Auroville Bamboo Centre

Karlee N.
“Who likes sugar?”
Do not look at each other and say “ We do!”  (what I remember most at the bamboo tour)

“What do you know about Bamboo?”  asked Sirach, an architect who started as a volunteer at the Auroville Bamboo Centre, and is now working permanently with new interns and volunteers to benefit from bamboo making.  Sirach’s simple question created a short silent moment among all of us, AUP Scholars?  “You can make A LOT OF things out of bamboo,”  “It is food for pandas,” “Bamboo makes good fishing rods” etc.

Auroville Bamboo Centre founded in 2009 as a sister branch of the Mohanam Community Centre, by “the man of ideas,” Balu.  Balu is also the co-founder/director of the Mohanam Community Centre of Cultural and Education.  The Centre was created with his vision to bring modernity and traditions together.   Balu stated that he started the bamboo center initially as a hobby.  His hobby has become an influential organization today due to his passion and hard work.  The center export bamboo products to funds for the variety of cultural projects.  The Bamboo Centre takes all volunteers and interns from all over the world for special workshops and seminars in bamboo products, construction, and design.  The Centre also invests in research for new sustainable bamboo products such as interior furniture for household needs.  Volunteers and interns at the center can benefit from gaining knowledge on bamboo, hands-on workshops and most importantly networking experience with their peers from around the world.  Moreover, the Bamboo center is empowering women and drop-outs in the rural areas to get training on making bamboo products to improve their living standards.

A day at the Bamboo Centre in Auroville is nothing but a fascinating experience.  During the tour of the center, while most of us were captivated by the attractiveness of Sirach’s passion for bamboo as an architect, we were more intrigued by the many things that created by women and volunteers at the center. Small house, furniture, bed frame, instruments, toys, scarfs, pencils, notebooks, jewelry, chopsticks, and other kitchen utensils,…  One will learn not only how to create the product out of bamboo at the bamboo center, but Sirach will also educate you on how to efficiently grow bamboo and what is the most efficient to utilize the different kinds of bamboo.  The bamboo center of Auroville is a safe place for expanding education, networking, and a pleasant environment.


“Not once had I seen an event this grandiose!”

Karlee N.

After enjoying a small yet warm Christmas Eve dinner with the 2016 India Practicum team at the Well Cafe in Auroville, India.  Three other classmates and I took a taxi to Pondicherry to attend the midnight mass, a Catholic tradition of my family.  It was a delightful and extraordinary to be shared between the four of us in a foreign land without our family.  We only had each other.  No words can explain my experience at the Christmas Eve midnight mass at La Cathedral de Notre Dame de L’Immaculée Conception in Pondicherry, India.

   Have you ever attended or drove by a church on Christmas, and the church building look like it will explode due to the capacity of people?

The taxi driver pulled up on Mission Street, but he could not enter the street as usual.  The entire road was closed and reserved for pedestrians who go to church.  Police and securities were guarding the area.  The bright decorations vanquished the stars in the sky.  The road filled with beautiful, vibrant dresses and sparkling jewelry.  Everyone came to celebrate the holiday with a mirthful heart.  People filled up seats on the benches inside the

cathedral and plastic stools outside in the cathedral’s yard.  People were sitting on the floor,  and it is not because the cathédrale is small.  Despite that, the astonishment was not their clothes, their jewelry, their decoration, but their faith.  Evidently, India is a nation dominated by Hinduism.  Holding the second largest population in the world with the total of 1,241,492,000 people, 80% of Indian practices Hinduism, and only less than one percent of the population is Catholic.  There are only 19,762,000 people are Catholic.  In comparison to the 20% of Americans who are “Catholic,” how many go to church regularly to practice Catholicism.  The old plastic statues outside of the churches in the U.S, an old painting of the nativity, and most importantly, the Christmas spirit in the U.S is incomparable to what I’ve discovered here, in India.
Have you ever had to make a decision between going to midnight mass or go to a house party?  It is not an option here, but a plan.  People had planned and prepared to go to midnight mass and no other options.

