A Nearly Lost Art : Mughal Stone Work at the Taj Mahal

On the final day of this practicum, a few students took the opportunity to explore Agra and its cultural heritage. The Taj Mahal is located there and is a shining example of Mughal hardstone carving, an art that is nearly lost today.

Day time Taj Mahal, southern view.

After visiting this great monument and seeing the grand-scale of this work, we visited a small workshop of artisans who are continuing this extremely manual, fragile, and amazing art form. Each inlaid piece is ground by hand!

These complex carvings into the marble of the Taj Mahal were made for each semi-precious stone that would be inlaid into it so that each design would be flush against the marble. The effect is stunning.

Photo Credit - http://www.taj-mahal.net/augEng/textMM/materialsengN.htm

Intricate inlays of flowers set into the marble of the Taj Mahal’s interior.

Photo Credit - http://www.taj-mahal.net/augEng/textMM/materialsengN.htm

A close up of one of the inlaid patterns.

This was an amazing last day to spend in India as part of this practicum. To be able to visit this UNESCO World Heritage site, then meet some of the artisans who are trying to preserve this Mughal art which made it.

By Felicity Foster

Thoughts on economic-, environmental- and cultural sustainability

Us westerners backpack through India and South East Asia wearing all the same uniform; alibaba pants, a loose tanktop and a mulitude of various bracelets decorating our wrists. We buy these attributes along Khao San Road in Bangkok, Kuta beach, Bali or just about anywhere in Goa, India. These are clothes and bracelets that locals would never wear but that are solely there for tourists to buy. Clothes, jewelry and souvenirs in this part of the world are many times ridiculously cheap by American, German or Swedish standards and we buy them in large quantities, tempted by the price and out of desire rather than need. After we return back home from our travels, we unpack our backpacks and soon realize that those alibaba pants were cool on the Phi Phi Islands but that they will never see daylight again when taken back to our regular setting of Paris or Stockholm. The colorful alibaba pants are tucked away to the darker areas of our closets and added to the ever growing pile of things that we don’t actually need.

From a sustainainable point of view, this behaviour of ours is problematic. As most familiar with theoretical writings on sustainable development, the concept is usually referred to as resting on four pillars comprising; environmental-, economic-, social- and cultural sustainable development. When all pillars are taken into consideration, development is the ability to meet the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability for future generations to meet their own needs. When buying pants, shirts and accessories that often are of low quality and that will be fashionable only for a very limited amount of time, it is troublesome from an environmental perspective. The dying of cotton pollutes rivers and plastic is essentially extracted from fossil fuels, just to give a few examples of how every material thing that we own has an impact on mother earth.

When looked at from the angle of cultural sustainablility, additional problems are to be found. Much of what we purchase are items that are specifically designed for tourists, often with the asemblance of local culture to convince us we are consuming local and culturally indigenous products. Our choice of purchases thereby do not support and contribute to the continuing existence of local culture but rather encourage further production of products oriented merely for foreigners. At the risk of exaggerating I would like to at least issue a warning that our consumption pattern in these countries are to some degree threatening the development and diffusion of local culture expressed through for example arts, clothing and jewelry.

Indeed, travellers like myself and others are, in many aspects, contributing to much needed economical development in third world countries through our consumption. Through expanded tourism, previously poor and deprived areas have been able to create a better life for themselves and their families. The flow of money has increased and economically contributed to development which is, no doubt about it, much welcomed. Economical development is by all means a beautiful thing when it contributes to the eradication of poverty and brings about brighter futures for people. But, it has a tendency to be over shadowed by other equally important aspects of sustainable development such as cultural and environmental degradation.

A somewhat sustainable depression

A somewhat sustainable depression A few days ago now, a few of us students visited Sadhana Forest. Sadhana Forest engages in tons of awesome sustainable projects but first and foremost concentrate on reforestation and water conservation. When we first arrived, we had a thorough demonstration on how to use their fully compostable toilets and I think I speak for more than myself when saying that putting our newly acquired knowledge into practice was somewhat nervously carried out. We were taken on a guided tour on the grounds and ended up in their main hut where a documentary was shown and we were served a great vegan dinner before getting on the bus taking us home.

