Amidst the dense growth of wild bushes and trees, a foot massaged path led to a small patch of land. Three men clad in faded brown veshtis sat there in lotus position, deep in meditation. Each of them clutched a bunch of Agarbattis in their hand, the scent of which combined with that of the wet mud and herbs gave a heavenly aroma.
The prayers and agarbattis were being offered to a small oval shaped clay model rested within a cave. The model represented Goddess Kolli Pavai. The killer of demons. The Guardian of Kolli.
Surrounding the idol were poles which had small pieces of cloth tied to represent cradles. Belief has it that a sincere prayer in this form can bless a couple with a child.
We were at the Attaiyar Kannimar sacred forest in the Vallapuranadu panchayat. This was one among the 15 roofless temples, or the sacred groves of Kolli hills – the result of an effort by the ancestors to conserve the Sholai ecosystem.
Barefoot and cold, the short trek towards the altar felt like Paulo Coelho’s concept of purification through self-flagellation.
“Kolli in Tamil means death,” said Balakumar, a guide from MSSRF who accompanied us. The goddess is believed to have protected the landscape of Kolli from the demons in the past by seducing them with her lustful appearance and then destroying them. Reference to Kolli Pavai can be found in the Sangam Literature and the Tamil epics, Silapadikaram and Manimekalai.
“No one touches these trees for domestic purposes,” said Balakumar pointing at the huge trees which lay flat on the ground unattended. “They fall off when they are old and years later turn into manure.”
The sound of the bell at the altar turned our attention to one of the three men who now swayed on his feet and groaned like an animal. “Kolli amma has possessed his body,” said one of his friends. His eyes were still shut when he swooned and fell on the ground.
“Cases of position syndrome can be seen all the time. This reassures their faith in Kolli amma,” said Balakumar, as we made our way out, aghast at what we had just witnessed.
Of sacrifices and celebration
A short ride from Kannimar took us to the Iyanarpatnam sacred forest, home to the exotic varieties of trees like Kattu Vilacham, Moolam, Pani, Pala, Arali, Jatika, salem pazham, Naval pazham which could reap in crores if used for trade in Kolli.
However, not a bark is touched.
“Few who dared to disturb the sanctity of forest had to face the wrath of Karupu Sami, lord of the Iyanar forest. They ended up with broken limbs,” said Nallasamy, one of the forest guards. The victims had to sculpt clay models of the deity as an act of repentance.
Entry to the altar is restricted except for the Brahmin priests who perform the pooja.
One can see several stones strategically placed in groups of three to form a stove. Women from around 100 households, dressed in white saris, gather here during the September festival to make pongal as an offering to please the lord. Women undergoing their menstrual cycle are strictly prohibited.
“Any agrarian crisis can be solved here,” said Nallasamy confidently. “All it takes is to sacrifice a goat from ones household, offer its blood, and the lord would bless them with double the harvest and protection of cattle as a bonus.”
Though the forest lands appear unaffected by encroachments and construction, the forest official, Rathnavel said that the forest area has reduced from 33% to 17%. “Agriculture and estates have slowly encroached into forest space,” he added.
Also, there has been a decline in the species of tigers, foxes, wolves and bears.
Around 30000 snakes were released to the forests so as to restrict the entry of poachers.
Although the ‘sacred’ attempt seems to offer some monitoring, the natives fear that the greenery of the forests will wear off in the future, mainly due to education, migration and a decline of lineage.