Is Christmas for us [in the West] all about the presents?

Are we actually celebrating the birth of Jesus?  The Indian Catholic is certainly a “small but mighty” group.  An eventful Christmas night in India complete with sitting on the ground with local women tentatively attends mass in Tamil and enjoy the cultural differences.



By: Morgan Speece

Everyday the Sun rises, alarm clocks go off and humans all over the globe drag themselves out of bed to perform a similar morning ritual. Autopilot to the kitchen, open the cabinet, pull out coffee, grab a mug, pour the grinds into a machine, press a button and wait impatiently while the machine produces a delicious aromatic caffeinated liquid. Day after day, we repeat the routine without stopping to wonder where those grinds we pull out of the cabinet came from, or who helped to produce that cup of coffee we will enjoy once the machine is finished brewing.


India is one of the top ten producers of coffee in the world, exporting approximately 300,000 tons per year. This may be shocking to many Starbucks-Coffee lovers whom are only familiar with coffee from places such as Kenya, Ethiopia, Columbia and Indonesia. The lack of knowledge and accessibility of fine Indian coffee is mainly because the majority of India’s exported coffee is blended into big brand coffees such as Nestle and never is cultivated purely as 100% fine Indian Coffee.


Marcs Coffee in Auroville, India has transformed Indian Coffee production from the ground up. Driven by the idea that no one in his or her right mind would want an anonymous cup of coffee, Marc Altimira became obsessed with seed-to-cup mentality. Seed-to-cup essentially means just that, to be intimately involved in every step of the coffee making process. From the planting of the seed to the beautiful smell of coffee brewing that fills every cafe on this globe. In 2008, Marc founded Coffeeideas!, one of the very first companies in India to roast high quality certified coffees (bio-dynamic, organic, fair trade and UTZ certified). To this day, Marc consistently meets with his farmers, teaching them how to farm organically and continually goes to harvest to achieve the best quality coffee.


Marc’s journey with coffee did not start in India. At the age of 23, he started a boutique coffee shop with his sister in Barcelona. Since then, he has traveled all over the world studying and working with coffee to hone his knowledge in producing world-class coffees.

“If you deeply specialize in something, there will always be a job for you,”

Marc reflected to us as we were sipping on cups of his delicious and carefully cultivated coffee. Marc runs two cafes in Auroville, Marc’s Coffee, which is located in Kuilapalayam village and Dreamer’s Café, in Auroville’s visitor center. He gets about 2,000 visitors per day to his shops. Dreamer’s Café, is actually entirely solar powered, and everything in both shops, besides the machines that roast his coffee, are made out of recycled materials, bringing his concept to whole new level of social consciousness. With eight different varieties of coffee currently, Marc is passionate about continually evolving and expanding the seed-to-cup mentality to seed-to-plate mentality in all of his baked goods.

Check out Marc’s Coffee here:


Naturellement Café: A Love Experiment

By: Jon Daniel McKiever

This past week has been filled with meeting incredible individuals who are impassioned by the desire to improve the lives of those around them. Martina Ljungquist is one of these people as she embarked on a journey 26 years ago to empower the local Tamil women by establishing the Naturellement Café.


From the Naturellement’s website, one can see the aims of the restaurant are to (1):

  1. Empower women from disadvantaged back grounds by providing them meaningful work.
  2. Engage in socially responsible and fair trade business practices.
  3. Support sustainable farming by using organic raw-material whenever possible.
  4. Provide natural handmade fine foods of the highest quality to our customers.

Martina’s quest has always been to “bring down into the matter, something higher. The question is, ‘how do you do that?’” This question inevitably led Martina to Auroville where she claims, “the startup of this company created itself and I’m always trying to catch up!” The rise of this social enterprise has allowed its workers to create a livelihood for themselves all while learning an array of skills from cooking to operational management for their restaurant.

img_0274It’s evident Naturellement’s success is due to the combination of Martina’s love for her workers and the motivation her love spurs within the ladies to generate a solid work ethic amongst the restaurant staff.