Overall, it was a very inspirational and great visit showing that some people are indeed willing to go to great lengths to live sustainably. One the one hand, I would say that we could all use a little bit more of Sadhana Forest inspired thinking in our lives in order to live sustainably. The work that they do is nothing less than admirable. On the other hand though, I couldn’t help but feeling a little exhausted and bewildered, do we all have to turn into vegans and stop using toilet paper in order to have the slightest chance of not destroying the planet we inhabit within the next fifty years or so? How can an average person like myself, who likes travelling to distant places and hot showers, be a part of a movement towards sustainable living? The thought of giving up taken for granted comforts like flying, an occasional soda and butter on my bread scares me.

I consider myself a person who take steps towards lessening my ecological footprint but after my visit to Sadhana Forest, I realize that there is so much more that I can do. I used to give myself credit for choosing vegetarian and organic food, for not having a car and for recycling meticulously. Partly because of the visit to Sadhana Forest I have come to better understand that small behavior changes like the ones I have adopted matter little in terms of enabling a bright and green future for generations to come. And honestly, realizing that makes me feel paralyzed more than anything else. I’m sorry to say, but that hardcore vegan-, almost no electricity-, hut life lived in Sadhana Forest is not for me. Yet, I sincerely want to be a part of the movement towards a sustainable future. Is there a middle road or is it perhaps time for me and others to step up our game and start making some radical changes in our lives, Sadhana Forest style?

Among the Roots

What is sustainability? As we visited over two dozen NGOs and projects in Auroville, our class was fortunate enough to witness a diverse collection of groups, individuals and their endeavours to reach a sustainable system of supporting their projects, enterprises and businesses.

When we keep in mind that the concept of sustainability is most promising when it is applied not only to environmental and business development, but also to the people involved and their well being and ability to provide for themselves, the approaches we take in attempt to reach sustainable systems become more challenging, more intricate and more demanding of slow and careful consideration.

There were many NGO’s and projects that were inspiring and tempting to work with, my first plan was to work in the Pitchandilkulan forest, with the social enterprise and business Amirtha Herbal. This was still my plan even after being exposed to so many other inspiring options, and it’s proven to be a wonderful decision. Amirtha Herbal is a woman’s social enterprise before it is a business, and it’s three highest priorities are working towards the empowerment of local woman, creating opportunities for financial independence, and working to integrate traditional indigenous healing knowledge into local healthcare practices. The prioritisation of the local woman’s welfare has been impressive in that it demonstrates an action-based, and not simply theory or label-based commitment to those whose wisdom, knowledge, time and work make Amirtha Herbals possible in the first place. I have seen a truly sustainable motion towards supporting and evolving their project.

Amirtha Herbal, in addition to being a sustainable social enterprise, business and support of indigenous woman, is also a part of the beautiful Pitchandikulam Forest restoration site which includes a bio-resource center, an ethno-medicinal collection of 300 plants, and community outreach activities and workshops that are offered to all and others particularly for the local indigenous communities. Approaching all business endeavours primarily as human-concerned, love-based social enterprises, as Amirtha has, would be a benefit to all involved and to those watching at a distance; that is an experienced and observed sense of sustainability, or at least a strive towards it. The success of Amirtha Herbal has recently been mentioned on the cover page of the Auroville Today Newspaper in the article Heeding the Call: Sustainability for South India and Beyond.

Sustainability, just as it is exemplified in nature, begins in the roots, and is woven through each element of the whole. Perhaps it is time to see that people are among the roots of everything that we, as people, create. And not only in theory but in practice, both when eyes are watching and when they are not.

The one who stayed in India – AUP


I am a seasoned traveler and have tried to adapt to the culture that I am immersed in. Living in Auroville, you get used to the mosquitos, the sound of spiritual music at 6am, the cows in the road, and the spice in the food. You get used to your life in that place. But can you truly immerse yourself in a different culture?

I believe you can’t go to India without it changing you, without some poi ritual reflection on how you are living your life and how you can improve. There is some sort of magic in this place that allows you the meditation to truly examine who you are inside.

Auroville, prides itself on being a sustainable change from normal towns and cities, a new approach to how to live and involving all of their citizens into this change for what they believe to be a better future. Everyone here, are all citizens of the world, citizens of their home bit of also Auroville, meaning that maybe a heart can belong in several places at once. I have a good portion of my life trying to forget where I came from and attempting to adopt a new place for my heart to belong.

When we first arrived we were informed of snakes, scorpions, and other poisonous creatures to look out for. “Snakes are no big deal,” is what they try to assure us. Auroville, is a place where you get closer to nature, you live amongst all living things. But growing up in a city, snakes are to be feared and killed. In the city, you are not trying to become one with nature, you are trying to overpower nature. Just when I thought I had accepted this new natural lifestyle, a snake slithered out of a yoga mat one morning. In a blink that mat was dropped to the ground and two of us went flying out of the room screaming. This is not how you act when you are one with nature.

