Piyush Manush, an activist from the city of Salem in the heart of Tamil Nadu, does not just talk or write about eco-spirituality, but has demonstrated that it can mobilise support for amazing ecological work.
In a world where we constantly hear of ecological destruction, as well as, an increasing poverty of wellbeing, we also have innumerable organisations, groups, leaders and ideas emerging to provide solutions to help reverse the trend.
One such solution is that of eco-spirituality. It is not at all a new theme – all religions and spiritual traditions have, to a greater or lesser extent, talked of reverence for nature, and how human beings need to live in harmony with nature.
But today, in a world dominated by the rationalising ruthless exploitation of nature brought in by mindless science, technology and materialistic economic growth, we have several thinkers who have begun writing about the importance of valuing nature as sacred; about sacred economics, deep ecology and more.
While we surely need renewable energy, new approaches to deal with consumerism, waste, pollution etc., we cannot deny that the crises of ecology and the crises of the spirit are connected.
And hence, the revival of a belief in eco-spirituality as a way out of the mess we are in makes enormous sense, no matter what religion or spiritual tradition we connect with. Especially in a country like India where a great diversity of such traditions are still alive.
Piyush Manush has demonstrated that amazing heartwarming work can be done to awaken not just a city, but perhaps the whole state by evoking the sacred beliefs of people.
He has spearheaded a movement to clean up and revive several lakes in Salem and the idea has caught on in other cities like Dharmapuri, Madurai and Tiruchi in Tamil Nadu.
The central idea that Piyush brought in was that Maariamman – the most popular Goddess in Tamil Nadu, in whose name thousands of temples exist in the state – was actually the Goddess of rain. ‘Maari’ meant ‘rain’, and by extension, water – but this historical truth had largely been forgotten in Tamil Nadu.
During the rainy season, or even in the dry, scorching summer without rain, many diseases emerged, including small pox.
The people prayed to Maariamman for relief from their suffering, and gradually Maariamman’s meaning as one who brings rain was eroded from cultural memory.
Bringing back the significance of ‘Maari’ as rain and water was all that Piyush banked on to beckon hundreds of people to revive the Mookaneri lake in Salem and most importantly, to maintain it as a sacred space.
And he could do what governments could not, perhaps because he believes that nature is sacred and everything that nature has given us is sacred.
He also leads from the front – he was there to remove the muck from the lake – and gradually, over 500 people joined him.
This lake had become a stinking landfill of sorts with sewage water and effluents from factories flowing into it. The deadening effect of hectic modern life made people hold their noses and rush past the lake.
Piyush began the clean up process with a small group, over 150 people joined over the next seven months for this mammoth task.
In 2010, he formed the Salem Citizens’ Forum. The collector of Salem gave formal approval to the forum to adopt the 58 acre Mookineri lake. They completed the task of desilting the lake with earth moving machines, developing about 45 islands.
They then planted several species of trees on these islands, as well as, around the lake, creating a walking path around it and making it the beautiful and serene space that it has become today.
The Salem Citizens’ Forum then took up the task of reviving the 36 acre Ammapettai Lake and other lakes and ponds in the city all of which had become stinking landfills.
All these lakes were called “Maari Sthalam” – meaning Maari’s sacred space.
Many of these lakes are already looking like bird sanctuaries and people have begun taking walks or resting near these spaces.
In other cities too, citizens loved this model and revived lakes – and they have renamed their lakes “Maari Agam” (Maari’s Home) etc.
Spirituality and Afforestation
In 2009, Piyush bought 1.5 acres of dry, degraded land in the neighbouring Dharmapuri, the driest district in the state.
Determined to demonstrate that afforestation can become a viable source of livelihood, he planted over one lakh bamboo as well as many other species of fruits, timber and medicinal trees.
He then decided to make bamboo furniture for a living – and his inventiveness can be seen in his house where almost all the furniture is made of bamboo.
He persuaded many of his friends to join him, created a cooperative forest called Coop Forest which now has afforested about 300 acres.
Central to this work is the creation of about 20 water bodies which still hold water despite five years of minimal rains.
His latest project is again to leverage spirituality for an ecological cause. He is in the process of creating ‘Ayyappan Vanam’ in Coop forest in Dharmapuri.
The temple of Ayyappan located in the middle of the Sabarimala forest in Kerala is considered the biggest pilgrimage centre in the world, attracting an estimated 100 million pilgrims every year.
Ayyappan pilgrims go on a fast and practise minimalistic living for more than a month and travel long distances to reach the temple in the midst of a dense forest; most of them trek barefoot through rough terrain with limited support systems.
Several million pilgrims traveling from Tamil Nadu to Kerala stop at various places and temples en route.
Piyush is creating a camping ground for about 150 pilgrims per day at ‘Ayyappa Vanam (forest)’.
He plans to get pilgrims to plant trees and value forests much as the legendary Ayyappan did.
“I hope many other Ayyappan pilgrim camps will pick up the idea of worshipping Ayyappan in a live way through planting and preserving trees” says Piyush.
“We need to go beyond symbolism and tokenism to the living reality of water and forests on the ground to be worshipped along with the deities”.
The Story of the Activist
Piyush started out as an activist, soon after college, cleaning up plastic waste and taking up various local and social causes.
Friends and his own initiative helped him tackle larger issues, particularly of huge factories that polluted water bodies.
Mettur, a small city in Salem District, he discovered was possibly the most polluted district in the state. Factories such as Chemplast, Jindal and Vedanta let their effluents into the Cauvery River.
Apart from Ethylene dicholoride, Mercury and Cyanide, he found more than 20 toxic substances in the river and much of the ground water was polluted with them too.
“Almost all women in this town have had a miscarriage or suffer from some gynaecological problems”, says Piyush.
The helplessness of people who could not oppose these corporates because many of them were employees there was typical of our civilizational crises.
Salem is surrounded by the Sheveroy and other hills and has several minerals that makes it a prime candidate for pollution.
Piyush got involved in movements against mining and also fought against encroachments by the land mafia.
These and other issues earned him many enemies. For protesting against high handedness and corruption, he has been arrested by the authorities in collusion with politicians and corporates.
In July 2016, his arrest and torture, for protesting against an illegal bridge that a builder was attempting to build, brought forth a huge amount of support from citizens around the country.
His torture, he says almost destroyed his spirit – but he has snapped back, determined to use this popularity to mobilise support for more projects.
Bamboo Products for livelihood creation
Given that income generation is essential, he invites others to create private forests to engage in various activities that can make it economically viable.
He has set up a factory to make bamboo products and buildings, equipment to make bio char and also works at processing fruits and products of the forest. He continues to work with the Coop forest and AyyappanVan and to encourage and support others who want to take up similar work.
The Bhoomi Award 2017 was conferred on Piyush Manush on the 7 April this year. For more about the Bhoomi Award click here.