Tree-planting in Auroville is not over. One of the last barren pockets is Aranya Forest , a plateau gouged with canyons and ravines located outside the Auroville township area.
Aranalaya (which means ‘sanctuary' in Sanskrit) or Aranya (forest) as it is better known, lies to the north east of Ousteri, one of the biggest lakes in the area, approximately 12 kilometres northwest of Pondicherry city. It is adjacent to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram's Lake Estate Farm of the and to Merveille, an afforestation project of the Ashram. Comprising about 100 acres, which partly include poramboke or public land, Aranya was a waste land for decades. An exception was a small sacred grove dedicated to the deities Muneeswaran and Veerappan where miniscule patches of the once widespread Tropical Dry Evergreen Forest (TDEF) survived.
The ravaged terrain of Aranya
The plateau of Aranya is flanked by extensive ravines both to the north and south, gouged by the force of seasonal rivulets that empty into Ousteri lake. There is an abundance of stream-tumbled pebbles strewn across the land. Veins of pale clay rich in limestone thread the canyon walls. Studding the sandstone facade, skeletal remains of prehistoric sea creatures, and the moulds and petrified remnants of trees, such as the Dipterocarpus, a unique inhabitant of the Tropical Rainforest Ecosystem with winged seeds. Today the Dipterocarpus exist only along a narrow belt of the lowland rainforests of Malaysia , Borneo, and Sumatra .
An environmental disaster zone
In 1964, the Aranya lands were acquired with the aim of establishing Auroville in that area. It was later decided to shift the centre of the township to its present site 13 kilometres away. The Aranya lands were left as they were – severely degraded, and with virtually no vegetative cover. Designated ‘waste lands' by government agencies, the desiccated plateau with its ravines remained ignored by everyone.
It was not until 1988 that one acre of this land was planted by some Auroville youth. But it would take another six years before a comprehensive plan was drawn up to restore the entire coastal Tropical Dry Evergreen Forest in the Auroville biosphere region. Aranya was one of the beneficiaries. With funding from the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) of Canada , over 36,000 indigenous pioneer trees were planted on about 100 acres of plateau over three years. Efforts were also made to raise the water table, prevent soil erosion, and involve the local stake-holders. Aranya became the epicentre for rain-fed reforestation programmes using indigenous species in this area.
The main player in this immense work is Saravanan. A native of Valayampatti village near Thiruvannamalai, he took an interest in afforestation and greenwork from an early age. His role model was his uncle who started the ‘Save the Eastern Ghats' organisation. “I used to walk the forest areas around my village. In 1987, I participated in a 100 day Western Ghats march from Kanyakumari to Goa on the hill track. I was the only youth who completed the trek along with other eminent environmentalists. Afterwards I attended seminars and training camps to learn about afforestation,” he says.
He later started an awareness campaign to save the scrub jungle, cycling 300 kilometres from Pondicherry to Salem , passing Auroville on the way. It was his first contact with Auroville. He decided to join in 1984, and in 1995, when Aranya needed a caretaker, Saravanan moved there. It was a rather scary place in the early days. Unfenced, and on the border of Pondicherry , the area was a hangout for violent criminals and on one occasion Saravanan even found a decapitated body. “It didn't really bother me,” he says matter-of-factly. He started planting forest trees, and was told by the villagers that he was making a big mistake. “I was only planting for birds and other animals; and no fruit trees for humans”.
Vatchala, his wife, joined him in the year 2003. Doesn't living so far away from Auroville without neighbours bother her? “In the beginning it wasn't easy to live so isolated here where the nearest human habitation is so far away,” she says. “But now I have got used to it, and I appreciate the beauty and contrast of the two worlds I move in!” Every day Vatchala commutes 15 kilometres to Auroville to do translation and other work and bring their 4-year old daughter Narchelvi to the Auroville Kindergarten.
|Images from a children's excursion in Aranya:
Saravanan with his daughter Narchelvi
exploring the canyon
wading in the mud in Aranya's man-made pond
a niche in the canyon wall can provide good perch
The work and results
Seeds were collected from sacred groves, nearby forests, hill ranges such as the Javadis, and even Point Calimere. Saravanan worked in close coordination with the local villagers and organised many workshops to sensitize the village elders and youth. It was this work, he believes, that has helped him succeed in protecting the land, and in being able to keep out trespassers, and wandering cattle. “Once this land was a haven for poachers and freely-grazing cattle,” explains Saravanan, “but now both these activities have completely stopped.”
