Legend of Irumbai and Sadhana Forest

When  you travel Pondicherry from Chenni or Bangalore via NH 66, you will cross a place called Irumbai, which is around 6km ahead of Auroville. Irumbai is famous for its temples which were built around AD 1000 – 1500. Irumbai has an interesting legend of Kaduveli Siddhar, a famous yogi who lived in the area some four to five hundred years ago.

According to the legend, Kaduveli Siddha was performing harsh (hatha) yoga under a peepal tree for days. The heat of his body was so intense that no rains came and the people were exposed to hardship and drought. The situation was so bad that it finally came to the ears of the King, who ruled from Edyanchavadi village. No one dared to disturb Kaduveli in his penance as he chanted the mantra of Eswara, and soon an anthill started to rise up around him. Finally a temple dancer, named Valli, devoted to the Lord Shiva, decided to do her best to get the attention of the yogi, and to rescue the King and his people from the adverse effects of his tapasya. Valli was successful in transforming the Yogi to a family man. Meanwhile the God of Rain was relieved from the torture he felt from the heat of the yogi’s tapasya, the rain fell in plenty, and the people were happy once again. In order to celebrate this event the King ordered a big Puja to be held at Irumbai temple, which was to be followed by a classical performance by Valli in which she would act out the cosmic dance of Lord Shiva, in the form of Nataraja. During the performance, however, one of her anklets fell off, and she started to lose her balance and rhythm. Kaduveli, who saw the Lord Shiva in Valli, picked up the anklet and put it back on her feet. This exposed him to the ridicule of the King and court for having touched the feet of a dancing girl, and he was heckled and jeered. In the rage he invoked the Lord Shiva to come out of his temple and prove his innocence by causing a rain of stone. Immediately the lingam in the sanctum sanctorum of the temple exploded, and wherever its fragments fell became desert. No greenery will grow around these spots, including a crater at a distance of three kilometres from the village, still to this day known as “Kaduveli”. The King got frightened and begged the pardon of the Siddha, bowing down to him with all his entourage and pleading with him to quench the effects of his anger and curse. This appeased Kaduveli, who, repenting of his anger, said that what was done was done, but that in the future, people from far-off lands would come and make the desert land green and fertile again.

It is strange this peace of land was lying there for all these years with lunar landscape till two great souls, Yorit and Aviram Rozin started their reforestation work around year 2003 on 70 acre of arid, eroded land in the outskirts of Auroville. The land resembled Martian landscape with red soil, where not even a blade of grass was visible. Here is a picture taken in 2004 from Sadhana Forest archive that will give you some idea of what it looked like.

Yorit and Aviram was not the first person who tried to rejuvenate this place of land. Some one thought the place looks like African Savana and tried to plant Acacia. They hired a plane and seed bombed the place. Acacia seeds are hard to germinate, in the arid land these seeds were just wasted and were lying dormant for years.  Yorit and Aviram started their work with focus on restricting land erosion and water conservation.  Acacia is a hardy plant that can survive in near desert condition. For the same reason Acacia is also known to be a potentially invasive species, which is taking over grasslands and abandoned agricultural areas worldwide, especially in moderate coastal and island regions where mild climate promotes its spread. Australian/New Zealand Weed Risk Assessment gives it a “high risk, score of 15” rating and it is considered one of the world’s 100 most invasive species. Extensive ecological studies should be performed before further introduction of acacia varieties, as this fast-growing genus, once introduced, spreads fast and is extremely difficult to eradicate.  Some species of Acacia contain cyanogenic glycosides, which, if exposed to an enzyme which specifically splits glycosides, can release hydrogen cyanide in the “leaves”. This sometimes results in the poisoning death of livestock. It is not clear, even to the current volunteers of Sadhana forest on what ecological impact assessment was performed by Govt. or by the people involved before this alien species from Africa was allowed to be planted in such large quantities in this part of the world which does not have the bugs and other plant species that can resist its invasion and live with Acacia symbiotically.

Sadhana forest team has decided to live in the forest.  They take it more as a social issue rather than a technical issue. They live with the trees and rest of the inhabitants of the forest. As a society and in harmony with nature. The idea is to feel and discover the problem forest faces and solve these on the go.  Sadhana forest team organizes regular trip to the forest on Fridays. The idea is to educate people about conservation and living harmoniously with nature. The trip starts with toilet training. At Sadhana forest they use dry composting pits for toilet. Here our pre-tour guide Shiva is explaining us on how to use the toilet. Dry composting pit use very little water. This is very important for villages (and cities) with water shortage.

We aim for toilet for every house hold. Some of the villager has to walk kilometers to fetch a bucket of water. If we ask people to use this bucket of water to flush shit, then the idea of toilet for each home also goes down that drain. For those area where water is scarce, we need toilet that use very small amount of water. At Sadhana forest they use 1 liter of water for shit. The WC that we use normally is put on alternate usage.

For washing dishes they use ash and organic soap. Any left over food goes to composting pit. Dish is dip washed in four tub.

One may tend to question the need for subjecting oneself to this hardship. I think the idea is to develop that keep sense of scarcity of water in the mind of every volunteer so that they are in tune with the problem being faced by the trees.

As we walk down the narrow forest trail, we are stumped by speed breakers. These are quite big and we were wondering which municipality has planned them.  Very soon we came to know the speed breakers are meant not for us, it is basically meant for rain water. As rain water flows it gets restricted by these breakers and reduces the run-off.  The team uses various types of technique to ensure the water that falls on ground is retained with the forest.

There are two ponds in the forest to retain the retain water

These ponds hold water during monsoon. This helps to keep ground water level high during dry spell.

Here is a bund created to retain the water within soil and reduce runoff.

