A walk in the woods: Vanvadi, Neral

On a Sunday morning, when half of Mumbai was submerged in torrential rains, I got on a train to Neral to learn about the forest foods of the Konkan region. The workshop was being organised by Vanvadi, a forest collective around 15 kms from Neral railway station. After almost a 45-min auto-rickshaw ride, I reach a place which is far removed from the urban development just a few kilometres away from one of the busiest cities in the world.

Vanvadi, Neral

More than two decades ago a bunch of like-minded people pooled-in their resources to buy undulating land in the foothills of the Sahyadris in the north Konkan Western Ghats. “Ecological regeneration and local self-reliance was our primary aim,” says Bharat Mansata, an active founder-member of the collective. “We were initially looking to buy about 10-15 acres for organic farming, mainly of fruit and vegetables. This was to be divided among 3-4 of us. But with more like-minded people joining, I began dreaming of an ‘alternative community’ of sorts gradually evolving – a community that aspired to meet its varied needs in harmony with nature and fellow humans,” he adds. The venture was tentatively named Vision Acres which was later changed to a more local name ‘Vanvadi’ which means forest settlement of forest farm.

Over the past 24 years, the 64 acre land has regenerated into a magnificent forest, dense and rich in biodiversity. A local adivasi family looks after and works at Vanvadi, almost since its inception. Bua, the eldest member of the family, guides us inside the forest to introduce us to various edible wild greens and plants that grow in abundance during monsoon. He gently navigates his way and points out various vines, plants and trees that either yield seasonally edible parts, or are useful to the adivasis in some other way.

Monsoon greens at Vanvadi, Neral

During the trail we spot ran suran (loth), a wild variety of yam which has a beautiful ruby red flower sprouting from the ground like mushroom. Its tender leafy growth is also consumed as a vegetable, cooked along with another forest plant bondara. Bua plucks a young leaf off a plant and hands it over to us to chew on, the leaf is bitter with a sour aftertaste. We also munch on tiny variety of awala and aliv, a fruit which looks like chikoo but has a sour aroma when it’s not fully ripened.

Pic Credits: Vanvadi Facebook Page

Vanvadi, with the help of local adivasis, has listed over 120 plant species in its forest which are useful to the locals in some way or the other. Out of these about 52 species provide edible yield (leaf, fruit, flower, stem, tuber/root) at a certain time of year. However, early monsoon is the peak season for harvesting many wild greens – the fresh, tender growth of almost a dozen vine species. Certain trees have multiple uses like mahua’s leaves are turned into fodder, flowers are well known for brewing liquor but they’re also cooked in various ways (there are dozens of recipes in Central India that use mahua flower), fruit can be cooked like a vegetable and seed is crushed to yield cooking oil. The residual cake after extracting the oil works as manure for the crops. The wood is used to make furniture, musical instruments, agricultural tools etc. However, it’s sacrosanct to cut a mahua tree; the wood is only used if the tree dies.

Presently, less than 2 acres at Vanvadi are used for farming. Mansata tells us that the original plan was to plant mainly fruits and vegetables, the adivasis showed them that a variety of local millets like nachni, varie, kangu, jowar can also be grown on the gentler slopes; and rice too on relatively flat, lower-lying areas.

After our walk in the woods we come back to the mud cottage, the only house in the midst of the forest, for a lunch cooked by the adivasi family and the Vanvadi volunteers. On the menu there are greens like a wild variety of amaranth, wild colacassia leaves, and ulshya, all stir fried with minimal spices. For accompaniments there’s sesame and garlic chutney, koshimbir with mahua flower and dry black chana with dried mahua flower. We polish off the humble meal with nachni bhakri and local variety of rice.

Meal including local wild greens at Vanvadi

The forest regeneration has also helped the area solve the problem of water scarcity in summer. “We get around 8 ft of rain in an average year. With such a generous supply any water scarcity is a human failure, not nature’s short-coming,” says Mansata. The porous soil of the forest acts as a massive sponge to efficiently recharge the groundwater drawn from wells and bore-wells, while stream-bed check dams and reservoirs harvests rain as surface water bodies. . The land and its downstream villages now have water all year round, despite a proliferation of one-way extraction bore-wells in surrounding areas in recent years.

Vanvadi has had its fair share of struggles and fights too, mainly dealing with the builder community which is deforesting big chunks of land to build resorts and holiday homes. “When locals cut the trees for firewood or other use, they don’t damage the roots and most trees regenerate. However, the developers dig out the roots with JCBs, which is the major reason for soil erosion under heavy rain, which then silts up stream-bed water bodies,” says Mansata.

While there are challenges, Vanvadi is slowly growing as a space to host workshops, work camps, forest food trails and  ecology-related educational activities to understand the local flora and fauna, and the vital life-supporting ‘environmental services’ that the forest provides. Every year, starting on Dussera, it also hosts a Vanutsav or forest festival – to celebrate nature and community.

