Every place leaves you with an impression that is so fresh and pure when you are there, experiencing that place. That freshness is somewhat lost when it takes time to write about it, and that is why I decided to write a short note before leaving Vaidyagrama and Punarnava community.
So, let me share the short note first which I wrote the night I spent at Vaidyagrama.
The bonding of the community explained by Geetha was clear when I spend time with other people who are staying here or working here. We were on a casual evening walk to the favourtie place of Tarini, which is this green field with a view of the continuous western ghats. And obviously, there is always an instinct to share things on Instagram instantly. But there was no network and she called up to ask Geetha about how the WiFi is arranged for me.
Or the time I was taken for dinner by Manju, who spends her time in Balagrama looking after the chores, was friends with everyone we met on the way from Doctors to therapists. The enthusiasm shown by the ladies who cook food in Balagrama or those who were taking me the next day for Annam
All of these little connections and exchanges of love and laughter made it clear that the vision of the founders of Punarnava is achieved in this community. It was not just the medicine or treatment they are given importance to but the healthy lifestyle that connects everyone around this place with each other and nature. Maybe that’s what makes the ambiance of this place so serene.
In this blog, I’ll take you through Vaidyagrama and Punarnava community, which is situated near the Thirumanapalayam district of Coimbatore. Their services, activities, and lifestyle inside this healing community.
What Is Vaidyagrama And Why Am I There?
Vaidygrama is an Ayurvedic treatment center. Unlike other ayurvedic centers that operate much like resorts and spa, this institute puts Ayurveda into practice through the lifestyle they follow. Each patient who comes here first undergoes a consultation with the practitioners and their body type is identified. Alongside, their status of the body is also mentioned and the following days, they are put into diet and other routines where they recover or makes the body healthy through everything they do in their life.
The moment I reached the entrance, I could feel the difference in the place. Be it the hospitality of their staff or the environment they’ve created with the trees and reforestation of the place using the medicinal and indigenous plants, the treatment center feels much like home than a hospital. The staff, be it the ones who are attending the patients or the ones who cook the food for everyone, everyone is content in their jobs and happy to interact with you.
But why was I there on my backpacking journey in India? The name of Vaidyagrama came up in the searches for permaculture villages in Coimbatore or some combination of such searches. I was also confused about why an Ayurveda treatment center was in the results but decided to check out their Facebook page.
The first post was of a doctor handing over biodegradable sanitary napkins in a girl’s school in the nearby village. Scrolling down, I understood Vaidyagrama is not just any Ayurveda treatment center and also came across the Punarnava community.
Reaching out to the authorities, I was hosted by the community and given a chance to explore their facilities and be a part of the activities. That is how I ended up Vaidyagrama treatment center on a Friday evening.
Talking about Thirumalayampalayam, the road to there itself is a treat for the eyes with the road that passes in between the continuous mountain ranges of western ghats and the blue sky on a sunny day.
Food In Vaidyagrama
Food is an integral part of the treatment here. All patients are given healthy vegetarian food, which is freshly prepared in the kitchen. Minimum or no spices are used but I can tell you the food they serve is good, really good.
Nowadays, I always find a need to make sure if the food is vegan or vegetarian. So, I think I might have asked Geetha more than once or twice to confirm that. So, Vaidyagrama provides a vegetarian diet. The food is rich with milk and ghee and other dairy products. But if you are a vegan, you can opt-out on them and the food would be still delicious.
The food is prepared in the yellow flame using briquettes. These are the blocks of a mix of wood, dried manure, and other stuff. It can be bought in the market. Everyone here is excited to talk about it.
Talking about food, chai is something very common in Indian households. Here at Vaidyagrama, I was given a tea but a different one. It was made from a special mix that contained unrefined sugar/ jaggery, extracts from grass and other ingredients that I don’t identify with. But, it tasted good.
A Little More About The Vaidyagrama treatment center
The treatment center is built in different blocks and named with alphabets. Each of these blocks has four different rooms inside. Each of these blocks has a physician assigned and therapists who take care of the patients.
Everything in this block and surrounding it is made in an eco-friendly way, but we will discuss that a little later. I was taking a walk in the evening to find the patients all gathered in a hall in a circle. It is an opportunity for every group of patients to get together and share their stories. It is also a part of the treatment to make these human connections and every one I found there seemed to be happy about it.
Different days, different groups gathered around and had a quality time inside the hall called “Mandapam”. This is also where the satang happened before the day began and the yoga classes. It won’t be just to ignore the lotus pot in front of Mandapam, its one calm place to be.
It was the days of Navarathri when I was in Vaidyagrama. There was another hall where patients came to attend the classes on Ayurveda, chanting. Since it was the festive season, the hall was lit with lights and colourful dolls were arranged as a part of the ritual.
There is also a pharmacy inside Vaidyagrama. Most of the medicines come from the main in-house pharmacy in Palakkad which is then portioned out according to the needs of the patients.
I was accommodated in a room in the Balagrama since the hospital rooms were all occupied.
Balagrama is a house for the boys from a nearby village who are from troubled homes or with abusive parents. The idea of the project is to upbring the society around the Punarnava community. The home accommodates around 16 children in Balagrama, educates them and molds them into future leaders.
