On December 19th our group went to Pondicherry to visit several NGO’s, one of them being Sahodaran. Sahodaran is a male sexual health project however, the organization also touches on all members of the LGBTQ+ community. Here we were greeted and spoken to by Sheethal, a transgender woman who has been a part of Sahodaran for several years. She talked to us about what it is like being a transgender woman here in Pondicherry and the hardships that those in her position face. She emphasized one of the hardest and most impactful parts of being transgender, that being the family shame and exile. This is why, not only in India, but it is also so hard for those who may feel they may want to join this community, to do so. This results in large suicide rates as well as misinformation being spread throughout communities on the topic. Sahodaran tries to prevent this with several different services that inform about STDs, and even give shelter to those who may have been kicked out of their homes. Transgender rights are a focus of Sahodaran because unlike sexual orientation, it is impossible to hide. Due to this, members of the transgender communities have a harder time participating in society and are more likely to be discriminated against, commonly (in Pondicherry) with violence.
On December 22nd our group headed to the soda company Kajimba. Its location was right in Auroville, and as we entered the company grounds, we saw some familiar faces, some of the kids our age who we had met days prior at the visitor’s center. This is because unlike many of the other NGO’s within Auroville and Pondicherry this company was started and is run by youth! From their social media specialist to the company’s creator, Nahar, it was impressive to see so many late teens and young adults in charge in a business. Kajimba was created in 2020 however it has only been selling since 2021. Nahar spoke to us about the important elements that must go into his sodas brand such as shelf life. He explained that within stores and restaurants, products must have a shelf life of at least several months, and he struggled with his recipe as his sodas soon turned to a vinegar like substance after a few weeks. But after lots of trial and error, Nahar found his perfect recipe, and Kajimba (which is just a form of ginger beer) has six flavors. Nahar also spoke with us about the business side of Kajimba, specifically the financial side. His form of business is somewhat simple, as Kajimba makes more money in sales, that money goes directly back into the company’s growth. Due to this, his income as well as his workers will remain stagnant until they choose (if they do) to stop growing. However, with dreams of reaching all the way to Chennai, this does not seem to be happening anytime soon! On top of this, the brand is only beginning. While visitng the Kajimba grounds we were able to test several oat milks that were in the making and hear about Nahars plans to release the product when he feels he has found his perfect mix. Kajimba is a great representation of what Auroville has to offer specifically to its youth, with real work experience right within the town, it is an exceptional opportunity to see how a business operates.
Where once stood a vacant lot of barren earth is now a lush garden. Garden may be a strong term for the operation at Solitude Farms however, one can not disagree when the produce it bears is of such high quality. The entropy of solitude farm is entirely intentional, allowing nature to rebound back to its lush vibrant interconnected self while also benefiting from the bountiful fruit it bears. Like the nutrients in the soil which were brought in by composting and anti-desertification efforts the progenitor of Solitude Farms is also a transplant, and much like the plants and vegetables in the farm, Krishna, not his birth name, has become completely enmeshed in the homeostasis of the environment. A wealth of information, Krishna, who is originally front the United Kingdom, is seldom seen without his signature turban shading his bare head from the sun. As he walks through his fields navigating a seemingly invisible path to the untrained eye he can pluck any bean, leaf, or branch up and talk at length about its health benefits, and how to cultivate and cook it. His loud boisterous voice commands attention just as much as the sparkle in his eye or the warm demeanor he radiates when talking passionately about his farm. Almost the entirety of the food that is served at Solitude Farms is grown on premises. The only thing not grown on site are the grains which require much more space for cultivation. On the menu, written in chalk, as it is ever-changing are today’s options. There is always the “thali of the day” and the “farmers’ salad” which change daily based on their harvest each morning. Next to each of the ingredients are listed their health benefits and properties. Some vegetables are described as good to fight inflammation, while others are cited as good immune boosters, and still, others are advertised as mood boosters or good for autism and ADHD. While rice is a staple in Indian cuisine it is rarely seen at Solitude Farms. The “thali of the day” usually favors local grains that are richer in nutrients over rice, which also usually consumes more water in its cultivation. The cafe itself is a place of community, with large family-style tables that encourage people to mingle and enjoy their meals together. Locals and adventurers alike bump elbows and share meals trading stories over a hyperlocal lunch. Solitude Farms also holds community events, often featuring Krishna’s band. The Krishna sings in both English and Tamil, and the band features western instruments like the electric guitar as well as local percussion instruments. If you’re lucky enough you’re even able to hear the band practicing while enjoying your freshly picked lunch.
