Live the Organic Life

 , Mumbai  |  Updated: April 18, 2013 11:10 IST

Live the Organic Life
Buried in the back of beyond, Saha Astitva in Ganeshpuri offers a slice of organic living, but only if you're willing to pluck, cook and eat. A two-hour drive will connect you with nature, the stars, organic farming and even meditation, la Elizabeth Gilbert (Remember Eat, Pray, Love?)

In hindsight, a red flag should have shot up when the directions we received listed trees as landmarks. But, it didn't. After coming across a "very tall lamppost" -- we winded through a Warli settlement. Complete with beautifully festooned huts, wild fowl and cattle, we unexpectedly reached the Ganesh temple. After our obscure hunt for signs everyone seemed to know about "Daniel's Farm" when asked for.

Slow, steady and strong

Daniel Uppendahl, co-founder of the organic lifestyle and green rural development centre, Saha Astitva, is an American with Dutch-German roots. He lived in Africa before he moved to India twelve years ago. Initiating our tour at the cowshed, he points towards the distance, "There's a tank at the end of the shed, where we collect cow urine. We mix this with cow dung and jaggery and ferment it for three days to make Amrut Paani, a natural fertilizer."

The process, which requires frequent stirring, yields a liquid, which need only be poured over dry leaves, wood and natural waste to enrich the soil, explains Kalyani (born Karen), Daniel's British wife, showing us their bible, a book on organic-farming by 91-year-old Gujarat-based Bhaskar Save.
Daniel Uppendahl with Kalyani; The farm employs locals, some craft their furniture; others are taught electrical wiring. The duo feel farming should be made viable so locals don't need to leave their community for livelihood.

Usually, people burn dry leaves. But letting these decompose naturally over soil enriches it." We're led to a central chattai-lined podium, with an open-kitchen and presumably, restrooms on either end. Kalyani tells us about Permaculture, which is a philosophy that entails creating a self-sustaining system, ecologically sound and economically viable.

"Organic farming isn't expensive as imagined, but the process is slower, initially," a result of their four years here. "The chemical alternative urea works faster," she explains, "but by using Amrut Paani, we create stronger plants without destroying soil organisms -- like if you keep giving a child antibiotics, its natural immune system would never strengthen."


...But the heart craves for pizza

Konstantinos Hirtle-Kattou (Dean) who studies Agriculture at McGill University (Montreal) has been an intern for two-and-a-half months here. Interns pay R80 per day for board and breakfast and live-in tents on a wider podium at the rear. While we are intrigued by his description of how kitchen wet-waste has blossomed into a patch of papaya trees, berry vines and bean stalks, we are more curious about the words, 'Pizza Oven,' scrawled on a notice board alongside a list of, 'Chawli, Jowri, Watermelon, Gawar...'

"Our residents wanted pizza," smiles Daniel, as 24 year-old IIT graduate Utsav Shashvatt shows us a makeshift wood-fired oven. Shashvatt is designing an ecologically sound dehydrator, "because limited shelf-life of produce and lack of transport and storage facilities means loads of wastage. Aside from yielding sun-dried tomatoes and such, dehydrated veggies go into medicines with many other uses,"  cites Kalyani.

Nature's bounty: Bananas, guavas, tomatoes, beans, eggplants and watermelons are grown such that it adopts a system that doesn't rob the earth and allows time for regeneration; Saha Astitva offers eco-friendly, airy, light-footprint facilities including a reception, hall, meditation platform, kitchen and bathroom. Pics/Nimesh Dave

Sunsets and stars..

For those who would rather meditate, a central Agnihotra hut, offers tranquility. "A daily yajna is performed here, to attune us with nature," cross-legged Kalyani explains. Meditation follows the ceremonious burning of cow dung, rice and ghee. This is optional. Visitors can laze atop a giant haystack watching stars light up the night sky. Mats and pillows laid out suggest it's popular among campers. Sadly, it's serenity we can't opt for on this trip --we need to make it back to the very tall lamppost before the lights are out.


Pluck, cook, eat

On pause till June because the farm is moving into the next phase of eco-construction upgrades, its Pluck, Cook, Eat events are popular. As the name suggests, participants cook and eat the produce they pluck. "Your menu depends on you," explains Kalyani, stressing that it's a pure-vegetarian organisation.

Elizabeth Gilbert was here

Through a lush natural canopy on the road to Ganeshpuri, we arrive at a junction where Shivaji's drawn sword unwittingly points to the imposing Gurudev Siddha Peeth Ashram. Chronicled in author Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat Pray Love; it is a watered-down glimpse of life, The New York Post had speculated. This is where we turn left. Miss this saffron statue and you may find yourself in hot water, literally -- the town of Vajreshwari, a kilometre ahead, famous for its sacred, healing, hot springs.

Vajreshwari, home to blood of slain demons

Aside from its hot, healing springs, the town is famous for its eponymous temple beside the Mandagiri hillock. The Goddess Paravati is worshipped here as The Lady of the Thunderbolt (Vajra), whose legend is associated with Indra, Lord of the Devas, hurling his Vajra or thunderbolt down to the spot -- possibly, a reference to the volcanic eruption that shaped Mandagiri hillock. Terrified, the inhabitants of the area prayed to the goddess who "swallowed the Vajra" making this a site of worship. Named after Hindu deities, these springs were believed to be symbolic of the blood of the demons slain by the Goddess.

How to get there

Saha Astitva is 80 kms north of Mumbai. Kalyani will mail elaborate directions on request

> By train: Take a Vasai or Virar-bound train on the Western Railway. Orange or yellow State Transport buses shuttle between these stations and Ganeshpuri.
> BY road: From South Mumbai, it took us 2.5 hours to reach Ganeshpuri.

How to sign up

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What you'll pay

Depending on group size, you pay Rs 800-Rs 1,000 per head for one-day programmes.

CommentsSkills learnt> Soil building, basics of gardening to grow herbs and veggies.
Also includes> Forest trails, mountain treks and an introduction to Warli art.

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