THE SACRED GROVE OF KILI-AAL-AMMAN

M. Amirthalingam

At Periyakumatti village in Cuddalore district of Tamilnadu, there is a small grove about 2.5 acres in size, dedicated to the goddess Kili-aal-amman, on the state high way between Cuddalore and Chidambaram. The main deity is sheltered within a temple of brick and mortar. A perennial pond is situated in the forecourt of the temple where people clean themselves before entering the sanctum. In this grove, Kilialamman is the main deity and Ayyanar is the secondary deity. Terracotta horses line the pathway to the Ayyanar shrine. People offer flowers, fruits and pongal (rice cooked in milk and jaggery). Images of Kilialamman and terracotta horses are offered to Ayyanar on special occasions. After the harvest, the village people ritually offer paddy to make pongal and to perform puja and ghee for lighting the lamp in the temple. Oil extracted from the punnai (Alexandrian laurel) seed is used to light the lamp. The people believe that goddess Kili-aal-amman protects them from catastrophic events. The priest performs spiritual healing with neem twigs. Hunting and gathering of wood are strictly prohibited. Fallen twigs and wood may be used for temple purposes. The annual festival is celebrated in the month of Aadi (June- July) every year. There is a common belief that if those who want progeny must offer pongal to the deity, tying a cradle on the Indian Cherry tree in the grove.

 The Story

A merchant was carrying a cartload of tamarind to be sold at Cuddalore. While the merchant was crossing the grove, he heard a call and looked around. He could not find anybody except a parrot sitting on a banyan tree. The merchant got scared, since the place was desolate, and drove his cart faster. After reaching the market, the merchant found charcoal instead of tamarind. He realised his mistake of not responding to the divine call. He returned to the grove and sought pardon for disregarding the anonymous call. Kili-aal-amman, the goddess of the grove, appeared before the merchant to console him. After that, the merchant visited the grove and worshipped the Goddess regularly. Kili-aal-amman was satisfied with Periyakumattis devotion and reconverted the cartload of charcoal into tamarind. The merchant was happy and, as a token of atonement, installed an idol of the Goddess inside the grove and started worshipping the goddess regularly. Since the Goddess was believed to have incarnated as a parrot on a banyan tree, she was named Kili (parrot) + aal (banyan) + amman (goddess) Or Parrot Goddess on the Banyan and the grove is known as Kili-aal-amman thoppu (Kiliaalamman grove).

Biodiversity of the grove

 The grove surrounding the temple extends over an area of about three acres and is a conserved patch of tropical dry evergreen forest. Around 45 plant species belonging to 33 families are found in the grove, the major species being Callophyllum inophyllum, Ficus hispida, Ficus amplissima, Ficus recemosa, Ficus benghalensis, Acacia leucophloea, Azadirachta indica, Lepisanthes tetraphylla, Borassus flabellifer, Atalantia monophylla, Paramignya monophylla, Acacia leucophloea, Pongamia pinnata, Syzygium cumini, Dioscorea oppositifolia, phoenix pusilla, Ecbolium viride, Calamus rotang, Pandanus odoratissimus, Theriophonum minutum, Cissus quadrangularis, Gloriosa superb, Tinospora cordifolia, Coccinia indica, Hemidesmus indicus, Aristolochia indica, Asparagus racemosus, Combretum albidum and Lepisanthes tetraphylla.

 The grove is also populated by parakeets (kili) which live on the banyan tree. The birds are excellent seed dispersers and are essential for the local agronomy.  The story of Kili-aal-amman protects the birds and the trees of the grove and grants them immunity from deforestation and hunting.

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