Here another voluenteer and current director of the Indian project explaining the water conservation measures to tourists.

To plan trees they have come with a innovative technique of drip irrigation. Drip irrigation sounds good, but when you try to practice it on 70 acre of land with not so obvious economic benefit the idea looks daunting. They use these plastic bottles with a wick to bottle feed the baby plants. These are required till the root reaches ground water and the tree is able to survive on its own.

Beside water consumption they also practice eco-friendly method of cooking. The stoves here are rocket stoves that burn wood very efficiently and without smoke. Just one small log of 1 inch dia is enough to prepare food for 20 odd people with these stoves

Roofing sheet that we saw is made of compressed polythene/plastic junk.

The picture on the left may look very familiar to people from Africa. Let me assure you, this is what Sadhana forest looks currently.

With all the water conservation measures working and some trees tended with baby sitting care, the piece of land is now ready for life. The Acacia seeds that were air dropped earlier are now sprouting every where.

 The place looks like Africa with this thick Acacia cover.  Sadhana forest team has decided to take advantage of the situation as it unfolds.  The trees provide much needed bio-mass and water retention capacity. That help other trees to grow at present.   The team is aware of the danger that an alien species may pose. Acacia do not fare well with storm that is very frequent in this coastal region.  Currently the plan with Acacia is to take advantage of what is available but plant more trees that are of local origin. There is bound to be some trouble in cohabiting with an aggressive species like Acacia this drama of life and yoga will unfold layer by layer as the team passes through different phases.

Here you see two fully local people that’s me and my wife – Courtesy a fellow traveler from UK, who was kind enough to click the shot.

Here we are in the auditorium-cum-living quarter of Sadhana forest enjoying a dinner served by the Sadhana forest team.  This big hut is made of bamboo and palm leaves. Lights are powered by solar cells. There is no fan, but we realized it after a long time. With natural ventilation from these tall roof fans are not required.

This goes to show simple life is not necessarily full of hardships, all we need to do is to question what is important for us in life and what is not. There is a urgent need to Value Engineer our life style to reduce the environmental cost of our life style. We may find that it is still possible to live harmoniously with nature that will sustain our lifestyle. If such life style is sself sustaining, we may need to ponder the need of such luxury.  While in Sadhana we saw a film titled “No Impact Man“, based on a book by Colin Beavan. This is about a family that changes their lifestyle to get zero carbon footprint over an year, while living in Newyork.  While I do not fully subscribe to the asutre lifestyle being projected and suggested, I do think there is a need to rethink and apply our innovation to reduce our carbon foot print. Sadhana team has been able to reverse it all together, my good wishes for them in their journey, but this is a social issue that require a bit of effort from each of us.

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Automating Building Manufacture

At Auroville I took the work on automating their CSEB manufacturing machine – Auram 6000. Compressed Stabilized Earthen Blocks are fast becoming popular for their obvious benefits. These blocks have superior thermal insulation than concrete. With proper design, they compare well with Concrete on earthquake tolerance. These are normally made from locally available material, thus reducing transportation cost. Curing time for earthen block is low.  As these blocks have better dimensional accuracy, it is possible to use these blocks without using mortar. These help to improve productivity and at the same time is the technology is friendly to environment.

Aureka makes manual and semi-automatic CEB presses. These can make around 65 types of normal and specialized  bricks. It has now come with fully automatic machine that will be able to produce around 500 full size (1′ x 1′) blocks in a hour. An average size 2500 Sq.ft building will normally require 15000 blocks. Automatic CEB machine can produce these bricks in 30 Hrs. At this rate CEB will rival the construction speed of concrete. In order to use mortar-less construction the blocks need to be within +/- 1 mm accuracy. Molding sand and soil to this level accuracy proved to be a challenge.

In this machine I am using PIC 16f4877a microcontroller to control the hydraulics. Micro-controller helps to automate movement of different rams. These speeds up the process and relives the operator from monotonous lever shifting work.  First day when we tried, the operator pointed out that for some specialized blocks, machine needs to be stopped at a certain stage for manual intervention. So I had to modify the microcontroller program. Next we tried a small sample batch. Position variations were very high. I noticed that the sensors were placed in a manner that is responds to change in position quite slowly. Oriented sensor positions to improve the sensitivity issue. Next issue was the problem of inertia in the control circuit. As sensor detects position, it responds by closing a relay in hydraulic. How much the ram will travel after receiving stop signal depends on:

  1. Response time of solenoid
  2. Viscosity of oil
  3. Plasticity of soil

These three variables depend on ambient temperature, humidity, condition of machine, amount of water added in soil. In simple words, it is impossible to control the inputs to provide consistent output purely on sensor feedback. Solution was to introduce some physical limiters at vantage points. This CEB press operates at around 100 bar pressure. In these pressures it is quite easy to damage structures unless proper design precautions are taken. These physical limiter, in turn required  modifications in the structure. After taking care of all these, machine started producing blocks with proper dimensional control. Here you see the trial run on the prototype setup.

https://www.youtube.com/embed/TgU-5S8YU9I?feature=player_embedded

With 65 different types of blocks to produce, next challenge was to find a convenient process to set the block height and mold depth. Each block require different setting. Sometime setting may need to be changed to take care of type of soil being pressed. For this I found it best to consult the person who will actually do the setting. After some brainstorming we settled on a process that is easy to use in field with minimal equipment. The process was documented.

Next stage was to take the machine for a full scale trial. CEB press works with auxiliary equipment –  crusher is used to break solid lumps of soil and dry mixture is used to mix sand and cement uniformly with the soil. These are required to feed CEB press at its required speed.  Here you see the full setup for production trial.