Sunday, 28 March 2010

Sadhana Forest

More than a month has passed already since my last blog post yet it feels to me more like two weeks. I arrived at Sadhana Forest all too ready for a break from travelling and with expectations of what I could achieve and learn while I was there. I leave now, happy, particularly at the prospect of new adventure, but a little disappointed in what little I managed to achieve.

There is no doubt that when you enter Sadhana's gate that you are entering somewhere special. You approach it via a bumpy dirt track that appears to go nowhere, but when you step into the compound it feels like entering a little paradise. Nearly everything looks alive or natural and pleasing to look at. The effect it had on me was to relax, do my required chores and laze about in the warmth - and be quite unproductive. It also didn't help that, like most people who come to Sadhana Forest, I developed a stomach bug. When I lived off a diet of oranges for a while I didn't mind the bug much because I was not running to the toilet and was just a little sleepy.

Between the banana and papaya plants is a village of thatched buildings, unequally designed to optimise ventilation, strength and durability. The structure of the buildings are made using improved local techniques from locally sourced timber and bamboo and tied together with coconut fibre string. The roof is made first with a layer of coconut leaves and then thatched with a thick layer of reads. Flooring is made from bamboo segments and reed matting. Attention is made to limit the environmental impact of the community by only allowing soap free from environmentally harmful additives and the night soil from the composting toilets is used to fertilise trees and non food plants.

Water is pumped from the ground, partly by hand and partly by electricity, which is produced by two small solar arrays that also power lighting, laptops and a projector. Backup electricity is produced with peddle generators.

What is Sadhana's agenda? What is it like?

Sadhana Forest advertises itself as a reforestation project and yet its name means spiritual path. To me it felt a little like nice eco holiday camp but for others it is a lot more. What it actually is I think is hard to define, because what it has evolved into seems not so much lead by the people who carry it but by the people who come to visit. It has been said by a visitor and is repeated many times that Sadhana not only grows trees but, perhaps more importantly, grows people. Many people come to Sadhana a little lost and I think many people leave, psychologically, a little stronger.

The amount of reforestation work being performed is actually quite small. Generally speaking, mid week between 0800 to 0930 is assigned to reforestation work and 1000 till 1130 is assigned to maintaining and running or expanding the community. After that people are free to do what they like. When I arrived there were 160 volunteers at Sadhana and only about 20 or 30 of them would come to the "forest" to take part in the conservation work. The others were either busy with more chores to do with the daily running of the community or were off sick or something.

The conservation work involved loosening compacted earth with a crowbar within a hole, shovelling the earth using a mumpty (large short handlef hoe) into plates and passing the earth down a chain of people to be stumped into walls of earth, or bunds, to prevent water running off the land. This will allow a top soil to re-develop and the water table to rise - both of which are important for the trees that are planted during the monsoon season. Of the people that come to the forest the efficiency of the potential work force was also poor. This was sometimes due to a shortage of tools or a lack leadership that would result in many people standing around - passing a plate of earth a few feet every 20 seconds. Because everyone of all abilities are placed together the weight of a plate of earth would be only a half or a third of the weight that could be easily carried by stronger members of the team.

During my stay at Sadhana the conservation work was dropped on Monday to make way for a period in the beginning and end of the week where the community would spend the time sitting in a circle in silence. Also introduced while I was there was 15 minutes of silence before the evening meal. This would be announced by banging a chime loudly many times and shouting out that the silence time was about to commence. It would be ignored by small children, dogs and anyone who didn't hear the announcement. Considering that only some people take part in the conservation work but most people (including people who would otherwise be performing chores) take part in the quiet periods, probably more man-hours are spent being quiet than performing conservation work. Clearly Sadhana is more about changing people or personal development than reforesting a small patch of land.

Spreading love and "good energy"

So in what way can people expect to change? People who come to Sadhana are not taught how to meditate or about what Auroville is trying to achieve. People are not told what to think. What people are asked is to abide by a number of requests, which include only eating vegan food within the community site and not bringing in any refined sugar, flour or anything synthetic. People are asked not to eat any stimulants, including all legal and illegal non medicinal drugs. This includes chilly, which I have not perceived to be a stimulant any more so than ginger or garlic. And finally, no competitive games are allowed. The vegan food is about being ethical and avoiding stimulants is, I think, to help the body become more susceptible to spiritual experiences. Competitive games such as card games and chess are banned because such games create a winner and loser and produce feelings opposite to compassion.

Midweek in the mornings people are asked to attend the "morning circle" at sun rise. This is a bit of a ritual where everyone holds hands and are asked to look around and observe the people around them and then also the surrounding environment. They are then asked to close their eyes and reflect on themselves and perhaps given a challenge: to be aware of one aspect of themselves that day or make an effort to get to someone you previously hadn't noticed. Everyone is then asked to breath deeply and hum three times before being invited to sing a song or play a game. The circle then ends by claping one's hands against each other's and giving your neighbour and anyone else a hug.

