Author: Sneha Sridhar
There seems to be a peaceful rhythm in the way things flow at Sadhana forest. A wake up call at 5:45, and the daily work schedule begins. The volunteers make their way towards the farms to tend to their duties. Some of them start cooking breakfast for the community.
It’s difficult to describe the life in the forest. As a visitor, I suppose the experience is quite novel. The vegan lifestyle, the communal meals, and the “mini” projects are the first things we notice. Soon we see the finer details- the little water “feeder” bottles kept beside the younger saplings to encourage growth, the soak pits with banana trees, the vivid burst of green vegetable plants creeping out in between dormitories.
Skirting the periphery of Auroville in the state of Tamil Nadu, the community is well known around the world. Sadhana Forest, like Auroville, attracts a large number of volunteers every year. While I was interning with an architect in Auroville, a co-worker decided to join the community and applied through their official website. Having heard so much about the place, I decided to have a look at the forest. While Auroville is structured like a township, with zones consisting of farms, residences and workplaces, Sadhana forest began as an initiative by Aviram and Yorit, to re-grow the Tropical Dry Evergreen Forest (TDEF) which is native to Tamil Nadu. With a grant of 70 acres of barren land by the Forest Group, both Aviram and his wife began developing the forest. Considering the low capacity of the land to retain water, half the work had to go into water conservation techniques. The community began to grow as more people joined and now, they’ve covered about 55 of the 70 acres, reclaiming about five acres each year.
Sadhana forest welcomes visitors every Friday, as an effort to educate people about the importance of re-growing the TDEF and opting for a more sustainable lifestyle. The visitors are first taken around the forest, where we see the swales volunteers collecting water. We then make our way to whatever is left of the original forest, the “Sacred groves”. The canopies of trees in these groves spread above like spider webs and the trees block the sunlight. Religious idols and markings are seen at the base of one tree and it is assumed that they mark the boundaries between ancient villages. The trail turns back towards the periphery of the community area where the Compost toilets are located. The large collection of blue compost barrels stand out from the green of the forest. The visitors are then invited for the evening meal, where we all examine our food in amazement. It is quite remarkable to see Indian sweets without milk or ghee.
Sadhana forest hosts a vegan community. This lifestyle choice stems from the fact that the milk and meat industry is responsible for large amount of carbon dioxide emissions, contributing to the ever growing pollution the world is facing. Moreover, the community believes that it is unnatural and unfair to exploit animals in any way when there are plenty of other food choices. Sadhana forest reinforces and revolves around an eco-friendly lifestyle. From bicycle powered blenders to water feeder taps, the efforts to minimize wastage and electricity usage are commendable.
The first thing that struck me as different and new was the “Unlearning” concept. Children in Sadhana forest are not sent to school. They are only taught when they express a desire to learn something. Self motivation is the only force behind their education in order to encourage the culture of learning at one’s natural pace. So you may have a five year old and a fifteen year old, both learning to read at the same time. Of course, not many may agree with this approach. Some may argue that children lack the exposure and understanding of the importance of education. Even though the residents interact with people from all walks of life, the lack of certain resources and opportunities in Sadhana Forest may deny the world a great leader or a scientist. However, it is interesting to observe a person’s natural motivation to learn and experiment.
The culture in Sadhana Forest revolves around self-motivation. Volunteers are encouraged to participate in activities but not forced. Individuals may choose to help or involve themselves in a particular project. There is no system of hierarchy. This way, everybody shares the same goals and works together as a unified body. Anyone can contribute despite their age. This philosophy is also reflected in the community’s attitude towards competitive sports and games, such activities are discouraged as it is believed that competition hampers social unity.
A minimalist life might appear primeval at first glance but the way of living at Sadhana is inspiring. The harmony and peace with which the residents work in the forest attract volunteers from all around the world. You could be building huts with an architect, cooking meals with a software engineer, and planting trees with an artist. At the end of the day, maybe that’s all that’s enough, proving that perhaps joy is truly found in the simple things.
Image Source – Volunteermatch.org.tw