“The fresh air, rich soil, birds, trees, plants, city folk and the Adivasis is what truly makes this place special”, said Tara Franziska, one of the guests at this year’s Van Utsav forest festival in India.
This forest named Van Vadi, which in Marathi translates into ‘forest settlement’ or ‘forest farm’. truly is a one-of-a-kind venture.
It only takes a few hours to reach Van Vadi, as it’s located near one of the biggest cities in India, Mumbai, making it easy for guests across India to attend Van Utsav – the week-long forest festival that takes place at Van Vadi in October.
Bharat Mansata, one of the founders of Van Vadi, describes how this unique and fascinating endeavour first began in in 1994.
Bharat and a group of 24 like-minded individuals bought 65 acres of a degraded deciduous forest to regenerate and save it as it had been clear-felled just three years earlier.
They work closely with a local Adivasi family who belong to an indigenous Indian tribe known as the Thakurs and together with the Adivasis, they cultivate, protect and celebrate this land throughout the year.“Today, if there are any people left on this earth who can teach our floundering ‘millennium generation’ the fine art and science of co-existing in harmony with the forest, it is the Adivasis,” Bharat says.
Every year at Van Utsav, a connection between the city folk and Adivasis is instinctively formed.
“We always dreamt of creating an alternative community that would meet its needs in harmony with nature and fellow humans,” Bharat emphasised.
Although, before guests get ready to embark on their journey deep into a wild forest in India, a crucial checklist needs to be attended to first.
A flashlight is an absolute must when nature’s calls are during the dark peek hours of the starry nights.
A part from necessary comfortable shoes and clothes, the guests are also asked to bring any musical instrument they play.
For the evenings is when everyone gathers around together, eats delicious spicy food and listens to the musical sounds that echo throughout the forest.Together, the Adivasis, parents, children and grandparents participate in the activities, workshops and discussions organised during the day.
Bharat says the guests, who usually amount to at least 60 people every year, also have the opportunity to learn about the forests biodiversity. He highlights how they’re all particularly fascinated with the 115 traditionally useful species that can be a substitute to many conventional products.
For instance, 45 of the plant species are listed as being of medical use and others that can be used for botanical pesticides, oils, gums, natural soaps and natural dyes.
Just within the boundaries of Van Vadi there are 40,000 trees that are flourishing in this regenerated forest, along with an ever-growing biodiversity of plants. They also have 52 wild, uncultivated edible plant species and 25 timber species.
“The senior Adivasis are exceptionally good with forest species and forest foods. We get a lot of guidance from them,” Bharat states.
Aside from learning about the value of what the forest can offer them. Bharat explained how “they really dive into getting their hands mucky” when they have their organic gardening and composting activities with the Adivasis.
Sometimes, they even go swimming in the lake when they’re all in high spirits.“Our lovely forest environment and our streams and all the enormous diversity; the kids who come just love it because everything they see, every step they walk, they see something new which is stimulating and exciting,” Bharat says.
Other activities include learning about natural remedies, local crafts like basket weaving and the art of story telling, and after their long walks of bird watching in the depths of the forest they often come back to do some yoga and meditation too.
This year, Van Utsav began with a community dance led by the Adivasis and a session on “Forest foods, farming and Adivasi culture”.
The second day celebrated the famous Hindu festival of Dussehra with decorations of local natural materials; a meal cooked with organic foods, and of course, a lot of colourful singing, music and dance.
The celebration of Van Utsav would not be possible if it weren’t for the Adivasis, declared Bharat.
It’s easy for the Adivasis to make their way to Van Vadi as it’s only a ten minute walk from their village. Since Van Vadi was established, it was this Thakur Adivasi tribe that has been helping them cultivate the land, which was once completely clear-felled.
Bharat explains that the Adivasis showed them grow a series of essential farm crops like rice, millets, (common millet, foxtail millet, finger millet) and oilseeds like sesame.
Van Vadi has a dense high tree cover; this means that the rich absorbent soil underneath plays a crucial role in water recharge.
Bharat stresses how this thick vegetation and soil “acts like a massive sponge”, during the monsoon; this not only benefits the surrounding plants and the installed underlying groundwater aquifers, but also the surrounding villages in the area.
Moreover, the check dams installed in the forest create water bodies to enable their rainwater harvesting system to run effectively.Bharat highlighted how they also invite their guests for the workshops held at Van Vadi throughout the year.
Their workshops are centred around teaching people how to lead more of a self-sustaining life.
Seed saving, medicinal plants, soil and water conservation, and house building with earth are their regular workshops.
This year between June-July, Bharat mentioned how they were very excited to host a hedge planting camp, home food gardening, forest foods foraging walk, rice and millets transplanting workshops and a Mahua cooking class.
Bharat believes this class had a lot to offer: “The Mahua tree is very precious for the Adivasis all over India because every part of it is useful to them. The flowers of the tree are edible; you can make hundreds of wholesome recipes with them. The fruit too is cooked as a vegetable, and the kernel of its seed yields an edible oil.”
He also pointed out how they are currently trying to save the land from dirty investors who are buying the nearby forestland from villagers for a “cheap-buck”. The investors buy the land and convert it to what is known as; ‘non-agricultural’ land, thereby making it easer to destroy these breathtaking forests.
“The toughest problem is the two-legged animal: humans!” Bharat says.
However, despite the ongoing battle, Bharat and his team will continue to do what they can to advice the locals, work with the Adivasis and preserve their existing land wholeheartedly.
When asked if there was a message he could pass on to our generation of today, the conservationist said, “Young people are the ones who will face the problems of the environmental crisis. It’s time they wake up and push in the right direction!”
Visit their website to learn more about Van Vadi.
Featured image by Van Vadi