A green Utopia

Issue 01, 2020

A green Utopia

Saurabh Narang |author

Issue 01, 2020

At Auroville, a global township located in Southern India, residents have been practising sustainable living for years. And this maybe the solution to the global climate crisis

They grow their own food. Their necessities are powered by solar energy. The waste they produce is recycled. They live in complete harmony with the environment and each other in this global community of people from across more than 50 nations. For tourists, Auroville, or the city of dawn, seems like an utopian destination, where people practice sustainable living, bringing to life a once-deserted piece of land located between the Union Territory of Puducherry and the state of Tamil Nadu. Some residents also live off the grid (without any connection with the outside world). Envisioned by freedom fighter and philosopher Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Mirra Alfassa, the tenets of life here are centered on the concept of inner consciousness by the unity of the mind, body, and nature. As a result, there is a very evident social consciousness of the entire community towards sustainable and green living.

Auroville has two types of residents: permanent and temporary. One can either arrive here for a day’s guided tour or opt for a stay in one of the many clusters while participating in the daily work of the township. I volunteered at Solitude Farm, one such community, for 32 days.

A resident during a harvest session where all the volunteers work together to get fresh vegetables, fruits and flowers for the kitchen

Solitude Farm

Within a few hours of my arrival in Solitude Farm, I was greeted by a barrage of questions. “Where does your food come from? Do you know who grew it and if chemicals were used to grow that food? Do you know how your food is transported and how it is stored?” The questions were being asked by a gentleman dressed in a lungi (a type of sarong made out of a shirt-like garment, worn around the waist) with a piece of cloth tied around his head, a lot like farmers from the Indian hinterland. He is Englishman-turned-Aurovillian Krishna Mckenzie, the founder of Solitude Farm, an organic cultivation programme in Auroville. Mckenzie tells me that he moved from the UK to Auroville at the age of 19 to lead a simple life inspired by the teachings he had received in his school — Brockwood Park — founded by Indian philosopher and teacher J Krishnamurti. “I was greatly influenced by the philosophies of Masanobu Fukuoka, a Japanese zen master and farmer celebrated for being a proponent of natural farming. Fukuoka  believes in do-nothing-farming, which says that as nature is already perfect and there’s nothing one can do to improve upon it,” says Mckenzie.

After 25 years of living in Auroville, Mckenzie (though he prefers being addressed as Krishna) is today known as the founder of the six-acre Solitude Farm. Speaking fluent Tamil, he tells me about his Tamilian wife and two children, and how they imbibe the concepts of sustainable farming at the farm. “We have to be conscious not only of organic food but also about food miles and the ecological value of food,” he explains.

Life at work

Work for volunteers begins around 8 am every day and continues till around 12. I worked as a volunteer for four hours every alternate day. The volunteers can work in the farm or the attached cafe or indoor, depending upon the person’s skills and interests. The weekends are off! Volunteers are taught how to sow seeds, weed, water the plants and harvest the vegetables for meals. Activities also include compost making or helping in packaging farm produce for the market. One can offer to work indoors in administrative jobs as well. I chose to work outdoors in the farm and the experience of knowing where our food is coming from and being physically involved with day-to-day cultivation was very rewarding. Every morning I would wake up to a clear sky and chirping of birds and set off for work. At lunch, we sat together and enjoyed freshly-cooked meals prepared from the produce we had plucked from the farm –  the best example of the farm-to-table concept! There are several cafes in Auroville too, where one can pay and eat.

Krishna, who moved to Auroville from the UK, is now married to a Tamilian woman, has two children and is the founder of 6-acre Solitude farm

Soap making

One day, Mckenzie took us to his soap-making area to show us how he makes the organic multipurpose liquid soap that is used at the farm. “Mix three parts of lemon peel, one part jaggery and 10 parts of water. Stir the mix once a day and store in a closed container. Let it ferment for two weeks. After that, add equal amount of soapnut water (10 parts). Subsequently, the contents of the container will turn soapy and can be used to wash dishes, clothes and even for bathing,” he said, as he demonstrated the process. Life at Auroville is not just about being environmentally-conscious, it also strengthens the person-to-person connect; an example of how we can repair our social fabric.  After my work was over, I would go around Auroville, meet and photograph its residents. On one such occasion, I was invited to attend a session on sound healing – an innovative technique that initiates a better lifestyle through music and experiments with sound. I also had a chance encounter with Aurelio, who has been heading the sound healing programme at Auroville for the last 35 years! While the sounds Aurelio created instantly soothed me, he explained to me his experiments with sound, music and our changing perceptions.   

A volunteer cleaning peanuts to help the kitchen staff; A group of children engaged in making natural soap during a workshop at Solitude Farm

Slowing down

Before I had arrived at Auroville, I was apprehensive. But within a couple of days, I had adjusted to the alternative lifestyle. I was surprised how quickly I gave up urban amenities and got used to living without Internet connectivity, and using a dry compost toilet. Once, on a rainy day, I helped Mckenzie fetch manure from one end of his farm to another using a single wheelbarrow. It was hard labour and we slipped quite often on the muddy path but the simple activity was so fulfilling. Be it helping the residents with an aforestation drive at a nearby patch of land called Sadhna forest or photographing them as they went around doing their daily chores, my time at Auroville was one of the most enriching experiences of my life. Interestingly, I am still following the tenets of sustainable living that I imbibed at Auroville. In my daily city life, I keep a regular check on my carbon footprints: from using public transport and avoiding plastic to washing clothes manually, I have become extremely conscious about decreasing my dependence on automation. Maybe in this remote corner of India lies the solution to the problem that the entire planet is facing!

Saurabh Narang

Saurabh is an award-winning photographer and a creative consultant. Over the years, he has worked with fortune 500 companies, filmmakers, and renowned NGOs in different parts of the world. He has been published and exhibited across the world.
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