Monday, September 12, 2011

Sustainable Living

A couple of months back, I was talking (through email) to my friend Padma about some experiments I'd been conducting in fruit dehydration. Triggered by that, she forwarded me a mail from Auroville, that announced a workshop they were planning to conduct in September, titled "Exploring a Sustainable Future". I dithered over it for a while - sure, it was a subject that interested me - I'd done a fair amount of random reading on it; but it was not related to anything I had studied earlier, nor to any of my work experience. Was it an area where I wished to focus in the future, now that I was this gloriously free bird with no job? I did not know .....

Finally, I decided I did not have much to lose by attending it. In the worst case, I would have a chance to see Auroville and anyway, if Padma told me she'd attended it and found it good and thought I should participate, I was willing to trust her judgment on that. And so, registration was done, bookings were made and a journey happened ..... and therein lies a tale - or a blog!

The write-up on the workshop was quite unequivocal - during the workshop there would be no time to sight see or shop or do other things, so if we wished to do anything beyond workshop activities, we should plan on spending extra days and speak to Saravanan - the man on the spot - about assistance with arrangements. With due thought, I planned my arrival on the afternoon of September 3rd, for a workshop that was scheduled to start on the evening of September 4th, and departure on September 11th afternoon after the workshop ended on September 10th lunchtime. I thought 2 extra days would be plenty to fit in the extras I had in mind - mainly visits to Matri Mandir, the Ashram (the samadhi of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother) and some small shopping for gifts for friends

As luck would have it, I came down with a terrible cold on the 2nd. I arrived on 3rd with my eyes tearing, nose and chest congested .... not a good beginning. I arrived at Central Guest House (or CGH as it is called) and even in my miserable state, was uplifted by the magnificent banyan tree that greeted me.

I met Saravanan and he showed me to the room that would be home for the next one week. It
was right above his own residence. There was a wide verandah
outside and 3 rooms opening off the verandah. The best part was the beautiful view of treetops and a few mangalore tiled roofs from the verandah

After completing registration formalities, I had lunch in the canteen where I could hear 2 ladies at the next table discuss yoga and how yoga was a way of life and how it had been reduced to a set of asanas and there were schools that certified yoga teachers in a month. Felt too unwell to join in, but wrote to Jawahar then what I'd overheard and said looks like yoga follows me everywhere. I then fought to stay awake to go to the Visistor's Center at 2 pm where Saravanan had told me I would need to present myself to get a pass for a visit to Matri Mandir. After a rainy, gloomy Mumbai, I walked in blazing 1:45 pm sun at Auroville to the Visitor's Center.

The walk was not unpleasant despite the sun, because of the beautiful canopies and landscaping I walked through.

By and by, I reached the Visitor's Center and waited for the magical hour of 2 pm to strike, that I may ask for, and receive, the pass. Promptly at 2, the lady arrived and I presented myself to her with my request. There were no passes for tomorrow, I was told. The lady asked me how long I was there and advised me to get a pass for some weekday. But our workshop sessions were scheduled to start at 8:45 am and last till 9 pm each day, and Matri Mandir visiting hours were limited to 9-11 am. What was I to do?

Suddenly I thought to check my return ticket - yes - I was to leave Auroville only at around 12 noon or 1 pm on the following Sunday (11th) - visiting Matri Mandir that morning was an option ... and so, duly, I registered my name for a Matri Mandir visit 8 days in advance and secured my pass. That done, I set out for my return walk to the guest house, admiring the natural fencing along the way ....

.... and a chameleon sunning itself on a branch

Finally (just a 20 minute walk really, but it takes longer when you stop to watch ants soldiering on and chameleons blink their message at you), I wound along the last turn to the guest house

By then the cold had got me down and I read and wandered around, forcing myself to stay awake till dinner at 7 pm. Dinner was interesting - one of the ladies I'd overheard at lunch joined me and we had a most interesting dinner together. It was Jenniffer who had come to Aurville for a weekend visit, discovered this workshop was planned, and immediately decided to stay on and participate in the workshop. She was an architect who specialized in what she described as the use of sacred geometry in architecture (which itself led to an interesting conversation) and I had a most informative session over dinner. However, my feeling of unwell-ness was growing and noticing this, she offered to give me some healing. After barely 5 mins of directing healing energy into me (I had my eyes closed, so not much idea what exactly she did), we parted ways and I went to bed at something like 8:30 pm!

Next morning, I woke up feeling better but still heavy headed. Went for a walk before breakfast meandering around till 7 am and then headed for breakfast. Could still feel the weakness in my body and so decided to conserve my energy and rest the whole day, so I could be well enough to take advantage of the workshop. So promptly headed back to the room and crashed out.

Sometime in the afternoon, Saravanan brought the first of my room-mates and introduced us. It was Archana and she had come all the way from Delhi (Gurgaon). I was in pretty deep sleep and after a few polite exchanges, I explained that I was unwell and went back to sleep. A couple of hours later, the second of my room mates got in - this was Srividya, from Chennai. Again some minimal exchanges and I was back in the land of dreams. Suddenly, I woke up - it was 4 pm and the room was empty. Ye gods - the workshop was to start at 4 and I had no idea where! I rushed to the office and luckily found Saravanan who updated me that we were only starting at 8 pm ...... gratefully I came back to the room for still more sleeping.

At some point in the evening, my room mates returned and now we had more of a conversation. We all introduced ourselves to each other; there were the usual exclamations of shock over my age (especially when Srividya realized I was older than her mother) and then we headed off to dinner. We met a few other workshop participants over dinner and it was interesting that as we introduced ourselves, it turned out that quite a few people had quit their jobs over the recent past and were "in search of themselves". Tineke joined us over dinner as well and we heard her story of how she'd been travelling over land as a young lady. Having covered north-east India, she came to Auroville for a 2 week stay before heading off to Sri Lanka ..... and that was 31 years ago. Sri Lanka has yet to see Tineke.

