Passing by the Bhagvathi Temple, (Virajpet, Kodagu) skirting along the edge tucked away in a corner spreading 9 acres, we wavered searching for a path to get in. Rarely has one entered these hallowed precincts, yet we looked for a tiny clearing and looked relieved to find one, among crunching leaves, there was a more than half a feet of dead leaves on the floor, my husband beckoned for the walking stick which he tapped intermittently for any wayward snake or other creepy crawlies. I followed looking down on the uneven floor and then I bumped into him as we came to a grinding halt, the clearing was not distant enough and looked for another path to move ahead. All along vines formed a curtain draped top to bottom, interweaving, snaking high up, and to part these or even break a twig is improper, we gingerly edged through the twines to find a not so clear path but at least a break through.
By now we had made considerable inroads and looked behind to see how much ground we had covered, the tunnelled path we walked and dense dark green wooded area was very daunting, I was breathing heavily was not comfortable at all, we stopped by an old tree, I whispered let’s not disturb the forest too much, take the pictures and lets beat a hasty retreat, I was heavily bitten on the neck and back and the itch left a red gash. We had entered into the realms of an authentic untouched forest, most revered by the Kodavas, not even the cows graze here, we had barely entered a distance inside the dense jungle floor and I was genuinely scared. We had stepped into the Devaad Kaad (in Kodava language), a forest meant just for the Gods.
Not much of wild life exists, the tigers, wild dogs, flying squirrels are extinct here, occasional sighting of wild boars are witnessed but then it’s the Kodavas favourite dish, I don’t think many prowl around, and walking this far into the Kaadu we were quite confident of no such untoward confrontation with wild animals, but then what was so intimidating? Is it the myth and stories that float around these dark, eerie forest floors? The screen of lush all around vegetation is very appeasing, the crunching leaves below not so, I had my eyes peeled for any camouflaged snake, worse still scorpions from the jutting rocks, and then stepping on dead wood is as uncertain they just crumble being hollow with the weight of our heavy footsteps. Devara Kaadu is certainly a land of adventure, Indiana Jones and Mowgli would certainly be at home but by our beating the retreat, reaching sunlight drenched path was so reassuring and it’s not for the faint hearted.
We reached the Bhagvathi Temple, most villages in Coorg have a Devi, Badrakali Aiyyappa, Shiva Temple, venue for a lot of celebrations both annual and important religious functions, the Devara Kaadu forms the impressive backdrop, dark and looming, changing colours with the season, sometimes new leaves on the huge trees act like festoons, red, yellow, fluttering away in the gentle breeze as if celebrating the deep forest secrets. Meeting the head priest here was very enlightening, at first he didn’t seem convinced that we went in for a good 10-15 minutes, then he quizzed us, what is there for you to see, why?
Devara Kaadu 2-3 centuries ago was a formidable site to the temple, it was home to the original species of trees, wildlife, flora and fauna. Allocated to supply wood and any edible fruits that were taken from the fringes, the heart of the forest even today is untouched, unspoilt, and pristine, exactly what the original terrain that existed! Devara Kaadu was thus an integral part to the Temples, in any village the Kaadu exists because of the Temple, and who says conservation of forest began in the 21st century, the British meticulously maintained it, so impressed were they with the hundreds of original plant species, the Coorg Gazetteer says, the British counted nearly 300 varieties of vines alone!
Over the years, thick lush vegetation grew, and since no paths were cut through the jungle floor, vines grew all over just like cobwebs in any intact area, sunlight became hard to stream in keeping the forest floor moist and home to many insects and birds. But so also civilization and mankind multiplied maybe faster than the forest growth and there lies the eco systems biggest challenge to tame the wild, and encroachment of these sacred groves became an insidious phenomenon. To tame the hunger for land by man, the priests must have thought a novel way to stem it, superstition was always the outcome to curtail, and to forbid taking any peripheral land, as an average area of 6-7 acres of Devara Kaadu was always alluring. It is believed that the gods hunt in these forests, ghosts and some even maintained spirits of great ancestors rest in the deep woods, so do not step into the Kaadu or you will be possessed!
Our village has two prominent Devara Kaadus, one in Karada near the Bhagvathi Temple, Kadanga(10 acres or little more) near the Arupatt Temple, a smaller Kaad near the Ishwara Temple Chelavara are a perfect conservation forests, home to many species of vines, wild palm trees, Incense tree, tree ferns and mainly jungle wood thrive here. The forest regenerates, thrives, and lives entirely as nature deems fits, the weak trees rot and fall for new growth creating sunlight and succour from the dark covers of tall overgrowths and much needed compost. The temple uses the dead wood as allowed for centuries, some of the bigger logs are used for the temple renovations for the roof or even furniture, hardly any fruiting trees except wild berries which the birds love, the heart of the forest still remains untouched, even the temple priests don’t venture deep in. During the Boluk Namme an annual ceremony in April, the entire village congregates, chicken is sacrificed at the edge of the forest, to appease the resident gods.
If we can take a leaf out of the Devaad Kaad, there is so much to learn, we can peep into original terrain, great insight into what the landscape must have been nearby the changing surroundings where farmland has been utilised for homes, hotels, and concrete structures have invaded the once thick forest. On the other hand it must have been so difficult living in these inhospitable jungle, to tame it was a challenge, the Kodavas made good use of the Peechekathi, and Vodekathi that was part of the traditional dress during their sojourn in the Kaadus. To preserve, conserve and to let generations to witness the trees grow older, the slice of Kodava land will always be a beacon to botanists and conservationist on the value of forests and the symbiotic relations that existed with mankind.
Devara Kaadu let the gods and spirits remain, may you always look after the village that surrounds you, we revere you, and will always protect you like you protect us.
Devara Kaadu- Fact File-
- United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) assigns Coorg as the ‘grove capital of the world’. The whole idea is to preserve the tradition of Devara Kaadu in Coorg.
- India’s first IG of Forests Sir Dietrich Brandis, influenced and mentored Gifford Pinchot, of Forest Service, recognised Devara Kaadus of Kodagu in 1868.
- The district of Kodagu has approximately 346 ‘Devara Kaadu’s (sacred groves). The drop in the number of such groves has been cause for concern in recent times.
- The oldest Devara Kaadu of Kodagu is in Kolathode-Bygode en route to Hathur-Kaikeri in Virajpet taluk.
- The famous Igguthappa Temple in Napokul is 800 acres.
Text- Jyoti Shetty and Nala Ponnappa of Travel Log Writers