The occasion of Earth Day of April 22nd this year preceded a day that communicated to me at different levels. Coincidentally, as it since dawned on me, I receive a call from my sister, persuasively requesting my attendance at the annual puja in ancestral temple at my maternal village where I was born over sixty-two summers ago. The place known as Aroor, though still a village, is presently designated as a census town. Even as it still is technically part of neighbouring Alapuzha district, Aroor is considered to be a suburb, located just about seventeen kilometers away, serving as a two-way entrance from southern side to my home city of Kochi. The name ‘Aroor’ takes its origin from the phrase Arayarude Oor, meaning the place of fishermen, later shortened to Arayaroor, eventually contracting to Aroor. True to its origins, the region continues to support a thriving fishing industry by virtue of its proximity to the fishing harbour, seaport of Kochi, and Vembanad lake, a part of the state of Kerala’s one of many enchanting backwaters. The eco-system enables prawn and shrimp farming to be an alternative to low-lying paddy fields, having interlocked water system connected to the backwaters. The abundance of marine wealth and logistical advantages facilitate growing exports of seafood, processed by womenfolk at numerous units and shipped out in refrigerated freight containers that are a common present-day sight on the surrounding roads.
As requested, I drive to Aroor and present myself at my maternal uncle’s house in the morning of 23rd April. The place was a regular inclusion in my school years’ itinerary during summer vacations every year. In those halcyon days, the attraction of Aroor was that it afforded a refreshing change of scene from hustle of town life and rigours of school routine, to the rustic charms of a village, amidst kids of same age group comprising mostly children of relatives staying within walking distances of my maternal grandparents’ house. Calling it a house would be an understatement as it was a mansion sprawled across a huge acreage supporting a large assortment of trees such as mango, jackfruit, sapodilla, gooseberry, cashew, in addition to several ponds and a water canal with a liberal sprinkling of hyacinths; behind these and near to the hedges lay, spread out at various sides of the huge estate, three Sarpa Kavus environed by groves and lush vegetation. It had the aura of a feudal ancestry tracing back to over four centuries. A typical day’s routine of those summers consisted of being up in the morning, gorging on breakfast and rushing out into the open to join the gang of waiting kids, and thereafter participating in a medley of games ranging from marbles and hide-and-seek to a kind of village cricket called kutteem-kolum, or gilli-danda as it is known in other parts of India. The gaming monotony is relieved by climbing fruiting trees towards noontime for thrills offered by aerial view of surroundings whilst greedily plucking and biting into succulent mangoes and cashew-apples, and after being so refreshed, form teams and play a brisk game of football before climaxing with a plunge into the pond for a vigourous swim and splashing around in the water along with other kids. The evenings meant joining the elderly ladies and gents of the house to visit the three sarpa kavus to light oil lamps in worship of the nagadevatas, thence to the ancestral temple for another round of worship in front of lighted oil lamps. Those were days without electricity, thus night-times in households would see lanterns and lamps lit on kerosene. Can you imagine hot summer nights sans electric fans and air-conditioners? That was the reality in this village where people, after downing lantern-wicks to dim the lights, retired for the night by working up a breeze using hand-held fans called visharee to gradually slide into a restorative eight-hour shut-eye.
With the passage of years, transformative changes swept the village. Joint families and properties underwent divisions with people going their separate ways and properties changing hands through succession and sale to third parties. Relatively smaller, electrified houses with latest amenities replaced old structures. The mansion that once nestled in the huge estate of my maternal grandparents is today just a hazy memory. Gone are the ponds, the canal and the sacred groves teeming with lush trees and water bodies. Antiquated constructions were demolished and the land levelled and cleared by new investors for laying out newly designed structures. As if like a pendulum, my mind swings to the present moment at the sign of commencement of the puja at the ancestral temple that now also houses the nagadevatas displaced from the three sarpa kavus. The presiding deity is one of the familiars believed to be dedicated to protect the families of extant and later generations. At one side of the temple, old ladies from nearby households huddled around a lighted oil lamp singing hymns in praise of Krishna and Rama which gradually tapers off as the the priest begins the aarti (the ritual of offering oil and ghee-lit lamps to the deity, derived from Sanskrit araatrika, meaning dispelling raatri or darkness with lighted lamps) to accompaniment of chiming bells. The air becomes sanctified by the sound of bells and aroma of lighted incense and camphor. I stood there maintaining a physical presence while my gaze drifted to nearby expanse of vacant land that was once adorned with the grand mansion surrounded by water bodies and sarpa kavus. A steady wind kept blowing my way, apparently parading images of childhood days spent here. The ancient portraits of great grand-sires on wood panelled walls, and visuals of many old relatives on faded tapestries glided before me in a surreal collage.
