Last month, I visited Auroville, an international intentional eco community in Southeast India, just 4 km from the Bay of Bengal. Even though this was my first visit to Auroville, it felt very much like home.
Dreamt up by a spiritual leader called The Mother and based upon the teachings of Sri Aurobindo, another spiritual leader, Auroville has attracted people from all over the world. For over 50 years, people have experimented here — with governance, with water conservation, with agriculture, with textiles, with renewable energy, with zero waste, with low carbon transport, with reforestation — you name it!
Most of this is invisible to the casual tourist, many of whom come to look at the famed golden Matrimandir (Temple of The Mother) from afar. I’d like to share my observations about Sadhana Forest, one of the many inspiring endeavors at Auroville.
Fifty years ago, the region surrounding Auroville was barren wasteland. The tropical dry evergreen forest of this region had been cut down by the British to power steel mills in the mid-1800s, and later a peanut crop for oil around World War I. Today, most of Auroville has a tree canopy, making the roads, the cycle paths, the foot paths all a pleasure to walk along. Buildings are rarely taller than the trees and designed for air flow, allowing for natural cooling.
One 70 acre patch, the Sadhana Forest, has been reforested with native species in an effort to restore the tropical dry evergreen forest. An international non-profit formed in 2003 by an Israeli couple, what’s unusual is that Sadhana Forest works on reforestation and water conservation while teaching volunteers about sustainable living.
Today, Sadhana Forest in Auroville is a home base inviting committed young people to live in community and to open up to compassion for all people and all life. There are shared tasks, a shared vegan kitchen with unique hand washing (pour water into mug with hole, water drains into plants beneath) and dish washing stations, composting toilets, and yes… tree planting!
One morning, a friend and I volunteered and showed up at 6, while it was still dark. We saw people walking around with toothbrushes in mouth, lighting up their path with phone flashlights, and found our way to the circle just forming. We joined in the stretching, the round of names and very quickly formed work teams for the goshala (cow shed), tree care, solar panel cleaning, cooking breakfast, and kitchen hygiene.
We went to care for the cows, while some went to mulch trees, some to wipe down the dusty panels, some to prep and cook, and some to setup clean steel buckets with warm water for hand washing and dish washing. The breakfast was an amazing plate of fresh fruit. At the dishwashing station, we used a coconut husk and ashes, followed by dipping our plate and utensils in 3 separate buckets, each with some limes as degreaser. Sure makes me wonder why we need so many chemicals in our homes.
There were between 30 and 40 young people present. We were only there for the morning, some were here for a few days, and some for a few months. Living here is free, and a stipend offered for a longer commitment. The site is powered by solar and wind. It is expected that residents utilize biodegradable toiletries and remain drug, alcohol and tobacco free.
I eventually learned that most of these 70 acres have been planted; and the work going on now is to train people here and then send them off to reforestation sites within India and to other countries. Currently, Sadhana Forest has projects in Haiti, Kenya and this year — Namibia.
Of note is that when the Sadhana Forest team plants a tree, instead of digging down, they build up using humanure from their composting toilets, biochar from the cooking fires, fresh urine to activate the biochar, leaves as mulch and a PET (plastic) bottle with a wick offering drip irrigation.
For reforestation within India, I hear they have outfitted a school bus with solar panels, shower and kitchen and sent off a team, carrying their own finished compost from Auroville! My understanding is that there is plenty of funding available, and what they need most are committed people. Anybody up for a months long adventure?
Written for March 2023 newsletter The Sylvanian, a monthly publication by Sierra Club‘s Pennsylvania Chapter