A birdsong wakes me up. It's not yet dawn, the moon is still full. There are no walls in the hut where I'm sleeping. It's a frame of granite pillars and logs with a steeply raked canvas roof. All sounds float through. Besides the birds there are many different songs whose creators I don't know there are cockcrows from villages which surround Sadhana Forest . The forest covers 70 acres of land west of the Puducherry-Tindivanam Road and is a new Auroville project. It was started by Aviram and Yorit who, together with their daughter Osher, settled the land in December 2003 to start a water conservation and tree planting project.
A volunteer transports soil for building bunds in the early morning
Around me people are asleep on wooden charpoys, framed beds with braided rope base. These are surprisingly comfortable. I lie under my mosquito net listening to the birds and watching the mist in the trees a few metres away. My world right now is both beautiful and peaceful. It's still dark when the first sounds of a tabla come drifting into the sleeping hut. It's our wake-up call. The instrument varies but the time is always the same. A quarter to six in the morning and Aviram is about to start his morning chant and meditation session.
Those joining, hurry off to the hut we call the living room, others roll over for a bit more sleep. The first working session will start at 6.30, after the meditators finish. Then we'll all go to the tool shed, gather what we need, and make our way into the forest. It's only just light and dew still lies heavily on the ground. Those who didn't cover their clothes the night before find the damp has penetrated our wall-less hut when they reach for them in the morning.
In the forest, right now, we are making bunds. To be more exact we're digging ponds and making bunds. The earth that comes out of one goes into the making of the other. We are quickly learning that reforestation is also about increasing water supply and preventing erosion. Planting new trees is only part of it.
At the work area those with rakes and bags collect old leaves and other plant debris from the ground for spreading around newly planted trees. Those with crowbars use gravity to chip away at the sides of the holes that will become the new ponds.
Make them beautiful shapes, urges Aviram, people will walk past here and they must see beautiful shapes.
The volunteers scratch their heads. What is a beautiful shape? A coiled circle, like a snail's shell? A loose figure eight? A freeform heart?
Different ponds start to take shape. Inside the hole a volunteer breaks the heavy clay with a pickaxe. The loosened dirt is scooped up by mumptys into chettys and baskets and passed by a human chain to where the bund is being created. There it is tipped out, spread evenly and then tamped down by many feet shuffling sideways along the top.
After two hours of work we go back to the compound. Another group has spent the past hours peeling and chopping fruit and making ragi, or maybe a rice porridge. Whatever, it will be hot and have bananas and peanuts in it. The rest of the fruit pineapples, oranges, papaya, pomegranates, mosambi, tangerines becomes a fresh fruit salad, bowls of which will be consumed by hungry volunteers.
Everyone here, other than Aviram and Yorit, is a volunteer. There are over 60 people from around the world, all of them staying for at least two weeks. Many stay longer, some for many months. Whatever length of time a person stays, though, he or she is warmly welcomed into this forest community. Accommodation is provided in a series of huts and dormitories. Everyone contributes Rs100 a day to cover the cost of three generous meals and each newcomer is issued with environmentally friendly soap, shampoo and toothpaste.
The environment is a constant presence. Everything is set up to minimise harmful effects in ways both large and small. All the food is vegan, there are very few waste products that can't be composted or recycled, efficient wood-burning rocket' stoves are used for cooking, and solar panels provide energy to run lights and computers and to allow the recharging of the numerous gadgets the volunteers bring with them. For laundry we use soap nuts from the Sapindus trifoliatus tree. After 24 hours of soaking the nuts they release a soap-like substance which cleans even the dirtiest of stains.
Breakfast over, it's time for another couple of hours of work. Second work is often in or around the compound. It might be maintaining the showers, toilets, laundry areas and kitchen, tending the vegetable gardens, cutting the grass, or clearing runoff drains. Any of the hundred and one things that need care and attention for the project to succeed. By now the sun is high in the sky and water bottles are kept within easy reach. We filter groundwater for drinking, it's very soft and sweet.
Somewhere between 11.30 and mid-day most people have finished their rostered work for the day. There are still individual tasks to be done and calls for volunteers go out as incidental jobs crop up. For the bulk of us, though it's time to relax. Maybe a shower before lunch, or a swing in one of the hammocks. There's always someone on the computer, catching up on mail or doing a bit of research. Plans are made for the afternoon maybe the beach, or the mud pool which is said to be very good for the skin. Or a jaunt into Puducherry or around Auroville.
But first there's lunch. It's the main meal of the day and we're lucky to have Nadav in charge of the kitchen, he's a wizard at creating tasty meals with a variety of flavours, day after day. There's always a big crowd. All the volunteers, newcomers who have arrived that morning, any other visitors who are around. Lots of chat there's no hurry to go anywhere who won't be here for dinner? Andrew is giving a tai chi lesson at two, there's yoga at four, a workshop tomorrow. Will the people in charge of filling the water filters make sure it's done?
So the day winds on. Time to read, time to exercise, time to snooze. Mopeds and motor scooters are hired. Bikes are available for those with the energy to pedal. Although we're away from the centre of Auroville it's not hard to get in and out, we're not far from the main road to Puducherry or the beach, so there's no shortage of places to go for those who want to explore the area.
Dinner is usually a smaller affair. A number of us will be out. It's eaten in the dining room, another open-walled, thatched-roofed structure, where we sit on mats on the tamped earth. Afterwards it's a short stroll to the living room, where there's conversation and laughter until, eyes drooping, I wish people goodnight and go to my bed for another deep, dreamless sleep until the pre-dawn chorus of birdsong again starts a new day.
Photo credits: Photo Elle Rasink