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March '03

Priya's Earth and Sky












- by Abha Prakash


Search for a holistic life

When Priya Vincent was doing her doctorate in sociology at the University of Surrey in the mid-seventies, she probably hadn't imagined she would one day enjoy making compost for her organic vegetable farm in a remote corner of South India. Such occupational makeovers are, however, quite common in Auroville. A British policeman turned into a village school principal, a task he carried out admirably for years. A chemical analyst from Russia shifted to energy massage and teaching yoga. A former airline attendant still runs a successful knitwear venture. Evidently, people who join the Auroville adventure somehow leave their old selves behind. For many, Auroville is the site of their transformation into the individuals they were meant to be but hadn't been able to become. For some the process of transformation began dramatically as with a change of name, for others it was a deeper and much more gradual process. Part of becoming Aurovilian involves an openness to experimenting with areas of work that are generally poles apart from what one has been accustomed to doing in the society one consciously left behind. Or using the skills one has but in a different way.

Having moved to various places and with various people in order that she could express "something that needed to be expressed at that time," Priya joined Auroville with the recognition that "this was the place for [her] to be." Having worked for fifteen years in market research companies subsequent to finishing her doctorate, she had since the late eighties become more and more interested in balancing her work with the needs of her inner self. While the name change happened as a consequence of her association with the Rajneesh Commune in England, deeper changes began taking place as she started experimenting with more sustainable practices of living. This experimentation was facilitated when she and her former partner, along with Emma, their eldest daughter (then eleven months old), moved from Europe to Malaysia where they lived in traditional communities. During this fruitful period of her life, Priya authored Birth without Doctors (Earthscan, 1991) and Birth Traditions and Modern Pregnancy Care (Element, 1992). Her interest in alternative healing and health intensified her need for a more holistic living experience where she could engage with the land in a meaningful way. Living close to the earth, Priya felt, would also enhance her other interests such as painting and writing poetry.

Call of the Earth

When in 1996 Priya, now a single parent with two growing daughters, joined Auroville she turned her attention to setting up a farm, having already accrued some experience and personal joy in this area when she lived in Kodaikanal, also in Tamil Nadu. It took her several years, however, before she could find a place to farm in Auroville. Not daunted by the degraded one-acre plot of land that was eventually offered to her, Priya named it 'Buddha Garden', a place she believed would balance her inner healing with the healing of the earth. Thus in 2000 began another one of Priya's journeys this time towards satisfying the practical needs of the community through involvement of the self with earth. Buddha Garden, situated in the western part of Auroville, became the canvas for Priya's literal and poetic exploration of the earth and her own inner sky.

Inviting my hands
To sense its essence.
Empower her fruitfulness.
("Earth's Asking")

Setting up the farm infrastructure was not easy, however, as Priya documents in her book How My Garden Grew (Auroville Press, 2002). Her confrontations with a Tamil villager over the laying of her telephone cable, the frequent petty thefts, broken fences that had to be mended daily, the feeling of overwhelming tiredness that left her "feeling under siege" (p.96) make Priya's journal a human record of endurance and endeavour. Growing pest-free vegetables almost out of red dust and gravel was challenging, nerve-racking business which, sometimes, came with its set of unpredictable blessings - help from unexpected quarters; a rainbow after a thunderstorm; a poem:

My sky is the sky of flatlands
A massive dome of soaring infinity
Canvas for naked forces writ large and loud . . .
("Inner Sky")

Sustaining the self and the community

Despite her initial misgivings and feelings of frustration in the first year, Priya's farm began supplying vegetables and fruits to the Solar Kitchen, Visitor's Center cafeteria, and Pour Tous. This was due to the back-breaking efforts not only of Priya but also of Arjunan, her Aurovilian assistant, and the various volunteer workers who gave their cheerful energies for weeks or a couple of months at a time. We get to meet some of these volunteers in the video "Welcome to Buddha Garden" that was made recently.

The "vegetable growing" as Priya says in the video, is "only half the story" of Buddha's garden. The story of a single, western woman managing a farm in traditional Tamil Nadu in the face of resistance from some of her village neighbours, and her determination to create a different farming experience is perhaps the other half. Buddha Garden is different from other Auroville farms in that it does not rely on a steady pool of village farmhands. Priya's vision is not just to grow vegetables for the community but to have the community participate with the land. For Aurovilians to be together on a material basis means for her primarily "to grow food together, and build houses together." The commitment to community living, according to Priya, has to be somehow inbuilt within the Aurovilian organization, so that the rugged pioneer spirit of the old days is kept alive especially in relation to the earth.

Priya & Arjunan

To expand Buddha Garden, now a seven-acre plot, into a community farm that is sustainable for the earth and for Auroville is what Priya is working towards. Her future plans for the farm include growing cereal crops, to further develop her "mixed bags" (a variety of vegetables totaling a certain weight) scheme for which there is a growing demand in Auroville and to have additional accommodation built for the young volunteer workers, either Aurovilian or long term guests who want "to come and share in [her] life and work."



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