Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Sadhana Forest

The community: with over 100 volunteers from all over the planet

The last seven weeks of our India trip was spent at a project in Tamil Nadu called Sadhana Forest. 

One of the dormitories built from all natural materials; dried coconut leaves (roof) and wood for the structure and floor

Sadhana Forest is a reforestation project run by an Israeli family with the help of volunteers. It started seven years ago on very degraded desert-like land.  Their focus is on water conservation and restoring the 'Tropical Dry Evergreen' forest to this area.

Volunteers working to restore the forest
The coast of Tamil Nadu (and many other places in India and the world) had been plundered of their forests by the European colonial masters, in this case the British. With the tree cover gone and roots not holding the top soil together the monsoon rains soon washed away all the topsoil, leaving severely degraded, hard, red, infertile soil.

According to their website - -

"Sadhana Forest started its ecological revival and sustainable living work on December 19th 2003.
The vision of its founders, Yorit and Aviram Rozin, is to transform 70 acres of severely eroded, arid land on the outskirts of Auroville.  In a spirit of human unity, their aim is to introduce a growing number of people to sustainable living.  Our energy and resources are focused on the creation of a vibrant, indigenous Tropical Dry Evergreen Forest (TDEF).
The main aim of this ecological project is to support the local rural villages: By retaining water and filling the aquifer, Sadhana Forest allows the villagers to cultivate their food and prevents exodus towards nearby city slums.

The main activities of Sadhana Forest are:

Planting the indigenous plants that constitute TDEF, an ecosystem unique to this region, and one that is currently endangered.

Environmental education for all.  We include as many children and young people in the process of ecological revival and sustainable living as we can.  Our aim is to encourage them to share and propagate our vision of an ecologically responsible and sustainable way of living, and for them to help take urgent actions that are necessary for the future of their environment.
Children and young people from nearby Tamil villages take an enthusiastic and active part in this project. They, of course, have no memory of the great, ancient, coastal forest that once extended from northern Tamil Nadu down to Kanyakumari in the south, a forest that was destroyed many decades before they were born. Our dream is to create, with their participation, the opportunity for them to experience the original forest of their forebears. For most, it is their first ‘hands-on’ experience in sustainable living, an exciting and transformative experience for them."

Sadhana forest required 4 hours a day of work their volunteers plus a few extra shifts when needed, the first 2 hours being forest work from 6:30 to 8:30 and 2 hours of community work from 10:00 to 12:00. 

Tara and other volunteers serving lunch for 130 hungry tummies

In the morning, at 5:30, the "wake-up" team would go around to all the huts and sing and play music to gently rouse everyone from their slumber.  We would gather in front of the main hut for the 'morning circle' where we would do a few minutes of stretching and sing a song and then all hug each other for about five minutes before heading out to the forest.

Morning circle at 6:15 just as the sun has risen

Morning hugs!

The main forest work at this time of the year (the dry season) was water conservation work.  We employed various techniques, the one we were working on mostly was building a series of shallow dams crisscrossing the forest to keep the monsoon rains where they fall. These dams are called bunds. 
The idea is to stop water from flowing off the land in the monsoon season. Another technique is digging large pools for the water to collect in and eventually perculate into the earth. These resulted in 3 or 4 large 'mud pools' were we could go swimming in our 'off time'.

'Bunds' keeping the monsoon rains from running off the forest lands

First work at 6:30 am in the forest

Digging the dry and hard soil for the bunds was a challenge

At 9 O'clock was breakfast time where we all gathered in the main hut to eat a wonderful breakfast of porridge and fruit salad. After we had eaten and washed up it was time for the 'second work' circle, where we'd play a non-competitive game or have a song so we'd get the energy up for the second work shift.

Patrick, Jeff and Johanna enjoying lunch

Second work circle

Energized and heading off to second work

The second work shift entailed things such as gardening, compost, hygiene, looking after the tool shed, maning the recycling hut, cooking lunch, harvesting vegetables, cutting fire wood, building forest trails, life guarding the mud pool, working in the healing hut, etc. We got to choose a new job every day or we could sign up for one for the week.

Cooking team chopping fresh vegetables for lunch

Hard workers managing the compost pile

Used to be food; soon to be soil

After lunch and in the evening volunteers would give workshops. The workshops were on  anything from permaculture gardening, to non-violent communication to Hindi language to capoeira to clothes dyeing to juggling to making dream catchers and skill a person wanted to share.

Main hut where we gathered for our main activities

Main hut from the outside

There were a few weekly evening events like Wednesday was talent show night, where any could show off any talent they wanted. There were always lots of good musicians around to play us beautiful music.
Friday night was Eco-Film Club night where up to 400 people from nearby Auroville came to watch an environmentally themed movie and have a free organic vegan dinner. This was also the day we got vegan muffins. Friday was known as muffin day. Sunday night was the weekly Sunday meeting where we all gathered in the main hut and dressed up (a different them every week) and chose our jobs for the week and had a sharing circle where everybody had a chance to say what was on their mind. Monday was Sacred Chanting, where we all went out to the forest to have a bon fire and play music. Tuesday was the Veganism discussion and film.

Sunday meeting with 'Cross-dressing' theme

Patricia and Terrance
Sadhana forest is kind of a Utopian place that aimed to be as environmentally sustainable as possible with as little negative impact on nature as possible. Firstly we lived in huts all built out of natural materials with dried and weaved coconut leaves as roofing and local woods for the structure and flooring.