Serving their first batch of crop-to-cup coffee in 2008 Marks coffee of Auroville has become a local landmark and winner of the 2022 aromatic brew & beanery award. Founded by Marc Tormo who arrived in Auroville in 1997, they now produce 12 tons of roasted coffee a year. Their holistic approach empowers the people it touches at all levels from farmers to drinkers without compromising the environment. Specially chosen beans from across India ensure a delicious brew every time, and sourcing directly from farmers helps to bolster producers’ income while maintaining ecological integrity and nurturing the communities that produce their coffee. In establishing a link directly from the producers to the consumers, and doing all roasting in-house Marc’s Coffee is able to ensure fair wages for the growers and hand-pick only the finest beans. All coffee purchased by Marcs Coffee is bought at premium prices. In line with the ethics of Auroville, all the coffee purchased is produced in a sustainable fashion. This is due to India’s coffee plants being entirely shade-grown instead of clearing forests for production, trees are actually encouraged for the shade they produce, allowing coffee groves to easily coincide with the native permaculture. One of the best examples of Marc’s selections is the Halli Barry estate, an estate run entirely by women. The business is a family affair, consisting of Marc, the owner, his wife, in charge of logistics, and their son, Eden, in charge of quality control for other places that use their product. Beyond the beans, the cafe also gives back to the village of Auroville. The cafe is a place of community and a regular hang-out for locals and travelers alike. The interior is built and furbished entirely with repurposed wood, and all of their accouterments are sourced from local artisans, nurturing the community that supports them. Another example of their dedication to community building is their sourcing of products for their delicious homemade baked goods, such as their eggs. They pay half of their year’s order in advance to allow farmers to produce the quantity they need without taking out loans which are usually at astronomical interest rates. The cafe is also staffed predominantly by members of surrounding villages. This brings income back to local communities that otherwise have few other options and shares the knowledge of food service and hospitality cultivated by Mark through his years in the F&B industry in Spain. In a new chapter of their project coffee is working towards educational opportunities and training of high-level baristas, something not widely available in India. In Marks’ philosophy, coffee brings people together, and is a source of community, it uplifts people in both its cultivation and consumption. In his own words “who would have thought all this could fit in a humble cup of coffee”
Is there a simpler therapy than sinking our fingers into rich soil and uprooting what prevents us from growing into our best selves? I arose early on Thursday morning, surrounded by air still heavy with mist, to weed the ground of what prevents its lasting success. Anticipating a rain that wouldn’t grace our skin until Christmas Sunday, the first gift to be opened by many, my bike cut through the fog from the Tibetan Pavilion to a garden rooted in the spirit of peace and giving. With morning gusts of wind gliding past my sunscreen-soaked cheeks, I was reminded of summers spent with my nose buried in tomatoes, slapping watermelons and pinching peaches, white sneakers meeting the caress of wet grass and suddenly when the gravel rocked my front wheels and I struggled to keep steady I hit the brakes.
Buddha Garden is the oasis that Octavia Butler dreamed of. A garden, curated with the intention of growing food with the awareness and love of community. Buddha Garden is the promise of life everlasting. Their produce is grown with the purpose of connecting and nourishing every part of our physical and spiritual being. How many gardens are conceived with the dream of food produced with the aim to nurture our loved ones and the earth that we receive it from?
