Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Ananda Pune - A Plan, Letter #17

I’m always amazed at the marvelous variety of talents we have in the Ananda communities. It’s almost assured that a Sangha member can be found with the right skill-set to solve whatever problem comes along. That certainly was the case for us in India when JT Heater and Alex Forrester came all the way from Ananda Village to help us plan the Ananda Kriya Yoga Community in Pune. Working with our local architect, Amardeep Singh, JT and Alex extracted from us a unified vision, and translated our thoughts into a visual design for presentation to the public, Swami Kriyananda and prospective members.

When I wrote last month's weblog post, a group of us had just returned from touring our property in Pune. Immediately, an invitation was sent to JT and Alex requesting their help. JT Heater is a professional, resident architect at Ananda Village with many years experience in design. Alex Forrester, also an Ananda resident, is a professional community planner and highly knowledgeable in the science of permaculture. Amardeep Singh is a local architect whose firm we have chosen to prepare plans that can be navigated through the Indian regulatory process. Together, these three great souls were able to coalesce our ethereal concepts into a realistic plan of action.

As I've mentioned before, we are developing a multi-use community with a retreat, institute, hospice, school, monastery, commercial area and residential quarters for 100-200 people on 30 acres of land in the countryside outside of Pune in central India. We now own about twenty of those acres but hope to have title to all by the end of the year. As funds allow, we'd like to buy additional, adjacent land, but for now we feel that thirty acres will allow us to begin.

If you look at the map above, you’ll see that development is densely clustered in the lower, northern half of the property. (The missing North arrow would point down.) The upper half of the property, much of which is not shown, rises into steep hillsides in excess of 30% gradient, making it unsuitable for building but, positively, creating an undeveloped backdrop to the community below. To the north (down on the map) and below the bordering road, are cultivated paddy fields of local villagers. The view in this direction from the community is across a broad, agricultural valley toward hills in the distance, three or four miles away.

The community’s design is a combination of elements found at Ananda Village mixed with the high-density housing found in Ananda’s urban, residential communities in Palo Alto, Portland, Sacramento and Seattle. On the left (east) side of the map, you will see a guest retreat complex and a Temple of Light. In the center are apartment flats served by a village/community commercial center. To the right (west) will be larger houses, a school, hospice or some combination of these elements. Two alternatives are drawn on the far right. On the upper, right side of the map is a home of Swamiji and a monastery with seclusion “caves” adjacent. At the entry will be reception offices and a boutique with a landscaped garden offering a beautiful view of the temple on the hillside above.

One of the nice features of the design is that the elevation contours run across the land from left to right as shown on the map, allowing for pedestrian traffic to traverse the community on an easy grade. You will be able to walk from the houses on the far western edge to the temple without having to climb the hillside. It’s only a walk of a few hundred yards. We hope to limit interior traffic to electric carts and bicycles, but both Vidura and I have our doubts about how well residents will conform to this. From our experience, people don’t really like to walk, even though they affirm that they do. We keep joking that people will drive into their living rooms if given the chance. I think those of you who live at Ananda Village know what we mean. Somehow we have to construct a design that lets residents get reasonably close to their destination while still keeping the cars in check. We’ll see.

Our next step is to show the plan to Swamiji for comment. Nirmala and Dharmadas flew to Rome to show him our progress, bringing with them maps, drawings, and a three dimensional model made in an amazingly short time by Amardeep’s employees. It’s quite something. They have said that Swamiji's first reaction has been very positive. Assuming few changes are needed, more detailed plans will be drawn and we’ll engage engineers to do calculations and design for all of the infrastructure needs—roads, water, electricity, sewage, etc. While this is happening, plans can be refined further, more land purchased, applications submitted, budgets set and serious fundraising begin.

We’ve been promoting this particular project since last fall when Swami visited Pune to see the property we have now bought. It’s hard to excite people about something they can’t see and can hardly imagine. Cooperative communities aren’t all that common, after all. Yet, even with these obstacles we’ve had dozens of people express interest and many have been willing to give an initial donation to help with the land purchase. What most want now is a firm plan, a graphic design, a list of requirements and details about what their costs will be. These are the questions all of us want answered and we have local residents working on them.

Ananda Village in California was a “build it as you go” project where it took ten years to provide basic services and houses that were more than country cabins. That model worked well for us because we were young and it conformed to the “hands on” spirit of the times. We were learning as we grew, both in how to build a community and in our attunement to Master's teachings. Our city communities were able to purchase already constructed housing complexes and improve them, thus creating a community much more quickly. Here, we must develop from scratch a mostly "turn-key" project within a short time frame. To do this, we need large sums in advance and then find ways to pay it all back. It is a daunting prospect. One idea is to have potential residents “buy” flats so that we can use their money to first build the retreat, community buildings, Swami's house and infrastructure. Can you guess the problem with this approach? How do we build the residential flats for when people come, furniture in tow? “Details, details, Jaya. You just need more faith. It’ll all work out.” Right!