We got the opportunity to ask her about how Auroville is governed and were entertained by her tales of how at times, the working committee had to grapple with the childlike behaviour of the locals. Post dinner, we headed to the hall that would be our "classroom" for all indoor sessions over the next one week and had a brief introductory session with Prof Rajagopalan before heading off to our respective rooms

Monday, 5th was when action really began. We started with some slide presentations from the Prof and Alan and were then taken to a farm called Solitude. Our bus was greeted by this bare chested guy wearing a green lungi over shorts and a huge turban a la Swami Vivekanand. I only saw him from the back initially, and was somewhat struck by his dress code. It wasn't till he turned and faced our group to address us that I realized he was English (or Scots since I later discovered he had a scottish last name).

An interesting character - Krishna. He'd studied in the london chapter of the J Krishnamurty school and at some point in life, found his way to Auroville and settled down to farm. For the first time, I heard of Perma farming, Fukuoka, green manure and minimal intervention in farming to extent of avoiding the use of ploughs etc. Was fascinated and made a note to read up further on it. After explaining the concept and walking around some of the fields at different stages of permaculture, we headed over to his open air kitchen-cum-restaurant where we lunched on some of the foods we'd just seen being grown. Unfortunately for you readers who were not there - I was so fascinated, I completely forgot to click any photos during this entire experience! You could however check out Krishna's blog at

We lunched on varagu upma, dal with pumpkin, banana curry and a salad with chicken spinach, rosella, mosambi, cucumber, papaya - truly yummy! All prepared and served with the help of volunteers who come from all over the world to intern on a farm that practices Fukuoka's principles. Over lunch, we made the discovery that Krishna is a also part of a band (Emergence) that has, on one occasion at least, visited Mumbai to play at Blue Frog. So I promptly asked him the name of his band, so I could tell my friend Rakhi, who, as I described her to Krishna, is such a lover of music that she goes and stands on one toe for 2 hours in Blue Frog, to listen to the music there (you can also listen to Emergence's music on his blogspot). After that hugely filling lunch, we all piled back into the bus to visit Pebble Garden. Another fascinating tale in the making ....

At Pebble Garden, we met Bernard and Deepika who, between the two of them (with no additional labour from staff or volunteers) had transformed an area of some acres (I forget how many). They had barren ground littered with pebbles (hence the name) that seemed to indicate that perhaps a river had once flowed there. Hardly any soil cover since it had all been washed away due to deforestation. They started with identifying the natural contours and water catchment of the land and collecting the small amounts of soil that collected there during the rains. They also imported the Australian Acacia, a hardy plant that grows in inhospitable conditions. With soil collected from small ponds and harvested Acacia, they painstakingly created soil for the garden - creating 12 layers of semi composted leaves + stems and soil before adding a layer of charcoal (created from the thicker branches of acacia) to create a natural habitat for micro organisms to get into the soil,as well as to retain humidity. These layers were raised above ground in "flower beds" created with acacia twig borders. These flower beds were then planted with 21 different kinds of seeds - a good mix of lentils, legumes, etc to enhance bio-diversity. In 3 months, all that had grown was mulched back into the soil (green manure) after first turning over the layers of leaves and soil. This incredibly rich soil was then planted with vegetables, fruit etc.

The focus of farming at Pebble Garden is to collect and propagate the various indigenous varieties of fruits and vegetables that grew all over India before being supplanted by "high yielding", "fast growing" varieties from the "Green Revolution". Hence, very little space (something like 10% if memory serves me correctly) is devoted to farming. The purpose of farming here is seed generation and collection. I missed seeing it, but people in our group spotted a red ladies finger (okra) here while passing - one of the traditionally available varieties that is now endangered due to the Green Revolution

The other key activity at Pebble Garden is afforestation. Here again, the Australian Acacia is usually the starting point, as it propagates easily and is hardy. As other trees are planted, the Acacia seedlings find themselves in the shade, and die out. Thus the Acacia serves to initiate afforestation, but over time, the forest consists of indigenous trees and no Acacias!

I had a huge shift in perception from my visit to Pebble Garden. As an urbanite, termites for me were villains that invade our cupboards and other wooden furniture and destroy them. In Pebble Garden (and probably elsewhere as well), termites are welcomed as aids to bringing soil from deep inside the earth to the surface! In a land denuded of soil, they are welcome helpmates ......

We returned from Pebble Garden exhausted and after dinner in the canteen, headed over to the classroom for our final session of the day - with chairs in a circle, we had a round of introductions. I thought it was a great idea to have the introductions at the end of the day, since we'd all interacted and experienced some degree of bonding through the day, so the introductory round actually served as a sort of rounding off what I had already discovered about some of the people. And then Archana rounded off the day by reciting some beautiful lines from Daffodils

With that, the day ended for all except for the group that had to do the "summarizing of the day" for presentation next morning. Our eager beaver room mate Srividya was in that group, so Archana and I turned in for the night, leaving one light on in the room. We learnt later that they worked till midnight before dispersing, and there were still some finishing touches that needed to be done to the chart! Groan - for someone like me who likes to sleep at 10:30, this was a bad precedent that had been set!

Tuesday dawned with Archana showing me cactii that had bloomed in a hedge just outside the Center Guest House campus. A beautiful sight I'd never seen before, it looked like the brahmakamal or bethlehem lily that I had at home

After that, we headed over for breakfast where there seemed to be a lot of scurrying amidst the presentation group over breakfast. Post breakfast, we headed over to the classroom. Of the entire workshop, this day (in retrospect) was least fun - we had classroom sessions on solar energy and solid waste management,
both by local practitioners, and an open air session just outside our
classroom where Jean-Francois showed us the waste water treatment -activation-dynamisation unit that I had mistaken for a purely aesthetic water body installation!