With the help of bunds, rainwater conservation has been achieved and today the ground water table has risen considerably. Soil erosion has been controlled by diverting the water runoff to ponds and reservoirs within Aranya. Saravanan has also raised 100,000 TDEF and indigenous species seedlings and supplied them to Forest Department of the Government of Puducherry.
Aranya's TDEF ecosystem is now a decade old – according to Saravanan, too short a time span to achieve climax status. “But the initial signs are very encouraging,” he says. “The plateau is getting covered with more vegetation, a lot of indigenous plants are coming back, probably because the birds are returning, and there is evidence that many animals are re-colonizing.” Recently Saravanan saw evidence of a porcupine. “I find many quills; and this is just the beginning”.
Asked if he is keeping records of the afforestation work, Saravanan smiles wryly. “One of the weaknesses of Auroville's greenwork is the lack of record keeping. There are almost 45 forest communities in Auroville doing very good greenwork, but less than a handful keep records,” he says. Is it particularly difficult? “No. One doesn't have to be a scientist; after a little training and one can do it oneself.” Saravanan tries to be meticulous about documenting the work he does at Aranya. “When officials come, they always ask, ‘where are your reports?' ‘where are your publications?' And it is very helpful to be able to show these things.”
Record-keeping has become particularly important now that the collection of seeds has become subject to the Indian Biodiversity Act 2002. The Act wants to prevent the exploitation of India 's genetic resources. Local communities have been declared the primary stakeholders of biodiversity in their area, and their permission is now required for seed and plant collection. “I have informed the local panchayat of what I am doing in Aranya, where and how I collect seeds and how many kinds of plants I am planting,” says Saravanan. “And they appreciate it.”
Teaching children is another essential part of the work at Aranya. “Each year, we hold two or three camps with 40-50 children at a time,” says Saravanan. “The children come from the government schools in nearby villages, from Pondicherry schools and even from Chennai. The children can do many things at Aranya – explore the land, help me plant trees, remove the invasive Australian wattle which is very harmful to the creatures in this environment, do bunding work, create fire-belts before the summer, and even join in educating the public about environmental issues.” Recently a cycle rally was organized by Saravanan with the help of students to raise awareness about the local environment.
“All these activities help the youngsters to appreciate nature and its conservation, and in the process learn to become future leaders and caretakers of the environment. In fact some of the youth that have been through this programme are now involved with greenwork.”
The future of Aranya
Saravanan's vision is to make the entire area a nature reserve. It's a long-term dream he says, but not an impossible one. “If we could include the 65 acres of Merveille, and the Auroville communities Aranya, Sadhana Forest , Hermitage and Aurobrindavan, then we would meet the minimum area criteria,” he explains. “The Tamil Nadu government would have to pass a special act to make this happen.” This, he says, would go well together with the movement to declare the entire Ousteri Lake area a protected zone. “The lake attracts thousands of migratory waterbirds, but it is increasingly polluted,” he says. “I've filed a court case in my name to fight it.”
In the meantime, what is of some immediate concern is to complete Aranya's unfinished buildings – a half-completed training centre, which would also offer accommodation to visiting environmentalists and researchers, plus a modest home for the family that now lives in a simple keet structure. Both projects await funds.
Not too far from their hut is a forest shrine. Standing under the shade of a palmyrah and a neem are the figures of Ganesh along with a Mother goddess dotted with turmeric and vermillion. “They were here before I came,” says Saravanan. “Every now and then, the local people come to offer their prayers here.” He has added his own touch of the sacred – a petrified log of an ancient Dipterocarpus. Their influence, perhaps, once again permeates the area.
Life in the canyon
The canyons harbour wildlife of their own, some of which is in danger of extinction. Two pairs of Eagle Owl (Bubo bubo bengalensis) nest here and a wide variety of other creatures find sanctuary at Aranya. In some of the more inaccessible pockets, the plant life offers a breathtaking spectacle – ferns and moss in the moist cool depths; old stunted banyan trees like bonsai creations clinging to the rock face that is sometimes festooned with varied species of endemic climbers. Amongst them is the rare Derris ovalifolia – a species once thought extinct, but now about 350 mature individuals survive throughout a fragmented range, the bulk of which are in Aranya.
The canyon walls are dotted with prehistoric worm holes, evidence of ancient invertebrate life. Now soil invertebrates inhabit the tunnels which remain moist even in the hottest months of summer. A variety of predatory arthropods feed on them and on the innumerable termites and orthopterans (grasshoppers and crickets).
The most spectacular of these are the 8-inch long large black scorpions (Heterometrus swammerdami) and 10-inch long banded Tiger centipedes (Scolopendra morsitans), which are in turn preyed upon by the Eagle Owl.