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Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Arittapatti: a picture of rich heritage, culture and biodiversity

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Arittapatti undu, azhagaana dharmam undu, Mangulam mandhai undu, madhipaana ennam undu,” says C. Murugeswari, one of the native environmentalists who hold dear the sanctity of Arittapatti, a quintessential village located 25 km away from Madurai, which was recently notified as Tamil Nadu’s first Biodiversity Heritage Site.

The local proverb refers to Dharmam, a pond dotted with water lilies located beneath hillocks that is part of an ideal mise-en-scène of a countryside rich in culture, history and biodiversity. The peculiar and serene environs are interspersed with seven hillocks, about 200 natural springs, 52 rain-fed waterbodies, three checkdams and a rich community of birds, says C.P. Rajkumar, member of the Tamil Nadu Biodiversity Board, in a report.

The seven small hills – Kalinjamalai, Naattar Malai, Vayathupillan Malai, Ramayi Malai, Aptan Malai, Thenkoodu malai and Kazhugu malai – are rich in history and culture.

Two Tamil Brahmi stone inscriptions found on natural caverns in Kalinjamalai date back to the 2 nd century BCE. “They indicate that two persons or donors – Sizhivan Adhinan Veliyan of Nelveli (likely reference to Tirunelveli) and Ilanjivel Imayavan, son of Ilam Perathan, of Ilanchi village – had given shelter to the Jain monks at this cave,” says V. Vedachalam, former senior epigraphist, Tamil Nadu Archaeology Department.

A view of Sculpture of Jain Tirthankara at Arittapatti hill near Melur in Madurai district. File
| Photo Credit:
ASHOK R

A sculpture of an ancient Jain Thirthankara is found near the cave, with a 10 th century CE vattezhuthu inscription found under it stating that Kalinjamalai was earlier called as ‘Thiruppinaiyanmalai’, while another inscription affirms that the village was called ‘Paathirikudi’, he adds.

A bas-relief structure of Mahavira, believed to have been made by a Jain saint Accanandi during 9 th-10 th centuries CE is also found there, says historian G. Sethuraman. “The presence of Jainism here also gives way to think that the name ‘Arittapatti’ must have derived from a Jain monk named ‘Arishtanemi’,” Mr. Vedachalam contends.

A Pandya-era rock-cut temple of the 8 th century CE – Kudaivarai Koil – for Lord Shiva with a rare bas-relief sculpture of Lakulisa, a Shaivite who is believed to be an avatar of Lord Shiva, is also found here. “Lakulisa was a prominent Shaivite and an exponent of the doctrine of the Pashupatas, one of the oldest sects of Shaivism, in the 2 nd Century CE. The only other place where Lakulisa is found in the State is at Tiruvottiyur in Chennai,” Mr. Sethuraman explains.

A temple for Ilamai Naachi, a single woman who returned to her hometown after undergoing hardships in society for remaining unmarried and who is worshipped as a guardian angel under the name Ilamai Nayagi, is found in the village.

Hub of commerce

Historians say the village was an important trading city around 700 years ago and was a part of Thenparappu Nadu, which is an ancient territorial division of the Pandya Kingdom.

The availability of sufficient rain-fed water bodies has helped in flourishing agriculture at Arittapatti village of Melur block in Madurai. File

The availability of sufficient rain-fed water bodies has helped in flourishing agriculture at Arittapatti village of Melur block in Madurai. File
| Photo Credit:
MOORTHY G

The village is also home to many waterbodies, including the Aanaikondan Kanmoi, built in the 16 th Century CE by Pandya King Sundarapandian Thevar at the foothills, and Periyakulam Kanmoi, which are fed by Periyar river.

“Additionally, the Kamankulam Kanmoi is rain fed. All three kanmois can water around 100 acres of farm lands,” points out A. Ravichandran, a member of Ezhumalai Pathukappu Sangam, which successfully prevented quarries from coming up in the hillocks in 2011.

He has been working to revive native freshwater fishing of native catfish ( naatu keluthi), carps ( kendai) and sawfish ( uluvai) by feeding them with leaves of Tanner’s Cassia ( avaram) and hopbush ( virali) etc, for the past 15 years, he adds.

“A popular tradition is that women who come to Arittapatti after marriage will have to fetch water from the Dharmam pond to make the first meal. Through this, the entire village would get to know her. It is also believed that drinking water from the pond blesses a woman with a child soon,” Mr. Ravichandran says.

Haven of raptors

The avifaunal diversity here is rich enough to house around 250 species of birds and around 18 species of raptors (birds of prey). “Laggar Falcon, Shaheen Falcon and Bonelli’s Eagle have made this region their home, which indicates that its prey base is intact, and thereby, the food chain is complete,” says Ornithologist T. Badri Narayanan.

The Laggar Falcons, a rare beauty of a bird that is only found in North West India, and nowhere else in south India is a resident bird. “There is a pair of them that we have cited many times in the past four years, and we presume they are a breeding pair,” he adds.

The fascinating scenery of natural springs beneath hillocks in Arittapatti village near Madurai offers a treat to the eyes that has been declared as a Biodiversity Heritage Site.

The fascinating scenery of natural springs beneath hillocks in Arittapatti village near Madurai offers a treat to the eyes that has been declared as a Biodiversity Heritage Site.
| Photo Credit:
MOORTHY G

The “master predator” Bonelli’s Eagle is found here, and the Shaheen Falcon, which is endemic to the Western Ghats, being spotted here is unusual and interesting. “The latter is one of the fastest at flying, even touching up to 300 km per hour and is a subspecies of the Peregrine falcon,” says Mr. Narayanan.

“A joint integrated management plan will be chalked out to protect Arittapatti and Meenakshipuram villages by the Archaeology and Forest Departments, among others, along with the locals. Declaring spaces outside forests as a Biodiversity Heritage Site helps in protecting a rich and unique ecosystem easily accessible to all,” says Supriya Sahu, Additional Chief Secretary, Environment, Forests and Climate Change, Tamil Nadu.

Holistic plans will be made to protect, promote and tap into the eco-tourism potential that Arittapatti offers, she adds.

Creating a digital repository and curating authentic information on the village for tourists to access on an exclusive website are also on the agenda. “It will create new job opportunities and income for the locals, who will also act as guardians in sensitising people on conserving the ecosystem,” she says.



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