Post all these, we had lunch in the canteen and got into buses for a visit to Wellpaper - a unit where a women's self-help group uses thin rolled up tubes of paper like cane to fashion decorative bowls, table mats, earrings and other utility items and accessories. Their latest addition is capacious handbags made of Pedigree dog food packaging! Dany, who runs this unit, had an interesting story. she, her husband and kid(s?) were visiting Auroville and were scheduled to return when 2 things happened - her husband had an accident and hurt his leg, so he couldn't travel; and the tsunami hit Chennai. Once the initial chaos had settled down, Dany wanted to leave and never come back, but for some reason, her husband took this as a sign that they should stay on .... and thus was Wellpaper conceived and born

From Dany at Wellpaper, we headed to Luminosity, where an architect called David has created his concept of apartment living in harmony with nature. We first headed to the rear of the building, where a rainwater harvesting tank was under construction - a simple design where a huge pit was dug and lined with LDPE. Rainwater drained from the terrace was piped to an inlet near the top of the pit. The LDPE lined pit was supposed to be filled with sand, but due to the unavailability of river sand, he had to switch to aggregate. This, with its sharp corners would damage the LDPE, so a further geotextile lining had to be introduced to protect the LDPE. At the center of the pit was this stack of concrete rings, that collectively acted as a "well" from which water could be drawn. The rain water collected in the pit would be filtered through the aggregate and sand as it seeped into the "well", as the concrete rings were not cemented together

After seeing the water harvesting feature, we headed to the terrace where a covered terrace provided scope for community living on the terrace, with space on the galvanized steel roof for installation of solar panels, if and when, required. The terrace had 2 gardens at either end, with a washing machine and ironing station marking the laundry area and a communal eating space
on the other side. A floor below, were the apartments. We entered a couple of them through a corridor like structure, with centrally hinged vertical windows running from top to bottom - these could be kept closed in case of strong rains, and angled to any extent to catch any passing breeze and direct it into the apartment. The one room apartment had a central "wall" that did not meet at the ends - when we examined the other side of this "wall", we found it housed a wardrobe and a bathroom-cum-toilet. The single room had a cement platform along one wall, that was used in part for sleeping (the part with the mattress) and in part for sitting. Opposite the "seating" area, was a tiny pantry-kitchen. And that was it. French windows on the wall opposite the entrance provided great cross ventilation when open. The french windows led to a small balcony, where, nestled under a tarpaulin cover, we found a bath, perhaps a jacuzzi!

From Luminosity, it was back to the Guest House for the daily dose of doomsday documentary film, followed by dinner and the last session of the day. Today, the last session was to choose our options for the next day's activities. The options we had were - "Sustainable approach to wellness" which would cover aspects of yoga, pranayama, meditation etc; and Alan's session on "Changing Perspectives" where he warned us, we would be blindfolded! There was supposed to be a third option called somatics, but the lady who usually conducted the session had lost her voice, and so that option was unavailable. C'est le vie - I had never heard this term before and so, one more thing to research after I returned to Mumbai.

Since I already knew something about yoga etc, I opted for the Perspectives option, but when Alan said he could only take 10 people and we were 13 who had opted for it, I dropped out .... and thus ended Tuesday the 6th after another session of poetry from Archana - this time, Tagore's Where the Mind is Without Fear.

Wednesday dawned with Archana's group doing the "journey so far" summarization of the previous day. She too had returned to the room late the previous night, sometime after I'd fallen asleep. This was not looking good for my early to bed practice! They ended their presentation by leading the group in a rendition of Vaishnava Janatu, and as Murali's voice soared above everyone else's, he was persuaded to follow up with a solo rendition as well. Soon after the presentation, the group that had opted to experience the "sustainable approach to wellness" got into buses and headed to Verite - the center where JV carries on his activities.

A quick note about JV describing him in his own words as closely as I can recollect them - he was a Captain in the Indian Navy; a typical type A personality who - when he was in uniform - thought the Navy ran because of him; and when he was out of uniform - believed the world ran because of him. He looked to be in his 60s, when at the age of 41, he had left side pain, sweating and all other classic symptoms of a heart attack. The ship's doctor gave him extraordinary first aid in just a couple of minutes and that saved him! The next day, he was airlifted by helicopter to hospital in Mumbai where he was diagnosed with 4 life threatening conditions - a mitral valve prolapse, Ischemic Heart Disease (IHD), high blood pressure and high blood sugar. As may be expected, he was told to undergo a battery of tests and put on medications that he would then have to continue the rest his life

Having decided that was not an acceptable way of life, he set off on his own journey of discovery - exploring alternative approaches to health - ayurveda, yoga / pranayama, inner healing, Buddhist meditations .....
As a result of all his studies and changed way of life, he now is in his 60s, but looks to be in his 40s and has that same mitral valve that was deemed to have failed 20 years back, has had no surgery and has normal blood pressure and blood sugar. In fact, a man who had been wearing glasses since the age of 17, today, he wears no spectacles whatsoever! He has written his story on his blogspot -

Since our workshop was intended only to provide an overview of various aspects of sustainable living, poor JV was told to encapsulate his entire gyan into a 2 hour experiential slot. So he did the best he could to transmit a sense of what is typically done in a week long session in the space of 2 hours. We had short sessions on the use of sounds and vibrations, yoga nidra, relaxation
techniques before a short tea break. Tea break (herbal tea only) was enjoyed with our feet dangling in the fish pond where the fish gave us a pedicure as we sipped our tea. Post the tea break we had further short sessions on physical and emotional self-healing and a final talk on food and diet. On the diet front, all he had to tell us were 5 key precepts to govern our intake - eat with the consciousness that what you are eating is an offering to the inner divinity, chew your food at least 15 times, water is the elixir of life, eat only up to 75% of your capacity and eat at least 50% raw food including sprouts. If you wish to read his blog on the same workshop, you can reach it at

After this short teaser on the power of mind and emotions over body, we headed back to the guest house where Alan's group (who'd worked on "changing perspectives") refused to divulge anything about their experiences until the full participation post-dinner feedback session! With a lot of good natured grumbling and teasing over this, we finished lunch and were then herded into the bus to visit Sadhana Forest

With multiple people consulting the map and nobody (except Murali) knowing the language, we managed to find our way to Sadhana Forest after a couple of wrong turns. We were greeted by crude but colourful lettering in multiple languages welcoming us.
We were ushered into the office cum assembly hall structure and served some kind of juice to quench our thirst. Then Stephanie briefed us all about the concept behind Sadhana forest. It is an afforestation project run entirely with volunteers. A vegan community, they live as close to nature as possible. Here, I was introduced to the term unschooling - kids are left to learn on their own based on whatever they find necessary to carry on their daily work and play and with whatever teachers they can find to teach them. With a global community, all the kids are multilingual, and I'm sure would never need to be taught "cultural sensitivity" the way IT companies conduct sessions for their engineers before sending them for onsite work!

