Sadhana forest is an international community on the outskirts of Auroville, Tamil Nadu, India. Volunteering in Auroville for one month from the middle of December until the middle of January was one of the many fulfilling works of the community. The community is a vegan environmental friendly cause which was founded 10 years ago by an Israeli family who decided to leave everything behind and move to India to start planting trees as their way of contributing to the Earth’s healing and proving that we can live in nature. 10 years ago, the area was a desert. Now, it is slowly becoming a growing forest! Over 28,000 trees have been planted over the years by over 1000 volunteers! There are around 30 long-term volunteers and between 60 to 150 people staying at the community at a time. Everyone is welcome. It doesn’t matter where you are from, what you believe in, which skills or limitations you might have or what age you are; you will be taken in as if it’s your home.
Every day starts at 05:30, being woken up by the wake up call volunteer of the day. It may be by singing, guitar, drums or whatever you feel like doing to wake up the people around you in a loving way. It better be something nice, or everyone will be grumpy the rest of the day! In Kai’s case, he decided to wake everyone up by singing, “Ahum banana… la banani… everybody loves banani!” with some of his Sadhana friends.
This song became a legendary song in the community and is still being performed by volunteers long after we left.
After waking up, you have 45 minutes to dress yourself, take a freezing bucket shower if you wish to and then go join the morning circle. There, another daily volunteer will be doing some kind of warm up exercise followed by hugging each other at the end. Yep! Sadhana is full of hugging, which we find is the best way to communicate more intimately with people and make friends. This is only a few of the many reasons why volunteering in Auroville has been a very pleasurable experience.
Then, you can either do your Seva (selfless work) by helping out in making breakfast, or going to the forest to plant trees. We normally choose going for an early morning walk in the forest to help with planting the trees. It’s a great way to start a day knowing that we helped bring more life to the Earth and expanded the amount of green vegetation and life around us.
Breakfast is fully vegan, like all the rest of the meals. I must say, that after a few days, I got pretty bored with the food there. It isn’t because you can’t make delicious vegan food (I actually turned vegan there and have found out that almost everything I ate before can be replaced in an even tastier form!), but because there is no variety in their kitchen and they don’t allow using too much salt and other spices. I totally get that. When you have to feed more than 100 people and try to satisfy the needs and tastes of everyone, it helps to keep salt & spices to a minimum. Dining together in the main hut is very beautiful. It was awesome having the servers, the runners and Kai (who always took his place as special runner), screaming, “SPECIALS! SPECIALS! ANYONE WANTS SPECIALS?!?” all over the place. He surely knows to get his bucket of attention from everyone around!
When everyone sits and has their plate, announcements are made. Before everyone starts eating, they share a moment of silence together. 120 people sit still in one room, and everyone is quiet for 2 minutes to appreciate the food that is served for them. Personally, I found it very beautiful.
After breakfast, the 2nd seva is more garden work, helping in the kitchen, hygiene maintenance or cleaning out the compost toilets. “Yuck!” is what most people would say to the last one, and that is what I said myself. But everyone I talked to who had done the job (sometimes for a whole week) told me that it was actually really meditative, you got it done quickly and that it was surprisingly loads of fun (no pun intended)! Somehow I still didn’t get myself to do it… maybe next time.
I normally helped with cooking lunch for 3 reasons: 1) It’s an easy job, even though you are always the last group to finish; 2) I love kitchen work and cooking. Cutting up vegetables is one of the many things I really love to meditate on; 3) It’s an extremely socially-inclined job. Imagine a group of 6-7 people sitting around a table cutting and chatting. For me it was a great way to socialize because it’s never silent around the table: telling where you come from, what your plans are, how you are enjoying Sadhana and the road. Sometimes, someone brings some music and everyone sings along. It is always full of laughter, and I enjoyed it more than I can describe. Even the washing of the big pots and cleaning the kitchen was kind of fun.
At 12:00, lunch is served and after that, you’re free! Free time was mostly spent reading, going to the mud pool, or riding our motorbike to Auroville, but mostly talking with the people in the community. Everyone was so friendly and helpful. Need a ride to Auroville? There was always someone who can take you. Are you sick? Someone surely volunteered to look after you and see that you drank enough water. Everyone was always ready to help or find someone who can help you. In this month, I probably got to know at least 150 people, and it’s impossible to dislike a single one of them. Of course, with some of them I became closer friends, and after a while, I found myself in a group of people that are closer and do a lot of things together, but there was always a new face to talk to, or a friend to hug goodbye. For me, it was a wonderful place to make friends, relax and laugh.
Of course, there were things that we liked less, like the fact that there was not much interaction with the villagers, except on Saturday and Sunday’s “Childrensland”, where local school kids come and play for a few hours. We had the idea, when we first arrived, that Sadhana Forest is all about working with the villagers. Now, they are opening a Sadhana forest in Haiti and a Sadhana forest in Kenya, where it seems from the videos and the explanation that it’s more about working with the locals- teaching them why they shouldn’t cut down the forest, how to plant trees and educating them about this super tree called Maya Nut that can provide enough food for one person for a whole year. In India, they have based themselves mostly on planting, with less interaction with the locals. When observing how many trees they’ve planted in just 10 years, it’s amazing to see what they have done in such a short period of time. A land that once was only sand and desert is now slowly becoming a growing forest!
Sadhana is all about recycling and living simply and sustainably, trying to reuse everything in order to finally achieve zero waste principals. While we were there, a group of American students was there as well and did a “Zero Waste” program that consisted of rebuilding the recycling hut and researching and suggesting how to make Sadhana “Zero Waste” as much as possible. After being in Sadhana, I feel much more aware of what I buy and if I can recycle whatever I use.
We were lucky enough to be there for Sadhana Forest’s 10th birthday. They did a Kabir Music Festival. Kabir was a mystic poet and Saint in mid 15th century in India.
For more than a week, all the Seva’s had been focused on making the festival happen. We were all occupied by making signs explaining about how to use compost toilets, where the food is and non-parking, clearing out a piece of land where the stage was to be on and preparing everything for the celebration. Between 300 and 1000 outsiders were expected to come, so there was a lot to do!
The day of the festival was a day full of workshops and talks, movies and face painting. In the evening, everyone went to the main stage, where buses with more and more people were arriving every hour. There was some talking, thanking and formal courtesies. Then, the performances started with classical Indian dancing. A beautiful traditional dancer, dressed up in pink and orange, began taking over the stage.
Different musicians played all night long, and the party only ended around 4 am. It was beautiful to see how a few people started dancing in the back, and suddenly within 20 minutes, 100 people were dancing and more and more joined!
Sadhana is always full of activities. Every evening there are different gatherings; it can be a technical meeting, sharing, or Eco film club. Everything is always done as a group… as a family.
Eco film club is something that goes on every Friday. People outside of Sadhana are invited to come to take a tour, watch a documentary, have dinner and feel the Sadhana vibes.
Another activity that I loved was the “Open Stage”, also known as the “Non-Talent Show”. Every Wednesday after dinner, the front of the main hut is made into a stage, and anyone is invited to perform whatever they want. You don’t know how to sing, but you always wanted to do it? This is the place to perform! No one is ashamed, and no one is judged. Everything is welcomed, even real talents. Open Stage is always filled with music, poetry, stories and dance, sometimes stretched out until late into the evening.
We had a wonderful and inspiring month in Sadhana, a place we would gladly return to since it gave us a strong feeling of home and lots of insight. From volunteering in Auroville, we made beautiful new friends and unforgettable memories. It was definitely a month that we will never forget!