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In the secret sacred grove of Selli Amman at Oorani

Bijoy Venugopal
Yahoo Lifestyle Entertainment
5 August 2013
The Sellai Amman shrine in Oorani Great East Coast Road Drive
The Sellai Amman shrine in Oorani, a small village off the East Coast Road.

Oorani is a tiny hamlet off the East Coast Road, just before the toll gate where one enters Puducherry. It is known locally for a sacred grove and a shrine. My friend Sahastrarashmi, a Pondicherry resident and fellow-traveller who has introduced me to many rich trails in the Himalaya, 'discovered' it for The Green Ogre, the nature blog that we write. He, along with another friend Shanmugam, located the grove with great difficulty and wrote about it with expressive photographs. Since reading their post, visiting it has been foremost on my mind.  
Why all this fuss about a grove? The grove is actually a fragment of forest, arguably the last surviving example of its kind in the region. This unique forest ecosystem now goes by the name, Tropical Dry Evergreen Forest (TDEF). Until recently it was thought to be scrub jungle and much of it was enthusiastically razed for cultivation or replaced with commercially attractive 'social forestry' projects. Scientists and researchers now agree that it is an ecosystem all of its own, unique to the eastern coast of India and perhaps in greater danger of extinction than the sholas, the endangered high altitude evergreen forests of the Western Ghats. The vegetation here is thought to occur nowhere else. It is held that elephants and tigers inhabited these forests as recently as two centuries ago.

So you can imagine why I was curious to see it. Nobody I asked could point it out on a map. And then we met a guard at the toll gate while entering Pondicherry yesterday who said that Oorani was just seven kilometres behind us. By then it was too dark to take a chance. Dream deferred, we went exploring this evening.

We got misled, then lost, then bumped our fender on a palm tree and smashed a taillight. We cussed, then regarded the evening sky anxiously. Passers-by we asked told us we were on the right track. I started to get the feeling that we were trailing a flock of wild geese - the only birding I've managed on this trip so far. Then, out of nowhere, a tiny shrine to Selli Amman stood in our path. We alighted and stepped out of the air-conditioned artifice of the car into the muggy air and mulchy smells of a forest. All of red earth and the trapped perfume of fallen rain. Yet, it was a rich, lustrous green. Leaves carpeted the ground, lianas crept into the matted roof of the grove, and bits of sky trickled through the web they wove.

It was an experience infinitely different from being in a deciduous forest, or an evergreen forest -- I trek frequently in both. This forest was dry. DRY. The ground seemed to be made of tinder scattered upon terracotta. Rich red soil, golden-ochre leaf litter, skeins of creepers, and grass-runners snaking through it. Fruit dropped heavily, punctuating the silence. Unseen birds whirred their wings, cheeping feebly, and the silence rustled unnervingly (Russell's Vipers, deadly venomous, inhabit exactly this kind of habitat). Small shrubs poked out bright, glossy green leaves amid this sensed presence of life and the brooding sensation of being in a theatre of shadows.  

The grove was tinier than I imagined, with a blacktop road cutting right through and skirting it. It was no bigger than a rich man's backyard. In fact, an enterprising rich man could so easily bend the law, if one exists, and occupy the forest. All it takes, perhaps, is a big purse for the temple's upkeep. Around the grove, plantations of eucalyptus, casuarina and acacia, propagated by social forestry, threaten invasion. While these trees do have commercial value, they are not the original inhabitants of the land and give nothing back to the local environment save nitrogen and leaf litter.

A few women eyed us with suspicious curiosity as they chatted. Their conversation set off the squirrels. Brainfever birds screamed murder, parakeets exploded from the treetops, and a couple of curious mongrels came by to investigate my presence. Bored, they trotted off. The jungle quieted again, until loud conversation from a group of construction workers set off a spree of squawking from the night herons roosting unseen in the matted canopy.

The construction workers are building a large, imposing concrete temple many times the size of the little shrine. Perhaps the new structure is an annexe; perhaps it will replace it. Either way, things don't look too good for the forest. Already, there are signs of disturbance. I saw shards of beer bottles, used condoms, plastic bottles and wrappers of this and that in the grove. A careless, glowering cigarette butt could burn down most of it, or cause serious damage to seedlings and threaten its future. 

Unless we now ask Selli Amman what she really wants. The shrine to her grace has stood here for years, perhaps in many forms; there's no counting how many. Its presence has no doubt sheltered the grove from the fate that befell its ilk across the rest of the Coromandel Coast. Whether the temple venerated the grove or the grove sanctified the temple is a question to ponder, but perhaps not at this parlour game.

Glory be to Selli Amman, glory be to Oorani. May their tribe increase!

Bijoy Venugopal is Editor - Travel at Yahoo! India and founder-editor of the nature blog The Green Ogre.  Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. To get his attention as he travels with photographer Azhar Mohamed Ali on The Great East Coast Road Drive, tweet with the hashtag #greatecrdrive

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