In a world where we constantly hear of ecological destruction as well as an increasing poverty of wellbeing, we also have innumerable organisations, groups, leaders and ideas emerging to provide solutions to help reverse the trend. One such solution is that of eco-spirituality. It is not at all a new theme - all religions and spiritual traditions have to a greater or lesser extent talked of reverence for Nature, and how humans beings need to live in harmony with Nature.
But today, in a world dominated by the rationalising ruthless exploitation of Nature brought in by mindless science, technology and materialistic economic growth, we have several thinkers who have begun writing about the importance of valuing Nature as sacred, about sacred economics, deep ecology and more. While we surely need renewable energy, new approaches to deal with consumerism, waste, pollution etc, we cannot deny that the crises of ecology and the crises of the spirit are connected. And hence the revival of a belief in eco-spirituality as a way out of the mess we are in makes enormous sense, no matter what religion or spiritual tradition we connect with. Especially in a country like India where a great diversity of such traditions are still alive.
Piyush Manush from the city of Salem in the heart of Tamil Nadu, does not just talk or write about eco-spirituality, but has demonstrated that amazing heartwarming work can be done to awaken not just a city but perhaps the whole state by evoking the sacred beliefs of people. He has spearheaded a movement to clean up and revive several lakes in Salem and the idea has caught on in other cities like Dharmapuri, Madurai and Tiruchi in Tamil Nadu.
Maariamman – the Goddess of Rain and Water
The central idea that Piyush brought in was that Maariamman, the most popular Goddess in Tamil Nadu, in whose name thousands of temples exist in the state, was actually the Goddess of rain. ‘Maari’ meant ‘rain’, and by extension, water – but this historical truth had largely been forgotten in Tamil Nadu. During the rainy season, or even in the dry scorching summer without rain, many diseases emerged, including the small pox. The people prayed to Maariamman for relief from their suffering, and gradually Maarimman’s meaning as one who brings rain was eroded from cultural memory.
Bringing back the significance of ‘Maari’ as rain and water was all that Piyush banked on to beckon to hundreds of people to revive the Mookaneri lake in Salem and most importantly to maintain it as a sacred space. And he could do what governments could not do, perhaps because he deeply and unwaveringly believes that Nature is sacred and everything that Nature has given us is sacred. He also leads from the front – he was there to remove the muck from the lake, and over 500 people gradually joined him.
This lake had became a stinking land fill of sorts with sewage water and effluents from factories flowing into it. The deadening effect of the hectic modern life we are caught in merely made people hold their noses and rush past the roads around the lake. When Piyush began the clean up process with a small group, over 150 people joined him early morning, every weekend for about 7 months for this mammoth task.
Along with a group he formed the Salem Citizens’ Forum in 2010. The collector of Salem gave formal approval to this forum to adopt the 58 acre Mookineri lake, which completed the task of desilting the lake with earth moving machines, forming about 45 islands. They then planted several species of trees on the islands as well as around the lake, formed a walking path around it and made it the beautiful and serene space for the public that it has become today.
The Salem Citizens’ Forum then took up the task of reviving the 36 acre Ammapettai Lake and other lakes and ponds in the city all of which had become stinking landfills. All these lakes were called “Maari Sthalam” – meaning Maari’s sacred space. Many of these lakes are already looking like bird sanctuaries and people have begun taking walks or resting near these spaces. In other cities too citizens loved this model and revived lakes – and they have renamed their lakes “Maari Agam” (Maari’s Home) etc.
Spirituality and Afforestation
In 2009, Piyush bought a 1.5 acres of dry, degraded land in the neighbouring Dharmapuri, the driest district in the state. Determined to demonstrate that afforestation can become a livelihood, he planted over one lakh bamboo as well as many other species of fruits, timber and medicinal trees. He then decided to make bamboo furniture for a living – and his inventiveness can be seen in his house where almost all the furniture is made of bamboo. He persuaded many of his friends to join him, created a cooperative forest called Coop Forest which now has afforested about 300 acres. Central to this work is the creation of about 20 water bodies which still hold water inspite of five years of minimal rains.
His latest project is again to leverage spirituality for an ecological cause. He is in the process of creating ‘Ayyappan Vanam’ in Coop forest in Dharmapuri. The temple of Ayyappan located in the middle of the Sabarimala forest in Kerala is considered the biggest pilgrimage centre in the world, attracting an estimated 100 million pilgrims every year. Ayyappan pilgrims go on a fast and minimalistic living for more than a month and travel long distances to reach the temple in the midst of a dense forest; most of them trek barefoot through rough terrain with limited support systems.
Several million pilgrims traveling from Tamil Nadu to Kerala stop over at various places and temples en route. Piyush is creating a camping ground for about 150 pilgrims per day at ‘Ayyappa Vanam (forest)’. He plans to get pilgrims to plant trees and value forests much as the legendary Ayyappan did. “I hope many other
Ayyappan pilgrim camps will pick up the idea of worshipping Ayyappan in a live way through planting and preserving trees” says Piyush. “We need to go beyond symbolism and tokenism to the living reality of water and forests on the ground to be worshipped along with the dieties”.
The Story of the Activist
Piyush began his work soon after college as an activist cleaning up plastics and taking up various local and social causes. Friends and his own initiative helped him see larger issues, particularly of huge factories that polluted water. In Mettur, a small city in Salem District, he realized that it was possibly the most polluted district in the state. Factories such as Chemplast, Jindal and Vedanta let their effluents into the Cauvery River. Apart from Ethylene dicholoride, Mercury and Cyanide, he found that more than 20 toxic substances were in the river and much of the ground water was polluted with them too.
“Almost all women in this town have had a miscarriage or suffer from some gynecological problems”, says Piyush. The helplessness of people who could not oppose these corporates because many of them were their employees was typical of our civilizational crises.
Salem is surrounded by the Sheveroy and other hills and has several minerals that makes it a prime candidate for pollution. Piyush got involved in movements against mining and also fought against encroachments by the land mafia. These and other issues earned him many enemies; for legitimately protesting against high handedness and coruuptionhe has been arrested by the authorities in collusion with politicians and corporates. In July 2016 his arrest and torture for protesting against an illegal bridge that a builder was attempting, brought forth a huge amount of support from citizens around the country. His torture, he says almost destroyed his spirit – but he has snappedback, determined to use this popularity to mobilise support for more projects.
Given that income generation is essential, he invites others to create private forests to engage in various activities that can make it economically viable for people. He has set up a factory to make bamboo products and buildings, equipment to make biochar and also works at processing fruits and products of the forest. He continues to work with the Coop forest and AyyappanVana and to encourage and support others who want to take up similar work.