We were in Auroville to attend Givers Meet Edition 2, an event organised by exotic echo, Nagaland, where everyone participating explores ways to give back to the society. Edition 1 was held earlier in Diezephe, Nagaland, on the 03 to 05 March 2020, just before Covid restrictions.
We came across exotic echo, the organization based out of village Diezephe, near Dimapur, Nagaland, in late 2018. In the last decade, they have revived a dying tribal weaving art, loinloom weaving. Read the details of this revival story & our earlier experience at international loinloom festival Nagaland here – exotic echo
In a nutshell:
This trip turned out to be fascinating after seeing some amazing work done by people (very high levels of creativity, commitments, sticking to one’s belief & giving back to society), meeting & deep conversations with a host of amazing, creative, people who are surely not run of the mill, walking around the old town of Pondicherry, walking around in the sun & shade kuccha roads of Auroville, soaking in the concept of Auroville, visiting old temples in villages that tourists hardly go & a lot more……..
A decade back Exotic Echo started working towards reviving the traditional Naga art of textile weaving in a loinloom – a loom which is mobile & is partially tied to the weavers’ back (loin)
Disclaimer: All restaurants / eateries / Hotels reviewed by YUMMRAJ were visited by YUMMRAJ himself & he has paid for the full Bill & tips also. http://www.yummraj.com does not have even one featured / sponsored reviews. YUMMRAJ believes in going to a restaurant in anonymity, as a normal guest, experience everything & give a honest account of the same to you. Same is true for all the stays in the travel section of the blog
For this trip we paid Exotic echo a total amount & they in turn paid the guest house & the restaurants.
The post has the following sections (to help you decide what you want to read & what you want to skip):
1. The place we stayed – Atithi Griha
2. Food at Atithi Griha
3. About Giver’s meet & interesting conversations
4. Some of the amazing people of auroville we met & the work done by these people
5. The other places we Visited during the trip – neighbouring villages & Pondicherry
6. About Auroville – the vision, the concept & how it is today
7. Places to eat at Auroville
The place we stayed – Atithi Griha (firstname.lastname@example.org, Phone – 01432622445)
The guest house was built 20 years ago. It had all rooms on the Ground floor. First floor got constructed last year & was inaugurated earlier this year. Infact, the room in which we stayed, we were first the first ever guests to occupy.
The place is managed by Dominique, a French lady (by birth), who has made auroville home. She manages the place with an iron hand & a big heart too. Quite a dominant personality, it was great talking to her. She said ‘I tell my guests that if you can’t respect the place & theme, pls move somewhere else’. That was so good to hear as we were recently so disgusted at our noisy hotel stay at Nahargarh Ranthambore.
The people working at the guest house are all simple villagers from nearby villages. They don’t speak English – only tamil. So there was no other way for us to communicate except with sign language & facial expression. It was so ‘back to the basics’.
This place is not run like a commercial hotel. So there is no intercom phone in the room, no TV (thankfully), no plastic bottles of packaged water (but water in steel jugs, refilled everyday), no room service etc.
The flooring of the room we stayed was cemented – like old days, manually cemented by skilled workers.
The bathroom area had tiles though.
The access to the room was through a spiral precast-concrete staircase.
The reception, dining hall & kitchen was in the main building.
The dining area was beautiful. It had high ceiling & few fans. There was no need for air-conditioning here, due to the way the building & its huge windows were constructed. It was amply airy.
A beautiful staircase led to the terrace area of the main building.
Food at Atithi Griha
In short, food was traditional (be it Indian / European), simple, did not seem to have any short cuts & was really enjoyable.
Breakfast day 1
Fresh fruits – not just that they have a fancy name but the fruits were super juicy & fresh. The papayas (my litmus test) were excellent.
Idly was freshly made – they were super soft & had an enjoyable fermented feel
Sambar with vegetables was made from scratch like at homes (no masala mix) – super simple, home like & very very tasty.
Loved the excellent chutney – nutty, coconutty.
They also had locally baked bread but more interesting were the accompaniments – inhouse made preserve.
Breakfast day 2
This time we had a lovely poha with nuts, curry leaves & thinly sliced green chillies.
The pineapples were very juicy, sweet & enjoyable
About Giver’s meet & interesting conversations
People from different parts of the country were here – Delhi NCR, Guwahati, Dimapur, Lucknow, Mahabalipuram, Chennai, Mumbai & more.
