Marutwamala - Heritage Site Threatened

This is Tapasa Bhoomi, said Swami Vimalananda Saraswathy a visitor to the Theerthapada Ashram in Vaikuntapathy below Marutwamala in Kanyakumari district. This is also Deva Bhoomi from time immemorial, added the Swami. As powerful blasts at the granite quarry nearby send nerve shattering tectonic tremors in the area and shaking the hill Swami pointed to the cracks on the walls of the Ashram. Also on the compound walls which show huge cracks all over. Many buildings around are similar. For several years now these quarries have been in operation, barring the main hill most of the granite formations have been turned to rubble and send out. Several attempts to blast the huge granite formation that makes the hill were foiled by the saints who have made the hill their home. With political connections and supported by the churches in the area the quarry owners have their mafia links and not many who dare them are spared. Some of them who took up the issue were fatally attacked and they remain handicapped and as mute warnings to others.

The holy hill is held in high veneration by the Hindu population in Tamilnadu and Kerala and annual pilgrimages attract huge crowds. There is also a 'Marutwamala Padakshinam' where devotees go around the hill covering a distance of around six kilometers on foot. Narrated in the various epics this hill is believed to be the small part of Sanjeevani hill which fell off from the hands of Hanuman when it was taken from the Himalayas to Lanka as told in the Ramayana. Local legends link the place to the great sages of the South, the Sidhas and to this day many live here in the rock caves and the ashrams around. It is believed that Sage Agastyar and Sage Atri, where here among the many whose presence make the hill sacred. The nearby Sucheendram temple is believed to be the Samadhi of Sage Attri and the Padmanabha Swami temple in Thiruvananthapuram that of Sage Agastyar. Many of the great temples of the South are known to be the Samadhis of the Sidhas. Many of the Swamis here are hopeful that the sacred hill will be getting its due respect in the days to come.

The hill has a wealth of medicinal plants and the name Marutwa-mala itself suggests the connection. Climbing the hill itself, the local people believe, has curative effects. They are supported by innumerable individual stories of the happening. The ascetics who live here maintain that there are precious medicinal plants here, locally called 'ottamooly', which is known only to selected people as it is forbidden to tell the undeserving. In the recent past the Forest Department of the Government of Tamilnadu has taken over the hill barring the area where the temples are located. But they are also unable to take the challenge of the powerful quarry mafias in the adjoining parts of the hill. Replanting the medicinal plants on the hills now facing major extinction, due to high exploitation and other activities like cattle grazing, is also on the agenda of the Forest Department. Originally the hill was under the direct charge of the kings of Travancore, later Kerala, till Kanyakumari district was transferred from Kerala to Tamilnadu after the linguistic reorganization of states. A movement which was lead by the Christian missionaries of Kanyakumari area with their own vested interests. The various historic temples in Kanyakumari later became targets of encroachment and neglect. Most of them are today in a state of total decay.

Southern most hill of the Western Ghats tapering off in peninsular India the Marutwamala is also geologically an important site according to experts. Though the Sidhas consider it taboo to study this the large number of natural springs in the rocky hill point to significant geological attributes. These springs on steep rocky formations are named after various gods and goddesses. The 'Kannimar chuna' or the 'spring of the virgins' is linked to the Goddess Kanyakumari who also is believed to be the 'virgin goddess' as the name suggests. The spot is hardly a few kilometers from the tip of India where the famous Goddess temple is located. There are also springs named after others like 'Devendran Chuna' and several others. Ecologists point to the very delicate balance of natural springs and the impending calamity if the blasting continues on one part of the hill, part of the same whole. Already many springs which were perennial are now seasonal and some have died out. The people fear these will soon dry out. 'If that happens then this region will have no water' tells Kesavan Swami, an old freedom fighter now living the life of a simple Sidha here.