It was the Navarathri holidays when I was there and everyone in the balagrama went home for the holidays. During my stay in Vaidyagrama, I was given a bed in Balagrama since the hospital was filled up. Coming to Balagrama in the evening, I was introduced to Aruna, who takes care of the children and Balagrama.
In total, there are 16 boys plus staff living in Balagrama. Their daily routine starts at 7 am and includes yoga, prayer before they go to school. The food for them is also prepared in the kitchen nearby by the same method that is used in the Vaidyagrama. Generally, the food is prepared in the local style, however, occasionally people sponsor the meals while they celebrate their anniversaries or birthdays or any particular day.
I was taken to the kitchen which is very close to Balagrama. There I met Rukminiamma and Mayilamma, two old ladies who was very happy to welcome me. Rukminiyamma has lost her family and was living alone before she came here.
She was a part of the Project Annam for many years before she lost everyone in her family. Later she joined Punarnava community and helps in small chores around the kitchen. The next day I am also going for the project Annam but I’ll talk more about this project later in the blog.
After showing around Balagrama, I was taken for a walk to the nearby housing complex called Agraharam.
Agraharam is the housing complex consists of eco-friendly homes for the staff in Vaidyagrama. Did I mention the bricks that are used for building houses everywhere inside the community, including the Vaidyagrama is built here? These bricks are made from the soil excavated from here, pressed and sun dried. With them only a very little of concrete is used while building the houses here.
Agraharam is where the therapists and other staff are accommodated. There were vegetable gardens that are being planted recently on the way to Agraharam. Also, bright flowers everywhere, those were the same ones that are used in the treatment center.
In the evening, as promised, Tarini took me around the place for a walk. She teaches yoga in both Balagrama and Vaidyagrama. It is just amazing to see how someone from California is well adjusted to the calmness of Thirumalayapalayam. And the view from one of her favourite places here was just so beautiful.
Back at Vaidyagrama, I had my dinner early since the plan for the next day was going to be a busy one. The road by then were conquered by these slow giants.
A Morning In Punarnava Community
The next morning, I got up to a group of peacocks crying which echoed from everywhere. Outside Balagrama, Aruna and Manju who takes care of Balagrama were having a holiday from their otherwise busy schedule. The kids were away for the holiday meant a little time to relax in the morning for them and for me to catch them for a quick chit chat.
Aruna-kka was explaining the children's routine from morning to evening. They wake up early, go for the yoga classes, prayer time, breakfast, and then school. After school, they have some time to play after the tea and snacks and then proceed for tuition and home works. In between, there is food preparation for Annam where she also participates.
Once there was enough sunlight and it was about the working hours, staff to Vaidyagrama were going for work with flowers in their hands.
I was told there is a temple inside the premises of Punarnava community. So, I thought of starting the day visiting the temple. From Balagrama to the temple is a good walk through the roads with trees and bushes on both sides.
It is a small temple with Kerala temple style architecture. There was no one around, so I just spend some time there and walked back. But, the temple has a calm atmosphere around it, especially in the morning.
It feels good to learn the roads while at a new place. Reaching back Balagrama through the pocket roads was the first achievement of the day.
One thing to stress about Punarnava community is their eco-friendly practises. Like the bricks I talked about earlier, everything here is made to create a good impact on the environment. Years ago, the land that now has many trees and vegetation was a dry land. It was the consistent effort of the visionaries that made this land transform into one of the shaded areas around here.
A lifestyle is followed that enriches those vision building a sustainable community. Water recharging is one of the main facilities to be told about Punarnava. From the rain water to all the water that is being used here is given back to the earth using water recharge wells. There are such wells built everywhere to facilitate this.
A boiler is used to heat up the water in Balagrama. From wood to scraps of leftover biodegradable plastic used in the moon project are used to kindle the fire and have hot water to bathe.
The same with the food and leftovers from the kitchen. The cow shelter that is maintained by the community is where all the food that is left after use goes. So, there is nothing that is wasted through that channel.
Nature is taken into consideration in every aspect. Teh soaps and detergents used here are also made from nature. The solution is made out of soap nut which is used for cleaning the floor and other purposes.
It is a lifestyle that is followed here that enriches not just human lives but the whole of the ecosystem.
The Moon Project
The products used during the periods are a matter of concern when it comes to both the comfort of the person and the impact on nature. The moon project aims at producing biodegradable cotton sanitary napkins. The unit is very small that produces napkins in a smaller scale. It was a dream project of Geetha, who was also excited to share the details about it.
The napkins or pads that are manufactured here are distributed amongst the girls in the nearby villages. Schools and campaigns are the main channels were these biodegradable products are distributed. Unfortunately, the person who operates the unit was also not there the day I was there, so I got a tour of the place before leaving for breakfast.
After the breakfast, I was taken to another housing complex called Nivriti Grama. This is another project which can also be called as a place to relax. Ideally, the place is dedicated for those who want to stay connected to the community by living here for a longer term. Nivritigrama is also a place for the elderly to spend their time participating in the activities of the community. There are facilities to build your own house in the area here. My next visit was to one such houses in Nivriti grama.