We then checked out their dry toilet, hand washing and cooking
arrangements before heading off to look at the site itself. For hand wash, organic soap (I've started using aritha solution) is first rubbed onto the palms. then an appropriate quantity of water is poured from a bucket into the suspended lota pictured on the left. Water comes out in a steady stream through the small hole in the lota and the hands are rinsed in this stream of water - no risk of leaving the tap on and going out, leaks / drips and the like!

In the field visit, we heard about the check bunds-cum-access paths, saw the sleeping huts (from where I could quite imagine Ghatotkacha coming out to play!), the planted trees and shrubs and finally the meditation dome they'd built in a somewhat remote corner next to a water body that had been created for rainwater harvesting. Poor Tineke had a tough time herding us back into the bus so that we could (somewhat) adhere to our schedule!

After that it was back to the usual doomsday film at the guest house, followed by dinner and the feedback session. This feedback session was more interesting than most, since each of the groups (wellness and changing perspectives) was eager to know what the other group had experienced. So with some demonstrations and much detail, we tried to bring each other up to speed on what we'd gone through. And then it was time for bed while some people somewhere prepared the "journey so far" charts for presentation the next morning. It was the first time all 3 of us (Srividya, Archana and I) were in the room together before going to bed, so we ended up talking for quite a while before finally switching off the light and crashing out

Thursday's "Story so Far" was conducted in a different manner totally. The group had us empty the room of chairs, and we all lay down in shavasana wherever we could find space. Kultar then guided us through a bit of yoga nidra before making us do an imaginary walk-through of all the previous day's experiences. A refreshing change and an experiential demonstration of what we'd learnt with JV. For documentation purposes, the group had also made a chart depicting everything we'd seen and done and learnt and that was presented as well. This was when Kultar brought out yet another gem - "The Body and Mind are not distinct - the Mind is the subtle Body and the Body is the gross Mind". And after this first session of doing away with chairs, a few of us continued through most of the following days, sitting on the floor, with or without cushions, based on personal comfort levels - made a nice change though, for some, it resulted in a sore backside as well

After the "Road so Far" presentation, the Professor made a couple of presentations on the food situation, body-mind connections and alternative healing before yielding the floor to a quiet, shy lady called Anandi. Anandi spoke about how food was a very good medium that absorbed and transmitted emotions and energy. Hence, the importance of cooking and serving food with love. I loved the concept of food as a medium to spread positive energy and emotions. She then spoke about the importance of eating raw food! The highlight of her session was the end, since the session ended with her serving us a raw food lunch. Before you start imagining a meal of salads, let me tell you the menu - we started with a green smoothie, that had spinach (of some kind), seaweed (I think), mosambi, mango and god knows what else. It tasted very fruity and was really smooth - no pulp or fibre. The main meal had a vadai with vegan 'raita' and bread with hummus, cauliflower 'rice', 'sambar' made from sprouted chickpeas mixed with sambar powder, a banana stem curry and a sprouts salad. Both the vadai and bread were made using the dehydrator. Dessert was a vegan spirulina cheesecake. The cheesecake was made earlier and frozen, but the rest of the meal which served over 25 people, was cooked in its entirety that same morning by about 5 people! The only equipment that was used (and not industrial sizes either, but normal household sizes) was a food processor, a mixer, a juicer and a dehydrator!

After this nice unusual lunch, we again packed into the bus and were taken to Pitchandikulam - a herbal garden. Here, Mr Loganathan spent a good amount of time explaining the Siddha philosophy and system of medicine and how it was passed on from guru to disciple and with no tradition or methodology of documenting it. So work at Pitchandikulam started with capturing and sharing traditional wisdom that existed locally
and then planting the herbal garden / forest. While Mr Loganathan spoke about all this, a smiling lady served us all with a hot clear drink of deep pink colour - something brewed with hibiscus. It was delicious. After the introductory talk, we went around the garden with Loganathan pointing out the special qualities of many of the plants we saw. Savitha (Saravanan's not-quite-4 year old daughter) accompanied us on this trip and we all had a good time

After Pitchandikulam, we returned to the guest house where Alan asked us to form pairs, and we then had an exercise to understand the various roles people play in group working. This was fun as well and after the exercise and drawing the learnings from the exercise, we were then asked to choose from one of 4 topics on which we would work in 4 groups to develop a campaign. I chose to work on food sustainability and ours turned out to be a small group, with Murali, Jenniffer, Smitha Kamath and I. We had a quick session where we each described our ideas about a campaign, and having quickly found we were on similar wavelengths, set about amalgamating our ideas and designing the campaign that we would prepare and present to the other groups the next day.

This was the day I had volunteered for the "story so far" summarization and so after the food sustainability brainstorming, Jenniffer and I headed to the canteen to get together with Nipun and Kultar and agree on what and how to present next morning. Nipun joined us soon enough, but Kultar's group which was working in the canteen seemed to be deep in discussions and it was a while before he joined us. By then, Jenniffer, Nipun and I had exchanged ideas and we had some feeling of what we wished to present next day. When Kultar joined us, we brought him up to speed and he quickly added in his own twists and special perspectives and then, in no time at all, we were discussing how to depict our idea. Kultar started drawing and soon the rest of his group descended on us to peer over our shoulders and offer loud criticisms and suggestions on depictions. So thankfully, Kultar, Jenniffer and I retreated into "hands off manager" mode and directed all these eager-beaver architects with artistic pretensions on what we wanted to depict and how! I must say we ended up with a chart that captured all our ideas ... and everyone's fingerprints as well! We all had great fun doing this summarization.

The surprising thing was that, while earlier groups had worked till midnight on their respective charts, our group was done by about 10:30 pm. Now Hrishi (who was still a student and a hostelite @ JJ in his other life, with the usual hostelite habits) had a problem - he could not sleep till 1 am. So we told him it was 1 am and packed him off to his room. Where we discovered later, he totally disrupted his room-mates schedule (since they were not accustomed to him puttering around in the room that early!), but that was their problem :-).

