I never paid much attention to geysers till I found myself searching for a ‘small, budget-friendly, instant heater’ that would fit in the bathroom of my new house. In the run-up to its arrival, I shivered through my shower every morning and realised just what a luxury hot water is. Whether in my tiny rented apartment or at an extravagant villa or a farm, a hot shower is a universally-acknowledged source of comfort and the geyser, instrumental. It pains me to report, however, that my geyser will need an upgrade soon and I’m contemplating switching to the permaculture way of life - at least as far as water heating solutions go. In a documentary titled ‘Seeds of Permaculture’, viewers are introduced to a remarkably simple system that guarantees 200 litres of round-the-clock hot water at a permaculture farm in Thailand. All you need is glass, insulation for the sides, half a day to make the design, another half to collect the materials and two days to build it properly. In comparison to Rak Tamachat farm, I’d just like to point out that my geyser took six days to arrive and barely heats enough water for one person, let alone all twenty volunteers at Rak Tamachat farm. Convincing my society to let me construct a custom heater will probably be harder than the actual construction, I believe.
“What the heck is permaculture and why should I care?” – I’m guessing you’re thinking the same thing as I was, when I was assigned the task of decoding permaculture. To put it simply, permaculture is a a way of life. I started my study of permaculture by glossing over some reading materials on the internet, before moving onto the documentary I had referenced earlier. I learnt that permaculture is a blend word – originally derived from ‘permanent’ and ‘agriculture’- but has since evolved. A more mindful way of living, it encompasses both the words ‘permanent’ and ‘culture’ today. Coined by Australian ecologist and University of Tasmania professor Bill Mollison and his student David Holmgren in 1978, permaculture came into being as a response to highly unstable industrial-agricultural methods that were straining both the land and its resources, to yield disproportionate results. Explained as a design concept, this term was introduced with the publication of the duo’s 678-page book Permaculture One. Mollison has said, “Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labour; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single product system.” The words triggered a flashback as I thought of step-farming or terrace farming, a rare Geography lesson I’d been able to keep up with, and trips to the mountains. Coupled with my awe of the solar water heater, the thought led me to believe that perhaps permaculture was more accessible than I’d originally thought. I revised my opinion and reached out to Simrit Malhi, an Indian permaculture farmer, for a deeper understanding of this accommodating, more flexible way of life.
“It is about creating systems that mimic nature. It can encompass every part of life, from politics or economics to farming and building. There’s no one right way to be a permaculturist - you use the code of ethics and basic principles to design your space and life according to the resources and limitations around you.” My suspicions confirmed, I knew there was a way for me to experiment with permaculture and have it bring value to my life, luckily, without worrying about the cost of buying a farm. She believes that its principles can be extended to “whole villages, housing estates or even to a tiny backyard or balcony.” The ‘principles’ or code of ethics Simrit is referencing are also pleasantly simple and easy to assimilate - earth care, people care and fair share. She simplifies this further and explains that “keeping things open-source, creating a community, and taking care of the planet and those around you, are its cornerstones”.
“Agriculture is not just agriculture – it’s a social responsibility,” said Narsanna Koppula, a pioneering Indian permaculture practitioner. He took the first ever Permaculture Design Course (PDC) held in India taught by the father of permaculture, Bill Mollison and Robyn Francis. The founder of Aranya Agricultural Alternatives, Narsanna believes that permaculture might be the solution to India’s agrarian crisis. Actively seeking out alternatives to chemical-heavy farming practices, his organisation aims to empower rural communities to work towards achieving food and nutrition security, as well as sustainable livelihoods through permaculture practices and natural resource management. At Aranya, Permaculture finds purpose in India in light of the plight of our farmers and the country’s poor-quality water resources, waning bio-diversity and soil health. Also integral to Aranya’s vision is empowering India’s rural women, so that they can affect change and promote this more sustainable way of life.