One thing we all agree upon is the need to attract people who are spiritually motivated foremost. That’s why we’ll begin with construction of our retreat, creating something like The Expanding Light. For this, we’ll depend heavily on donations, and I suspect we'll provide for residential needs with funds provided by those who choose to make the community their home. Naturally, everything will be built in phases, so our task now it to raise a few million dollars to get the project off the ground. Simple! Who knows? Maybe we’ll attract a sponsor.

I’m sure some of you are interested in coming to see for yourself our new land. If so, you may want to visit next February. We are planning to have an international retreat in Pune similar to what we’ve done the last four years in Gurgaon. It’ll be a four-day event in the city. From there, everyone will have a chance to visit the property and Swami may even dedicate the community at that time. It’s highly likely we’ll also organize a pilgrimage to spiritual and cultural locations in South India to coincide with the retreat, so you may want to start planning now.

I’ll keep posting updates as our plans unfold. For now, I don’t think much will happen until the fall and Swamiji returns from America. This is the time of year many in the ashram take vacations and return to America or Europe, so it will be quiet in Gurgaon until the hot season and monsoon are over. Things are, however, proceeding in the background, and once fall comes, we should have a clearer idea of our next step. Many of us are hoping our ashram shifts to the city of Pune, but for now, Gurgaon, the official "City of Malls" remains our home

Ananda Pune-Letter #16

I finally found a chance to visit our new land outside of Pune. I was in the city last weekend to conduct meditation programs with Dhyana and Karpani, so it was convenient to stay a couple days extra to see the property. Dharmadas, Nirmala, Vidura, and Wayne had arranged to fly in on Monday to meet Amol and Amit who were already there, so I joined them to check out the situation.

For the last many months we’ve been going regularly to Pune to nurture a small but strong core group of kriyabans and new students. Our introductory program last weekend drew fifty-five and another twenty came to the advanced course. We’ve been doing programs at The Poona Club, an old stately place in the heart of the city. It still retains a flavor of the Raj: cricket players in white, a beautiful green pitch, members on a shaded veranda, liveried servants with tea, couples taking their daily “constitutional” about the grounds. A friend is a member and that’s how we can have our program there. We’ve discovered the importance of doing events at well-recognized, centrally located venues so when people see our ad in the newspaper, they’ll think, “The Poona Club! I know where that is and it’s a nice place. These people must be legit. I think I’ll go.”

I’ve been to Pune many times by now and I like it. It’s easy to navigate and although big, it’s not huge like Delhi or Mumbai and the weather is better too. The city and surrounding metro area has a population of about five million but it seems smaller until you to drive around the outskirts and see the sprawl of new development extending in all directions. Public transport is primarily by fleets of three-wheeled motor-rickshaws, but they’re metered, thus eliminating the price bickering that so typically drains non-locals. Everywhere in Pune you see schools and colleges and I’ve heard it said that Pune is the “Athens of India.” Amol grew up there and when I asked him if it’s true that there are two hundred colleges in Pune, he said, “Oh yes! There are two hundred management colleges alone. How many others, I don’t know.” With so many schools, naturally there are lots of young people, most of who seem to be on a motor scooter.

On Monday Amol, Amit and I met the others at the airport and we drove to a restaurant overlooking the city and then to a hotel outside of town, halfway to our land. We dropped off our stuff, washed up and continued our journey into the countryside. The road is excellent, a two-lane highway that goes over the hills west of town and drops into a beautiful agricultural valley of paddy, onion, grain and assorted vegetable fields. A few simple villages line the road. The fields are small and I saw no tractors but plenty of bullocks working the fields. Women and men were harvesting wheat with sickles, tying the sheaths into bundles for threshing. It was probably much the same a hundred years ago. Ten miles further, we turned onto a one-lane asphalt drive and kept going. The road dissolved into gravel, potholes appeared, dust began to billow and the road ended at a little concrete house above the road. Welcome to Ananda Pune.

The valley, so scenic and clean, is protected by the government from haphazard development as a reserved “tourist zone.” No industry is allowed there. Further up the highway is a big, concrete dam and lake with a turnoff to Lavasa City, a multi-billion dollar development where entrepreneurs are creating a modern “hill station” for the upper class from Mumbai. Maybe that’s one reason things are kept so nice in the outlying areas.

The Ananda property is about two miles off the main highway, nestled up against the surrounding hills and about an hour and a half drive from central Pune. The valley floor is prime agricultural land, sustaining the local people who rarely sell it. For the villagers, to sell one’s land is to lose one’s livelihood because they have few skills or opportunities outside of farming. In the hills, however, land is less prized because it is dry, much harder to irrigate and therefore less suitable for farming. That is what we have bought.