Buddha Garden pledges sustainability by possessing everything it needs to grow food on its ten acres of land. They use three out of the ten beds in the garden to carry out smart water research that hopes to avoid overwatering and subsequent waste of water on crops. Paces away from abundant plant beds stand a chicken coop where surely eggs are harvested for the morning egg white omelet -a personal favorite- but the compost composed of the chicken waste is then repurposed into fertilizer for the very herbs that add the finishing touch to any meal.
For Buddha Garden, sustainability is about teaching and ensuring the value of farming so that the next generation is not only able to sustain themselves but that they become active participants in the maintenance of their ecosystem. It falls perfectly in line with UN SDG goals of zero hunger and responsible production and consumption. Sustainable gardening’s more than just an ethical practice, the prohibited use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides ensures the safety of local wildlife and the longevity of the ecosystem overall. The maintenance of healthy soil and vibrant plant life also prevents flooding in an area rocked by the monsoon season. This model of gardening is something to aspire to. As the world around us changes for the worst due to our own negligence, it is inspiring to appreciate a pocket of lush, green, hope where we emphasize being present in a system that values our added contribution rather than senseless extraction.
Sustainable gardening can also strengthen communities. By sharing produce with neighbors and participating in community gardens, you can build relationships and create a sense of community around healthy and sustainable food production, as we did.
Early this morning, my fingertips rooted themselves in the holes left by the weeds, and I laughed. I laughed as someone with exhaustion sitting heavy on my shoulders and wrapping its arms around my forehead, but also as someone who had finally laid on the couch after a long day away from home and put that child to rest. The soil beneath my nail bed had never known comfort like this and even when they were later scrubbed into oblivion, swirling down a drain alongside the element that breathes life into them and 70% of which flows through me, it was not a goodbye but a see you in the next field.
There is an unspoken romance… a poem – yet to be written-about giving a piece of yourself to a planet that has already given so much to you. I think that Buddha Garden captures that love story in a way I struggle to depict with words. What is love if not pouring the best of ourselves into something so that it may be returned to us ten-fold?
If there is anything to be taken away from this experience, it’s that to be in community with each other, we must first be in community with the ground that sustains us. To give to her is to give back to us, and her perseverance ensures our longevity.
Pondicherry is a city beaming with life, as vibrant as its architecture. Houses dressed in bright blues, bubblegum pinks, and lemon yellows provide a stark contrast to the dull grays and beiges of Paris, France. Pondy, a city of 877,00 people is located in the southeast coast of India, 3 hours from Chennai and 30 minutes from the city of dawn, Auroville. First occupied by the Portuguese in 1523 and then later by the French and the French East India Company, Pondy got its name from the French interpretation of “Puducherry”, pondi meaning new and chery meaning settlement. Replete with history and culture, Pondy’s main language is Tamil, one of the living classical languages with over 74 million speakers worldwide and with writings that can be traced back to as early as 3 BCE.
Despite its eclectic beauty and rich history, the city is marred by the pungent smell of slow-melting plastic waste left In untreated standing water. Waste management in Pondy is poor and as the Yatra Foundation demonstrated it is not solely an issue of lack of access to proper facilities, but it is also a lack of education and a distancing from historical cultural practices after colonization. 6% of India’s total population lacks access to safe water and 15% continues to practice open defecation. Additionally, there are more cell phones per household than there are toilets. In a society, where wastewater, sewage, fertilizer, pesticides, and industrial waste are some of the most common sources of water pollution, it also contributes to waterborne illnesses and death.
Since our arrival in Pondy, I’ve been fascinated with waste management and the apparent neglect of safe water practices. What I had thought was an over-exaggeration made by the Yatra foundation video was almost an underrepresentation of the sad reality of day-to-day life. After later visiting the Mohanam cultural center, I was almost surprised to learn that water was considered sanctimonious in Indian culture. Holding not only spiritual significance, but an intrinsic connection to Indian society and culture as notions of purity and pollution determine much of the caste-based social hierarchy, as well as who has access to clean water and who doesn’t.
