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Auroville Adventure

September 2002

From the heart of a dry south India


(This is an edited version of a piece which originally was published in the newsletter of the Singapore Sri Aurobindo Society)

Joss writes about Auroville and its environs in the midst of a long hot summer

In thirty summers it has never been this dry. The Kurrukoppilli seeds fell earlier this year, the cashew crop was a failure, and there is hardly a mango on the trees. All morning we were scrambling around in a merciless thorn scrub forest, searching for seeds and wild animal scats. It was 43 degrees. At midday we sheltered in the meager shade of an ancient fertility tree festooned with colourful cloth wish bags and listened to stories from an old villager who was mending his fish trap with a vine from the forest.

A scattering of brown and white quills on the ground indicated the possible drama of a spiky encounter. When threatened the porcupine rushes backwards at its foe, impaling it. It can kill a tiger or panther.

There is so little unmanipulated habitat in this part of the world. We search for seed and plant material in small mostly degenerate patches of evergreen forests and scrub jungles. In Auroville the arks of biodiversity that we have created become more detailed as we wait for better times when wild, indigenous, natural and sacred will be appreciated again. Much time is spent dealing with so-called wasteland, looking out for spaces that nobody really wants, where we could plant a bit of indigenous vegetation. Good land, for most people, means it is OK for agriculture, and it seems the word 'cultivation' generally implies a movement away from natural processes. Anyway, we know that parts of more than one hundred wild plants in Pitchandikulam are edible without even cooking, and that still 400 species are used as medicine by people in our bioregion.

In the early morning light old squirrel nests sway high in the leafless bamboo. Everywhere seeds are silhouetted, shining, swelling, falling, exploding, flying off in the already hot breeze following the summer rhythms, the pattern language of rejuvenation. Tiny mosquito size bees swarm around an old log in the forest. The honey is strong and sour. The powerful antifungal properties in these wild hives can be used against the terrible monsoon skin complaints that ulcerate the feet.

A shikra swoops from its hiding place in the thick foliage of a lepisantis tree. A lizard is caught in steely talons and a nearby bevy of babblers scatter hysterically. The jagged patterns of a saw-scaled viper disappear into a rat hole. It probably ate the occupants and now lives there. Mother mongoose passes with three trainees in tow. The little ones stop when she stops, all look around together, one foot raised, alert. She might have four litters a year.

Choose your programme

I drive the motorbike to Pondicherry to work with friends redesigning the town's Botanical Gardens, established by the French some 200 years ago. Along Mahatma Gandhi road one passes the Golden Hour Trauma Centre and Dr. Ram's College of Cosmology in between the Virgo Wine Shop and the old lady sitting on the pavement outside the temple who has been selling jasmine in the same place for the 30 years I've been passing by. The show goes on. Water buffalo and auto-rickshaws mingle with a thousand motorbikes on the never-ending Indian main street festooned with communist flags, huge cut-outs of film stars and politicians. All is seemingly tied together by myriads of mad mingled cables and wires criss-crossing the street above the awesome silver dish forests of satellite receptors on every rooftop. A Tamil movie, the World Cup or a nuclear war...choose your programme.
Later, I meet our Pitchandikulam team together with 50 schoolchildren enthusiastically involved in a village mapping exercise. A huge multicoloured plan is being drawn on the road outside the temple. A crowd has formed to debate whether the information is correct. Someone arrives with a pot of lemongrass tea and a basket of palmfruit. Since early morning, transect walks have been done by the children, collecting plants, identifying trees and places, recording where the skilled people, particularly the healers, live. We sit under a peepul tree with the village midwife, and a bright-eyed young man who is a bone-setter, identifying some 150 plants the children have collected. The children know many of the medicinal and cultural uses of the plants. The discussion is animated and interspersed with songs about the local environment. An old man tells us about the other bits and pieces that he mixes with plants to make medicines. Pigeon droppings for chest pain, cow's urine for jaundice, horse hair for warts, peacock feathers for vomiting and, of course, everyone knows that hare droppings are good for children's diarrhea.

Keeping traditions alive

Increasingly, knowledgeable people who work in laboratories are interested in this information that old people squatting in a dusty street might know. We work closely with groups who believe that indigenous traditions are alive, growing and mutating. It is not simply bringing back her past, but a deeply serious effort to add depth and the cultural diversity from thousands of different ethnic groups of India into the fabric of modern society. Through all this the thread of the story so often comes back to the importance of indigenous plants, of conserving wilderness, of creating sanctuaries and protecting sacred groves with their deities. One often senses that some of these gods were there before the agricultural religions were established. Through imprisoning plants in monoculture systems we have, perhaps, imprisoned ourselves.
A coppersmith call echoes through the forest that we have nurtured over these last three decades. When one is quiet and away from the latest project, it is clear that the nature spirits have always been here, though it feels they are sometimes a bit wary these days about modern developing India, pressing in from all sides.

I watch closely the spider sitting on its orb web, plucking the spokes like a harp. A difference in tension could indicate a captured prey. To conserve protein, spiders eat old webs before building new ones. In the contagion of modern schools, full of uniformed children with collars, ties and shiny shoes, does the curriculum include a language of smells? Do the children get taught to touch?

A hare hiding in its patch of tall grass leaps out wildly when I approach, disturbing a family of quails as it bounds towards the safety of the forest. The evening light shines through the defiant new copper-tinged lagerstroemia leaves. One can hear the tree murmur, "Even if two monsoons have been a failure, I will endure". The Mother called the flowers, 'Intimacy with the Divine'. LightningCivet cat, by Eric flashes away far to the north. Soon rest will come to many players in our magic mystery forest theatre. In the quiet of the evening, away from the busy dust of the day, it is easier to weave oneself into a song that celebrates this place, these plants, the soil, the animals and smaller things, nurturing our own culture and myth, those dimensions that help us understand our role in the ecosystem.

The little scops owl calls gently, civet cats scramble in the palmyra leaves, all sorts of wonder waits, poised. Jackals sing in the open field as the moon rises over Pitchandikulam.

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