Martina makes it very clear she’s never been well versed in typical “business” operations but she actually began her career as a Kindergarten teacher! She’s an educator at the end of the day; yet, she’s using the café to educate and empower the local women through the lens of business.

img_0271                                           (Left: Tanya Elder, Right: Martina Ljungquist)

Through her past jobs, Martina learned how not to be a boss. She’s learned this and has applied to it be an effective manager for the Naturellement café. Her model for success is never benchmarked by maximizing profits. Instead, Martina’s desire for the well-being of her ladies if the focal point of the café.

“When your aim is to have maximum profits, you start making short cuts.” – Martina.


Products for sale at Naturellement Café


A shot of the café’s store

Her dedication to maintaining a sustainable supply chain while setting higher standards of living for her workers has established a more ethical approach to business operations. The company’s revenues are making a positive impact for the 35 ladies that are employed here today.

When “profit maximization” is removed from the worker’s mindset, it cultivates a more personable environment where the ladies are free to unwind and be themselves while working.

Her love for these women is evident as she elaborates on the various ways she strives to provide for these women. Some of her stories are more light-hearted as she illustrates how they all took a break last week to turn on a movie in the office during a work break. Her other stories are more serious as she expresses the difficulties she faced when she’s learned some of her employees have been beaten by their husbands.

According to the Times of India, around 60% of men throughout India admit to wife-beating. (2). While it’s shocking to learn these cruel and archaic practices are still prevalent throughout India, one can only imagine the ethical dilemma it creates between Martina and her ladies.

Martina is in a unique work environment where her business model is centered around the well-being of her employees. Thus, it may seem necessary to intervene as a manger when your employee is physically assaulted because it harms the core of this restaurant’s business structure. However, Martina is a Swedish entrepreneur who may come across as a “westerner” or “foreigner” to her employees’ husbands. What do you do when your good intentions to protect your employees conflicts with cultural norms that you were never born into?

This is a complex issue which Martina has artfully navigated throughout the years with her fellow workers. She mentioned her initial reaction was to ask the ladies if she could speak to their husbands about this issue; however, she learned the women didn’t want this as it would only make the situation worse.

This experience must have taught her how to help where she can by being a listening ear and a support system for these incredible women. Her efforts yield results as we learned none of her current employees are beaten today! Progress here at Naturellement café could be perceived as being “shwiya ba shwiya” or “little by little,” yet the progress made within the lives of the Tamil women that work here is interminable.



  2. Dhawan, Himanshi. “60% of Men Admit to Wife-beating: Poll – Times of India.” The Times of India. Bennett, Coleman & Co., 11 Nov. 2014. Web. 26 Dec. 2016.

Sweeter than chocolate

The word sustainability is foreign to most commoners. It carries connotation of complexity and difficulty. In Auroville, there is a chocolate factory that does it simply with the cocoa beans.

Mason & Co creates more than chocolate products. It empowers Indian women and farmers and also helps its customer to be aware of their health by eating their products.
The management of Mason & Co employs women from the villages. It also try to teach its employees the skills including chocolate product making and management skills that can use elsewhere.

By implementing export standards and fair trade standards on cocoa beans, it helps to raise the quality of the beans. It is beneficial for both the farmer and the company.
The company’s standards on the cocoa beans directly goes into its customers mouth. By making its products with less sugar, dairy free and palm oil free, it allows the high quality cocoa beans to be consumed at the stage. Also it’s quality is transparent because it is not mass produced like most of the chocolate brands.
Sustainability does not have to be complicated, it can be achieved simply and sweetly with bars of chocolate.

