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.
‘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.
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.