Nurseries of ancestor worship

A green festival acquires commercial colour

By Merlin Franco
Published: Monday 31 May 2010

Nurseries of ancestor worship

As dusk falls on the dark moon day in the Malayalam month of Karkidakam—between end-July and early August—devotees make their way to the bank of Kodayar river. At Kuzhithurai, in Kanyakumari district on the Tamil Nadu-Kerala border, it’s time to honour ancestors. The day begins with families squatting before priests at the Ayappa temple chanting mantras for the souls of the departed. Family members then immerse the san-ctified items of the rituals in the holy waters. Then they go to the vlc grounds near the temple where nursery owners wait expe-ctantly. Their ware is a big draw at the Vavubhali festival.

Historians say trees, belie-ved to have the spirits of the departed, have had a significant place in ancestor worship. They say the practice is a carryover of times when Brahm-nical religion had not yet taken root in Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

In 1980 horticulturist R Rasalam decided to tap the commercial potential of the festival. He set up the Athmanilayam nursery near the temple. According to Jaya Kumar, Rasalam’s son, other horticulturists followed suit.

Kuzhithurai is a town of nursery gardens today. Farmers would sell crop plants much before these were set up, Kumar said. The fruit and timber species sold now include indigenous and exotic varieties. Some of the popular ones are mangium, mahogany, silver oak, teak and ashoka. There are spice varieties such as nutmeg and clove and fruits and vegetables such as guava, sap-ota, drumsticks and olives. Indigenous cultivars of jackfruit and mango are popular. So are medicinal plants pum-bago, costus and brahmi.

Kumar estimates at least 20,000 saplings have been sold on Vavubhali day this decade—a 20-fold increase from the 1,000 plants sold in 1980.

R Delphin, former chairperson of Kuzhithurai municipality, said the Young Men’s Christian Association has played a crucial role in popularizing the fair by emphasizing agriculture. It initiated showcasing farm produces and giving prizes for the best produce, a practice that is continued even today. Between 1996 and 2006, the Tamil Nadu government provided subsidized tree saplings. At present, subsidized coconut saplings alone are available in the fair.

The municipal corporation allows the state agriculture department to set up at least two stalls for free every season to showcase its products and technologies. But the forest department is absent, except for a short period in the late 1990s. Delphin feels the forest department could have sold subsidized tree saplings. This would have helped increase the tree cover of the district.

Besides the environmental benefits, the fair is also a major source of recreation and commerce for the people of Kanyakumari district. However, the place for farm produce in the display section is going down. Kumar regrets the nursery gardens are now being pushed out of the fair and are seen only at the peripheries, while the fancy good sellers, merry-go-round operators and automobile dealers occupy the prime of the fair space. He feels it is time the Kuzhithurai municipality had another visionary, as Delphin, or the state government should step in.

Merlin Franco teaches at the department of plant biology and biotechnology at St Xavier’s college Tirunelveli, Tamil Nadu

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