– Stella Kim



The approach organization WELL (Women’s Empowered through Local Livelihood) has adopted is helping women sustain their livelihood and to gain freedom outside of their household by incorporating independent social enterprise concept.
The independent work model of WELL has adopted is the women workers purchase the papers and other necessary material to make the products. Then, the organization buys back the products and the ideas that these women have created. This system allows the organization to create quality regulation on the products
By allowing Indian women who have been excluded from the economic sector and suppressed culturally for decades to work independently, it creates an outlet for women to gain monetary freedom. And most importantly, non-monetary benefits of the workshops impact the livelihood of these women, her household moreover her community. It teaches how to speak for herself in the public sphere and to gain leadership experience without being tied down by the cast system. The cast system in India is almost 3,000 years old, is the world’s oldest forms of surviving social stratification. The system sanctions repression of the lower castes by the upper castes. Among the women who are working for WELL, that cast system is invisible and work in unity to develop equality within the organization. These women exchange techniques and ideas for the products, allowing the group empowerment to happen naturally. Also, instead of having a leader to represent the unit, the creation of the “Future Group” allowed the women to plan and to discuss for the progression of the organization and for their own future livelihood.
The women working with WELL used one umbrella term to summarize how the organization has impacted their livelihood in 12 non-monetary elements. It was love. These women understand the importance of loving oneself, loving others without boundaries and segregating anyone based on social class. This concept should be universally adopted like it does in a country of the world’s oldest surviving social caste system.

– Stella Kim

LGBTQ: A Worldwide Struggle for Human Rights

By: Vanessa Charlot


As a group we visited the Sahodaran Community Oriented Health Development Society (SCOHD), a community based organization network in Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry where a group of community members took initiative to address the problems related to the sexual health and human rights of sexual minorities. While their stated purpose is focused on health and lessening the level of sexually transmitted infections, I left with a different impression. What I saw was the infrastructure for a safe haven that protects a community unsafe in their own country.

The United States Declaration of Independence states that “We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal.” These are the words the United States of America was founded upon in 1776, yet African American slaves weren’t “freed” until 1963, and didn’t even get the illusion of right to vote until 1965. Japanese Americans were forced into concentration camps in 1942, and the Supreme Court only ruled same sex marriage legal in all 50 states on June 26, 2015.


While this was a major breakthrough, incidents like the 2015 Orlando nightclub shooting serve as unfortunate reminders that there’s still much to be done within the realm of human rights. This is by no means a United States specific issue, it’s a global issue that demands the attention, understanding, and respect of every person walking the face of this earth. Listening to members of this organization speak to us was an eye opener of the difficulties LGBTQ persons face in India.

In seven days we visited 20+ organizations with some sort of a social cause/advocacy effort, and when it was all said and done, I saw one fundamental problem. We all know gypsy communities need support, that waste accumulation is a sustainability issue, education efforts are the future, and culture preservation is essential; but the fact that no one is acknowledging this particular cause as an issue is problematic. How can a sub-community move forward if no one from the surrounding community is willing to acknowledge it as a problem in the first place. I’d be surprised to find any civil rights movement that has been successful without the support of third party advocates.

History has proven that the root of change regarding human rights, or anything at all really, stems from systematic change. The unfortunate reality is that without the guidance and support of governmental officials, the human race seems to function without a moral compass. Hate crimes against the LGBT community, which are very prevalent in India, never get justice.


Personally, I was puzzled by the unspoken elephant in the room. How is being transgender legally acceptable, and being gay, lesbian, or queer not? With my limited exposure to LGBTQ related issues, I have been under the impression that social acceptance of lesbian, gay, and bisexual issues progress at a faster rate than that of transgenders. But we were informed that in India, its technically legal to be a transgender (it was even an option on my e-tourist visa application) but it’s illegal to have “unnatural sex.” It was later brought to my attention that this may possibly stem from the fact that some Hindu traditions conceive God as both female and male.

