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live like a YOGI


Mud house building experience

Updated: Jul 6, 2021

Volunteering for a day at an earth building site in Annamalai, near Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu.

Five, three, four, two, three. The headcount kept changing till late evening on the 4th feb and finally settled down with three.

Next morning I left from Tirupur at 6.30am. Nandhu and Shiva joined on the way and we headed to Saativc Arogya Farms, Odayankulam in Anamalai near Pollachi.

Nandhu drove seamlessly all the way!

The highways took us to Pollachi town where we drove through tree bridges formed by age old trees on either sides of the road. As the roads became narrower, we saw beautiful villages, and traditional houses. The roads become even narrower, and standing through the car sunroof gave a beautiful view of the coconut tree farms.

Finally we reached saatvic arogya farm. But for one house in the neighbouring farm, its was vacant land as far as we could see. Two men were cleaning the farm gate. I was about to try talking in butler Hindi, assuming they were from north India. Thank god those guys saved themselves by talking in Tamil before I said anything!

We parked the car and walked towards the building site. We reached at 9.15 am, about an hour late than what we had planned. The unexpected road works on the way caused the delay.

The earth building team was already in action. They start working at 6.30am everyday.

They were a team of four:

Stanzin, an eco architect from Ladakh, Samyuktha, eco architect from Coimbatore and two others who had come to learn from this building duo.

We observed them for a while and plunged into action. Today we had to complete the last couple of lines of the side walls. For this we needed bricks and mortar.

We moved the bricks nearer to the wall, placed them on the scaffolding.

Mortar was already mixed by two local men who helped with the building works.

Mortar had to be put in a “satti” (a flat pan) and kept on the wall near the building area.

Just as we were about to get on the scaffolding, our first ever time, Samyuktha found that it was a bit loose in one area. The local annas (Tamil word meaning older brother) tied it up tightly and voila!! We were up and set to start building.

We were taught how to place the bricks just “Nool alavu” (a thread gap) away from the guiding thread that was tied from end to end. The bricks had to be placed such that the edges did not coincide with that of brick lines in the lower row.

It was no easy task. But it was fun to build together as a team with some music playing in the background. After about an hour and half, we cleaned our hands and headed for breakfast.

Not to a room with table and chairs!! We carried breakfast in a basket and went towards a tree, sat underneath the tree in a circle, placed the food in the middle and ate simple, soulful, homemade food. It was pongal, sambar, chutney and vada. After the meal, we washed our plates with water from a bucket, and chilled for a while before heading for the second half of morning session. Few chose to drink some tea just after breakfast. The local annas also took a break and sipped some tea.

All the while I thought we were in Tamil Nadu till I noticed the mobile signal showing Kerala. That’s when I understood that the farm was somewhere on the Tamil Nadu-Kerala border.

The boys helped move a huge stone. This served as a warm up exercise for them before starting the second half of the morning session.

Again we needed more bricks and mortar to start building works.

We piled more bricks on the scaffolding, placed more mortar nearby and began building.

It was only while stamping the wet mud to prep mortar, I understood how intense quicksand can be. I could feel the pulling force of the thick wet mud. I remembered how few people got caught in quick sand in the forest where poonguzhali, a character in Ponniyin Selvan (ever popular historic Tamil novel) lived and how she was a pro at identifying and escaping from these quick sand pits.

After completing the last row of the side walls, we wrapped up for the day. Roofing and wall plastering would be done in the next few days.

The farm had a small vegetable garden, a well which was more than 3/4 full. We noticed a few pits in a particular area of the farm. Samyuktha explained that they had taken the mud from there for the building and these pits were now used for rain water harvesting. Nandhu spent time with the two little calves. There were some chickens cluckling on one side.

The building team had a cosy place to live in. Just a few cots with flat tapes as the base, no mattress. We were told that the last week saw few very cold nights and the building team had to use sleeping beds to handle the cold weather at night. The verandah area of an existing small house was their makeshift living space. Minimalism.

Four metal sheets formed the walls of an open to sky bathroom / toilet. Who needs fancy bathrooms when you can choose to shower right under the sun or moon!

