Eden in the Dalit community's graveyard in TN

In 2012, when the coconut trees blossomed, Arjunan organised a grand event in the village, where he treated villagers with a non-vegetarian feast.
Image of graveyard used for representational purposes only.
Image of graveyard used for representational purposes only.

CUDDALORE: Birds chirped melodiously in the garden during the sunset and children squealed with delight as they indulged in their playtime. In the lush graveyard at Arangur village near Thittakudi in Cuddalore which is teeming with vibrant flowers and plants stood A Arjunan, calmly watering the newly planted saplings. It is here his elder son was cremated.

The 70-year-old farmer has transformed the once-neglected graveyard into an Eden – a serene garden brimming with flowers, fruits, and herbs. The graveyard, spanning half an acre, is serving as the final resting place for the dear ones of a Dalit community comprising around 500 families from two settlements. Arjunan’s connection to the graveyard stems from the tragic loss of his elder son in the mid-1990s, whose cremation took place there. Unable to overcome the grief, he started visiting the facility daily.

“Back then, the entire area was engulfed by thick vegetation, making it difficult to navigate without getting pricked by thorns. On one such visit in 2007, the idea of cleaning up the graveyard got into me and I decided to take it up. But it was never an easy task. I struggled to get approval from the village panchayat and my family was hesitant about it. But eventually, after much persuasion I managed to convince them all,” he recalls with contentment. For the next five years, he solely dedicated himself to transforming the graveyard. Arjunan did not receive any remuneration for his service and managed the expenses independently with the support of his family. Arjunan planted around 31 coconut trees, along with various other varieties of fruit trees such as mango, guava, jackfruit, lemon, kolanji, custard apple, sapota, amla, pomegranate, papaya, teak, chinaberry, red sanders, and jamun. Additionally, he cultivated thousands of banana trees over the years. To enhance the aesthetics of the graveyard, Arjunan also introduced flower and herbal plants, personally funding the installation of a fence and arranging for irrigation canals to bring water from nearby farmlands. In 2012, when the coconut trees blossomed, Arjunan organised a grand event in the village, where he treated villagers with a non-vegetarian feast. The villagers celebrated Arjunan’s dedication by escorting him and his wife to their home, adorning them with garlands and presenting them with a gold ring and new clothes as tokens of gratitude.

“As decided earlier, I handed over the maintenance of the graveyard to the local panchayat after the event,” he says. But all the efforts were back to square one when Arjunan went to Kerala as a daily wage labourer for a few months. When he returned, he found many plants dead and trees in a deteriorating state due to a lack of maintenance. Determined to revive his labour of love, he discontinued his work and resumed the maintenance of the graveyard. This decision, however, met with strong opposition from his family, leading Arjunan to leave his house.

“Now, I live alone in a rented house and occasionally work as a daily wage labourer to cover my expenses. Additionally, I cultivate vegetables on the vacant land near Moopanar Temple, close to the village lake. I use these vegetables for cooking and distribute them to villagers who visit during harvest. As for the fruits and coconuts from the graveyard trees, I offer them to the local panchayat for use in temples and other purposes,” Arjunan explained.

After years, Arjunan’s relentless efforts transformed the graveyard into a serene garden again. Now, Children treat the place like a park, playing there fearlessly after school. Some children even organize cooking sessions on weekends. Recently, former TN Chief Secretary, V Irai Anbu invited Arjunan to his office to acknowledge his commendable efforts. After this, many people came to know about him, resulting in receiving appreciation from all across the state. Though he finds solace in this noble endeavour, Arjunan acknowledges that his age restricts him from continuing his work as before and believes someone or a group of people from the village should carry on his service. Despite receiving laurels from individuals across the state, Arjunan’s family members are yet to fully understand the significance of his service, a fact that saddens him.

(Edited by Sneha Joseph)

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