India’s sacred groves are reviving the dying forest.

Ankoli Stoll runs a place called Nilatangam, a 7.5-acre forestry project started by her parents in Europe when Auroville was first set up.

Nilatangam has tall trees from different parts of the world but few indigenous species. It is not as dense and complex as the forests of sacred groves. Instead, the trees are spaced cleanly, like crops on a farm, with plenty of room for walking and natural planting.

Stoll works with Blanchflower and Baldwin in the herb garden, and says that at Nilatangam she has recently planted many native species of tropical evergreens. Among the native trees from her parents’ time, she points to places where she has planted such saplings.

Over time, she will plant more, when there are new species, she explains. The process is slow, but she hopes to create a real tropical dry evergreen forest in several years.

Tropical evergreens dominate the 20-acre Pitchandikulam Forest and Bio-Resources Center and the Auroville Botanical Gardens of similar size. Baldwin, Blanchflower, and their botanical garden team are working to shape the breadth and diversity of Auroville.

Education is a key goal of botanical gardens, and this is where Satyamurthy plays an important role. During field trips to Auroville forests and sacred groves, students are taught about the importance of forest ecology and cultural heritage.

When Satyamurthy led me through Kizputhupattu after heavy rains in November 2021, I understood what the students might be going through. The smell of wet earth mixes with incense sticks and jasmine wreaths as we pass shrines and flower vendors. Through the forest, we walk through ankle-deep, doughy red soil. Two to three stories high noble trees stand around us. Undaunted, Satyamurti continued on, leaving the footprints of his rubber boots.

He occasionally stopped to explain to me in Tamil, with a smattering of English, the medicinal or cultural use of some plants. He shares their scientific names and Tamil equivalents in quick order. Iron wood, it is called They said It has special medicinal value in Tamil. Women crush the leaves with rice and use the mixture as an immune booster for postpartum recovery, he says. It is called warm ebony Karungali, used to make musical and agricultural instruments. Its highly sought-after twigs are hung over doors to ward off evil forces. We stop often—Sathyamurthy seems to have a story for every plant, and he hopes his enthusiasm inspires the students he takes into the forest.

Sathyamurthy feels that students give a chance to sacred groves in their villages. He believes that such visits will help establish a relationship between the trees and the students. The students leave field trips with seeds, seedlings and tips on how to plant native trees on communal lands in each village.

Teaching the value of these forests to the next generation may be the key to their survival, because despite their importance to temples and religious groups, sacred groves are not safe from the threat of urbanization, for biomedical and cultural use.

Keezhputhupattu, for example, receives hundreds of thousands of pilgrims every year, and villagers find it difficult to control outsiders’ interactions with the forest. Tourists and shepherds also trespass.

Outside the grove, Sathyamurthy saw three youths climbing a tree. They managed to catch a big branch. After a prolonged battle, they tore a body from the tree. The leaves fall with a loud, faint rustle. The men happily haul in their prey, which can be used for medicinal or ritual purposes.

Satyamurthy shook his head in disapproval and said there was an urgent need to address the threat to Groves. Later, he told me that the loss of the sacred groves must be felt as an attack on the community’s way of life.

This is why seed collection, nurseries, tree planting drives and awareness of tropical dry evergreen forests are important. If everything is harvested, there will be no chance for the forest to regenerate and “build the bank balance,” Blanchflower points out. Reforestation “puts energy back into the bank.”

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