Water, since the Vedic period, has been recognized as a spiritual symbol and a reflection of self through its connection to our physical and cosmic being. What then do polluted water sources say about how we view ourselves?
In visiting Sahodoran, I carefully stepped over mounds of plastic mixed with animal waste, observed chickens and their chicks scavenge for food amongst the rubbish, and stared in awe at plates of food that sat idly alongside standing water. In the context of this, I was taken with the concepts of liberation, access, representation, and what it means not just to be seen but to be acknowledged and then in time, hopefully, understood. We engaged in these conversations about transgender life in Pondy and the reality of the community turning a blind eye to your truth for years… seeing you but refusing to understand. I sat with that in the context of our current physical environment, surrounded by mounds of rubbish, behind a mote of polluted water, sitting inside a building that could be repossessed at any moment on the basis of intolerance and I questioned permanence and longevity as it corresponds to our identity and our surroundings.
I wondered then if it was even possible to conceptualize liberation and accessibility if the foundation that we use to construct our plans is unstable, inequitable, inaccessible, and ultimately dangerous to our health. What would it take for something to move beyond being seen and stand in acknowledgment?
There is so much beauty to behold here. So much life to fill your cup with and enough warmth to ensure that It overflows. There is enough art at every corner with the attention to detail of mathematicians, depicting the story of a culture that has lasted through the ages…
If that same attention to detail and warmth could only be applied to environmental education and reunification of the spirituality of water with a love for community and ourselves, it would not only ensure Pondy’s permanence and longevity but that of the people which make its colors so vibrant in the first place.
India has a number of massive & vibrant temples. As part of our Sustainable Development practicum, we visited Chidambaram Temple. According to our tour guide, Chidambaram Nataraja Temple is a Hindu temple dedicated to Nataraja, a form of Shiva. There are ancient roots behind this temple located in Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu, India. Further research revealed that the city’s name means “stage of consciousness”.
Temples in south India were not just places of worship; they played a vital role in community life, discussing social, religious, and political issues of importance. These structures also served as training grounds for performing arts such as dance, music, and drama. In addition, temples were attached to educational institutions, where students learned about religion and spiritual life.
When you enter Chidambaram Temple, you are asked to remove your shoes and put your camera and phone away. That was the first indication to me that I was entering a sacred space. Nothing could have prepared me for the temple’s beautiful towers, artwork, and bodies of water. It was truly something that made you aware of how ancient and significant the location was.
There were many cows in the area, which is a sacred animal in Indian culture, as well as traditionally dressed priests. What I learned here is that priests are one of India’s highest castes, and tenants of the temple have been maintaining the space for centuries.I felt truly honored to be permitted into the space and to witness such an important part of Indian history.
Auroville is home to a host of non-governmental associations. They span from art, sustainability, education, empowerment, and grassroots community work. Each specializes in assisting their specific cause. Upasana is one organization in Auroville that has done incredible work and has been recognized by the U.N. and UNESCO.
Upasana is not only a design studio, but a place where creativity, fashion, design, and social responsibility are woven together. Their rich stories and textiles culminate to create their conscious clothing brand. Founded in 1997, the studio runs many development projects around India. Such as their outreach program “Small Steps”, the Varanasi Weavers Project, and the Tsunamika doll project.
The Tsunamika Doll
One of Upasana’s most notable projects is the Tsunamika Doll. Tsunamika was created by Upasana as a symbol of hope for Tsunami victims, and now more than five million dolls have been made and distributed to over 80 countries. The project is entirely supported by the community. . People take the dolls and contribute according to their ability. The Tsunamika project has received an ‘Award of Excellence’ from the Government of India, as well as special recognition from UNESCO and inclusion in the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development.
