Biolaya

Ben’s Story

Ben’s Story

I call myself an ethnobotanist – I never actually studied ethnobotany; I studied anthropology and later developed a passion for plants. For the last 15 years much of my work has been related to the interaction between people and medicinal plants in the Indian Himalayas.

My initial reason for going to India had little to do with plants though. In my late teens, inspired by a biography of Michaelangelo, I wanted to be a sculptor – to carve statues out of wood or stone. Aged 19, I spent six months in India and Nepal, where I met some skilled woodcarvers earning a pittance for their work. Having wondered how and where I would learn the craft myself, these meetings sowed the seeds of an idea; I would set up a small woodcarving school in India where I, and others like myself, could come and study – the teacher would improve his income and I would earn enough to cover the costs of my own training. A win-win situation for all…

The following three years were spent between India and Manchester, juggling my time between trying to complete a degree and pursuing my dream to create a woodcarving school. Each time I went to India I returned with a bag full of colourful (and very shrinkable) cotton trousers, which I sold in the student market to fund my next trip.

The Mandrekar Family
In the end I never actually found a woodcarving teacher (in hindsight it was rather naïve to think I’d find one near the beach in Goa…), but I did end up meeting the multi-talented Mandrekar family, and in 1998 helped them set up a ‘creative homestay’, inviting tourists to stay with them to learn watercolour painting, tabla drums, Indian violin and Goan cooking.

Needless to say, what started out as a simple project developed into an all-consuming endeavour. I spent half of my university degree trying to exchange messages via a local shopkeeper – the only person in the village with a telephone – and watched from afar as my original plan to build a few temporary bamboo huts grew into a project of brick and mortar.

Many people passed through; some loved it and kept coming back, others didn’t. For people who just wanted a taste of Goan culture, it worked really well. Navina, the daughter, embodied everything that is wonderful about Indian hospitality – a constant joyful presence and provider of endless incredible food. She never knew it, but she was the heart of the project and the main reason why people returned.

For those who were more serious about learning arts & crafts, it didn’t work quite so well. Music lessons in particular were often a source of frustration as cultural and linguistic gaps proved hard to bridge. For example, a tabla drum student in India is expected to repeat the same basic rhythm for weeks, maybe even months, before moving on to the next lesson; most western students just don’t have the patience to learn in the same way.

The project was never going to be the woodcarving school I had dreamed of (I still haven’t carved any statues), but it was a valuable experience and an important stepping stone on a far bigger journey than I could have imagined.

One of Viresh's paintings (he was a very talented artist and musician)
Viresh teaching watercolour painting
Practicing tabla with Achut on the verandah
Viresh's father, Achut, teaching tabla drums
Cooking lessons with Navina
The project was never quite the same after Navina married and moved away to live with her husband's family
A local lady teaching basket weaving
The Mandrekar family's house in North Goa
The guesthouse

One thing led to another and the following year our small project caught the attention of Road Captain Peter, a German biker who was running classic-bike tours around India. Peter wrote to me out the blue asking whether I’d be interested in setting up a similar project ‘at an ancient temple in the foothills of the Himalayas; it already had a guesthouse; the family there are keen to work with you; everything is in place to get started…’. This was an invitation that nobody in their right mind – especially an enthusiastic, dream-fuelled 21 year old – could refuse!

That’s how I ended up first stepping into the Kullu Valley in 1999. I’d never been there before and knew little about it. But it was the Himalayas, and adventures rarely come bigger than that.

The Ananda Project
The Krishna Temple was every bit as beautiful as I had dared to imagine. Perched in a forest high above the valley, it had spectacular views of the mountains in all directions; the air was thick with aromas of herbs and Himalayan cedarwood; the only sounds – other than distant noises from villages far below – were the bells and the blowing of the conch horn in the temple.

The temple itself was home to the Acharya family, who were responsible for both its spiritual and worldly affairs. In addition to daily pujas, they hosted regular festivals and ceremonies, fed huge numbers of local villagers and served endless cups of chai. It was a life of service, dictated by an intriguing mix of devotion, tradition and social obligation.