In a split second, I was sent back to my roots. But maybe that’s what Auroville was supposed to teach me. Just like a tree, your roots keep you planted when the wind blows and they strengthen you to grow taller. Without roots, would I be able to stand at all? So maybe, Auroville has the right idea, one’s heart can belong to many places but keeping your roots is a essential for a strong foundation.



Kara Ferguson

American University of Paris

Holistic Approach


A lot of the lectures I have attended here in Auroville frequently mentions the importance of thinking holistically. Essentially it would mean not trying to implement sanctions against a problems as soon as you see it arise but rather research to get to the root level or to see what is actually causing the problems in the first place. Many initiatives in Auroville attempts to think more about all of the aspects the intitiative or project might have an effect on. I think of it like the cyclical events that governs all  events in nature beyond man’s control. To me it makes sense to incorporate this thinking into all ventures we engage in as it would be more viable long-term as I see our current systems of long-term thinking failing all the time, they do not solve the problems they say they will, i.e development goals etc.

Today many areas of development are still too concentrated on to the short-term way of thinking of economics which limits it’s scope to taking into consideration the  long-term perspective. The lectures continually brought up the long-term economic benefits of ones actions as less money would be spent trying to fixe the new problems that aroses from not analyzing in deepth  the root problems.

I am thinking specifically about the Pondicherry Harbor which is supposed to stand for development, but actually caused a lot of environmental damage because it disturbed the natural distribution of sand along the coastline. This sand is what constantly recreates the shoreline, or the beach. The beach is needed to stop the ocean from eroding land mass higher up from   the beach. This also apparently led to more salt water leaking in to underwater aquifers which is used by people in general and in agriculture. This also meant the soil became less fertile due to increased salt levels. The solutions at first were to build sea-walls which solved the problem along one part of the beach but then added to erosion further up the beach thus adding to the problem.

A lot of money was spent trying to mitigate all of these side effects instead of actually seeing the root cause of the problem, which was the harbor itself. Problem however is that even if the root problems is identified it is still not being taken care of because the harbor is needed for “development”. However the cost to solve this problem far exceeds what it would cost to adress the root problem. As a consequence of one act carried out in the name of development thousands of people are loosing their livelihood that was dependant on the beach. To this must be added the innumerable effects it will have  on the agriculture side. My point is that it would be far more economically viable to scrap the ideas of constructing harbors in favor of finding a better solution that does not damage the natural occuring processes that we inevitably depend on.

//Joel Hellström

Linnaeus University

Presenting Change

January 10th was a deadline, but also a monument of our trip. We presented the projects we had created for the varied organizations of Auroville and Pondicherry, explaining the process of working with them and adapting ourselves to their missions and needs. It called for reflection on what the experience had meant to us, if we thought we’d contributed to lifting them up into the light of the public eye. Everyone seemed a tad nervous, and excited, as we trickled into the auditorium.

What was clear with each slide was that everyone’s experience was unique. There were dozens of frustrations and disappointments that had had to overcome. Our reactions to these had gone from hopelessness to inspiration. The way we maneuvered around them was our own.

Every organization had specific assumptions of what it needed, and some that had clearer planning and understanding of the public perception guided us students very easily in what seemed to be the most effective campaign or publicity for them. Others had sat back, presented themselves and let us evaluate how we could best create an image to represent them in all their virtue with freedom. The best would have been a perfect match. “We need you to do this!” says the NGO. “Perfect, that’s what exactly I wanted to do!”

But no, everyone had negotiated. They’d sat down with their developmental clients, their limited knowledge and resources, and figured out how best to proceed with the situation at hand. Like most change-builders in action, they had to confront a problem that was holding the world back and find a solution.

As students trying to contribute, we were handling all of these negotiations with our projects and NGOs at the same time that we were negotiating with ourselves, asking, “Can I do this? Is this the best way to help?” Exploring our interest in mediums and sympathy with fellow activists. It was a personal development that we faced in these challenges, as much as sustainable development.

At the end of it, no matter what, everybody’s enlightened, just a little bit more. Everyone has a slightly clearer picture of another side of the world. We’ve made friends, we’ve faced fears. We’ve laughed off the little quirks of new countries and built campaigns to serve a higher purpose. How do you fit that in a PowerPoint?