Shiva, Nandhu and I had just begun learning to play the “Parai,” an instrument that had a lot of cultural background among the Tamils. The building team was informed in advance that this was entertainment time as we did not want to confuse them with random drum sounds. All the four from the earth building team tried their hands with the Parai. It was their first time. All of them came up with their own music beats before learning a couple of basics. It was interesting to note how the human brain worked to make harmonious sounds when a totally new instrument is given.At times it makes us believe that hands on creative learning brings out more than what structured learning does.

The painter anna who was working inside the small house came out. We thought we distracted him from the Illayaraja melodies he was listening to. The moment he took the Parai and started the beats, all of us were already grooving, he was a pro!!

As the painter anna left for a break, we started looking for things around us to make some noise, and an impromptu jamming session was on the roll. We did not focus on whether it sounded good or not. What was in sync was that all of us were just enjoying the noise making and that made it sound like music too, at least to us! It did not end there, we even started dancing. After all the hard work in the sun, we had the energy for all this.

After giving a thought about where this energy came from, I understood something. While we were building, we did not think of anything else, the hot sun did not bother us, our complete focus was on what we were doing. So this was actually sort of meditation. After so much of focussed work, we had more than enough energy for other activities like dancing and playing the Parai.

Playing or practising to play the Parai is a tough task in the city. Even the most friendly neighbours would turn enemies with the kind of heavy sound this beautiful instrument produces. But in the farm, we played the Parai to our heart’s content. In fact the few others in the farm also enjoyed the music. We were free!

By now, our stomachs did send signals for more fuel. So we sat down for another simple home cooked meal. Plain rice, sambar, rasam, avaraikkai poriyal and curd was on the menu. We had carried some tasty jelabies for the building team. Some felt jelabi was best eaten before the meal to awaken the tastebuds, some felt it was best eaten as a dessert after the meal. There was also someone who liked it both ways and ate one before and after the meal!

We washed our plates with water placed in a big bucket outside the living space. There were tiny plants that had just sprouted in the area where the water drained. We were told that it was a mini Marie Gold garden that was coming up and they had directed the waste water to the plants so that it does not require separate watering.

Food to eat, place to stay and work that was more like meditation. These builders were really rich! And are becoming richer by the day with experiences like this.

The building team took a nap to recharge for the evening building session, while we quietly left the farm trying not to disturb those who were already in the superconscious sleep state!

It was just a day after our Parai class, and we wanted to go through the new beats and dance steps we learnt the previous day. So we pulled over on the way. We got down and started with the Parai on the road side, going through all that we had learnt so far. Two ladies who walked by stopped to watch us in action. A bus drove past and the people inside glared at us. A person slowed down his bike and got off to watch us play the Parai. And a car full of people slowed down to take a U-turn. Not only the car, even the people inside took a U-Turn to look at us playing the Parai. All this was just for a few minutes. But we understood how drawing the sounds of the Parai were. There is something about this instrument that makes everyone happy. Glad we got an opportunity to learn to play it!

Few things this experience taught us:

Respect nature. Go back to your roots.

It is not how big a house is, it is about how much life it has. The best way for that is to involve in the building process, all those who are going to live in the house.

The energy of the people who build the house plays a huge role. Constant music at the site, lots of positive energy, contributions from volunteers, no strict dead line, letting nature guide us and take us through the process gives these buildings so much of good energy.

Like nature does not rush at all, the building process also gives best results when there is no rush.

The builders could have easily chosen to build thinner walls to make the process easier, but they chose to do it the hard way which ensures best quality.

The entire team enjoyed the whole process. There was no tension of absentees, or delay in delivery of building materials. The whole environment was relaxed.

There was not even a bit of commercial element in sight.

Nothing works like team work. Working with like minded people makes any kind of work light. “Veetta katti paaru kalyanatha panni paaru!!” This is an old Tamil proverb meaning “build a house, organise a wedding and see ,” conveying that these two are no easy tasks.

Wondered how people built houses those days with limited resources. It would have taken them months. I did not even want to think about the huge temples now. So much of effort just for a small house, the amount of effort and planning that was needed to build huge temples is beyond imagination. We are no where close to the level of intelligence our ancestors had.

It was wonderful how the universe has its own way of bringing like minded people together.

Few questions that I took back to ponder over...

Simplicity takes us closer to peace, and once we start experiencing it, luxury sort of becomes a burden and discomfort?

The lesser we have and the more content we are, we feel more secure. More makes us insecure?


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