Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
Enchanted gardens : June 04, 2000
Our priceless heritage
O. T. Ravindran
Expert on gardening based in Chennai.
"We are reorganising Theyyam in our Kavu. Could you come and revive the sacred grove in the Kavu?" A telephone request came from an old friend of mine. I rushed to Kannur (Cannanore) by the first available train.
Kavus are a special feature of north Malabar. In these quaint shrines of worship there are no idols. It is ancestral and hero worship that is practised here. Theyyam's representing the spirits of departed ancestors come and tell us about the living members' failures and achievements and advise us on how to conduct our lives.
A sacred grove is part of the shrine as well as Sarppakkavu or shrine for snakes.
The sacred grove of the shrine, in this case of the Poothatta family, made me gasp. In the heart of the town there it existed as an untouched piece of prime jungle harbouring jungle trees, epiphyts, lianas and the accompanying fauna. The Sarppakkavu hidden by the overgrowth is home to many snakes. Monitor lizards, flying foxes and beautiful butterflies moved around chanting about the beauty and mystery of nature. How did this pristine forest manage to exist amid the busy tussle of man's meaningless rush for existence?
The answer was easy to find. The ancestors of the family were buried in the Kavu grounds. The Kavu sheltered many poisonous snakes. Gulikan, the not so accommodative spirit resided in the place. No wonder nobody dared to commit the heinous crime of kavutheendal or polluting the sanctity of the shrine.
The ancient and gnarled Plumeria trees that grow by the Kavu have a sinister look. Its flowers are Gulikan's favourite. The large Devil's Tree, Alstonia scholaris, (Boothappala or Yakshippala in Malayalam,) the theme of many hair-raising tales, appeared as if giving me a questioning look. I am your friend, I intoned to the tree. The tree was in flower and I felt it was moving its hand-shaped fronds in understanding.
I remembered my school days here in Kerala, of how I used to go to a kavu to seek Gulikan's or Kuttichathan's favours to overcome a school bully or pray for a win for our football team.
The kuladevatas will protect us wherever we are, we were told. Today I am here appreciating the wonderful nature conservation work done by our kuladevatas.
There are hundreds of such shrines in North Malabar, many with attached sacred groves. They are in fact in many ways Nature's last holds. If only we could revive the old traditions of nature worship, our priceless heritage can be saved.
When the Theyyam Wyanadukulavan plucked a bunch of flowers from his headdress and gave it to me, my eyes became moist. Yes, we will revive our age old customs and work together to protect our remarkable, nature-made gardens - the sacred groves of our shrines.
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