What a temple can do to a forest

Unsettling tranquillity: A calm before the storm - Photo: RAJKAMAL GOSWAMI

The faith of multitudes is setting out an increasingly difficult challenge for forests, wildlife and wildlife management

I’m in the Mundanthurai part of the Kalakad-Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve, standing on a rocky outcrop looking over the River Karayar and the Sorimuthian temple that stands by it. The waters that come cascading down the mountains form shallow pools just below me before they gurgle quickly past and beyond the temple. Some pilgrims sit meditatively in the shallow pools of clear water; others are engaged in boisterous fun.

A gust of cool breeze blows through on the hot afternoon, and a man on a rocky patch in the middle holds up his wet saffron dhoti that flutters in the wind like a giant flag. A group of women is fast asleep under the shade of a giant tree along the temple road and a couple of men are cooking a meal on make-shift stoves a short distance away.

The temple complex, as I enter it, is more empty than full. Two rows of people are sitting along the edges of a patchily lit corridor, waiting to be served their afternoon meal. I take a couple of quick pictures, turn the corridor to face the lord, do a quick namaskaram and walk along the wall to the back. There’s more activity in the adjoining temple here.

An old man standing by the side gestures to me to come over: “I’m from Tirunelveli”, he says, “but settled in Madurai”; this is the temple of their family deity. “That side is non-veg” he says pointing to his right, “our side is veg.”

We smile as our attention is drawn to a mother and a grandmother doting over their little infant who’s quite enjoying the wash she’s being given. The grandmother fills water in the cup of her hands and pours them over the little one, who looks happy and contended.

The women notice their little one’s being admired, and proud shy smiles light up their faces. As I turn around to leave, another little infant is being brought in by another proud family.

Adi-amavasai festival

I pause and look around to take in the scene — the surrounding hillsides are clothed in thick forests that are rich in diverse species of flora and fauna; the Karayar flows fast and smooth by the temple — before it joins the Tambaraparani, a lifeline to the teeming masses of the Tirunelveli plains below, and the small crowd that’s milling around here appears to be minding its own business.

It’s not ‘tranquil’ here, but the atmosphere is certainly comfortable and relaxed. It is, I am told however, like a calm before the coming storm — the 11 day long festival that is celebrated here in the Tamil month of Adi, with adi-amavasai (new moon, August 14 this year) being the most important. It’s a festival that’s become increasingly popular over the years — and now draws upwards of 2 lakh pilgrims who stay in the forests here for between four and seven days.

Environmental impact

The cumulative environmental impact this will have in a fragile rainforest ecosystem can well be imagined and there’s good evidence too. A 2008-09 study carried out by the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE) reported, for instance, a five fold increase in the vehicular traffic here in the festival period, leading to over 1400 cases of animal road kills (mainly invertebrates like millipedes and at least six species of snakes).

While the festivities are restricted to an area about 500 hectares, the research showed that the ripple effects extend to an area with a radius of nearly 4.5 kms from the temple. A particularly impacted plant is the endemic Euphorbia susan-holmsii cacti that grows on the rocky patches here. Less than 20 individual plants survive around the temple site and researchers feel that the plant could go locally extinct on account of the lopping and cutting, and the soil erosion caused by activities of the pilgrims here. Clearing the forest understory for setting up camp, burning of leaf litter and lopping of the trees for fuelwood are the other impacts on the forest.

A particularly serious issue is the pollution of the river. Hundreds of kilograms of plastic and other waste, remains of slaughtered animals and human excreta along with the bleaching powder used to maintain hygiene, all get washed into the river water.

One of the worst affected is Agasthymalai Kani Kudiirruppu, a small Kani settlement located just downstream; the residents reportedly suffer from outbreaks of dysentery, skin rashes and food poisoning for months after the festival is over. The impacts are seen further downstream as well, in the town of Vikramasinghapuram for instance, and in the plains below.

The implications of the festival are indeed widespread, and wildlife and environmental organisations, the forest department, and the health and district authorities have been working together over the last decade to deal with them.

Real challenge

Nearly 50 people representing the district authorities, line departments, the temple trust, NGOs, education institutions and village forest councils participated in a meeting called by forest department on July 28 to discuss this year’s festival.

It is here that the Vikramasinghapuram panchayat president expressed the town’s concerns over the pollution of the river and the impact on its denizens. The forest department also issued a press release, listing the activities that will not be allowed inside the reserve during the festival — such as pilgrims should not carry plastic bags; liquor is banned; and weapons, pets are not allowed.

KMTR is, in fact, only one of many significant temple and pilgrimage complexes within wildlife habitats across the country such as the Periyar Tiger Reserve (Kerala), Bandavgarh TR (Madhya Pradesh), Ranthambore TR (Rajasthan) and the Bhimashankar Wildlife Sanctuary in Maharashtra. And in a country where a certain religiosity seems to be growing exponentially, faith is setting out an increasingly difficult challenge for forests, for wildlife and for wildlife management. The efforts being made in KMTR may just be the baby steps we all need to learn from.

“The festival is not a problem”, says A Venkatesh, Field Director of the tiger reserve, “it is the organising of the festival that is a challenge.” There is also the very insightful and thought provoking observation made in the larger context of forest pilgrimages by ATREE researchers Allwin Jesudasan and Rajakamal Goswami.

Their research showed that for many of low-income families from the hot, dryland villages bordering KMTR, the pilgrimage is as much a moment of leisure, as it is a cheap and viable alternative to expensive hill stations such as Udhagamandalam or Kodaikanal.

The same would apply in the case of forests that have been accessible historically, but have now become out of bounds due to wildlife protection legislations. The issue then becomes an even more complex one. The pilgrims and pilgrimages may be part of the problem; a way forward can only be found if they become part of the solution as well.

The writer is Member, Kalpavriksh Environment Action Group. The article is first of a series being done as a part of the FEJI-ATREE Media Fellowship-2015.

Published on August 11, 2015

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