A Bloomin’ Practice In India
‘Seeds of Permaculture’ threw light on lots of other interesting practices in play at Rak Tamachat, I discovered in addition to the water heater. Take, for instance, the mighty ‘Banana Circle’ - a permaculture design practice to grow fine fruits and root vegetables, while utilising excess water and organic wastes. Or, for that matter, the use of adobe instead of concrete or cement as a building matter. The main ingredient in this less destructive substitute is sand and any kind of binder that is locally available (coconut fibre, animal hair or chopped straw), clay and just the right amount of water. The mixture is left to harden under the sun and voila! Au naturel bricks. The one I’m most excited by? Earthen ovens! Essentially, the world of permaculture is based on a rock solid foundation - the synthesis between local, indigenous knowledge and modern appropriate technology. Life at Rak Tamachat is a complex ecosystem that’s been allowed to flourish over many years, but Simrit says that starting out is super easy. “Try your hand at whatever is close - lettuce head cuttings, onions or potatoes that are sprouting, seeds of an especially tasty tomato. Aloe Vera, Lemongrass, Passionfruit and Basil are especially easy to grow in pots and balconies. Start composting and being aware of your waste. Walk. Carpool. Permaculture is essentially open-source and there is plenty of information online to kick things off.” Most permaculturists believe that once you start, you’ll realise how much of this is just natural instinct. “It’s all inside of us, it’s only over the last 50-60 years that we’ve lost this knowledge,”said Matt Prosser, Natural Building Manager at Rak Tamachat.
Closer home, the spread of permaculture is on the upswing. Permaculturists Rosie Harding and Peter Fernandes turned a barren piece of land, attached to their home in Assagaon, into a thriving food forest and herb garden. “We pretty much produce all of our own food, in addition to some surplus which we share with friends and people who are looking for organic food. We also use it (the food forest) as a demonstration and research space,” Rosie explains in a documentary about the pair, A Sustainable Life. They also run the Facebook group Permaculture in Goa which now has more than a 1,000 members. However, Fernandes draws the line at commercially selling the produce. “We don’t want huge numbers of people flocking to our door to buy our stuff. We want to see them all growing their own food; we want to see the landscape change, not our bank balance,” he tells Vogue India.
People Care, Earth Care and Fair Share come alive at Simrit’s Roundstone Farms in Kodaikanal. A 15-acre farm in Pallani Hills, it is bordered by a Reserved Forest on one side and a seasonal stream on the other. Due to its proximity to the forest, elephants, deer and a whole lot of wild animals are regular visitors and, since Simrit was determined not to keep them out, the produce at Roundstone Farms includes avocados, pepper and coffee - none of which is particularly appetising to them. In an interview with Vogue India, she details how she was consciously “trying to create a career out of doing things that are sustainable and that didn’t require me to be in the city.” Some of the stepping stones that led to Roundstone Farms include learning about natural building in Goa, doing a Bio-Dynamic Course in Mysore and working at an eco-resort. Complete with swales, waterways, ponds and a home constructed according to ancient Tamil methods with stone and lime mortar, Roundstone Farms is a ‘permaculture wonderland’ for her daughter Aeko. “Kids need space. She has an amazing life, living on the land. She knows more than I realise. Only the other day some volunteers were asking about a plant and three-year-old Aeko told them it was a guava tree.” Far removed from smog crises, noise pollution, and almost-mechanical ins-and-outs of navigating city life, Aeko’s ‘playground’ sounds pretty damn good to me.
Meghna Kapoor’s brush with permaculture led to the creation of Kyo Spaces. With a Masters in Design Management from the University of Arts London, she has multi-industry work experience ranging from fashion to media. However, her interests span across yoga, design music, and obviously, permaculture. She moved to Goa two years ago and now she’s harnessing her experience working with two startups in the fitness and art industries to start Kyo Spaces that offers permanent “co-living, co-creating, co-healing, co-learning and co-working experiences”.
She believes, like all permaculturists do, that the practice is not one-size-fits-all and is easily adaptable to different landscapes, homes and lives with tremendous ease. If a herb garden is all you have space for, start there and let it sprout into a full-fledged lifestyle switch at a pace you’re comfortable with. Not limited by space, the core values and ideas of permaculture can easily be adapted to cityscapes and small terraces or balconies. Co-founder of T H R I V E Garden Design Studio and urban farmer, Adrienne Thadani says that the trick is to start small. “The first thing is to make it sound less daunting. Call it kitchen gardening, for starters. With my own experience, I can say that it is possible to grow food in the city,” she comforts those who can’t afford to up-and-move to a scenic farm. If you’re already frequenting farmers’ markets, watching where your food comes from and actively making conscious lifestyle choices, congratulations. You’re on your way to living a more sustainable life and this permaculture workshop can help you level up.
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