Some of the family’s income came from the small cottage/guesthouse next to the temple – a simple wooden building with six rooms and incredible panoramic views. There were normally a few foreigners staying in the guesthouse, including some long-term regulars (which had previously included Road Captain Peter), but rooms were often empty and the family were keen to find ways to fill them.

Pujari and his wife had six daughters and one son (and a rapidly growing clan of grandchildren). Their son, Pappu, was the same age as me and we soon became close friends as we worked together to plan what was to become the Ananda Project.

The Krishna Temple
The view from the Krishna Temple
At the time the nearest road was a 15 minute walk through the forest
Pappu, my partner in setting up the Ananda Project
Pappu in his role as Pujari at the temple
The guesthouse
The guesthouse in the winter

Before getting too carried away, I had to return to Manchester to finish the final year of my degree. I also needed to earn some money and/or raise some funds. Having discovered the ‘Directory of Grant-Making Trusts’, I sent hundreds of letters to potential donors. Every one of them refused – except one. The Wakeham Trust generously backed me with a grant – small in the bigger scheme of things, but huge to me. This was topped up by a ‘special enterprise award’ from the university, which, in the autumn of 2000, enabled me to buy a one-way ticket back to the Krishna Temple and continue the work we had started.

Initially we focused on replicating the same concept as with the Mandrekar family; we partnered with different artists in the community to offer lessons in decorative woodcarving, rug weaving, classical singing, vegetarian cooking, yoga and meditation. As with the Mandrekar family though, the response was mixed. Being a skilled artist didn’t always translate into being a good teacher, and foreigners were not always easy to teach.

Yoga and meditation was taught by Pappu’s brother-in-law, Shyam, who himself was a devoted yogi and turned out to be a good teacher. In my first class he taught me a lesson that I will never forget: ‘nishkam karma yoga’, a practice which translates roughly as ‘action without expectation of results’. Shyam hinted it could be useful for working in India… and how right he was!

With stunning mountains on our doorstep we added trekking to the list of activities on offer, and then started combining trekking with yoga and meditation. It was only a matter of time before we would start to take notice of the Ayurvedic herbs.

A guest learning to weave
Singing lessons with Kamlesh
Yoga and meditation with Shyam
Meditation on Chandrikani pass

Changing Landscapes
I had dabbled with yoga and meditation before, but this was the first time that I really had an opportunity to immerse myself in it. Shyam had given me a solid foundation, which I diligently practiced every morning, but my most profound teachings came in the autumn of 2000 when I met an extraordinary man called Sunyogi Umashankar.

The Sunyogi, as he was known, had spent several years walking around India spreading his message of ‘universal peace, unity and brotherhood’. He walked barefoot with no possessions or money, and most surprisingly, he didn’t eat food – he derived his energy from staring directly at the sun (sounds unbelievable, I know, but it’s true).

On his long walk, the Sunyogi would spend most nights at a different temple, and on one such night he happened to stop at the Krishna Temple. I was intrigued by the Sunyogi and spent hours listening to his extraordinary story. On hearing what we were doing at the temple, he was curious to understand how people found out about our project; when I explained how a website worked (still a novel concept back then), he thought about it for a while and then proposed a deal: if I created a website for him to share his teachings, he would stay for ten days and teach me meditation (of the non-solar variety).

Within two weeks we had www.sunyoga.info up and running. It was a good exchange; it helped the Sunyogi to start sharing his teachings outside of India (sixteen years later he is now holding workshops all over the world). For me, it sowed the seeds of a daily meditation practice that continues today. For us both it was the start of a long friendship and many adventures in all four corners of the subcontinent as I helped him maintain his website for the next ten years.

The sunyogi treating local villagers with acupressure on his first visit to the Krishna Temple
The sunyogi practiced a rare form of yoga that involved staring directly at the sun
The Sunyogi with Pappy, family, neighbours and myself at the Krishna Temple
One of my many excellent adventures with the Sunyogi
The sunyogi had remarkable ability to withstand cold - here walking barefoot in the snow
Sunyogi during his retreat above the source of the Ganges. After this retreat (in 2005?) he started eating food again.

As I explored new internal landscapes, the project’s priorities also began to shift; I had been shocked by the thriving illegal trade in timber and the amount of chemicals being sprayed on the apples and vegetables. Somehow, my original plan of creating a woodcarving school was losing its appeal – it just felt like there were more important things to do.