I was most impressed by Upsana’s approach to carrying out its various projects and crafting their products, and I appreciated how they honor each step and person involved in their process. Passion appears to run through the veins of the organization, and I learned so much in my brief tour of the campus. One of which is how influential India is in the fashion industry. India accounts for 4% of the global textile and apparel trade. India is also a global leader in the production of several textile products, including silk, cotton, and Multimode Fibre.
Another eye-opening fact I learned while at Upasana is how the organization is attempting to alleviate India’s farmer suicide problem through the creation of their products. Currently, 30 people in the farming sector commit suicide every day, typically as a result of the overwhelming debt that farmers must incur as a result of not producing enough products to sell and survive.
Learning this made me think about the clothes I own, the places I shop for clothes both online and in person, and how much work went into making the clothes and then getting them to me. It may have cost people their lives. And that conversation will live with me for the rest of my life, and it’s a message that needs to be spread as the topic of sustainable fashion becomes more popular.
How do you convey environmental education to the next generation in a way that is relatable, interesting, and impactful; through fun of course! Wasteless is an NGO based in Auroville dedicated to providing just that.
We visited Ribhu, the co-founder of Wasteless, who explained how this non-profit organization is challenging environmental education standards by teaching kids about the problems that come with plastic, and micro-plastic pollution in a fun and interactive way. Working closely with students and teachers they have developed a curriculum called Sea change that is interactive and relatable.
Ribhu explained that as a society we place so much emphasis on cleaning up the mess we create but none on how to stop the problem. To convey the importance of integrating plastic education into elementary curriculum, He uses an analogy of a flowing water spigot; We tend to focus on cleaning the ever-flowing water without thinking about closing the tap! The Wasteless team is focused on just that. Through working closely with the students, and actively getting feedback to make the learning materials more exciting and understandable, Wasteless has produced textbooks, learning boards, and games, all with the help of the students.
Supported by the National Geographic Society and the Thamul Government, Wasteless has engineered the first curriculum in the world that consists of games and fun activities to spread environmental education across the globe. Thus Far, Wasteless has trained and equipped over 300 teachers in India with a plastic curriculum.
In addition to spreading plastic education in schools across India, Wasteless has organized beach cleanups, trash-sorting events, and a plastic fashion show where all of the clothing was created using discarded waste.
Dedicated to spreading knowledge about plastic pollution, Wasteless is equipping future generations with the tools to make informed decisions in the realm of plastic consumption. By staying away from toxic materials and learning how to properly discard waste, Wasteless is disintegrating pollution as a cultural norm, teaching environmental sustainability, and ultimately “closing the tap” so that future generations can halt the flowing spigot.
Situated in a few neighboring villages just outside of Auroville, Thamuri is an after-school program dedicated to providing the youth in surrounding communities a space for homework help, wellness, and personal development.
Thamuri operates out of two centers offering kids the chance to explore the field areas of STEM, sports, typing classes, and wellness activities. Many schools in South India lack the proper tools to teach STEM, making Thamuri an important resource for interested students. Through normalizing STEM and providing quality instruments like 3-D printers and computers. Thamuri also offers a space where kids are free to play sports and games outside, helping kids keep healthy and stress-free throughout the school week.
The non-profit is run by 2 ex-Thamuri members, consisting of 9 facilitators as well as 5 other members working in the background. As of our visit, they have 130 children enrolled in the organization between the two centers. Whoever is interested can join the program and all youth are welcome.
As well as being a necessary help for students, Thamuri is also helping the environment by keeping an eco-friendly orientation. The building we visited was equipped with rainwater collection technology within the design of the structure. They operate mostly off of solar energy and also have an eco-toilet on campus.
A successful non-profit that came about because working mothers banded together to advocate for an after-school program has become a space for learning, creativity, empowerment, and wellness. Thamuri has created a new standard for after-school programs, and through doing so has helped youth all over the surrounding area succeed in school and life.