To stay updated with the events and workshops being conducted at Vanvadi, you can request to join their Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/vanvadi.

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An ode to Mumbai and everything I love about it

I don’t belong to Mumbai. Or shall I say that I thought I didn’t till recently. I have spent 14 years in this city, just 4 years short of the number of years I spent at my birthplace. It was around the same time – Ganesh Chaturthi – when I first set foot here oblivious to how my life was going to be tossed and turned around; that from being a jobless nobody, I will see my name (and recently my face too) published in some of the best magazines and newspapers. Every time I thought the city took away from me, it doubled it up and gave back, not always in ways I expected.

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Traveling in India during monsoons

I have a love-hate relationship with Mumbai’s weather. Every summer I hate it to the core, going into hybernation and refusing to step out of my room. Every monsoon I fall in love with it again, ogling at every green patch I can find, planning trips to the city’s outskirts. Traveling through the Konkan belt during monsoon is bliss and I make it a point to be out there soaking in the weather, even if it’s just for a weekend.

Last weekend I was in Wai, a small town in Maharashtra’s Satara district located on the Krishna river. It’s surrounded by the gorgeous Sahyadris with the clouds floating low, kissing the hills. The site is healing to the eyes and soul with all shades of green vying for your attention. I spent my day walking down to the river, letting my feet soak in its chilled water and inhaling the freshness of my surroundings.

Wai in the Satara district of Maharashtra

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The best meals of 2017 – Where and what I ate

How you begin the new year sets the tone for the rest of it…

It’s true. I started 2017 with a langar at a Gurudwara in New Bombay, wishing for  equally great meals in the coming year. And what a fabulous food year it was. I traveled to various cities for food. Took a trip to Pune to try the famous Bedekar misal and loved it, went to Surat to eat the locho and visited the ponkh market, traveled to Indore (done that twice this year already) and found another food city to fall in love with, took a solo trip to Calcutta and Meghalaya (where I ended up making some most amazing friends), traveled to Goa to learn sourdough which became one of the most brilliant experiences of 2017, traveled to Indore (again) and ended the year with a trip to Srilanka. Apart from all the good food I ate at these places, there were umpteen fabulous meals cooked by my mother, a couple of trips to Lucknow that involved loads of chaat, and some amazing beef curry/fish curry and rice meals at Chetna (PositivityAngel’s) house. Don’t think I can be thankful enough for this year.

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I am an atheist, but somehow going to a Gurudwara doesn't feel like I am confirming to any religion. The idea of following a teacher and learning from his/her experiences sounds more logical to me than blind faith. Also, what fascinates me is their self-less service and the feeling of giving back to the community. Eating at a langar with people from different casts, religions and financial backgrounds and accepting your food with a feeling of gratitude is a humbling experience. So glad to start my food journey this year with such a beautiful meal. I hope the food that I eat this year helps me connect to my roots and make me aware of the efforts people put-in to put that food on my table. Also, here's a big thankyou to all the people who came into my life this past year, taught me new things, gave me new experiences and motivated me to be better than myself. I don't know whether all of you will be part of my journey onwards, but I will always cherish and value those times, learnings and experiences. Wish you all a very happy, healthy and successful new year. #NewYear #gratitude #CircleOfPositivity #Happy2017 #gurudwara #food #langar #feelinghumbled #thankyou #HappyNewYear

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Phaltan – A weekend getaway in Maharashtra

Around 250 kms away from Mumbai (110 kms from Pune), there’s a small town where the sky is clear blue and vast green hiils till as far as you can see. Located 50 kms from Satara, Phaltan was once a Maratha Princely state of British India ruled by the Nimbalkars, descendants of Naik Nimbaji Nimbalkar. The first wife of Shivaji, Sai Bai belonged to Phaltan.

The drive to Phaltan, although a bit bumpy, is made pleasant with pristine lakes and acres and acres of sugarcane farms, the main crop of the region. On my recent weekend trip (hosted by Jakson Inns), I drove around the length and breadth of Phaltan and the surrounding region only to be enamoured by the sheer beauty of Maharashtra.

Things to do in and around Phaltan

Windmill Farm in Pusegaon

Around 45 minutes drive away from Phaltan, exists one of the most dream-like places in Maharashtra. The windmill farms of Pusegaon can be one of the most romantic destinations in India. There’re huge windmills till as far as eyes can see on top of the hills, clear sky, light breeze and the most spectacular sunset. You can pack some food and drinks and have a little picnic here. If you’re staying with Jakson Inns they’ll arrange a cute picnic basket for you.

There were more than 200 windmills in the region producing enough electricity to supply to the whole Phaltan area.

Pusegaon Windmill Farm, Maharashtra

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