The itinerary was loose – meet new people, share your stories, indulge in conversations, argue, agree, agree to disagree, see new places together, eat out together, go through new experiences together, hear new ideas & thoughts, listen to stories of struggle & accomplishment.
All this on day 1 just flowed as we moved from one place to the other & went through new experiences. Day 2 was a bit more formal, with a proper sit down ideation session.
The conversations were deep, eye opening at times, surely thought provoking & stimulating. Few people became good friends.
Team Exotic echo had also set up an exhibition of its products.
The live weaving session was immersive.
Colonel Indranil Biswas gave the inaugural speech. He has spent a decade of his life & millions of rupees of personal savings , trying to revive the loinloom weaving with late Sonnie kath. The session was inspiring – how two people got others along & started a movement.
His team of young, committed people amazed me – how instead of taking obvious, glamorous, MNC/ large corporate choices in career in a metro city, they chose this career – based out of a village in Nagaland. They always pleasantly surprise me.
We heard few interesting facts about loinloom weaving in Nagaland –
Tree cotton uses water that is available in the mountains. So this variety of cotton is used for the weaving. As per some experts, Naga tree cotton gives the best yarn that u can get in India.
Dyeing of the cotton thread is not happening much in the entire north east. A revival of the same is in process. Organic color dyeing is being done in small batches by few organizations. Rest are using Synthetic colors.
We also heard some interesting statistics quoted from the handloom census of 2019-20:
· 60% of India’s handloom is woven in the north east.
· There are an estimated 4 lac loinlooms in India, 1.7 lacs in Nagaland, of which practising is only about 35000.
· 78% weavers in india are women
Crafts consumption has gone up 200% in last 10 years in India.
There are challenges in loinloom – due to the way the strap of the loom is tied to the lady weaver’s back, the weaver develops back pain after few hours of work. It’s not possible for one person to work on loinloom for 8 hours.
Work is currently happening on making the loom slightly better.
Parwez Alam, who works for Tata Trust, spoke passionately about his thoughts on survival and scaling of the loinloom Craft –
*Craft People* – He said for the craft to be sustainable & to attract potential customers from across the globe, there has to be critical mass of Loinloom Weavers in Nagaland. (his estimate is 35000 weavers).
*Eco System* – Basic eco system is currently challenged in Nagaland, Traditional Wisdom and Practices needs revision and rejuvenation through modern day innovations that help accentuate the craft , rather than replacing parts of it.
*Design & Products* – There is need to build extensive design vocabulary and diverse range of product Category. Currently the weavers are making more of traditional products that might not be relevant to the potential customers of today.
He also felt that there is a clear distinction between a craft brand and fashion brand. All craft brands should aspire to become a designer brand emphasising on novelty, uniqueness of bespoke Pieces. The brand building is what most craft brands lack.
Sridhar, who started off as a travel company, taking his guests to unusual tribal areas, now runs a company Thaen, that sells forest honey.
He is currently working on curating honey from stingless bee – found currently in Nagaland & Kerala. The bee is so small that it is the size of mosquito. These bees drink nectar of medicinal plants & hence they have some such properties, Sridhar said. We came back home from the trip & ordered a bottle. Don’t know whether it is medicinal or not, but the taste, flavour & texture is outstanding (one of the best I have had in my memory, next to kholshi plant honey from Sundarbans).
The traditional honey bee cultivation box gives approx. 1 kg honey in a year vs. only 300 grams for the stingless bees.
Traditional honey – Men don’t allow women to go to collect honey from beehive due to chances of stinging. Now women has been inducted & get employment for collecting honey from stingless bees.
Thaen also has many more honey varieties that can be seen on their site – Spicy honey, Honey from bhoot jalokia fields etc. He & his team are currently working on Honey powder, to help transportation from North east to rest of India – beyond 18% moisture, honey is not stable. Nagaland honey has 26% moisture. So, in normal tropical temperature, it starts becoming alcohol!!!
Sridhar has been working on many areas. He mentioned that there is a place near Pondichery which is the Cotton & indigo hub of world. His thought was that with focussed research, Cotton can be made mass.
He mentioned how over the decades, the government officials had made certain cotton seeds Denotified. He has been working with senior members of the Government to get these reversed & encourage local Indian cotton seeds to be farmed. Brown cotton , he mentioned, was one such variety that has been restarted.
Sridhar shared some very interesting thoughts on how one can work towards creating more Rural biodiversity hotspots in India.
Another speaker talked about pricing of loinloom products, how to make the business self sustainable, where to sell, how to spread the word.