So, with the arts & crafts lessons struggling to gain momentum, Pappu and I steered the Ananda project in a new direction. We started experimenting with planting trees and growing organic vegetables, and began advertising for volunteers to help collect seeds and set up nurseries. By 2002, the original concept of teaching arts & crafts gave way to a thriving volunteer programme centred around conservation and sustainable development.

We discovered that the forest department was giving out free tree seedlings to registered women’s groups, so we started helping with the complicated registration process and coordinating community tree-planting days. It worked well for a while, but the seedlings we were planting were slow-growing species, and without any short-term benefits it was hard to maintain local enthusiasm for long. We needed to start propagating and planting species that grew faster and provided more tangible returns.

That was how we started thinking about growing medicinal plants. We discovered that many herb species were threatened from over-harvesting and that, unlike the trees we were planting, it was (in theory) possible for the villagers to generate income within a few years – a genuine incentive for the villagers to actively participate in conservation.

I was captivated by the idea, but with no knowledge or experience of herbs I really had no idea where to start.

Pappu helping a women's group register for free tree seedlings
Distributing tree seedlings
A women's group gathering before planting trees
Planting trees in degraded areas on the edge of the forest
Pappu in one of the tree nurseries set up around the Krishna Temple
Horse chestnut nursery at the Krishna Temple
Organic garden behind the guesthouse
Alex volunteering in organic garden

Pukka Beginnings
As with so many seemingly impossible dreams, the solution presented itself when I least expected it. It came in the form of Sebastian Pole, an enthusiastic herbalist in his mid-30s who himself had spent many years in India studying yoga and Ayurveda. Now living back in England, Seb and his new business partner Tim had recently set up a small company selling organic Ayurvedic medicines and herbal teas. He was looking for a source of cultivated medicinal plants from the Himalayas and it seemed we were destined to meet.

Few people had heard of Pukka Herbs back then; they were a tiny company with just one employee and still didn’t even have an office of their own. Nobody could have guessed that a little over a decade later they’d be producing a million bags of herbal tea every day!

In the summer of 2002 we met at his home in Bath (in the UK) where he gave me a list of obscure sounding botanical names of Himalayan herbs that Pukka would be interested in buying. Many of them were CITES-listed (endangered) species that could only be exported out of India if they were sustainably cultivated and sold with a CITES export permit. I knew nothing about any of these plants, nor what growing or exporting them would entail, but I was determined to give it a go. Seb and I made a gentleman’s agreement and I gave him my word (…not knowing that it would take another nine years to honour!).

Plant Hunting
On my return to the Krishna Temple we set about trying to identify and learn more about the herbs on Seb’s list. Our first stop was the G.B. Pant Institute of Himalayan Environment and Development, a government research station that specialises in medicinal plants. We soon discovered that we were not the only people who wanted to grow these herbs – the G.B. Pant Institute were one of many organisations who were promoting cultivation of threatened medicinal plant species. As yet though, everyone’s efforts were limited to small-scale trials and nobody had succeeded in growing them on a commercial scale.

Commercial production was a long way from our thoughts – we still didn’t even know what the plants looked like! Fortunately, the scientists at the G.B. Pant Institute were familiar with all the species on Seb’s list and gave us all the local names so that we could employ the help of shepherds and herb collectors to identify the plants.

Some of the herbs, such as Berberis aristata, were surprisingly easy to find, requiring little more than a short wander into the forest. Others took much longer. Nardostachys jatamansi proved to be the most elusive; it took us more than two years to find a single plant (!), and another four years before I found another (I have written more about our plant-hunting adventures in ‘In Search of Jatamansi’).

Searching for rare high-altitude plants
A plant-hunting trek in 2003
Peta collecting seeds
Alu collecting seeds of Angelica glauca
Searching for jatamansi
Nowhere else i'd rather be...

Searching for the plants was a fascinating journey of discovery, taking us into some of the most remote and stunning places I have ever been. Many of the plants grew high above the tree-line several days walk from the nearest village, often clinging to existence of the edge of cliffs that disappeared into the clouds hundreds of feet below. Some of our plant-hunts were expeditions that Victorian plant-hunters would have been proud of, with large teams of cooks, porters and mules. Others were more ‘desi’ (local style), sleeping in damp caves with herb collectors, eating ash-covered chapatis from the fire. All were unforgettable adventures to transcendental places that fuelled my growing passion.

