A local woman puts into words the relationship that the village of Kovilpathu has with its trees: “Our children may not feed us but the trees we’ve planted do.”

Cyclone Gaja A TN village mourns the destruction of its 200-year-old banyan tree
news Cyclone Gaja Friday, November 23, 2018 - 08:52

“It was 200-years-old,” says Rajendran. “No no, it must’ve been four hundred years at least,” says Manikam, correcting Rajendran. “This has been here for over five generations, madam. This tree was our village’s biggest identity. Look at it now.”

While Kovilpathu, a nondescript coastal village in Vedaranyam taluk of Nagapattinam District grapples with the destruction left behind by cyclone Gaja, it mourns a deeper loss, the destruction of their beloved banyan tree that now lies shackled by its own branches, twisted by the mighty gales of Gaja.

The tree that stood tall over an acre of land is now a mass tangle of broken roots and branches with the tree’s green cover having been completely swept away by the winds. 

On Wednesday afternoon, the people from Kovilpathu staged a protest on the main road, demanding that the officials pay a visit to their village. “We’ve lost everything. No authority has visited us so far. We only request them to come and visit us and tell us assuring words,” says one of them.

The people here are daily wage labourers, working in farms. Now, after Gaja, their sustenance has taken a severe hit.

People here also allege that the proximity of the ginormous, yet-to-be inaugurated warehouse built by Tamil Nadu Civil Supplies Corporation closer to their village has not been of much use to them. 

“What is the use of this building? Nobody has come to see us yet. Not one government official has paid us a visit. Our entire village and more can be accommodated in that warehouse. Now that too stands destroyed. What use is it for anyone?” asks Parameswari, balancing her child on her hip.

The mighty fall

Insisting that we visit his village, Manikam drives us around the great banyan, which is surrounded by fallen trees and broken houses. One can only hope to imagine, with a pang of pain, what an idyllic coastal village Kovilpathu must have been before Gaja.

Pointing to a beehive that clings to one of its fallen branches, a woman says, “Now is when all the migratory birds come to our village. See that beehive there? They still refuse to go. The tree was home to many birds, insects and small animals. It was our crown jewel too. Not anymore.” 

That the banyan tree meant so much more to the village is evident from the stories that the villagers tell us. “We’ve had our panchayat meetings here. Our village tiruvizha (festival) began here. This tree was our village’s identity,” says Manikam. 

“This tree has seen so much of our happiness. Why did I have to live to see this loss? I could’ve gone along with the tree!” an old woman interjects Manikam, tearing up while she speaks. 

This banyan tree was also considered very holy by the village. 

“People from other places came to our village to see our banyan tree. We’ve seen people coming here with their cameras to click photos. The Pillayar inside the tree formed naturally and that is its speciality. The tree was also a reference point to all the fishermen in the neighbouring fishing villages. Judging by its height from the sea, they’d make their way back to the shore. Our tree was that phenomenal!”

An inexplicable bond

The banyan tree was also home to 48-year-old Rajaraman, who lived with his family in a mud-walled house that was built between the tree’s tilted roots. 

On the day of the cyclone, having sent his family to safety, he had slept alone outside the house. “It was about 12.30 in the morning when I couldn’t stay there anymore. The sounds I heard were frightening. I knew something bigger and more dangerous was going to happen. I fled,” he recounts.

“Until 11 pm that evening, we kept believing and praying that nothing bad would befall upon us. When we saw the mighty tree shake and shiver, our faith shook along with it,” says another woman, raising her voice above the crowds.

The relationship between the people of Kovilpathu and its trees is something that is quite difficult to put into words. Their bond was better explained by a local woman who said, “Our children may not feed us but the trees we’ve planted do.” 

But consider this… A tree that saw generations live and feed and play under its giant crown, for over 150 years, stands no more. It is too early for us to tell how much of it can be salvaged from the looks of it. But the skeleton of its branches and the barren patch of land that it once stood upon will be a synchronous reminder of nature’s benevolence and its wrath.

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