While the past ushers in a sense of nostalgia, I have reached a stage where I do not have any obsessive attachment to people, places or properties. I value the experience of being in a continual transit, where one must necessarily keep moving on from the old to revel in the new, to keep dying in grossness to constantly renew into refined and subtler experiences, and, in so doing, transcend to higher levels of consciousness. Krishna sums it up beautifully in the Gita, “Whatever happened, happened for good. / Whatever is happening, is happening for good. / Whatever will happen, that will be for good as well. / What have you lost? Why are you crying? / What did you bring with you, which you have lost? / What did you produce, which was destroyed? / Whatever was received, was received from here. / Whatever was given, was given here / You brought nothing when you were born / You are taking nothing with you when you die / Whatever is yours today was somebody else’s yesterday and will pass on to someone else tomorrow. / Change is the law of the universe”.
The concept of a creator-god is a matter of belief. The entire body of Vedic texts exhorts one to become a seeker of truth, and not a blind believer. The universe is not creatio ex deo, or creation out of the being of some god, but creatio ex materia, or creation out of pre-existing, eternal matter. The only other thing that is eternal is Dharma, the order that sustains the cosmos in its profoundly deep and infinitely wide connection. Hence the worship of serpents and other orderly manifestations of nature is essentially in deference to life force and an all-embodying pantheistic consciousness where god, if at all there is one, is the final result of the initial cause of the cosmic process. To elaborate further on Sarpa Kavu, or sacred grove of the serpent, it is a typically well-preserved abundance of trees and bushes seen in Kerala state of south India. These pristine groves usually have representations of several Naga Devatas, or serpent gods, which were worshipped by ancient tharavads or joint family households, as part of nagaradhana (snake worship) prevalent primarily among Nair community of Kerala during past centuries. Stories about nagas are still part of contemporary culture in predominantly Hindu regions of Asia, specifically India, Nepal, and the island of Bali. In India, nagas are believed to be nature spirits protecting springs, wells and rivers; they bring rain, and thus fertility, but are also thought to precipitate disasters in the form of floods, drought and disease. As snakes capable of assuming human form, nagas are malevolent to humans when they are ill treated; due to their association with and guardianship of water bodies like rivers, lakes, seas and wells, they are susceptible to mankind’s abuse of the environment. According to legend, Kerala was reclaimed from the Arabian Sea by Parasurama, an avatar of Vishnu, and donated to Brahmins in recompense for the sin of having slaughtered numerous kshatriya dynasties. The densely forested land was teeming with snakes and wildlife. To make it livable for the Brahmins, Parasurama requested Shiva for a solution and his advice was for the Brahmins to start worshipping Ananta, the king of snakes. Thus began the tradition of snake worship in various parts of Kerala. Aside from its mythology and tradition, Sarpa Kavu contributes to soil and water conservation besides preserving biological wealth. The ponds and streams adjoining the groves are perennial sources of water, also doubling up as a resource for birds and animals to quench their thirst during scorching summers. Sacred groves enrich the soil through its rich litter composition and the nutrient contents thus generated are not only recycled within the grove but also find their way into adjoining agro-eco systems.
In a tradition rooted in several ancient cultures around the world, snakes were seen as entities of strength, fertility, and renewal, and worshipped as gods to seek blessings. Snakes symbolized the umbilical cord, integrating humans to Bhumika, or Gaia, or mother earth. The base of the human spine is the seat of primal energy, referred to as kundalini, visualized as a coiled serpent. Serpents are deemed to be potent guardians of temples and other sacred spaces, a connection grounded in the observation that, when threatened, snakes such as cobra and viper hold and ferociously defend their space by attacking the invader. Serpents have a revered place in Vedic and Buddhist scriptures, manifesting as Ananta, the coiled bed of Vishnu sprawled on the ocean of bliss, as Kaliya afloat in the Yamuna river on whose hoods a benevolent Krishna danced and played on his flute to symbolize a world of meanings, and as Macalinda who appeared from beneath the earth to protect a meditating Buddha from the elements. In other words, the serpent is a metaphor of communion between humans and nature as opposed to the hostile and scary view of snakes in western culture mostly drawn from Semitic religions.
Be it preservation of sacred groves, serpent worship, conservation of water bodies, according due sanctity to ancient rivers such as Ganga, Yamuna, Kaveri, and lakes Manasarovar and Pampa Sarovar, and hills of Sabari and Tirupathi, and peaks such as Mount Kailash, the real significance behind it all is the keen perception that we are not different from the earth. If these wondrous manifestations of nature are in danger, so are we. Days and nights happen only because of earth’s revolution. We are extracts from earth, having come out transitorily from earth’s womb, to be sucked back into it in due timescales. Humans celebrating the Earth Day is ironic and audacious at the same time. What is desirable is to think and act like the earth because that is what humans ultimately are, existing only as a minutest part sustained by deep connections to everything else in the cosmos. Spirituality and environmental conservation, therefore, are not disparate goals; they are exactly the same whereby one ascends the sublime peaks of spirituality by bringing to bear the highest environmental consciousness in everyday life, as reflected in the pangs of concern in the words of Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, “What would the world be, once bereft / Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left, / O let them be left, wildness and wet; / Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet”.