Sadasivan Swamy, also called MLA Swamy, an old member of the undivided Travancore-Cochin legislative assembly now living the life of an ascetic here feels remorse about what all happened. Once supporting the linguistic division of Kanyakumari and its merger with Tamilnadu, Swamy now feels remorse seeing the developments. But adds that the scene if it was part of Kerala would not have been much different as the happenings there also show. Thankappan Swamy, formerly with the Santhigiri Ashram in Kerala is unhappy as the sacred hill is threatened and the social support for saints is decreasing. The hill had the personal care of the Travancore royalty and till recently the salaries of the temple priests here were paid from the palace. Paddy fields and saltpans were set aside to feed the wandering monks. What is now not traceable. Madhavan Pillai Swamy, who passed away recently, used to tell about the story of Shree Avittom Thirunal, who was to inherit the throne of Travancore, who died as an young child. The Sidhas asked the parents to make the sick child live in the hill for a few days but the royal family used to stay away at night in the small palace at Kanyakumari where the child one day died. The famous Avittom Thirunal Hospital in Thiruvananthapuram is named after this child.

The decadence of the Travancore royal family is also linked to the hill as old timers here believe. The family went in to decline and had to adopt children after an incident here according to them. Ayya Swami, a Sidha born in a low caste Nadar family nearby was persecuted by the Travancore royal house as he questioned the ritual pollution imposed under the caste Brahmin phase and oppression in the name of caste. When Maharaja Swathi Thirunal reportedly ordered his inhuman persecution. From then on reportedly the Travancore royal family saw decline and the region went under the British soon. Majority of the Nadar community got converted to Christianity. There is a 'Pathy', place of worship without idols, downhill here (in the picture) how the place is called Vaikunta Pathy. Samadhi of Ayya Vaikunta Nathar is believed to be at Swami Thoppu near here. The hill is of great significance to Kerala and Tamilnadu as two of the great sages and social reformers Chattambi Swamikal and Shree Narayana Gurudevan, born in the leading Nayar and Ezhava communities, lived and did penance here before embarking on their mission of liberating the caste ridden people. They were believed to be influenced by the teachings of Ayya. That, yet another from the unending chain of Sidhas of the hoary past. Which means that the Marutwamala hill holds a position of great importance in the peninsular tip.

Recently there was an attempt by the government of Tamilnadu, under the initiative of a north India born district collector, to develop Marutwamala in to a tourist spot. The young and enthusiastic Collector on his routine visits saw the hill and the scenic beauty from the hill top and sanctioned the money. He had no inkling of the spiritual significance of the place and went ahead with the project despite objections from the Forest Department. Allegedly some of the non-Hindu beurocrats in the district collectorate supported him. There have been attempts in the past by some Christian groups to encroach on the hill and its facilities. What is a common ploy of the churches in the region. Another hill nearby has disappeared due to quarrying and a Christian church stands in its place. The dos and donts of the Hindu mind gets changed as people convert. The tourism project with parks and parking places at the top of the sacred hill was conceived without even consulting with the saints living at the place. Blasting of the rocks on the hill started in all earnest and the shocked saints were apprehensive, one of them Kesavan Swamy, told this writer that calamity will come. Local villagers link the tsunami that devastated Kanyakumari, also other places days after this, to the operation which was soon abandoned.

The hill is in immediate need of protection and the quarries nearby will have to be closed down. Comprehensive plans for the protection of this great heritage site has to be chalked out where the support of the people and governments of Tamilnadu and Kerala has to be ensured. It is a composite past of the south and such sites need to be looked at beyond the narrow definitions of linguistic states and post-colonial government mechanisms. The ascetics living here need social support and respect, what was once the rich heritage of the region. There were feeding houses for the wandering monks, 'oottupuras' earlier which later got transformed to feeding houses of the caste Brahmins in Kerala. Support systems like ‘annadanam’ has to be begun again that the continuity of the rich spiritual heritage of the south remains unbroken. The medicinal plants and the natural springs of the sacred hill needs to be conserved with utmost care and this done taking the saints and the people living in the neighborhood in to confidence. Marutwamala has to be declared a Heritage Site and appropriate management strategies evolved without delay. Governments of Tamilnadu, Kerala and the Government of India as also the Hindu organizations should take this up as an urgent priority.

From Udayor Newsletter, May 2006