When I first read `The Faraway Tree’ by Enid Blyton at the impressionable age of 8, it opened the door to an arboreal world filled with magical adventures. Over the years, I continued to look for elves under mushrooms and fairies in buttercups.This behaviour I am told, was not indicative of the appropriate levels of cynicism required for adulthood.
The day I was introduced to the mystical Sacred Groves, I discovered a world not entirely unfamiliar to the fairy tale one I would need to leave behind. The groves were the mysterious domain of taboos and rituals, Gods and Goddesses, enchanting woodland nymphs, tree spirits and local folk deities. A space where nature was revered deeply.
These Sacred Groves ( Devara Kadu in Kannada) were natural sanctuaries where no one was permitted to cut trees or branches, kill animals or pollute streams and ponds. They were dedicated to local deities who watched over the area and protected all who lived in it. Some sacred groves also contained temples, making them consecrated ground. Precious trees were protected and worshipped here as either dwellings or manifestations of the divine. I could understand this concept completely. Like the Pantheists, I too believe that my God is to be found in nature.
My fellow travellers and I made our way towards the temple through prickly Lantana bushes. We were stalked by curious villagers who hope to discover why this insane group of flip-flop wearing people would risk getting cut, scratched and bitten in the thorny underbrush to look at trees and ruins in the searing heat of mid-summer! I imagined their hushed whispers “entertainment options in the city must be limited.”
” Tsk.Tsk. Paapa. Working on a weekend in this heat?”
Or, “they are just nuts.”
- But the Chennakeshava Temple ( meaning beautiful Vishnu /Krishna ) is a small jewel hidden jealously by the past and watched over ferociously by these ancient tamarind trees. The carvings are fluid. Dreamy and lyrical. I reach out to touch them. Baby Krishna dances on the head of the serpent Kaliya while elsewhere languid maidens with impossibly narrow waists and full bosoms reach out enticingly. Earrings, bracelets at their wrists, flowers in their hair and anklets are all rendered in such breathtakingly detail, that I find myself waiting for the folds of fabric to be ruffled by the breeze. The intricacy of their braids keeps me standing there, staring for a long, long time.
The pillars are carved out of solid stone blocks that are wedged together with cunning craftsmanship. The temple has not been used for worship in years.It is a mess inside. A relatively new headless stone Goddess sitting alone on the ground inside it. Fragments of lintels and columns lie all around and later on, we find her head elsewhere. I am told it is a Chola Temple, but I am not so sure.
In the meantime, old Narayan Swamy dons the role of unofficial guide and narrates the story of the temple’s treasures -gold that was apparently dug up a few weeks ago by local thieves who violated the sancity of the space and absconded with their booty ! He says he will take us to the very spot. I think he is right about the treasure except that it is not below the ground as he imagines.Perhaps the real treasure here is above it with branches, trunk, roots and leaves.
There are about 297 numbered trees in the 30 odd acres of Tamarind Groves, all under the aegis of the Forest Department. Wizened branches reach out like gnarled fingers from calloused trunks, pleading with the heavens for rain or deliverance from the Lantana that threatens to choke them. But what is truly unique about these trees is not just their longevity but their genetic metamorphosis.
Over the centuries, these living fossils have withered and turned hollow , somehow producing prop and sucker roots ( hitherto unique only to the Ficus species ) that have grown out and down into the soil to support them. This is totally alien to a Tamarind’s way of life, making the grove a veritable miracle for astounded ecologists.The tenacious trees even bear a deliciously red fruit.
While there are many legends surrounding Tamarind trees, it is sacred to Krishna (an avatar of the great God Vishnu ) who is said to have had mystical experiences under it. No prizes for guessing why this long forgotten Chennakeshava Temple is built here.It is also popularly believed that Tamarind trees shelter ghosts. Since duality dominates our belief systems in India, these poor trees too are revered by day and shunned by night. Some also say that sleeping under a Tamarind tree when it flowers will give you strange dreams.All I know is that Tamarind marks the difference between life and death for South Indian cuisine and our Rasam would be bereft in its absence.
Tamarind trees also have great medicinal value and offer cures for a lot of things from indigestion to swollen joints and worms to sunstroke. Since these ancient trees still produce fruit, the grove also has the potential to become a valuable gene bank. But what is truly amazing is their propensity to hold on to life with all they’ve got. The tree above was split into two by lightning over 80 years ago. It fell to the ground, then resurrected itself by growing into two separate living trees! It is a valuable lesson in tenacity.
Despite being native to Eastern Africa and Madagascar, the botanical name for Tamarind is Tamarindus Indica. It was brought here so long ago that we have assumed it is `one of us only’ ! One story I heard says that it was exported from India in ancient times, to the Persians and Arabs who called it `tamar (dried fruit) – e -Hind ‘ (of India). Another story is that it was imported illegally into the country by our sea faring ancestors many centuries ago.They hid the seeds in their braids to avoid customs.
Finally, Narayan Swamy brings us back through the thorny Lanatana to the pit where he says the gold lay buried for eons. Bits and pieces of the Dhwaja Sthamba of the temple lie broken nearby bu no treasure. We build rosy dreams as to what we could have done with it if we had found it instead. If wishes were horses…
We walk back to the Gangadevi Temple and get ready to move on to lunch and the Bhoganandishwara Temple at the foot of Nandi Hills.
I look at these trees and wonder what secrets lie contained in these groves. What stories they could tell. The many perplexing historical mysteries they could solve. Whose footprints am I standing on – the ancient Cholas, Hoysalas, Nayakas, Nolambas or Banas who wandered through here much before Bangalore was born? Over the years I have learnt to decipher the humming and the buzzing, the creaking and the swaying, the slithering and the rustling as the forest speaks to those who care enough to listen. It whispers to me now. It says man doesn’t need to know everything. The only thing that matters is that the past is still alive here, like these trees. If I keep quiet, I will sense it.
Many thanks to Suresh Jayaram, 1 Shanthi Road Gallery and my fellow travellers for this adventure. Nallur is 7 kms from Devanahalli town, and 40 kms ( 1.5 hrs ) from Bangalore on the Sulibele Road. It takes roughly the same amount of time to get here as it does from one end of MG Road to the other during peak hours.