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The organization was founded by K. Sheethan Nayak, who was unavailable to meet with us that day. After her four years of college, she moved back to Pondicherry where she found out that members of the LGBTQ* community were being abused with no one to turn to. This discovery came to her one evening when she and her friends witnessed a man being beaten by two other men. The man was a prostitute and the two assaulters had refused to pay him for the sexual favors they had received. This led to a double discovery for Sheethal – there were other homosexual and transgender people in Pondicherry and they were an exposed group with no safety. In 1998 Sheethal started to work with the issue on a grassroots level since she felt that the poor LGBTQs were more vulnerable than those from the upper- and middle class since they cannot afford to buy security. Sheethal arranged group discussions and get-togethers in safe places with members of the LGBTQ* community since they could not be in public places without being assaulted – and this was the conception of SCOHD.

Cultural Preservation for Development (CP4D)

Written By: Faith D. Toran


“[T]he more radical the person is, the more fully he or she enters into reality so that, knowing it better, he or she can transform it. This individual is not afraid to confront, to listen, to see the world unveiled. This person is not afraid to meet the people or to enter into a dialogue with them. This person does not consider himself or herself the proprietor of history or of all people, or the liberator of the oppressed; but he or she does commit himself or herself, within history, to fight at their side.”

― Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

In the Auroville village of Sanjeevi Nagar, I was in community with one who is a champion. I would like to introduce you to a champion, as Ramirez states in Communication in Another Development as one who has successfully created change from a participatory framework in the development field. Balu, co-director of the Mohanam Community Center for Culture and Education, is committed to cultural preservation through education and has created a space that is conducive to creativity, education, inclusivity, cultural appreciation and preservation. It was inspiring to be in the presence of such a change agent.


I took a few moments to try and observe the context, the culture and the breath of the moment. I was captured by a feeling of authenticity, one that I could not fully contextualize. I tried to understand through language and landscape, so I focused my eyes on the signs and architecture. Was it the signs and architecture that gave life to the culture or was it the traditional kolam, that spoke to the management of life through art and meditation? I asked myself, in a whisper, is cultural preservation a foundation to sustainability and improved livelihood? Was it possible for one to draw from the depths of indigenous knowledge systems, to counteract the systems that wreaked havoc on their lives?

I quieted my mind so that I could listen. 



Mohanam – “comes from one of the most harmonious ragas of Classical Indian Music and evokes the power of fulfillment of our aspiration for beauty and harmony” a 85-90-year young building, filled with education, cultural preservation and little precious children, playing, running, smiling through the school yard was alive and well, in the sense that it was successfully addressing the issues of the village through cultural heritage preservation. Mohanam was birthed in 2001 as a Non-Profit Auroville service unit.



In addressing the problem of the lack of cultural preservation or the threat of extinction, Mohanam implemented a progressive Kindergarten for 60 village children from 6 different villages, performance art and summer camp programs with a central focus on cultural sharing and preservation. 


Preserving culture in the work of Mohanam has transcended the original reach of children, through discursive community groups such as the local village women. The local village women have created and implemented a successful replicable model for access to clean drinking water, this project is both participatory and empowering for the development of the community. Amidst modernization, Mohanam seeks to preserve the Tamil Nadu culture as a means of development and improving the livelihood of their communities. It was inspiring to see the validation of culture as a resource to development rather than battle with the notions of lack of cultural relativism, that one has had to navigate while working in the field under the dominant modernization paradigm in development communications.

 As we drew kolam in the earth, each line and dot I placed made me smile. I held not only culture in my hands, I held the power that is resourceful and working to address the disparities that these communities face. It was not my knowledge or ideas, it was as Paul Freire describes as “The greatest humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves..


Pondicherry: The Captivating Experience

Julien El-Hajj

This wasn’t the first time I hear the name of this city: Pondicherry. I remember in secondary school, my biology teacher used to give us Pondicherry’s French baccalaureate session, because it is the first one to happen around the world and is the hardest as well. Since then, I knew that Pondicherry has some kind of relation with France.


In fact, there is indeed a strong influence of French culture on Pondicherry town, especially on it’s architecture, a result of the centuries-old relations this place maintained with France. In fact, In the 16th century, the Portuguese first arrived to the city and then the following century the Danes made an appearance. In 1673, the French arrived. Till then, Pondicherry was a weaving and fishing village. The French quarters started along the sea and extended to the south, all along the sea.