The hills have two seasons—green and brown. The monsoon arrives with heavy rain in June and tails off in August and September, leaving behind a lush carpet of beautiful green that lasts for many months. As the hot season approaches, the land turns brown as it does in California where the hillsides alternate in a similar half-year cycle between wet and dry. In fact, I was reminded of the brown grass and brush hills of the Coast Range, but instead of familiar oaks, I saw an occasional mango, jackfruit and other unfamiliar trees.

From the contour maps I had seen before, I was prepared to be disappointed because, on the map, the land seemed steep. I was pleasantly surprised and liked what I saw. Even though dry now, the land is beautiful and it’s easy to imagine it being splendid once the rains come. I found many useful pockets for sensitive development. The gentle roll of the hillside between creeks and hillocks falls away into the valley below, allowing for numerous and distinct use areas.

The land faces the valley to the north (In India, this is auspicious.) with cliffs rising steeply behind. A dry watercourse along the northern border gives evidence of a rainy season flow and up the canyon are potential waterfalls. But, best of all, it’s quiet. Sitting in the shade on an old rock wall, I could hear insects buzzing and wind rustling in the trees with no sound of cars, horns, or music. Ahhhh. I loved it.

No, it’s not all idyllic. Within a few minutes I’d cut myself on thorns, the sun was hot, trees are few, and it’s far away from modern conveniences. I’m sure some won’t care for the forty-five minute drive to any type of store serving more than the basic needs of villagers. I can imagine a visitor thinking, “Geez, we’re really in the boondocks!”

I remember the early years at Ananda Village when a trip to town was a big deal. I’d go once each month to visit the hardware store, bank or grocery. At the time, I thought that was great, but I was young, a sadhu, and hardly typical. I remember the months before moving to Ananda in 1969 when I had attended a series of organizational meetings at Swamiji’s apartment. Prospective members gathered to discuss and debate the ins and outs of building a community in the foothills. As perhaps the youngest in the group, I said little, but I later found it instructive to discover that only one or two of those many who attended the meetings ever moved to the country. Have you ever noticed that sometimes a vacation or journey is more fun in the planning and anticipation than in the doing? Most people talk, few do.

As raw land, the property is very nice but notice my use of the word “raw”—no electricity, no drinking water, no roads. Nada. A tremendous investment of money and energy is needed. I see years of hard work ahead and pray for more young men and women to join our ranks. Young people pioneered Ananda Village so maybe the same will be true for India. At the Village, because we had little money, we substituted youthful enthusiasm and energy, but in India, perhaps we can find a way to attract financing and speed up the process.

By Monday evening, it was time to pin down details concerning our borders and transfer that data onto our topographic map. We’ve never had a clear picture of what we own so now was the time to sort it out. Dr. Wani, the man coordinating our purchase, brought out the local equivalent of a regional parcel map. Which of the hundreds of parcels on the map was ours? I had mistakenly thought that we had bought one large piece, but it turned out to be not so simple. One by one we checked the parcel numbers of our individual pieces and outlined each on the map. What became clear is a realization that we have actually bought about 20 small pieces, some less than a half acre, and when outlined, they are not all contiguous. Instead, what I had thought to be a large rectangle took the shape of a horseshoe with a few stray bits here and there. Surprise!

As the outline took shape, I think each of the Americans had the same thought, “Oh, oh. I don’t think this is going to work. Where are the missing pieces?” Dr. Wani assured us that this was “in process,” and when completed, we’d own about 30 acres with most of them contiguous. To my eye, I think we’ll need more than 30 acres, probably in the neighborhood of 50 to fit all the pieces together and include enough adjoining property to make a workable community. But, we have started and taken the first big step. One by one, the missing pieces will be added.

We spent the night at the roadside hotel and discussed options the next morning before making our way back to the airport. Wayne stayed over another day to scout the city to find possible locations for another Wishing Tree store. All morning we asked ourselves, “What’s next?” We decided to proceed with our planning “as if” we already owned the missing pieces. We’ll pray for the best, but at the same time do whatever is necessary to move the project forward. Dr. Wani says it’s only a matter of time before we have the land we need and that he is working on it, but my mind says, “Yes, I’m sure that’s true, but how much time?” I’m an impatient American, you see. Some of the small acreages have unclear titles, others have multiple owners who can’t agree, and some belong to people who are hard to find. Rationally, it could be argued that we should wait until everything is in order before planning proceeds, but a door of opportunity is now open and if we don’t walk through now, planning will stop until fall or next year.

What an adventure. By the time you read this, whatever I say could all be out of date. Amol and his wife Arati will move to Pune next month with their children. Perhaps others from the ashram will follow in the fall to magnetize a congregation and teaching center. In the meantime, we’ll scout for possible locations to start an ashram in the city while planning and development goes forward in the countryside. Who knows, maybe Swamiji might even move to Pune later in the year. That would certainly give the project a boost. All I can say is, “Stay tuned.”