Friday morning .... we were beginning to realize we'd become a close knit group and that the workshop was heading to a close. A quick breakfast that was interrupted by Rajesh borrowing the room key from me, because he wanted to get the chart papers and sketch pens from the room and I was still in the middle of my 4-course breakfast. By and by, it was time to head to class. We duly presented our summary of the previous day and then got down to our group
work on creating the chart to communicate our campaign plans. We were minus Jenniffer this morning, as she had to go elsewhere. As we worked, Saravanan's kids came and started watching. Lazy as I am, I gratefully looked up from the oil drop I was filling in black, and asked Sajan if he would do the colouring for me. Happily he agreed and when Savitha wanted to pitch in too, made little sections for her, where she could colour and slips in going outside the lines would be not noticeable! Meanwhile, Smitha, Murali and I worked
on other corners of the chart. When it came to drawing a vegetable patch complete with bugs, Sajan examined what i'd drawn as a butterfly and told me in pitying tones - you don't know how to draw butterfly. So of course, I handed over that piece of work as well. I love it when people come and take over my work - let's me be lazy without feeling guilty! All the colour filling in on our chart was done by these two children. So when it came time for us to present, we made the two of them join us in the presentation, and Sajan actually joined in explaining some of the elements

All the groups shared their campaigns, questions were asked, suggestions and constructive criticism was provided and that ended that exercise. Throughout all the presentations, Sajan and Savitha sat in. Sajan seemed to be paying attention, but I had no idea how much he was absorbing. After the waste management group made it's presentation, they were fielding questions, and it was probably getting a bit boring for him. So he suddenly piped up - I want to tell a joke. He was encouraged to go to the front of the room where he took a deep breath and in one breath recited some kind of paragraph, which to be honest, I could not understand. Everyone clapped, he went back to his chair and sat down, and that effectively ended the waste management group's presentation. After all the presentations it was time for lunch

Archana wanted to visit the room before coming for lunch, so she asked me for the key, and that was when we realized we could not find either of the 2 room keys we'd been given. A wild search began and I checked with Rajesh too, since he'd borrowed the key in the morning. While I was at lunch, someone gave me the key; I put it in my pocket and continued with lunch. Suddenly, Viji, Saravanan's wife appeared - someone is locked into Avalon Pink (our room) and needs to be let out! I left my lunch and raced to release Archana and only after we both returned did we realize what had happened. Archana had found a key somewhere and, as was our usual practice, had unlocked the door and left the key in the door while she visited the loo. Rajesh, searching for our lost key, saw the key hanging in the keyhole, and out of the goodness of his heart, locked the door before bringing me the key! So that was our little side drama for Friday

Post lunch, we visited Abha at her unit
that sticks pressed dried flowers and leaves onto handmade paper to fashion them into lampshades, pen holders etc. She has another line, started recently, called Beejika, where they use seeds (and other dried plant parts) to make jewellery, wall hangings etc. Beejika started serendipitously (like so many of the units in Auroville) - they wanted to collect and store some seeds as a conservation measure. As they did this, they realized the seeds were truly beautiful, and so, some plants' seeds have ended up as jewellery!

From here, we went to another unit, where cotton waste from Tirupur was mixed with paper pulp, alum, gum and other
ingredients to make a mush that was laid onto a sieve, dipped into water and then allowed to dry. Sometimes, flowers, sutli, or other natural materials were inlaid into the mush to add to the aesthetics of the paper. Finally, the 'paper' was dried and patterns from the inlaid materials or the flowers / leaves became evident. This cardboard-like material is being supplied to other units within Auroville for fashioning into various items

The pulpy material is also made into beads of various sizes, bowls, urns, coated on wire mesh to
fashion intriguingly spider-web-like lampshades etc. We also saw some material made from banana stem fibres. All in all, a fascinating trip and we realized, only imagination stops us from coming up with more and more ideas. After this, we were to return to the guest house for a free evening, and were given the option of hopping off at the Visitor's Center to indulge in some shopping. I did my first round of gift shopping while some of the others just sat around in the visitors center and enjoyed brownies, tea and an impromptu "free trial" session from Viral (a hypno therapist amongst other things, in his other life)

We walked back from the Visitor's Center to the guest house and now it was really starting to make us feel a bit sad that most people would be departing on the morrow. As we walked back, at one fork in the path, Srividya and Lavanya chose to walk 'the other' path and someone in our group called out "The Road not Taken" after them. To our surprise, in the night's post dinner session, Alan read a segment from Robert Frost's Road not Taken!

We all went to our separate rooms, had a bit of a clean up and then headed to the canteen for dinner. I was perhaps the eighth person in our group to enter the canteen and as I entered
I was loudly greeted and asked to join the same table as the rest at a table designed to seat 6. So chairs were duly dragged from nearby tables and crowding started. As every new person entered the canteen, the process got repeated, until we had 15 people at the table - people were seated on the window sill, I had Savitha balanced on one knee while I held my plate on the other side to eat; Sajan too had joined us after initially refusing. Only when still more people entered and hesitated to join, we finally dragged another table over and had our own depiction of the Last Supper.