Architect Nishant Upadhyay, who is in the final stages of his PhD in architecture, shared his experiences while working on restoration projects in UNESCO sites in India. He is currently developing the design for a loinloom centre in Nagaland.
To engage with the outer world, Exotic echo keeps conducting several interesting programs throughout the year. The next event they are planning is Megho Malhar – Art Adda 2, at their HQ in June – Looking forward to that.
Some of the amazing people of auroville we met (or saw their work) & the work done by these people
Upasana, a beautiful clothing brand by designer Uma prajapati was another stunning experience. Year after year, one after another, Uma & the organization have done unique things for the community –
1. they started mass producing little cloth dolls named Tsunamika (from the small pieces of cloth left over at tailor shops), by training fisherwomen who got affected by tsunami,
2. Paruthi – Promote & protect the fragile community of cotton growers by helping in research for better productivity of organic cotton to help farmers,
3. ‘Small steps’ – coming up with reusable bag to replace plastic bags
4. Reviving Varanasi weavers, modernising their designs, Helping restart hand looms
….. & many more.
A Master class by barista Marc, in his visually delightful cafe Marc’s café made memories. Marc is a coffee wizard from Barcelona, who stayed back at Auroville since last 20 years & runs marc’s cafe – the organization selects their beans from local farmers, grade them as per international grading , roast Inhouse, run a website & a cafe. Detailed post in last section.
We loved our session of block printing by Bidisha in her wonderful studio – lal design studio. Her Italian husband, Leonardo, who runs umami kitchen, served us the best meal in the trip.
Sound bath by svaram (started 18 years back) was a music therapy of a kind we had never experienced before. They have a store too, which sells the most unique kind of musical instruments, by using natural materials, without generally using plastic. They have a workshop that comes up with unique instruments over the years & manufactures them too.
The stone cut musical instrument was the most memorable.
Sadhana forest, a barren land turned into a forest in last 18 years was unbelievable. Set up by an Israeli gentleman Aviram Rozin & his family, this forest has huts made of natural products, where people from across the world come & stay in. Aviram now goes to universities & institutions around the world to talk about his project & the need for more such. He has helped set up multiple sustainable projects across the world.
They have 100+ guest house accomodations (huts). However, this is not a resort. So People who stay here have to work in turns to carry on all the activities of sustaining lives in the forest. They don’t pay for the stay but pay for the food only.
Activities – Planting & other outdoor activities from 630-8 am, cleaning, cooking & washing till 12 noon & so on.
All food served here is Vegan.
Cooking fuel is wood from fallen tree branches in the forest.
After meal, guests wash their own utensils, with ash from the remains of fuel of the stove.
The place functions on solar power only. In case there is less sun for a long period, guests can paddle & generate power!!!
In the forest they have some cows also but those are essentially rescued animals. They stay here like pets.
In the evening guests get together in common area & enjoy
They have created a play area for the local Village children.
They recycle every bit of waste generated here.
For non-Indians, the minimum stay period at the forest is one month & it’s one week for Indians.
Only forest trees are being planted here. More than 80% of trees grow with very little help.
There are indigenous methods of water conservation – they feed the water directly to the root (to avoid wastage) of saplings.
Due to this sustained effort over decades, there are 60 different bird species have been recorded in the forest now. Earlier in the barren land, there were none.
This was not a part of our schedule. We just walked in here with Nishant since he knew the founder.
The architecture of this space was such that the immense heat could be beaten by clever use of physics – hot air goes up – let the air pass out from open areas on the wall, which are covered by extended roof to avoid water coming in from outside. The plus point is natural light.
Here children learn how to make choices & how to be responsible with it, at every stage.
Every term has an open house. Children make a traditional house, they Cook, Go to forest, the village Temple etc. they learn thru experiences & not by mugging.
The founder’s daughter studied in this school that has no class, no board exams for 10, 12 or graduation. Once she completed education here, she applied to university in US & got thru. She is studying there at present.
Udavi school – This was another school where children learn thru experience, No mugging. This school was started by Mother to educate kids of ladies working in Aurobindo Ashram agarbatti factory set up by Mother.
The other places we Visited during the trip – neighbouring villages & Pondicherry:
A trip to Pondicherry to just walk around in white town was fascinating. The place is just so visually cool.
Sri Aurobindo ashram visit was short but fulfilling.
Loved walking on the sea beach of course.
We just walked into a market nearby to get the look & feel. We were amazed to see 7 varieties of bananas in one shop.
The super colourful & imposing ganesha temple was unmissable.
