Dhaval Chandrana discovered a new side to life after living in harmony with nature at the Sadhana Forest in Auroville
When I first visited Sadhana Forest back in 2011, a new world had opened up to me. I had lived in the city all my life and Sadhana had left me quite amazed.
To clear the mystery, Sadhana Forest is a volunteer-driven reforestation project in Auroville, South India. All the work is divided amongst volunteers. It receives over a 1000 volunteers every year. It is self-sustaining in many ways as it is completely solar powered and pumps water for its daily needs. One of the main reasons that drew me to Sadhana Forest was the fact that it is completely vegan and follows a zero-waste model. The leftover food is composted for better soil, the whole community is almost plastic-free, and they have a small recycling hut where some of the waste gets recycled and separated. The soaps, the tooth powder, the laundry detergent, and other necessities are all natural and eco-friendly and cause no harm to the soil.
I never knew something like it existed so close to me. Pretty soon, Sadhana had become home to me. There are still times when I feel jealous of people visiting Sadhana for the first time. I remember how wide-eyed I had been with excitement. Every part, every process had been like a new world to me. Something I had never experienced before, and I know I’m not going to feel like the first time again.
The inner quest
Often, I think to myself, “What made me go and spend a year of my life in Sadhana?” It was probably because of the question I had asked myself: “What am I doing with this life?” I was whiling away my younger days doing what people of my age mostly do. Go to parties, switch jobs, play video games, and visit restaurants. But, slowly, all these pastimes began to lose their charm for me. I guess I had overdone them and reached a saturation point. I decided to travel and see if I could figure out what I really wanted to do in life. My path led me to Sadhana, and it felt like the right place to learn and also to restart. I never really knew that I would end up spending a year, living in Sadhana. I took it one day at a time and felt like staying like many other volunteers who had chosen to do so. I’m pretty happy I decided to stay as it ended up being one of the best times of my life.
How Sadhana came to life
The land that Sadhana runs on was once a barren piece of land where no tree or plant grew. In the photos before Sadhana started, one can easily mistake it for a picture of Mars from one of the movies. After years of hard work that involved a lot of trial and error, there exists a forest now. And along with the forest came a lot of animal life and rain. I have seen peacocks, monitor lizards, porcupines, mongooses, and a lot of different birds too. There was this family of owls that used to watch us every morning with their big round eyes as we went about our work. I wonder what went on in their minds. After a few months, I couldn’t spot them anymore. They probably found another home or something better to watch.
A feeling that stays with me is that of having lived with a family—one that was made up of people from all over the world who worked together, ate together, and slept under the same roof. Every morning, we would start by having a community circle. We would play games, sing songs, stretch, and then start our seva (selfless service). What really struck a chord with me was the connection I made with people. In the city, I live in an apartment and haven’t interacted as much with my neighbours in many years as I did with my fellow volunteers in a few weeks.
Life at Sadhana
For my seva, I had the option of going into the forest and planting trees, building bunds (for water collection), helping with the cooking, or seeing to the maintenance of the community. I ended up trying all of these during my stay there.
As a volunteer, I was provided with accommodation in exchange for the seva. Sadhana asks all volunteers to pay for food. The whole community runs on donations from across the world but hasn’t yet reached a stage where it can provide food too. The food is all vegan and mostly organic. Since it is prepared by volunteers from all over the world, I got to try many cuisines such as Mongolian, Turkish, German, French, and Nigerian; the list goes on. My favourite remains the hummus by the Israeli team.
Seva would normally start by 06:30 am and go on till 8:30 am. After that, we would have breakfast, and then it would be seva time again till about mid-day. On most days, the volunteers are free to do what they want after lunch. I would go and explore Auroville, just lie in a hammock, or go for a swim in the mud pool. Yes, you read that right. The water table in the surrounding areas has increased considerably after Sadhana forest came into existence, creating a natural pool within the community, with natural clay at the bottom. The clay according to a lot of volunteers is very good for the skin. I tried it and my skin felt much softer and nourished after using it.
Embracing a new way of living
There were some challenges too that I faced. Waking up so early every day was not easy at all. It took me some time to get used to it. And the quietness of the surroundings was something very new for me. In the nights, it got really silent. There were times when I really needed some noise, but after a while, I began to embrace the quietness. Also, the experience of being with the soil was not very amusing at first. In the city, people hardly have any contact with the soil, and I had no idea what I was missing out on. Pretty soon, I started walking without any footwear and found it truly more comfortable than having something under the feet.
I would wait for the evenings quite eagerly. Every evening, there would be some activity. Wednesdays had open stage, popularly known as the non-talent show in Sadhana. Fridays would be movie nights and Thursdays were dinner outside the community when most of the volunteers would go to Auroville or try the local eateries in the neighbouring village known as 'Koot road.' In my case, one could find me at one of the pizza joints munching on the delicious vegan pizzas. The fact that we went to a lot of these places cycling made the food taste even better.
What’s really beautiful is that I could, all this while, be in harmony with nature. And it was so easy. I realised I could have a great time while also being in tune with nature. Let me tell you, it is an amazing feeling. When I did get back to the city, I brought back a part of Sadhana with me. Needless to say, my life became highly influenced by the time I spent there. I still keep going there often. The forest keeps growing and there are many changes and many new faces. What doesn’t change is the feeling of being 'Home!'
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