As Alan told us later, he'd returned from a teaching session and was quite tired as he headed to the canteen with his little bell, to summon us to class. While quite some distance away, he heard this loud noise of people having a good time, and immediately, his spirits lifted and when he came to the canteen and saw us, his face broke into a smile. We tried to insist he forget his bell and just join us for dinner, but finally, we had to face reality and head back to class for our final post dinner session

This was a lovely session. I would not want to divulge the details, so that if any of you ever participate in a similar exercise, you have no preconceived ideas about it. But it helped each of us enter into a meditative state and examine our deepest desires. An emotionally moving session, conducted with great skill. A few of the participants shared their experiences afterwards, and this sharing too was handled most compassionately. A lovely close to the main part of the workshop - thank you, Alan

We'd volunteered to do a collective "week that was" summary session next day, so the intent was to all head back to the canteen to work on this. Archana and I stopped in between for a bio-break and as we came out onto the verandah to head to the canteen, we could hear Murali's powerful voice singing. With happy smiles on our faces, we headed over to the canteen, where we found people seated on the floor, tables, chairs, everywhere and Murali sitting and singing in the midst of all. He very sweetly took requests, so with Shankara Bharanam, Bhaja Govindam, another song whose title I don't know, Vaishnava Janathu, ending finally with Vishnu Suprabhaatham. What a fantastic voice, he has ... and a lovely spirit to so willingly sing for all of us. Kultar quickly shared his idea of summarizing the week that was - we agreed and all headed off to sleep without a single line being drawn on a chart paper

Next morning, conscience had kicked in. Quite a few people felt we should have something to show on a chart. So quickly, ideas were pooled, worker bees (aka students and architects) were pressed into service, and 2 charts produced. The execution speed and synchronicity were amazing!

And so, we headed into our final half-day of workshop, where the Prof invited Murali to do a live music inspiration session.

Then it was time for the "week that was"we first had the entire group standing for the presentation, and only our 4 facilitators - Prof, Alan, Tineke and Saravanan sitting in the audience section (and perhaps Pravin with his camcorder).

We showed our 2 charts with the current-negative spiral picture and the desired positive spiral picture followed by a group hug around a tree. Unfortunately, Kultar was missing for this portion, as he had some "grahasth" duties to perform before coming to Auroville (as a day scholar, he couldn't make a total break the way most of us had done). Anyway, after holding the group hug for a while, there was a bit of awkwardness as we didn't know how to break it, and Alan spontaneously took over suggesting we chant 3 Oms ... which we did. Just as the last Om died away, Praveen said he would like to lead us in a prayer. And so he led us in chanting Lokah Samastha Sukhino Bhavanthu 3 times, and finally, Jenniffer pointed to the way the trunk of the tree had formed a yoni like structure and the symbolism of our starting new lives from then on. So it was beautiful - in an unplanned spontaneous way, different people took the lead and led us in a lovely exercise.

After this, we headed back indoors and presented a final blank chart sheet depicting our future lives, which we had yet to fill in. So that was the "week that was" summary. For the final few sessions, the Prof presented some rays of hope - good work that was being done by various people in saving the planet, followed by Meera Rajesh (whose husband Rajesh was attending our workshop 'on Her command') who shared her experience in instituting solid waste management in her building (with the intent of slowly bringing the other buildings into the fold). The last session was with Rohit Grover (now rechristened as Rohit Baker, thanks to the lovely bread he would contribute to our morning tea breaks, supplemented by Kultar on two occasions - we were spoiled in this respect), who shared his experience in having 'tyaag-ed' the outside world to come and reside in Auroville for the past 1 year. Rohit had caught my attention during the introduction round itself, when he started off his self-introduction with "I am a nerd". After that, he would attend most sessions and field trips with us, but was in this grey area of not a facilitator and not a participant. So now, we all heard a part of his story.

Finally, Alan had us each write a letter to ourselves, which he undertook to mail to us after 6 weeks (after, of course, spending many happy hours steaming them open and having a good laugh at the contents in the interim ;-D) to remind us of how we intended to restructure our lives to become more sustainable. And with that, it was time to turn in our final feedback sheets and lunch before people started heading back.

But no, there was a general reluctance to disband and so, by general request, Kultar made us a presentation on the uncoventional school he'd been running in Chandigarh. Was really fascinated to hear about the experiment - there was no demarcation of subjects such as "Maths", "Physics" etc the way conventional schools have it. There are topics that are studied, such as structures - which incorporates elements of how forces act, geometry (when depicting plans and elevations) and so on. He also spoke of how conflicts between kids are handled - the presentation showed a clip of two kids beating each other up the way kids do. He pointed out the facilitator sitting in the background, who was not intervening - she was only keeping a watchful eye to ensure the kids did not seriously hurt each other. At some stage, one of the kids ran to her to complain, but she told him they had to handle it between themselves. This was a good learning for life. In a conventional school, some adult would have intervened and the aggressor in the conflict would have learnt his life lesson - if he wishes to bully someone, he should do it where and when there are no witnesses. The victim kid would have learnt his life lesson - that whenever he feels victimised, he should run to an authority figure, and it is then the authority figure's responsibility to resolve the problem. With this non-interventionist approach, the kids resolved the conflict themselves (which is what usually needs to happen in life, but rarely does) and after 2 months, I believe these kids had become great pals! There were other such anecdotes, but I think you'd have got the concept behind the school by now

Lunch was somewhat muted with people mentally switching gears even as they felt sad at the end of a wonderful week and the imminent partings. Murali was probably the first to leave, and the rest of us quickly organized ourselves into various groups. While some departed for Chennai or Pondicherry or elsewhere,
I joined a group that was heading to Swaram - a store that made musical instruments out of natural products. We spent a joyous time there, with the saleslady indulgently watching us play all the instruments they had in the display. Luckily, Devayani bought a couple of items (maybe a couple of other people also bought something) otherwise, we would have totally crowded the display room for a good amount of time, without buying anything! The highlight was these two instruments made out of single blocks of granite. Each was a structure similar to a comb, but a few thousand times thicker than any comb. You wet your hands and the stone and then, as you run your hands along the sides, the 'teeth' of the comb start vibrating and due to the space between the 'teeth', a lovely sound is produced. There were two such instruments outside the display room - one produced a regular sound, while the other produced bass. We all had a go at it - when I tried it, it produced a sound ... but it didn't sound particularly melodious! Obviously takes a lot of practice - like any other instrument

Rajesh, Meera, Smita Pandit and Akshay were to head off directly to Bangalore from there, but they very sweetly insisted on dropping us back to the guest house before turning round in the driveway itself to head off to Bangalore. Rajesh (who was driving) finally messaged me when they reached home - it was 11:30 pm. A long day indeed, and without the group energy to sustain them!

