I used to travel a lot by train in the 1980s and 90s, as part of my college studies and employment. After staying for months in Hyderabad, Coimbatore and Delhi, on coming to Kerala by sleeper class – I did not have the money to take flights then – I would stand at the door and look out. After passing through Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, Kerala appeared to me like a green bower. Even more delightful was my travel in Kerala Express. At Palakkad, in the mornings, I used to get delicious dosas and spicy coconut chammanthi. In the afternoons, it was invariably packed rice meal with fish curry. So, Palakkad as far as I was concerned, was a high point in my travel back home.
Once, as the train entered Kerala, hearing the hoot of the train, a flock of nearly 25 parrots erupted from a tree. It was one of the most wonderful scenes I have ever seen. They flew away like a green shawl or sari fluttering in the wind. It was a very short glimpse but the joy it gave me was immense. I say this because, the other day, accompanied by my friends Cherian Mathew, cameraman Santhosh and driver Arun, I went to see a forest at, a place nearly 40 km from Thiruvananthapuram, situated 2 km to the interior of Kilimanoor town. When we went there, we saw a forest grown by Mr Sasidhara Kurup, spread over 14 acres. He has planted indigenous trees, foreign fruit bearing trees like rambutan, peanut butter fruit tree and others. When we went further inside, the trees looked like an arbour out of which a flock of nearly 30 mynahs flew away. It was a fascinating sight. We did not expect to find so many birds so close to us. They were perched there, and happily eating fruits. On seeing us, they flew away. I did not get enough time to fully appreciate the sight. There were many other sights too. Now, let us get introduced to the person who has created the forest, Mr Sasidhara Kurup.
I heard about him on a channel which showed his 14-acre forest. He is unaware of the services he is rendering the planet. These days, everyone talks about carbon credit. I don’t know how to calculate the carbon credit of this place. The speciality of this forest is that there are plenty of indigenous trees like orange berry, shiral, spotted sterculia, powder puff tree and so on. Many of them grew here on their own. The rest were planted by Mr Kurup.
You didn’t clear this forest for farming, did you? Everything is planted in the middle of it . . .
I do a little bit of farming. That is all. My aim is to grow trees, and maintain the forest. I had a few animals too until some time back. I’ve reduced their numbers. My intention is to have different species of trees, including medicinal plants.
How did you get interested in this? Was it like this from your childhood?
No. Earlier, we used to do extensive farming, cultivating tapioca, banana and so on. Today, it is difficult to do farming as we used to. We spend a lot but get little in return. If I spend Rs 10,000 I may get Rs 1,000 or Rs 2,000. The rest is lost. So, this was done after a lot of thinking. I don’t get much income. But I enjoy peace of mind. When I’m in this environment, I’m happy. There are plenty of visitors, and I’ve made a lot of friends.
Do children come to see this?
Yes. A lot of students from schools and colleges. That gives me a lot of happiness. If I do farming to eke out a living, I get only sorrow. This is different. In farming, I have to worry about sowing and harvesting at the right time; I don’t get labourers; there is the problem of wild animals, especially wild boars. But living here gives me joy.
I’ve seen only 10 % of this 14-acre forest. I didn’t see elephant yam and colocasia here. Are you cultivating it elsewhere?
On a small scale, for our own use. Vegetables too. Earlier, we used to produce them for sale. Now, we don’t do it.
The number of trees has increased greatly, hasn’t it?
Yes, constantly. I don’t chop and destroy them. I permit them to grow. Orangeberry, flowering murdah, Indian pennywort, and many other types.
Powder puff tree, Strychnine tree . . .
Yes, ones with thorns and other plants too.
Do people come here for medicines?
A lot. Many telephone me to ask whether certain species are available here. We are happy to oblige. We don’t give them medicines but the plants, roots, leaves and so on.
How long have you been maintaining this?
There are rocky outcrops and a pond and a canal too in this plot. Sir, you have varieties like the peanut butter fruit and other varieties which birds come to consume.
Yes, lemon drop mangosteen, rambutan. I grow this not for sale but for the birds. Down here you see rambutan dropped by squirrels after they have eaten them. Snakes, mongooses and eagles also come here. When the forest grew, the number of snakes decreased because more mongooses and eagles came in.
The numbers came down naturally. Do you walk here every day?
Every day I walk here, pluck fruits and eat them. I don’t become sick because of it.
In my childhood, I grew up in a 70-cent plot which had plenty of trees. That was in a town. My elder sister’s house is in Thiruvalla, near a canal. That plot too comes to around 70 cents. There are huge trees there. I see similar ones here. A huge tamarind tree. It has been quite a while since I saw such a huge one.
