Osun sacred grove: Beyond the festival

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By Jimoh Babatunde

Since 1370 AD, when the people of Osogbo began the celebration of the Osun goddess, the annual Osun Osogbo festival has come to be regarded as a major event in the country’s tourism calendar.

The highlight of the annual festival is the cultural procession to the groove led by votary maid, Arugba, carrying the symbolic calabash.

To many, the  Osun groove  begins and ends with the Osun river where the calabash carried by the Arugba is emptied, but  a visit to the grove  which is today listed on the UNESCO’s World Heritage  Sites  is beyond  the festival.

From one of the two  roads  and several  footpaths leading  into the sacred  grove , the   sounds of  birds, animals like  monkeys could be heard  amidst the breeze pushing the trees  on that  sunny afternoon.

Oja Ontoto shrine.

‘You are welcome to Osun grove’ said the tour guide, Ayo, who met this reporter at the beginning of a tarred road that form part of the pilgrimage route into the grove.   Along the roads are sacred stone, metal objects, mud and wooden sculptures used in defining and impersonating the various deities inside the grove.

“The grove has a mature, reasonably undisturbed, forest canopy, which supports a rich and diverse flora and fauna – including the endangered white-throated monkey. Some parts were cleared in the colonial period, and teak plantations and agriculture introduced, but these are now being re-established.

“The grove is a highly sacred sanctuary where shrines, sculptures and artworks honour Osun and other Yoruba deities. It has five main sacred divisions associated with different gods and cults.”

As we approached the metal gate that stretches into the Osun courtyard where the temple, the Osun shrine and the river side altar are located, the tour guide pointed to a decrepit building, “this is the first palace.”

The first palace, according to him, is where the first Ataoja (Oba) of Osogbo, Larooye and his people first settled. It is located in the Osun courtyard and it houses the Osun shrine and the temple. The temple contains the sacred stone stool, the rock of authority of the Oba used some 500 years ago.

About 600 meters away from the first palace was the second palace which was said to have been built by Larooye to avoid the effect of constant flooding experienced at the first palace. “Today, the ogboni  cult  house stands within a symbolic reconstruction of the second palace. The ogboni cult is an elitist society of men of influence and affluence.”

Both buildings are constructed of mud walls with tin roofs supported variously by mud and carved wooden pillars. The three Ogboni buildings are constructed with sweeping roofs rising high over the entrances and supported on a cluster of slender carved wooden posts.

The first palace of the king of Osogbo within the grove

He  pointed to the carved  wooden posts , “  these are the work of the Sacred Art Movement.” Ayo added  late Susan Wenger  and her traditional associates of the sacred Art movement  did a lot here in the grove to  erect sculptures in place of old ones that  were destroyed , and giant immovable ones as protection of threatened spaces in the grove.

“Individual sculptures, ensembles, decorated walls and sculptural monuments have been erected at more than forty different points in the grove.”

As we moved behind the palaces upward in the grove, we came across a rustic  suspended bridge built over the Osun River. “This bridge was built around 1935  by the colonial masters , probably  to link Osogbo with other Yoruba towns   or to carry  supplies  and men  during the  world war 11.”

From the  bridge, I  took a  panoramic view of the surrounding grove as well as the Osun river,  with a  memories of the  push that take place there during the annual Osun festival  with people struggling to  fetch from the river after the votary maid would have emptied here calabash. Those people believe the water has curative power.

For tourists who are ardent of  the god of  Sango, the grove provides an avenue to  learn about the god as there is a place dedicated to Oya, one of the three wives of Sango, the god of thunder and lightening.

Ayo, explained that  the grove  has five main  sacred divisions which are associated  with different  deities and cults. The Oya bush  is one of them and it was said to be  the spot that the great hunter of Osogbo, Timehin first  encountered the god of herbal medicine, called Osayin.

OJA ONTOTO SHRINE
Oja ontoto  market  according to the tour guide is a mythological  market where  human  and spirit beings are said to  have interacted. It is  the first  market in Osogbo.  A traditional shrine  is located at the market. Evidence of grinding  activities is represented  by oval pits out of the pre-cambrian outcrops of stone slabs that cover the market space.

As we moved  out of the  interior of the grove, my mind races  through the history contained in the grove  and the work of those who thought it wise  to preserve  them for  generations to come.

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