Archana, Parag, Jenniffer and I were to head off to the Ashram (Sri Aurobindo and The Mother's samadhi) in Pondicherry after that. Jenniffer however had joined the group that was visiting Jean-Francois at Aquadyn to understand the water dynamisation process. We waited till 5 pm, and then (since the Ashram closed at 6 pm), we got into the cab, checked out Aquadyn en route to see if Jenniffer could be spotted, and then headed off to Pondicherry.

We reached the Ashram just before 6 and went in past a lovely small cactus garden - did a half parikrama (as prescribed by the ropes and sat for a short while in the space allocated for meditation. May have sat for about 10 mins and as Mr Prabhugaonkar had said, the vibrations were very strong there. After about 10 mins we left from there and headed to the beach where we walked for a while before finding a cafe to wet our whistles and consume some non-organic food.

As luck would have it, there was a band playing right next to the cafe and as we sat we enjoyed the beautiful percussion music coming from next door. By and by, the people occupying the table next to ours left, and the table was occupied by a young boy (maybe 7-8 years old) and an older man, probably in his 20s. The young man was really into the music and swaying his entire body to the music even as he played with the child ... even his mock fight feints were beautifully graceful and in synch with the drums. The kid was very cute, with a lovely smile and was enjoying the whole outing. I could not take my eyes off them - they were so obviously enjoying themselves, I could sense that a smile had broken out on my face. Archana was watching me and asked me if I enjoyed dancing, which made me realize, I was probably bopping my head, or maybe even my entire body, I don't know, in time with the drums! The whole episode just added to the completeness of the joy we were feeling. After our snacks and drinks, we went over to watch the band for a while, and just as we came to the front of the stage (the cafe had been behind the stage), the band members announced that they were going to take a break! So, with an eye on the time, we decided to continue our way and not wait for them

Parag wanted to eat chaat from the beach stall, so after our band disappointment, we headed to the beach stalls where he ate some kind of chaat (not the usual Delhi - Mumbai type) and Archana and I picked up some cauliflower, banana and green chilly pakodas. After feasting on all this for a while, we headed back to the cab and Auroville.

The nice thing about the Pondicherry sea front is that it is closed to traffic. A lovely wide (4 lane) concrete road, with a wide sidewalk, then a sea wall and then the beach. No vehicles. Beautiful french architecture buildings, many of them government offices of various kinds. A good place to come of an evening, but since it was Saturday evening, it was crawling with people

Back at the guest house, it was barely 6 of us left - Smitha Kamath and Safia who were leaving early Sunday morning; Jenniffer, Parag, Archana and I, all planning to leave after an early lunch on Sunday. After a subdued dinner with Tineke joining us, we departed for our respective rooms. As I was changing and washing up, Archana decided to fill water from the canteen and headed out. Suddenly, after about 15 mins, there was a knock on the door. Wondering, I called out and in walked Jenniffer and Archana. They'd met at the water cooler and stood talking for a while before heading to the room so I could be included in the conversation. So we sat around and chatted for quite a while before deciding it was probably a good idea to catch some sleep.

And so, Sunday dawned. Smitha and Safia were to leave by 7:30 am and so we'd promised to meet them at 7 for breakfast. Archana and I quickly washed and headed to the canteen, where we found Smitha and Safia almost at the end of their breakfast. We joined them and then took a fond farewell as they headed to the cab that was taking them to Pondicherry bus station from where they would take a bus to Bangalore. They came back briefly - to ask us to wish Tineke for her birthday which was that day.

Archana and I finished breakfast and were joined towards the end by Parag. Parag's plans had changed during the night - he was no longer heading to Chennai with us to catch a flight to Mumbai. He now had a meeting in Bangalore and so, would catch an evening bus from Pondicherry to Bangalore. With that, the three of us headed for a last stroll in the grounds before heading to Matri Mandir for our visit to the interior chamber. We picked some flowers for Tineke and Archana found some grass to tie them into a crude bouquet and as soon as we spotted the birthday girl, we rushed to give her a hug and wish her. I suspect we embarrassed her a bit in the process ;-)

After this little bit of diversion, Parag, Archana and I headed off to Matri Mandir for our interior visit. Jenniffer was headed there too, but since she was to follow a different process as a repeat visitor, and was planning to meditate in one of the petals rather than in the central chamber, the agreement was that she would make her own way, and the three of us would go without her. We presented ourselves at the designated gate at 8:45 (against a scheduled time of 9 am) and learnt from people waiting there that as we were in the 'B' Group, we would be leaving at 9:30 and not 9. Archana and I found ourselves a nice log and perched on it, while Parag did his usual wandering around thing. In a while, a lady came and told us that we should all head to a specific hall to watch the video. We duly headed to the hall and heard and saw all about the philosophy behind Auroville and the Mother's intent in instituting Auroville and the Matri Mandir

After the video, we formed into a queue and after checking off our names against a list, we got into a bus that took us to Matri Mandir. After a bit of waiting around, when we also turned in our bags, phones and the like, David (?) introduced himself to us and started telling us about how the interior of Matri Mandir was designed as per the Mother's vision, while the exterior, about which she'd received no vision, was conceptualized by an architect called Roget. The entire structure has been built entirely by volunteers - nothing has been contracted out to any engineering or construction firm. Every technical challenge has just remained until Divine Intervention brought the person or persons with the solution to solve it. Thus, the Matri Mandir has been in the making for some 30 or 40 odd years, after work was started in 1968!

The Matri Mandir (I forgot to take pictures, but if you google Auroville Matri Mandir there are lots of images online of both the exterior and the interior) is a huge sphere breaking out from the earth through 12 petals. The external surface of the sphere is covered with concave discs, about 3 feet in diameter. Each disc has its concave surface lined with small tiles (about 1-1.5 inches square) made with Matri Gold. Matri Gold is a thin foil like layer of 24 carat gold fused at high temperature between 2 sheets of glass. So the entire surface of the sphere is a mass of gleaming gold discs with flat lawns around, so that the structure stands out.