Many people have come asking whether we will give away tamarind. But we won’t.
You have many varieties of bamboo.
And mussaenda too. Many flowering plants . . .
Yes. Bougainvillaea of various colours. During wedding season, people come here for photo shoots. We are also happy to see it. Earlier we had a lot of domestic animals.
Sir, you don’t desire any income from this?
I get happiness, peace of mind . . . a lot of people come here to see this, learn new things.
Many birds come here, don’t they?
Green pigeons, collared pigeons, mynahs, a bird with white tail that is very beautiful when it flies . . . There are snakes too . . .
You don’t feel it is a bother . . .
Never. Snakes don’t bother me. I see them once in a while. There is a grove here and a temple. Flowering trees. Spanish cherry . . .
Do birds nest here?
Plenty of them. And hatchlings come out.
Do you have grandchildren?
Yes, and they like all this. I have a grandson and a granddaughter with me. One of my daughters is in Australia. She has a daughter. They were here some time back. They like this place.
Usually, people worry about snakes and demand that the trees be cleared. Do you have such problems?
No, we live in harmony here.
Your decision is to maintain this, isn’t it?
Yes, as long as I am alive. I’ve divided my property for my children. The entire plot is shared with my brothers. Every year, we have new species of plants planted here. Today, labourers were supposed to come but they didn’t.
Where did you bring these saplings from?
We have a plant nursery.
There are certain unusual trees here like the fish poison bush . . . Do you have the facilities to make seeds sprout?
No. We don’t do that now. We give away seeds to those who come here for them. People come here to collect chironji, freshwater mangrove and so on. A lot of saplings sprout on their own. What you saw earlier was silver apple, peanut butter fruit, lemon drop mangosteen, rambutan . . .
Yes, plenty of them. There’s one near the sandalwood tree. There are many sandalwood saplings too and tamarind saplings as well. Some bear a lot of fruits. That is what we plant.
You don’t plant saplings in between the trees, do you?
No, there is a different place for that. We don’t clear the forest. We had a bark cloth tree here and many budded saplings. But when we saw that both couldn’t co-exist, we removed the bark cloth tree. Immediately the rest of the plants began to bear fruit. We have another bark cloth tree. Mangosteen has fruited. We prepare the place for all the trees to grow.
This place is full of sounds too, besides sights. The sound of cicadas.
Yes, we can sit here and listen to all that music.
Even at this hour of noon, it is not hot. In fact, it doesn’t feel like noon here.
Even if it rains, we won’t get wet. Very rarely does water drop on the ground.
There are people who build 25,000 sq. foot-houses and air-condition them. When they come out of their houses, they should see this model. But I’m talking to those who are interested in this kind of life. Not all will find this attractive. Here, everything is invested on the earth. A kind of umbrella has been created for the earth, where we can sit and rest.
Birds, animals and other creatures live together. We eat what is left behind by these birds and animals.
I feel envious of you, sir!
When we eat a fruit which some creature has bitten, some people are alarmed. But we remove that bitten part and eat the rest. Be it mango, guava or anything. The other day there was a news report about the possibility of infection if we eat what has been bitten by bats. Many people, on hearing that, cut down their guava trees. But we continue to eat. There’s no harm.
Sir, you said that you moved from farming to this. When did that happen?
My family was involved in farming during my childhood. My father was a good farmer. During his time, the family had nearly 35 acres of land, scattered in several places. We used to do farming. I was attracted to it but after my father’s demise, although I continued farming for some time, I found it difficult to take it forward. I had difficulty getting workers. Their wages were high. Therefore, I stopped it nearly 30 years back. When I thought of alternatives, I came upon the idea of creating an environment like this and living in it, on whatever income I could make out of it. I get enough to sustain my family. That gives me happiness.
What you just saw was Kurup chettans’ natural zoo. There are nearly 25 species of squirrels, nearly as many species of birds and butterflies. You can see them everywhere. This is a huge ecosystem with a canal, a pond. And if under Responsible Tourism, visitors come here, they will not suffer any boredom. At noon, even at the peak of heat, there are shady places here to sit in. He is maintaining all this. No measure of appreciation is adequate for his efforts. Those you are interested in seeing this must come here. Many people talk about building 50,000 sq. ft houses, costing Rs 5 or Rs 10 crores. But 14 acres equals five-and-a-half to six lakh sq. ft. He is maintaining a forest that is spread over so much of land. You must certainly come to see this forest. That a person can do so much during his lifetime is a huge achievement. We cannot estimate how much of carbon sequestration is accomplished here. He is giving so much back to Nature. We ought to congratulate him and see the forest. This place is very close to Kilimanoor town.