When in 1983 we gave Shakti its name and laid out its borders it was hardly more than 30 acres of sand and dust, cut through by three gullys. It was a plot consisting of abandoned fields with a good layer of top soil. Apart from a line of thorny scrub along one of the gullies, there was only one lone palm tree in sight – a Phoenix sylvestris, rising from the middle of nowhere. That was the time of terrible dust storms in summer and heavy erosion during the monsoon rains.
The first year was spent in planting a living fence, bunding, and constructing three systems of tanks to collect all the rain water run-off coming from the higher-up places in Auroville. Towards the end of that same year, a 120 metre deep bore well was sunk and simultaneously an open reserve tank, with a capacity of 600 cubic metres was built on the highest point of the land. It was connected with an underground water distribution system so that all of Shakti could be watered by gravity. About 3 acres of land was set apart as residential zone and garden area.
Afforestation was taken up in the following year. A tree was planted at 2 metre intervals, mostly the exotic Acacia auriculiformis, since this species was readily available in a Forest Department nursery north of Auroville. A small plot was put under another exotic, Acacia holosericea, which was a firewood crop. We were told that they both thrive in any kind of soil, grow fast, and are drought resistant. Indeed it only took two years for these Acacias to put an end to the dust storms. At the same time they covered the soil with leaf litter, checked erosion, and through their root system made the rainwater percolate and thus created a much more natural environment. And in just 10 years after planting, they began providing us with timber for our furniture.
Another activity that originated in Shakti was the publication of the ‘Auroville Index Seminum'. The first one published in 1982 had a modest listing of 194 species, and in the last one which was sent to more than 500 Botanical Gardens and universities, 611 species were offered for exchange. It has been printed yearly till 1995 which was the year that the ‘Biodiversity Act India ' was enacted and which made it virtually impossible to send or receive plant material.
Through this Index we got access to seeds from all over the world and as a result many exotics were grown in our nursery. In 1985, we decided to try and establish a botanical garden in Shakti and from 1985 through 1988 we introduced 377 different species in the forest area. But it proved to be too early in the history of Auroville to start a botanical garden, since the funds that came in were needed for more pressing needs, such as roads, housing, electricity etc. Added to that, our limited acreage was too small for the proper outlay of a botanical garden.
Slowly we began concentrating more and more on the introduction of indigenous species, until in 1994 we finally gave up on the idea of creating a botanical garden in Shakti and decided to transform all our available space into a plot of indigenous forest, the Tropical Dry Evergreen Forest (TDEF). For about two years we went, almost weekly, to a nearby sacred grove with a remnant of TDEF, and brought home seeds from every species we would find.
We had also received a grant from the Foundation for the Revitalisation of Local Health Traditions (FRLHT) to set up a nursery especially for the propagation of species of the TDEF. The nursery was run by Christina who maintained a data base on seed viability, pre-treatment and germination, sun or shade requirements, and survival rates. By 1999 we had 125 different species of the TDEF in our nursery, totalling 53,500 seedlings.
The last missing TDEF species, Ximenia americana , was finally planted in 2007. By that time the natural regeneration was quite remarkable and the forest had actually become dense. Most of the exotic species from the early time had died out and apart from the Acacia auriculiformis, almost all the natural regeneration was by species from the TDEF. The Acacias were allowed to regenerate in some areas to provide timber, but are thinned out on a regular basis.
From 2004 onwards, students of botany from the Pondicherry University came to visit the forest for their field studies. Following that, contacts were made with the village schools around Auroville to try and find a way of making those young people aware of the richness and value of their indigenous forest. So a forest walk was laid out and labels, with local and botanical names, were attached to 245 trees and shrubs. In addition, a small booklet was printed giving information on 25 of the more important trees.
The FRLHT funding enabled us to construct the ‘Auro Herbarium' whose purpose is to represent the TDEF with collections from the remaining pockets of that forest type from over its entire geographical distribution, i.e. Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. This was to also include a representation of the invading flora in disturbed, degraded and denuded areas.
However, the Auro Herbarium has grown in scope with funding from the Andaman and Nicobar Islands Environmental Team (ANET) which added a considerable list of the island species to the inventory. Also, a few students of botany deposited their private collections in the Auro Herbarium.
Now the herbarium houses approximately 15,000 specimens in the main area, and about half as many in the duplicate section, totally consisting of 269 families and 3288 genera.
In 1990 when Shakti decided to conduct a survey of all the plants introduced till then, it found that 19 species had made their appearance without being introduced: 2 trees, 13 shrubs, 2 sub-shrubs and 2 vines.
Two years later, another extensive survey on the natural regeneration of flowering plants in the same area found a total of 227 species from 57 families.
Most of these had come naturally without any human interference, although quite a few introduced species had also multiplied.
In 2003, when the survey of grasses and sedges was done, 30 species in the family Poaceae (grasses) were identified of which only 2 had been introduced.
And of all the 10 species recorded from the Cyperaceae family (sedges), none had been introduced by humans!
See also the web page on Shakti