The 12 'petals' are each named by the Mother, standing for Existence, Mind, Bliss (Sat-Chit-Anand) and 9 other emotions. The central meditation chamber is located at the equator level of the sphere and is accessed by an interior ramp. The chamber has white marble walls and rises to the top of the sphere where there is an opening through which a sun ray is focused onto a crystal globe kept in the center of the meditation chamber. The floor is covered with white carpet and white cushions are provided for people to sit. You take your footwear off before entering the sphere and at some midway point, you are given white socks to cover your feet (because if peoples' feet are soiled as they often are since we had to take our footwear off whenever we entered our classroom or canteen or even many of the manufacturing units and stores, the carpet gets soiled and is very hard to clean). Before entering the sphere, we'd been told that absolute silence was to be maintained in the meditation chamber and if anyone felt the need to cough or sneeze, they should come out - the spherical marble chamber echoed tremendously

As first time visitors, we were to be allowed to spend 15 mins meditating in the central chamber. After 15 mins, a light would be switched on and off and that was our signal to get up and leave the chamber without disturbing others who were meditating. Repeat visitors were allowed to meditate for 45 mins at a stretch. Repeat visitors were also allowed to choose to meditate in one of the 'petals'. coming back to the central meditation chamber - the only time I really looked at the globe in the center was when entering and leaving. I saw (and we'd been told) the globe rested on 4 'pillars' which had their own significance. Archana, Parag and I spent our 15 mins meditating there, before the light signal told us it was time to leave and with the rest of our group, we silently filed out.

Not all the way out though - through a gap between two of the petals, we entered the lower half of the sphere where again, there was a small crystal globe in the center of a shallow, round water body made of layers and layers of shallow marble petals. Water rippled over these petals to reach the center and obviously there was some kind of circulation mechanism involved that I could not see or hear and did not really try to figure out. As we'd walked up and down the ramp leading to the meditation chamber, we'd noticed these marble channels running along the inner 'longitudes' of the sphere where water was running ... so this water was probably getting somehow circulated along four (or however many) longitudinal channels along the inner walls of the sphere.

After staying here for a bit, we headed out and were shown the amphitheatre that marks the center of Auroville and which is also where the inauguration of Auroville was done in 1968, with representatives of 124 countries and 24 Indian states (as there were then) each bringing a handful of soil from their respective lands to add into a marble urn that stands there still. From here, we went and briefly sat under the sole, majestic banyan tree that stands next to the amphitheatre before heading back to an impatient bus driver who was mumbling about his schedule getting delayed!

We came back to the Visitor's Center where, on Parag's advice, Archana and I checked out the exhibition about Auroville (where I clicked all these pictures - thanx Parag, if it had not been for your advice, I would have had no photos to illustrate this section!), while Parag picked up some books he wanted to take back

We then walked back to the guest house and joined Rohit and Jenniffer for lunch. A quick lunch, where Rohit checked what each of us getting back to, and we envied him his continued stay at Auroville, and then we headed for the cab that was to bring us to Chennai.

That should have been the end of this blog, but there was one further thing I wanted to share. I returned on Sep 11th, which happened to be Anantha Chaturthi, the day the huge Ganapthi idols are immersed in the sea after the 11 day Ganesha festival. I was mildly worried about how I would get home, but as I told Archana when speaking of it before leaving from Auroville - itna sab sahi gaya hai, tho woh bhi sahi jaayega (translation: If so much has gone well, then that too will go well). As passengers disembarked, I could hear people murmuring about the likely unavailability of autos and cabs from the airport and traffic disruption on the roads. I came out and decided to try and get an auto (since I live relatively close to the airport, cabbies grumble when I use them because of their opportunity cost in losing a long distance fare when they take me; and autos often demand cab fare because they feel that is what I would have 'otherwise' taken - the logic of which escapes me, but use of public transport when I return from the airport, is always a fraught affair).

Anyway, people were breaking the queue and walking ahead to accost approaching autos and corner them before the auto could ever reach the head of the queue and after observing this for a while, I started muttering under my breath about all the uncivilized people I was coming back to and started doing the same. After something like 10 refusals by both cabbies and autos, I finally found an auto who agreed to take me home for Rs 100 (normal fare is probably something between Rs 40 and 60, depending on traffic conditions).

I quickly agreed and hopped in, and as we came out onto the main road -wonder of wonders - the road was empty and we sped along at great speed and comfort. I only encountered a single Ganapathi procession the entire way - at Khar subway - and even there, I was delayed maybe a couple of minutes, no more. I'd checked the time when our plane touched down on the tarmac - it was 8:11 pm. I reached home at 9 pm, after all the waiting for a bay, waiting for the stairs and a bus, the scramble for an auto (I had no check in luggage) .... I don't think I've ever made it home so speedily and comfortably, and all I could think was - the positive vibrations of Auroville continue!


  1. Good one, Ajita.. By the way, one small addition on the termites. The cellulose which cannot be broken down by elephant's digestive system can be broken down by termites and their main function is to ensure there is no waste in the forest.. Termites along with the millions of microbes ensures everything that drops dead are eaten away ! The forests would survive without us humans for sure, but not without termites

  2. Wow .. .that's something! I see you've been up till almost midnight ... am I the only one who goes to bed at 10:30?

  3. Dear Ajita,
    This is one of the blogs I most enjoyed reading! Please accept my congratulations in conveying the spirit of sustainable future as well s the spirit of Auroville. Your pictures are amazing and I just love the style of your writing.May be you have a future in writing!
    God bless you.

  4. Thanx JV. And thanx for your refinements which I have incorporated .... as per your suggestion, have now included links to your blog as well as Krishna's

  5. Great account, Ajita. As I read through your blog, I realised how much of the course had slipped to the back of my mind, which your photos and text helped bring to the surface.

    Wonderful way of keeping the memories alive. I am so glad I sent you info on the course!

  6. Described our week together beautiful, loved the details. Especially the Matrimadir, saw it through your eyes. Thank You.

  7. Thanx Smita!

    And Padma ... eternally grateful to you for sending me the course info! Have kept your bags separately .... let me know if you plan to come to Mumbai

  8. Hey Ajeeta,

    What a great account. Brought the week back in blogging detail. Thanks.

  9. Ajita I must congratulate you. Going through such a vivid decription of a place, I felt as i was present there.Photographs are awesome.Is this your first blog? Well done!!

  10. This comment has been removed by the author.