Some people, particularly those who are wary of religious cults, are uncomfortable taking part in this circle. It can also be awkward for those not used to hugging strangers. But give it a go for a while and the wariness eventually rubs off and it becomes pleasant, peaceful and innocent ritual. Such a simple ritual I believe has also a lot of power, so perhaps it is not so innocent as it feels. What it achieves is to bring everyone together that they feel a sense of belonging and part of the community. Achieving this can obviously be a challenge if you have 100 or more new faces coming and going within a month. It reminded me, strangely, of the team building techniques used by the military. Or perhaps not so strangely, considering that the man behind Sadhana has military training and also a masters and work experience in psychology. But in this case, rather than toughening people up and desensitising them from empathetic feelings, such as combat training can achieve, people who come to Sadhana Forest open up to spreading that "hippy love". People often talk about generating "good energy". I write about it a little mockingly and perhaps I should not. Apparently many people leave Sadhana forest with ambitions to be more conscious of the the impact they have on their environment. To work harder to do something positive for the world and be less selfish. This can only be a good thing I believe. So, if the progress of reforestation work at Sadhana is slow, this is not important if people leave and start their own environment-, animal- or human-sensitive (life-sensitive) projects elsewhere.

Other rituals include a another shorter circle before second work. A recent alteration to it is that people are called into the centre of the circle before they head off to their chores. This was probably introduced to discretely name and shame those who would turn up late or not at all for their second shifts. Then before each meal is a moment of silence before anyone can eat. The meals could also count as rituals because they are taken together and one meal per week is also in silence.

The moments silence before eating each meal is a nice idea, particularly if there are fewer than 40 or so people, but waiting for 160 people to be seated and served could take 30 minutes of sitting with a plate of food going cold in front of you that you have to defend from flies. This period, before the everyone eats, is also used for announcements, of which there are many. With so many new people each week many announcements are repeated every other day, such as, to remember to clear up after yourself if you make a mess in the kitchen. Thus, it shows that the the rate at which Sadhana has grown recently has been faster than solutions could be made to keep the place peaceful and positive without threatening to overshadow the good vibes it generates with bad ones from frustrated people. So far Sadhana has never turned away people because it already has too many people (however, during the busy months the shortest period you can stay is one month), but I doubt Sadhana can grow any more without segregating people into eating slots and introducing more security measures.

Sickness and hygiene

I wonder if falling physically sick at Sadhana is also partly a consequence of the psychological journeys people make. I was more sick at Sadhana than before India, like many others. This could be simply a consequence of relaxing after times of constant travelling when falling sick is not an option. However, I also wonder if there is a problem with hygiene. I and others have put forward some suggestions that are already in the pipeline to be addressed so I expect if there is a hygiene issue that it will soon be found. Some aspects of hygiene is clearly over done, as if just to keep people happy. One example is the spraying of eating utensils with a similar strength vinegar solution to the final rinse.

Apart from the pointless spray, I really like the washing method. It consists of four pots of water with the fourth containing 10 or 20 per cent vinegar. In the first pot the dishes are scrubed with coconut husks and ash, which helps to remove grease. Dishes are then rinsed out in the remaining three pots in a consistent order. The advantage of such a system is obvious after more than 100 have washed up their dishes. Where the first pot is almost black with ash, the last pot containing vinegar is (if people have been rinsing correctly) quite clear and is not usually necessary to change even for the next meal. Thus, in terms of water use, dish washing is very efficient.

Because of the number of people on such a small site, hygiene is paramount to prevent illnesses from spreading like wild fire. For this reason the vinegar dip is probably a good precaution. For individuals I expect it would unnecessarily raise the acidity of the local soil and the carbon foot print of the vinegar is probably also not small.

Composting toilets

The toilets at Sadhana are an experience, and in my view not the most pleasant. They are dry composting toilets where solid waste goes in one hole and liquids go down another. This is a challenge for many people, particularly men who are used to independently urinating while squatting. Thus, a metal pan with a handle is required to catch the number one during the number two procedure. This, if one is not careful, can result in accidental splashing or touching of the inside of the pan. The urine is then either put in a tank so that it can be diluted and used as fertiliser, or can be put in hole number one, which is a squatting toilet, also known as the "bum wash station". Here the liquid waste enters a storage tank where it eventually finds it way out through a reed bed, after which all nutrients should be extracted and safe to enter a stream. The solid waste is covered with saw dust, which provides the optimum moisture conditions for composting. The toilet requires stirring occasionally and allowing to partially decompose before it is emptied onto a large pile for two years before it is safe to use in the garden.

The simple design of the toilets are probably well suited for such a large number of people when construction costs are limited, but I think such toilets have little chance of becoming popular due to the mentioned reasons and the following:

1) The toilets are not exactly scent free. Due the hot environment and heat generated during decomposition, when the lid to the solid waste toilet is lifted one is greeted by a puff of warm smelly steam. [Excuse me, I hope you were not just eating!] The smell is not terrible and reminds me of playing in a sandpit as a child that was also used by a cats. More importantly, I am interested to know if it is theoretically possible to catch an infection through inhaling the steam after someone who has previously visited the toilet that was sick. If so, taking a breath before opening the lid and then breathing through your T-shirt limits your exposure. However, I think a simple chimney, as is used in domestic composting toilets, would provide sufficient draft to remove all smells.