We also visited the imposing Prathyangira temple. We were told that in this temple, people from all castes can be a priest. Outside the temple is a huge idol of the Devi (a form of Shakti) , which was under renovation. To enter the main temple one had to walk inside a tunnel which had doors looking like mouth of lion.
At the Irumbai village shiva temple, we saw some beautiful paintings on the wall, colorful statues of gods, goddesses, devotees & also this golden pillar.
We also got to know the story of Shanishwar who sits on a crow. The local belief is that when you enter house, wash feet very carefully, else shanishwar will enter house along with the dust & then there will be either all bad things that will happen for seven & half years or mostly bad things. Extent of bad or good related to one’s birth date, in short, astrology.
Our local guide for the trip was 26 year old Yovanraj (nickname Raja), (+91 96557 56778 ) who works in an MNC, has a family taxi business & on his holidays he takes his guests out to local places of interest. He made such a difference to our trip. We had some really good & insightful chats with him.
About Auroville – the vision, the concept & how it is today
Auroville is An Experimental township set up by Sri Aurobindo society Pondicherry, under the leadership of mother (mirra alfassa) in 1968. The idea was to set up this city & follow the ideals of Sri Aurobindo. Auroville is located Mostly in Puducherry & a bit of it falls in Tamil Nadu.
Mother’s vision was that ‘Auroville wants to be a universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony, above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities. The purpose of Auroville is to realize human unity.’
A barren land 20 km away was given by the then government to set up the city. Till mother was alive (1973) Auroville functioned independently.
Prior to 1980, the Sri Aurobindo Society, Pondicherry, legally owned all of the city’s assets. However, citing disagreements between residents & the then management of Auroville, the government of india passed the Auroville Emergency Provision Act, 1980 and took over the city’s management.
In 1988, Auroville Foundation Act was enacted by the central government. The Act led to transfer of all assets of the city to a newly formed Auroville Foundation.
During this period, a three-tier governing system was initiated, which runs till date. the Governing Board; the Residents’ Assembly and the Auroville International Advisory Council.
The highest authority is the Governing Board selected by the Government of India. It consists of seven prominent Indians in the fields of education, culture, environment and social service. The second authority is the International Advisory Council whose five members are also selected by the Government. These are chosen from people who have rendered valuable service to humanity in the areas of Auroville’s ideals. The Resident’s Assembly consists of all official residents of the city.
The township was originally intended to house 50,000 residents. However, as of today there are only 3000 residents from across the world. We got to know that there are different communities & in Auroville there are e.g. French pavilion, African pavilion etc.
Instead of Indian national currency, residents are given account numbers to connect to their central account. They can do account transfers. Visitors are requested to get a temporary account and an Aurocard (debit card). So most places we visited inside Auroville did not accept cash or credit card.
Residents of Auroville are expected to contribute a monthly contribution to the community. They are asked to help the community whenever possible by work, money, or kind. Once in a while if a person is unable to pay, but the committee thinks the person is very good for Auroville, they are given a stipend.
Auroville’s commercial establishments are a major source of income for its economy.
Proceeds from the money paid by guests is a source of income for Auroville as well.
Donations from across the world are also a source of the foundation’s income.
Although the Government of India owns and manages the Auroville Foundation, it only finances a small part of Auroville’s annual expenses.
First two years when one wants to be a member of Auroville, they have to work on projects. During this time they get a basic minimum amount that is needed for sustenance (we heard it is currently about ₹10000 per month). After completing two years, a committee evaluates the project on merit & decides if the person can become an aurovillian. We also heard that there is an option to become an aurivillian by donating a certain sum of money too (don’t know if true).
There is also a concept of ‘Friend of Auroville’. Such people must spend time At least Once a year. Then they go back to their respective country.
When people die, the land & house goes back to Auroville foundation. No one owns their property here.
We also heard that there was a shortage of registered Auroville property.
All roads are either the natural red soil (gets slushy in monsoons) or have cement blocks interlocked (so that they can be removed at ease if need be , & nature be restored).
Climate here has three variants – hot, hotter & hottest. We were there in ‘hot’ period.
Restaurants / cafes at Auroville & Pondicherry that we Went to:
Please click on the names to read the full experience of food/beverage here
In addition to the above we also went to Tammy’s place. Food here was very carb heavy & good to taste (not great).
Like I said – it was a very memorable trip, quite an eye opener on what all unusual things people are dedicating years of their lives to & how people have turned their dreams into reality.