I would have been happy to give up everything to become a full-time plant hunter (and probably still would), but our mission was to grow the herbs and for that we needed to focus on creating nurseries to propagate and multiply. I had envisaged us finding the plants, collecting seeds and putting them in the ground… but it was never going to be that simple! Just finding the plants was hard enough; finding them at the right time to harvest the seeds was even harder. When we did find seeds we still had no experience or knowledge of propagating and growing the plants; we had a lot of homework to do.

In 2003 we set out to visit every government research institute, herbal garden, forest department nursery and NGO involved in growing high altitude herbs. We bought every book available and trawled through the Internet for clues. We organised training workshops with local experts, and slowly began to build up planting material from seeds and cuttings gathered from the mountains and purchased from government nurseries. It was a slow process of trial and error – and there were plenty of errors (including a disaster involving heavy snow and a polytunnel). But we were learning a lot and beginning to gain a clearer picture of what we needed to do.

A field trip to a medicinal plant nursery near Rohtang Pass
Scientists from the Jogindernagar herbal gardens teaching us how to propagate kutki
Another training workshop - this one with the Himalayan Forest Research Institute at their nursery in Jagatsukh
The Ananda nursery in Chachogi village
Volunteers helping in the Ananda nursery
Volunteers helping weed a field of Saussurea costus
The Ananda nursery
Learning the hard way.......

After visiting so many different organisations I could see a recurring theme; everyone was either trying to grow, or encouraging others to grow threatened herbs, but nobody really knew what to do if and when they succeeded. With the exception of a few high-yielding species such as Saussurea costus and Inula racemosa, which were already well-established crops in Lahaul, prices in the local market were too low to support the high costs and the long gestation period of cultivation (most species take 3 years to grow). Without access to high value markets, or any support for adding value at source, there was no real incentive for farmers to take it up on a large scale.

There was an obvious gap that needed to be filled – someone needed to add value and/or focus on linking the farmers with premium markets – perhaps create a marketing hub where the produce from many farmers could be aggregated into more significant volumes. With Pukka’s support, maybe we were in a better position than anyone to fill this gap.

Moving On
By this point I had been living and working at the Krishna Temple for four years. It had been an incredible experience but I was beginning to yearn for more independence. The guesthouse and volunteer programme were thriving, which in many respects was a massive boost for the project as well as an important source of income for Pappu’s family, but with so many foreigners involved I felt it was hindering our ability to work more closely with the local community. It was also the cause of many headaches – not least when one volunteer was caught by the police with a large slab of marijuana neatly hidden inside his passport (!), which led to regular early-morning police raids and general suspicion about what kind of herbs we were growing!

I was also beginning to feel the need for more independence from the temple. The family’s position in the spiritual and religious affairs of society obliged them to uphold many traditions, including strict adherence to the rules of the caste system. Lower castes were prohibited from entering the temple compound, and foreigners were segregated from locals at meal times (foreigners are perceived by many Brahmins, particularly by the older generation, to be ‘polluted’ by our beef-eating culture in the West). It was (and still is) a belief system so deeply engrained in the collective mind of the Kullu villages that it was very hard for individuals to go against it, even if they questioned it themselves.

For the first few years I wasn’t bothered by the caste system. In fact, through the ‘objective’ lens of my anthropological education I actually found it quite fascinating. But objectivity fades over time; the longer I stayed there the more it crept into my own reality until at some point I realised that I no longer questioned my (and other’s) daily segregation. My own acceptance gave me a small glimpse into how it becomes so embedded in the minds of people who have grown up with it from childhood.

I have huge respect for the ancient traditions and knowledge that are kept alive in places like the Krishna Temple, but this was one tradition that I had no desire to help uphold. I knew that if I was to settle in the valley for longer, at some point I would need to step out and create a life more aligned with my own values.