Around the 1760’s, the British destroyed the city including the fort. When the French reoccupied it, most of the buildings were reconstructed but not the fort. In the latter part of the 18th and early 19th century, Pondicherry again fell into British hands and all construction activity came to a standstill. Most of the present day buildings came up in the 19th century, which also marked the advent of water supply in the city and the railway link with British India. The French colony became a part of the Indian Union in the early 1950’s.

Once you arrive to Pondicherry, you feel that it has a distinct spiritual vibration, notably when you enter the street of the Ganesha temple.

At the entrance of this temple, you will see locals as well as foreigners clicking pictures and taking videos of the elephant named Lakshmi. It is no less than a celebrity. When people offer money and food to her, the elephant blesses them with its trunk.


Quiet beaches and peaceful resorts in the north and south of the city balance the town’s busy, yet easy going life. You can find lots of people walking along the beach, especially that the region becomes pedestrian in the evening. There you find one famous statue of Gandhi.


When you’re in Pondicherry it is impossible to not splurge in the shopping strips. You can check Auroville’s outlet store or Casablanca for international brands (Guess, Ralph Lauren, Gap, Tommy Hilfiger, Timberland, etc) sold at unbelievable prices. Moreover you can surely find hand-painted silk clothing, perfumed candles, incense, oils, ceramics, jewelry, and traditional Indian clothes in mostly every corner. For me, visiting this city is in itself a captivating experience.

Empowerment: a Sustainable Approach

The Auroville Village Action Reach is a long-running program to help develop regional villages within the Auroville spirit of unity and consciousness. It began with four or five villages doing charity work in 1983, but has since grown and developed into its current role as a development organization. The difference is that instead of working for the people, they are now working with the people. In addition, they’ve chosen to focus specifically on women’s empowerment in villages within the 20km radius around Auroville. Through their participatory and ethological approach, they have been making positive changes in women’s lives in the Tamil Nadu region.

A key component of their program is providing access to credit and savings. Government and donors like to fund building projects which result in a tangible, finished product, but there is almost always difficulty in maintaining them afterwards. For example, sanitation and open defecation are affecting the health of Indians. The government will easily find the funds to build toilets at the public school, but they won’t plan for maintenance costs. The teachers don’t want to clean them, and if they make the students do it, the parents will complain. What actually happens is that the teachers lock all the toilet stalls except one for the teachers. It is in examples such as this that AVAG steps in to bridge the gap with the support of the community. They work with the community and involve them in all stages. For example, they will ask the community to contribute to funding whether it’s matching funding, a percentage, or just a contribution of labor, depending on the project. If they need to do administrative applications for government funding, they will teach the women how to do it themselves so they can do it again in the future.

However, development and empowerment isn’t sustainable if it’s only focused on economic empowerment. Especially after having several women in the villages commit suicide, AVAG was motivated to promote well-rounded development by offering emotional, mental, spiritual, and physical health services for their women. Their work is sustainable because they recognize the challenges and needs of the women they work with. For example, they help women question and think critically about taboos in a safe environment. One myth in India is that when a woman is menstruating, they can’t feed the dog or else it will go blind. Instead of telling the woman that it’s wrong, they ask the group, “Is there anyone who has fed their dog while they were menstruating?” Then one woman who doesn’t have any males in her household will share her story that she has been feeding the dog for ten years, and nothing has ever happened. Through sharing experiences in an open and safe environment, the women begin educating themselves and learning how to speak up.

But AVAG’s work is not yet done. After bringing the women into a safe zone and speaking about empowerment, they still have to return to their daily lives in their villages. AVAG’s goal is to prepare them for re-entering that environment by giving them the ability to engage in participative discussion.

These self-help groups are a powerful tool of change in the region surrounding Auroville. Also among AVAG’s initiatives are community building projects such as festivals and sports events, exchange programs, livelihood training, financial support for girls, and educational and leadership training.

Connie Moreland