2) The quantity of saw dust used by the system meant that it could not sustainably be used on a large scale. Something like 200-300 g of saw dust is required after each number 2 visit. Although the saw dust was a byproduct from a local saw mill, if everyone required that much saw dust when ever they went to the toilet we would have to chop down trees to make it. Compared to toilet paper, which is blamed for cutting down forests, I think a couple of sheets require only a few grams of wood. Paper requires fresh water to produce, which is an increasingly valuable resource, but just growing trees also requires a lot of water as well as land. I hope to find some numbers for these when I have time on the internet. I would be interested to find out how easily the sawdust could be replaced with shredded biomass collected from Sadhana Forest.

I understand that there now exist commercially manufactured composting toilets that monitor the temperature and humidity electronically and stir and ventilate the material to optimise the decomposition times with minimal use of electricity. I have yet to see and use one, but such toilets I have read do not smell, look clean, are easy to use and the only additives is a small quantity of powder containing bacteria. Perhaps a DIY kit exists that would enable a demonstration toilet to be built at Sadhana that is more inspiring to visitors that they might consider having their own installed at home.

Projects and community living

Before I arrived at Sadhana Forest I already had plans to use my free time to explore what sustainable technologies were being developed in Auroville, as well as trying to keep up my hobby in sculpting. For the first two weeks I couldn't motivate myself to do much. I was constantly feeling sleepy, which could be attributed to many things, including not being used to the 6 am starts, no longer drinking 8 chai's a day to keep myself alert on the India roads, the heat which felt greater without the breeze from riding a motorbike and my stomach problem that came and went and came again, which I partly blamed on not being used to the diet of predominantly rice and lentils. Sometimes I fantasised that Sadhana Forest was about using people to milk them of some special energy with which they use to operate their mysterious space craft - the Matrimandir. Once they have accumulated sufficient energy I imagined that they would control the ship with their minds in the central meditation hall and take off to return to their galaxy from which they came.

Then there was also the aspect of not being used to community dwelling with a lot of free time on my hands. Having been travelling by myself for the last month, meeting few people who could speak English well enough to hold a conversation with them, and previously working alone on my volunteer projects, being plunged into the deep end where you are expected to be sociable and spread your love was a little disorientating. I found myself happier going into my own little familiar world with my Eee PC and the internet and escaping with my motorbike when I felt like some space to breath.

As my energy returned and became a little more sociable and adventurous and I ventured as far as the Centre for Sustainable Research (CSR). It was interesting to look around their energy department and observe what projects they were working on. The two main are currently a solar cooker and a solar powered compressed air electric generator. It was also interesting to see how the Auroville solar kitchen worked but I was disappointed to learn that it could only provide a third of the energy requirements of the kitchen, the rest being provided by diesel. The use of sustainable technology was harder to find in Auroville than I expected and I didn't feel there was going to be much I could learn without first commiting myself to a project.

A project of my own that I soon started was to learn how to use the wood oven to make bread. The oven consisted of a brick and mud dome in which I fire had to be lit and then allowed to die down. I had three attempts. The first I used ordinary brown wheat flower (atta). The second two loaves where a mixture of atta and raggi flour, which is a local millet. The loaves were of mixed success as it was difficult to get the oven the correct temperature at the time it was needed, particularly when the temperature was not even known.

Finally, I did manage to do a little sculpting. As it happened I came across some clay in one of the holes we were digging in the forest. I retrieved some of this, soaked it in water, filtered it through a sieve to remove the stones and through layers of mosquito netting to remove the grit. It was thus satisfying to be working with locally dug clay, which had a nice smooth but a little sticky feel. Finding someone with a face I wanted to sculpt was not so simple as people tend to like to go out in the afternoon, so I made do with my imagination and just asked for two different people to sit for me that I could copy their neck and ears. It was actually interesting to see what I could do from memory and compare that to what I came up with the first time I tried sculpting a head out of clay 14 years ago. Although there is still much room for improvement, I don't think it looks less realistic than sculptures I have made by copying a model.

Without testing the clay I do not know if it would be possible to fire or at what temperature and I did not have enough time to attempt making a cast. Thus, the sculpture will probably not last long before it is chipped or completely broken. But seeing so many different faces from all over the world at Sadhana Forest does give me the inspiration for when I return to attempt an array of busts that I could fire and leave in the garden - if I find time.


Currently my plans are explore North Thailand and Loas while I wait for two months to pass before I can apply for a new Indian visa. I just guzzled lots of fuel by flying from Kolkata to Bangkok and am now sitting in Jame's house whom I went to school with. After my exclusion period from India has expired I shall return to continue my motorbike adventures. Thus, how much volunteering I'll feel like squeezing in before I return to the UK - I'll have to see. I expect funds will dwindle more quickly in East Asia. Even India is becoming more expensive by the day while the value of the rupee increases and Indian tourist's spending power over shadows foreign tourists.

1 comment:

  1. Enjoyed reading your reflections on life at Sadahana Forest. I've gone there as a visitor but reading your blog gave me a closer look.