Mohanam: Keeping Local Culture Alive

By Jessica Voorhees

The day after Christmas, we boarded the bus early to drive to the Mohanam Village Heritage Centre, a non-profit that works to build a bridge between Auroville and its surrounding villages through knowledge and cultural exchange. Mohanam also works to keep alive rural Tamil cultural heritage through workshops, classes, and events.

Established in 2001 by young people from the villages, Mohanam is the first center of its kind in this bioregion. With walls papered by animal stickers and hand-drawn maps of India, the colorful building where Mohanam holds many of its activities is one of the oldest houses in the village.

Balasundharam, the founder and director of Mohanam, greeted us upon arrival and told us about the center’s history and goals.

The continuing effects of globalization and a history of imperialism in Tamil Nadu have caused major changes to ways of life that have trickled into the villages surrounding Auroville. The influence of Pondicherry and various development initiatives have caused further changes throughout the years.

Noticing these changes, Balasundharam wants to ensure the incredible cultural heritage in these villages is not only preserved but also cherished by future generations. He seeks to inspire the next generation of young villagers through cultural activities at the center.

Mohanam also encompasses a Montessori-style kindergarten for 90 village children. Balasundharam told us many schools in India don’t include creative education, such as classes in music, dance, and painting. He sees Mohanam as a space for people to explore all their interests and find a connection with their roots.

Balasundharam said he listens to the needs and wants of people in the village, and Mohanam responds and works to meet their desires. The center also gathers local artisans and community members together each year for a Cultural Heritage Festival.

Keeping Village Art and Culture Alive

After the presentation from Balasundharam, one of the teachers at the center provided a short workshop on drawing kolams. Kolams are intricate floor designs drawn with rice flour by village women every morning before sunrise and again at sunset.

We learned that the rice flour, which is eaten by insects and birds, shows reverence for life. The kolams are often drawn with white flour, but they can become large, colorful and intricate during certain festivals. The kolams also serve as a signal to Sadhus that they can expect food at a certain house, and a household without a kolam drawn outside may be going through a hard time.

Mohanam offers kolam workshops, as well as cooking classes and other cultural experiences, to people from Auroville and beyond to showcase the ancient practices and knowledge from Tamil traditional culture.

Balasundharam seeks to reignite the value of Tamil cultural heritage, as he’s noticed many young people from the villages overlooking and forgetting ancient knowledge in favor of modern alternatives. Mohanam offers Indian traditional dance classes to children to foster a love for the art form, as well as keep the practice alive in the community.

After the workshop, we watched dance performances by girls who take classes at the center, and then, we enjoyed a traditional Tamil lunch on banana leaves.

Working Toward Sustainable Development

Mohanam meets several of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

Through its work to provide villagers access to clean drinking water, it meets the UN’s sixth goal of clean water and sanitation for all. The organization addresses the fourth goal of quality education through its progressive kindergarten for children from six villages. Through its village women groups, the center works toward the fifth goal of gender equality.

Additionally, Mohanam seeks to foster responsible tourism in the villages. The organization is creating a “learning village,” where visitors can come to discover Tamil traditional knowledge and cultural practices. They also plan to offer homestay experiences, so travelers can enjoy an intimate taste of local Tamil life.

Mohanam works to keep an open dialogue between villagers and those working in development, so the local community’s needs are met and voices are heard.

Through all its activities and outreach work, the center plays an important role in meeting the challenge of globalization’s impact on traditional Tamil communities, which hold valuable knowledge and rich cultural traditions that risk becoming forgotten.

Balasundharam’s talk and the performances at the center highlighted the incredible value of Tamil cultural heritage. These practices and beliefs hold just as much importance to the local community as Auroville’s knowledge on sustainability, and Mohanam is doing important work in bringing these two communities together.

As the world becomes increasingly interconnected through globalization and development, it’s important to remain respectful of other’s cultures, as each hold value from which we can learn.

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