Huts for long term volunteers

Dormitory. Note the pink one on the right was ours!

Smaller dormitory

Stairs leading up to our dormitory

Dosa kitchen

They are completely off the grid, using electricity from solar panels, and in the cloudy monsoon season the batteries had to be charged with bicycles.

Solar panels

Cycling to get electricity in the monsoon season!

Water came from a well that was recharged with the forest work. Minimal water usage was emphasized, there was no running water apart from a water filter for drinking water. Water for washing and showering was pumped from an old pump. It gave you something to think about, no way where you going to use 100 liters of water to shower when you had to pump it and haul the water yourself.

Tara staging a shower

Hand washing station. Water was collected from the big tub to the right and then poured into the metal bowl hanging over the stone slab. A small hole in the bowl allowed water to trickle out, thus avoiding water wastage. The used water flowed into the bananas growing behind.

Dish washing station. You worked from right to left first washing and scrubbing your plate with ash (The ash came from the fires we used to cook our meals). Then you dunked your plates in the following buckets ending up in the big one where it was left to soak in disinfecting vinegar water. Done!

Our food served was organically when available and increasingly grown on site in the permaculture gardens.

This is a permaculture project called a 'sponge'.  A hole is dug and then filled with organic matter like banana peels, coconut husks, old t-shirts, etc. Fruit trees and shrubs are planted around the hole. Their roots tap into the wet decomposing matter for their nutrients. Great in dry, hot climates.

Some other things they do to lower their environmental impact are using composting toilets, reusing all graywater to water fruit trees, and cooking in super efficient stoves with firewood that's grown on site. Also Sadhana Forest is a vegan community meaning that they don't eat meat or animal products (milk, cheese, eggs, etc). One of the biggest causes of deforestation is forest land being cleared for grazing and agricultural land for feeding animals. 2/3rds of the world's agriculture goes to feeding animals not humans.

All food was cooked over a fire. One of the weekly jobs was 'fire starter' . The fire starter  tended to the fires to keep them going while others where cooking!


Tandoor oven built out of clay and old tires.

The 'dosa kitchen.' A place to drink tea and eat snacks.

Composting toilet. Lift the lid to do your business.

Pee station. Urine collected was used in the gardens.

The community aspect at Sadhana Forest was incredible. It felt like one big family, where everybody supported and cared for everyone else. The seven weeks that we were there the population was between 100 and 130 people. We made friends with people from all over the globe from Australia to Russia, from Argentina to Germany, from Indonesia to Croatia, from the UK to China, from Israel to New Zealand, from the US to Venezula and everywhere in between. There was even a couple of guys that had bicycled to India from Switzerland!

A hand full of volunteers were living there long term for up to 3 years but the main bulk of residents stayed for a minimum of one month. New people were arriving everyday as others were leaving. So there was constantly new faces and minds to discuss with. 

Never never land

Since the project began seven years ago, 23,000 indigenous trees have been planted from 150 species with a survival rate between 80 and 90 percent and does not fall below 70 percent even on the most degraded soil.

More than 7 kilometers of trenches have been dug and eight earth dams have been built, altogether storing more than 50,000 cubic meters of rain water.
As a result of this work, the underground water level has risen by 6 meters from an average of 26 feet deep during 2003 (before Sadhana Forest was started) to an average of 6 feet during 2007 after four years of intensive water conservation work.

Mud pool for cooling off on hot days (and a substitute for showering.)

Tara covered in beneficial mud.

Eating vegan cake at a local café in Auroville.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Twist, stretch and endure

As our trip was drawing to an end I decided to head to the old city of Madurai, close to the tip of India, and more importantly to the Sivananda ashram. I exchanged Patrick for Marta and Joséphine, who I had met at Sadhana forest, and traveling the cheapest way possible on cramped trains and local buses, the cost of our 12h journey totaled at $2 each!

The ashram was situated 45 min outside of Madurai in a beautiful and tranquil countryside. An ashram is a place of spiritual practice and ashram life included a mix of yoga, mediation, lectures and chanting. The day was packed full from Wake up at 6 am to Lights out at 10 pm. We had two yoga classes a day, each 2 hours long. I loved just about every minute of my experience at the ashram, though after the first two days every muscle in my body was aching and sore! However after the full two weeks that I spent there all the stretching, twisting and balancing did wonders to my flexibility and strength.

Morning walk and meditation at dawn

Beautiful countryside 45 min outside of Madurai

Daily Schedule

Yoga hall on the top floor and women's dormitory on the bottom floor

Joséphine, Marta and I in the women's dormitory

Meenakshi temple in Madurai

52m high!

Yogis doing Plough pose in the yoga hall

Dining hall. We'd all eat sitting cross legged on the floor using our fingers as utensils

The ashram food was some of the most delicious food I'd had in India. This day's food was fermented rice cakes called Idli with coconut chutney, vegetable stew Sambar and a banana

Every morning at 6 am and evening 8 pm we had Satsang which consisted of meditation, short talk and chanting.

At last an empty carriage on the train! Though it turned out not to be as empty as I thought with dozens of small cockroaches crawling on the seat...

View from the luggage rack which I was cramped on for the 6 h journey from Madurai to Pondicherry. I was happy for somewhere to sit down at least!