This is the third story in a series of articles written by the students of Azim Premji University as part of a field practice and writing workshop for their sustainability minor.

The rickety bus swerved sharply, jerking me awake. The delicious idli breakfast had put me in a deep slumber. As my bleary eyes adjusted, confusion settled in. I had expected to see an arid grassland, much like the Vallanadu Blackbuck Sanctuary we were at about two hours ago. I hitched open the grimy window to get a better look, only to be smacked in the face with dry, hot air. Fine, orange-red sand glinted in the harsh sunlight, seemingly emanating a lustre of its own. The vegetation had dramatically changed. Instead of short grasses interspersed with thorny shrubs, sparsely spaced trees from the Arecaceae family dotted the landscape. The undulating, reddish-orange dunes resembled an alien scenery, something right out of a Star Trek episode.

From blazing, desert-like landscapes to tranquil, emerald expanses of rainforests, KMTR (Kalakad–Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve), situated in Tamil Nadu, seemed to have it all. In classical Sangam literature, this geographical variety is classified into five categories (called thinai): kurinji or mountainous grasslands, mullai or forests, marutham or agricultural land, neithal or riverbanks and seashores, and palai, or sand dunes and dry land. Concurrently, each ecosystem has its unique roster of biodiversity and ecosystem services it can offer to the people living there.

     Harshada                   | Nature Infocus
Add More Images
"The undulating, reddish-orange dunes resembled an alien scenery, something right out of a Star Trek episode." Photograph: Harshada R

Together, these categories are called the Sangam landscape, and are used as a poetic device in love poetry. Each of these is associated with a flower, and incorporated into a poem to express a feature of a romantic relationship. It is fascinating that the aura of this region, together with its biodiversity, has inspired poets since antiquity. And if one were to feel the gust of cool air from the bus window while travelling through the luscious, moist rainforests of the Agasthyamalai mountains, one would certainly sympathise with the ancient Sangam poets.

But if the seismic shift in the environment had left me confused, our destination left me dazzled. The bus sputtered to a stop at the entrance of a kovil kaadu, or sacred grove. An unbelievable scene unfolded before me. A large, clear pond under trees as thick as three people beckoned to us, promising us refuge from the sweltering heat. Birds and squirrels excitedly flitted on the branches drooping into the pond. A temple was situated next to the pond. Venerable trees spread their canopy wide around it, as if they were the guardians of this vibrant vivarium in this unforgiving environment of red sand dunes.

Dr Ravichandran, grassland ecosystem expert and our guide for the day, led us to a large clearing adjoining the temple. As we passed by the Ayyanar deity statue, resplendent on his horse, we were hit with the intoxicating fragrance of mahua flowers. They were littered on the glittering red sand, reminiscent of white shells on a beach. In fact, we learned from our guide that this landscape was once a coastal region. The brilliant red hue of the sand is due to the increased iron content and low salinity.

     Aarya                 | Nature Infocus
Add More Images
"A large, clear pond under trees as thick as three people beckoned to us, promising us refuge from the sweltering heat." Photograph: Aarya Patil

The kovil kaadu was protected and maintained by the Ayyanar devotees from the nearby village. Cutting trees or collecting firewood was strictly prohibited, or it is believed that the deity will punish the culprit. The traditional system of conserving a habitat instead of solely focussing on conserving a species can be observed here. This philosophy is interwoven with the culture of the people residing in the area. The kovil kaadu, with its hundred-year-old trees and a thriving pond ecosystem, was like an oasis of hope―hope that sustainability, when religiously and culturally integrated, might prove enough impetus for conservation among stakeholders.

Religion, however, is not an invariably good motivation. Three days before visiting the kovil kaadu, we visited Mukkudal, a religiously significant confluence of the Thamirabarani river. The small riverbank was dotted with lush Arjuna trees, in the midst of which was a temple. Residents of the region had pervasive misconceptions about the local ecology. Water hyacinth was grown in abundance for livestock fodder, despite it being an invasive species. Astrologers and priests influenced visitors and pilgrims to discard their clothes in the river as offerings.

An informal indicator of the dissolved oxygen levels in a water body is the colour of Daphnia, a genus of small planktonic crustaceans. These restless critters are transparent in water bodies with plenty of oxygen, but turn red with reducing oxygen to capture it better. While coursing through the dark, cloudy water, we captured a few of these adorable creatures. They were a bloody-red. Seemingly crying out to us. Pleading, “Change your ways”.

     Aarya                 | Nature Infocus
Add More Images
The Thamirabarani river flows through a forest patch near Mukkudal in Tirunelveli, Tamil Nadu. Photograph: Aarya Patil

Religion, to me, seemed to be the epicentre of all sustainability troubles in the Mukkudal confluence. If this were not a pilgrimage site, I was assured that the Daphnia, among other hapless organisms, would not be suffering.

But sitting next to the luminous pond in the kovil kaadu, I reappraised this opinion. Motivations behind conservation are undoubtedly pivotal in the continuation of sustainable practices. But is fearing the wrath of a deity a prudent motivation? What aspects of religion should one accommodate in sustainable practices? How can people with varying values and motivations organise under the shared goal of a sustainable and just future?

My turbulent thoughts seemed to mimic the dainty water skaters scampering across the pond's surface. I dipped my feet further into its still depths.

We would like to thank the Ashoka Trust for Ecology and Environment (ATREE) for facilitating the field practice and Krishna Anujan for conducting the writing workshop.