Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Navadarshanam Farm

Every permaculture farm I visit usually teaches me something new. I suppose permaculture in general has somewhat of a spiritual element; working with the land in an ecologically principled manner to derive sustenance is seen by many as spiritual. None, however, had as much of a spiritual educational impact on me than visiting Gopi at Navadarshanam.
Gopi inspecting the garden

Navadarshanam is a 104 acre farm and spiritual retreat center that is located 50 kilometers outside of Bangalore. There are fifteen permanent residents with a regular group of 15-30 visitors per day. It happens to be uniquely situated next to a large forest reserve that elephants, snakes, leopards, jungle cats and wild boars call home.

Elephant tracks!
In just 20 years of the farm's existence it has managed to regenerate an eroded, dusty, seemingly useless piece of land into a lush forest. Something that is equally remarkable is that the farm is completely self-sufficient in supplying its own water and energy needs. Through Gopi's hard work and energy these past 5 years they hope to reach 100% food security by next season's harvest of grains and pulses. Navadarshanam has an impressive array of natural buildings, rainwater catchment and filtration systems, a biogas digester, emergency bio-diesel generators, a growing seed bank and a spiritual pervasiveness throughout the farm that reminds one of the holistic possibility humans can build for ourselves.
The houses are made from natural materials, heated solar thermal and powered by PV

In fact, the farm itself provides a great context of the current ecological state in India. Animals occasionally escape the reserve's boundaries in search of food and water, terrifying the local village and inviting the presence of poachers. Navadarshanam is happy to provide sanctuary to these beautiful creatures but not without a stark reminder of how powerful and potentially dangerous they can be. Days before my arrival, a family of King elephants badly damaged the garden. They ate vegetables, uprooted papaya trees and destroyed fences. This provides plenty of conflict between the farm and the villagers. They fear that if the farm continues to harbor these animals, more property damage or even death will result from an angry elephant. On the other hand, Navadarshanam has influenced some local farmers about the need for resource conservation and organic agriculture. Looking out from a lush food forest to the surrounding dry, eroded mono-cropped fields of corn and overgrazed pastures, one is subtly reminded of the agricultural contrast in modern India and the possible future. The vision of the possible future has been provided Gopi's hard work and knowledge.
Navadarshanam's main solar array
Originally from Chennai, Gopi lived in the the United States for more than 20 years working in the IT sector designing websites in the Bay Area. It was in the Bay Area that he first learned about permaculture and gained valuable experience practicing and teaching design courses (PDCs) throughout California. As his mother was getting older, he decided to simplify a lot of things in his life and move back to India. He chose Navadarshanam as a relaxed atmosphere to continue his spiritual journey and to start the garden. Three years later, his results are indeed very impressive.

Rainwater collection bucket
I enjoyed walking through a garden maintained by such an avid and experienced permaculturist. I saw a lot of techniques I recognized and learned a few new ones. Gopi practices cover cropping with nitrogen-fixing plants to prepare a soil bed for planting. This is then followed by sheet mulching with consistent layers of nitrogen and carbon. Companion planting could be seen in some instances, mainly with marigolds (which repel insects). Chopping and dropping is a great technique that every permaculturist should know. After harvest, simply chop your vegetable plants leaves and stems and drop them on the ground. As the garden is still in transition to a stable ecosystem, Gopi is using a few pheromone traps to keep pests away until birds have made permanent habitats nearby. A way to encourage bird habitat (so they can help with any unwanted pests) is to leave thickets of trees and shrubs around the garden. The resurgence of bird population is slow, but Gopi has already noticed a decrease in pest problems.

A technique I learned was the idea of Zero Budget Farming or Jiwamritha by Subash Palekar. The idea is to inoculate the soil's micro-bacteria population by adding sugar, water and flour and leaving it for 24 to 48 hours without any exposure to oxygen. The population of micro-bacteria skyrockets. You then dump this solution on your soil, which enriches it with a boost of tiny critters.
The biogas digester input with the main digester in the background
I was astounded by the biodiversity of vegetables and plants that were in the garden, many of them native to India. Over eight species of vine plants are grown, from your recognizable cucumber to the not-so-familiar Choyote and snake gourd. I counted at least ten varieties of beans, including yardlong bean, pole bean, bush bean, clustee bean, jack bean, cowpea, moong, and pigeon pea. I saw plenty of leafy greens like cabbage, spinach, chard, sorrel, as well as pallak and five other local greens. Potatoes, yam, carrots, radishes, and cassava are abundant as well as tomatoes, bell peppers, chillies and eggplant. I spotted mango and papaya trees in the budding food forest. Gopi pointed out his favorite super trees, Murenga and Agathi. Both yield edible leaves and fruit and are fantastic nitrogen fixers. Plans are in the works to plant rice, pulses, and various other grain and millet to be completely food sufficient in a year or two. This achievement adds to the farm's twenty-year sufficiency in water and electricity.
The battery room for all of the solar panels
The biogas digester accounts for 80-85% of the farm's cooking needs with 15-20% supplemented by wood stoves. Most buildings are fitted with some type of PV panel with varying sizes and models. The farm's electricity shares and stores power for its own use by system of batteries. It is not connected to the external grid.

Gopi making a small repair to a rain bucket
As rain is Navadarshanam's biggest natural challenge, water collection is a large concern. The farm has access to two bore wells and two ground wells. During the rainy season they use the ground wells that have been repleted with water. In the dry season, they use rainwater that was collected and stored in several 1000 liter tanks during the monsoon. Drinking water is then purified through puma stone filters.

Besides the systems of resiliency that were demonstrated, a spiritual element was abundant and refreshing. Its presence is a reminder of our ends. Gopi said it better: “Sustainability to the end is inner joy.” His sole reason for living on the farm is a spiritual one, a spiritual journey. He finds physical work is great for meditative purposes and helps transcend thoughts and worries. He admitted that his daily meditation ensures that he is not attached to outcomes on the farm. This perspective is quite beneficial to have, considering the ebb and flow of farm work. Three years ago, the rains washed away the entire garden that he and his friends had been working on several months prior. “The good news,” he chuckled, “we could start over.” Concerns may range from elephant intrusions to drought or flood, and through it all Gopi tries to remain spiritually centered. To the outside observer, it was this spiritual aspect that was inspiring. It might do us well to remember. To Gopi, the path of sustainability is a spiritual one. The final goal is to realize that “God is in you. That peace is in you.”

Rain harvesting buckets with rocks, pebbles and finally charcoal as filters
More elephant tracks!


  1. This is work par excellence! It was refreshing to read the article.. and very reflective about so many dimensions of life....

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