With these thoughts simmering in the background, I continued to consider how best to create a business hub for local herb growers. I was convinced that I wanted to be able to work with all the local organisations, including the Ananda Project, but I wanted it to be an independent entity, and I wanted to create my own home.

Leaving the Krishna Temple was the hardest decision I had to make

Sehyog Research Group
During the four years I had spent in the valley I had made many local friends, but there was one who stood out from the others. Surie Bhai, as he was known, was an artist who lived in a neighbouring village. Originally from Lahaul (an isolated district north of the Rhotang pass), Surie – like many other Lahaulis – had grown up in Kullu where there were better schools and generally more opportunities. He was different to most of the locals; his favourite past-time was to sit by the river, paint acrylic landscapes and read books. He also had a wealth of skills, including almost perfect written English and a good knowledge of website design.

Surie had also been doing some work for another local NGO and was familiar with issues around organic farming and medicinal plants. If there was anyone who could help me set up a new organisation it was him.

In the summer of 2004 we joined forces and began the process of creating ‘Sehyog Research Group’. We chose the name ‘Sehyog’ [or sahyog], a Hindi word meaning ‘cooperation’, to reflect our intention of working with different organisations in the district – the beginnings of the herbal hub that I’d been visualising.

We put word out to the herbal community and before long were given our first task: The Great Himalayan National Park needed help assessing the progress of a project in the ecozone of the national park. Several years earlier, with the help of a local NGO called SAHARA, they had distributed medicinal plant seedlings to women’s groups to plant in designated areas of forest; the plants were now ready to harvest and they needed help measuring and documenting the yields.

Unfortunately, the results were disappointing; the survival rate and yields were very low. In some areas they were almost non-existent. It turned out that all the NGOs (including the Ananda Project) were still a long way from being able produce commercially viable quantities, and progress was very slow. In short, the idea of creating a marketing hub was a little premature.

Fortunately, there was one part of the project that gave us a glimmer of hope – a forest department nursery on the edge of the national park, where the chowkidar (caretaker) had done an outstanding job of growing and multiplying medicinal plants (especially kutki) to distribute seedlings to NGOs. The nursery wasn’t intended to be a model for commercial production, but it was the best we had seen and gave us a valuable blueprint that we would later use ourselves.

Harvesting Valeriana jatamansi planted in the forest by women's groups
Freshly harvested Valerian
Surie and I spent weeks measuring the yield of different plantations in the ecozone of the National Park
And unfortunately the yields were very low
In some cases they were almost non-existent
Our one glimmer of hope: Chanyara nursery bursting with medicinal plants
Surie and I doing studying the yields of kutki from Chanyara nursery

Biolaya and beyond…
For six months or so I continued living at the Krishna Temple, sharing my time between the Ananda Project and Sehyog Research Group. By this point I had decided that I would move somewhere nearby; my plan was to focus on building a marketing hub and hopefully find a way to support Ananda’s medicinal plant project, as well as other NGO’s, by providing a premium price for their cultivated herbs, or by linking them directly to other buyers.

Surie and I spent months searching for a suitable home; we needed somewhere that had a few empty houses and access to some land for growing herbs and vegetables. We never imagined finding anywhere as perfect as Deushar – a small hamlet with three houses available for rent, a couple of acres of land, flowing water and beautiful views of the mountains.

We made a complex agreement with five different landlords (the land was split between many brothers/cousins of the same extended family). Surie and his wife took one house with the ground floor as our office, I took another house, and we rented a third house for volunteers.

I immediately contacted my dearest friends in the UK, Nug and Ted, and suggested (half seriously) that they give up their jobs to come and help grow vegetables and herbs in the Himalayas – and they did!! They arrived the following spring and spent the whole year helping us get established in Deushar. There aren’t many friends who’d do that!

We didn’t keep the name Sehyog Research Group for long – partly because of our decision to operate as a company instead of an NGO (a long story – see Biolaya reflections for details), and partly because the original Sehyog concept of creating a marketing hub for other organisations wasn’t really working.

Instead, we became Biolaya (from the word Bio meaning ‘life’, and the Sanskrit word alaya, meaning ‘the abode of’) – The Abode of Life.

And so began the next phase of our journey, which also marks the point at which The Biolaya story begins.

Deushar when we first moved in during the winter of 2004/05