Harsha Says:

    Reblogged this on Luthar.com and commented:
    Some history of Arunachala and the efforts to protect it

  2. Mira Prabhu Says:

    Reblogged this on mira prabhu and commented:
    If, like me, you have grown to love Arunachala, you might enjoy reading this…thank you Richard Clarke!

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