Dr. Mala Kapdia is one of the residents in Nivriti grama who happily invited us inside her home. From the dense Tulsi garden in front of her house to the design of the house, she has made Punaranava her home now. It was a great indication of the satisfying lifestyle followed here that made someone from one of the busiest cities in India shift to a calm rural area in the southern part of India.
Dr. Kapadia shared her experiences, knowledge about Ayurveda and how she is content living in the community. Right outside her house is the vegetable garden she grows. In her words, this style of living even makes you care about the products that are used in everyday life. Knowing the soap or shampoo or detergent goes to the soil where she grows her vegetables makes her more mindful about the products she uses now.
Taking a few pictures inside her home, we left to meet another resident here, Mr. Das. He is a very well read person about so many areas. It was a great time spent with him listening about many topics. He was another person who decided to spend his time in the community for the lifestyle.
It was already time to return to the kitchen in Balagrama where the preparations for Annam was supposed to be in the last stage.
Project Annam is something that I felt very noble that a community can do. Every day, a jeep filled with food boxes goes to the nearby villages that feeds 100 abandoned elders. Everyday, food is prepared fresh, packed and reaches to them without failure. What started as a weekly program was then changed into a daily task to meet the needs of those who relied only on this project for food.
The food distribution is also organized. 100 people from the nearby villages are chosen knowing their background. Most of them are elderly people who were abandoned by their children or family and now lives alone in the villages. Most of the time children move away to cities in search of jobs and better opportunities. The ones who left here live an isolated life with no one to take care of them.
Mayilamma, whom I met in Balagrama was a part of this program before she lost her entire family. Nowadays she helps pack food for this project that goes into the jeep before it leaves at 11.00 am from the kitchen.
There are two steel tiffin boxes with the same number. While giving out the food, an empty box with the same number is returned by the villagers. That is how the system works and how they know who has been there or not. Sometimes, they go out in search to see if those who hasn’t come are doing alright. At the last stop, the entire food is given away. No food comes backs to Punarnava on any day, that's the policy.
It was already time and the jeep that day was fully packed. I was not very sure what to expect after listening to how it all works. But the moment we reached the first stop, it was all pretty clear. There were a few who waited with the similar tiffin box that we were bringing to them.
Everyone gathered around the jeep and the tiffins filled with rice were exchanged and sambar was also given out. Few of them asked for a little more of sambar and few of them were not there to receive. I was shown how much to give and how to do it so that I could be a part of it in the coming stops.
When you hear about this it won’t make much difference. But once I was there, meeting with people who waited for food, probably the only meal they’ll have that entire day, it all made a huge difference. For them, the ones who came in the jeep were not just strangers but a family. The way they knew who didn’t come and enquired their life or the happy faces to meet tarini who spoke in her broken tamil all were enough to know the special bond they all shared.
Since I was there, Tarini managed to take her good camera. It was great to capture some of those good times during the food distribution which otherwise is a busy process. We had to be there at the next location before it is too late for lunch.
There was this one stop where we were told to stay inside and a man who is mentally challenged came up to the jeep. It is normal for him to abuse and sometimes become violent. He was also a part of the project but because of his condition, his mother also has to accompany him to receive the tiffin. Otherwise he would be throwing that away and both of them will go starving. Then there was this one stop where most men are alcoholic and the rapes are very common. The boys who grow up in these houses mostly grows up believing these are the normal social norms. The boys from such backgrounds are also given an opportunity at Balagrama to shape a future that can be different and better.
At the last stop, there was this old lady, who is left alone to live here. It was one of the heartbreaking meetings that strikes you to find someone in that situation. She could barely walk straight and open her eyes. But, she was happy to talk, especially since we have the same native language.
Camps and Community Lunches
Other than project Annam, there are eye camps and medical camps conducted in these nearby villages by Vaidyagrama. A free medical check up done for everyone and all the elderly are informed about the dates beforehand.
It was October 2nd when I was there which is a national holiday. Before going for the Annam, the jeep went to the villages with big cans of ayurveda medicines that are freshly prepared. It was to be distributed in the nearest dispensary.
Punarnava community also organises a grant community lunch for the villagers. All of them are invited for a feast at Punarnava community and there was one happening in the coming days before the festivals. Everyone I met on distributing the food boxes were excited about that.
It was already 3 pm when we were back at Vaidyagrama after the food distribution. It was a bright sunny day and it was time for me to leave. The truth is it is easy to pass by these beautiful roads without knowing there are people who struggle to get a meal at least once a day. And now knowing that there are people who actually care to look after them is a huge relief. And it was a great experience and memories that I will cherish in life.
There are volunteering programs for those who would like to participate in the activities by Punarnava community. There are ways you can donate to different projects through their websites. There are also facilities for anyone who would like to sponsor food for the kids in Balagrama or the different projects. I’ll end this post by listing their website and contact for more information.
Vaidyagrama : http://www.vaidyagrama.com/about-us.php
Punarnava trust : http://punarnava.org/
Punarnava community: https://www.punarnavacommunity.org/
Contact : [email protected]