A journey through India and Sri Lanka retracing the journey of Sangamitta nearly 2,300 years ago to take a cutting from the Buddha Tree.
I found Girish (Head of TFT India) waiting for me in the lobby of my Delhi Hotel. He was keen to get away early because of a thick all-enveloping fog that had descended on Delhi and its surrounds over the previous few days. We had a journey of more than eight hours to undertake which would leave us just 40 km short of the Pakistan border.
Over the next few hours he explained to me about the work of TFT in the Punjab and Haryana states – how the work came about because Maisons du Monde, a French furniture company and TFT member, wanted responsible shisham wood, how they were now working with more than 500 farmers, with 1000 farmers looking like a feasible target in the not too distant future. He explained about the planting and harvesting of the “Shisham” trees; how they grew quickly and that they were generally of harvestable size within 15 years, how the timber was not of the same quality as teak but the deep red heart wood was still valuable and a worthwhile crop for farmers.
Apparently, a bit tongue in cheek, some farmers say that if they have a baby daughter they need to plant Shisham trees straight away so that they are ready to harvest in order to pay for the wedding in 15-20 years time.
Girish informed about how rich the soil in Haryana and Punjab was and how it was really the “bread basket of India”. Vast areas were planted with wheat in the winter followed by a second crop of cotton. Shisham would never be as significant as wheat, cotton and dairy in the area but was nonetheless a useful crop acting as a medium term investment – money in the bank that could be called upon when needed. Other crops included sugar cane, rice, root vegetables and in this particular season bright yellow fields of mustard.
Girish also gave me a potted summary of India with its 28 states (still subdividing) and its 18 official languages.
I was surprised by the great fog and associated cold that clamped down first over greater Delhi and then appeared to be spread over hundreds of square miles through Haryana and Punjab states. The complete flatness of the landscape was also a surprise. I had expected to maybe head up some small hills and to break through the mist and see the winter sun but it was astonishingly flat in every direction.
The NH10, the main highway towards Pakistan, was lined on both sides with efficient looking field systems in many ways set up ideally for mechanised farming, while infact most of the work was still undertaken by hand. It was the end of the cotton harvests with “last pickings” and inferior crops being gathered in.
Our route took us steadily north west and finally arced almost due west, close to the Pakistan border. Along the way we saw a multitude of vehicles straining under the extraordinary weight they were expected to carry. Tractors with such vast loads of rice husks or cotton that their loads bulged out more than a meter either side of the trailer. Astonishingly large numbers of intricately packed bricks or sacks of wheat tested the axles of many slow moving vehicles.
I found it interesting to learn that wheat, cotton and even rice are relatively new crops to Punjab (that once was an entire country spreading up in to Pakistan and meaning country of five rivers) and originally, the staple was based on sorghum varieties.
Today, many farmers are from Rajasthan, like the first farmer we were going to interview. The state originally was predominantly Sikh and now the main labour is provided by migrants from Bihar where the harvest is gathered earlier than Punjab.
All the time the fog, rather than lifting, descended even more until we ended up travelling like solipsists – a little bubble of reality constantly unfolding in front of us and fading equally rapidly to white behind as we steadily progressed north and west.
The roads and traffic are “interesting” in India. I was safely cocooned in a white Toyota van but on the highway were some extraordinary things. Lorries hurtling down the outside lane of a three-laned highway in the opposite direction to us. Motorized rickshaws puttered in and out of the traffic while the slow pedal rickshaws did likewise but at glacial speed. Occasionally a cow or small group of cows would wander out but somehow, despite the huge differences in speed, it all seems to work. I must admit that the Indian drivers were much calmer and more zen than I would have been in the same circumstances and smoothly weaved between the obstacles. Not all were so fortunate – as highlighted by the array of savagely crumpled wrecks of cars strewn about the hard shoulder.
Any chance of a sunset had been snuffed out by the dense fog and so, as we pulled into the farm and guest house which was going to be our base in Punjab for the next two days, it was all but dark at five in the evening. It was cold too and we enjoyed a tea and the hospitality of our host around a crackling smoky camp fire.
Our first full day was to begin with a visit to Surendrapal Singh Sihag (Bhingwali village). Here a group of brothers farmed wheat, cotton and the orange/lemon hybrid, kino.
It was not long after ten that we rolled into what appeared to be a large fortified courtyard with a series of large buildings spread over what must have been around half a hectare. We were greeted cordially by two brothers immaculately dressed in white and invited to sit and take tea. The older and shorter of the brothers, the one we were here to see, spoke little English but meekly and with great respect welcomed us to his farm and to his hospitality. The younger, taller brother was not only a good English speaker but had lots to say and opinions to air, some of which I felt were designed to provoke discussion but the graceful, respectful and non-commital replies from both Girish and the field officers, Ramchandra Phadke and Kulwinder Singh, meant that he ran out of steam and we were able to head out to the fields.
As I mentioned, the area is remarkably flat and the large farm reached to the edge of the visible bijou universe created by the thick fog. A line of yellow-leaved cottonwood trees, their leaves fluttering like prayer flags in the light breeze, defined one of the margins of the farm, whilst most of the rest of the farm was tilled earth with indeterminate green shoots poking out. After a short walk he took us to a corner where a small plot of mustard and kino (both now organic) were planted. Here, along the edges of the fields, were the Shisham trees. They are not the most striking of trees but are not only native to this part of India but grow quickly even without irrigation. Left to grow to a good age (20 years) the trees become increasingly valuable as their deep red heart wood is prized for furniture making.
He showed trees of differing ages and a small experimental nursery before leading us back through a shimmering plantation of cottonwood (for fibre board and a good short term timber crop) to the cars and back to a delicious lunch. It took quite a bit of determined, polite effort to leave without taking full benefit of the extensive hospitality on offer.
A fair bit later than we had hoped we arrived at a small scale farmer’s plot (8 acres) which was small enough to be able to see all the corners from a central plot. The farmer, while keen to offer instant hospitality, could see the sense of heading to the fields before the gathering gloom rendered the photography impossible. He had some rather grand Shisham trees and showed us the identification marks and explained in Hindi the benefits of being with TFT – some of which were the marking of the trees, the creation of an inventory and an estimate of the volume of standing timber.
Despite his obvious shyness at having been put in the spotlight and faced with forest technicians and a foreign photographer, he meekly explained the workings of his farm with the grace and politeness that I was beginning to see was a common Indian trait. Finally his smile broadened and he was joined by his son for the final photographs.
The journey back to the guesthouse was interesting. The fog swallowed what would have remained of the dusk and we set out with our headlights reaching in great beams through the combination of thick fog and dust. The poor driver concentrated hard. Lights and their operation to seemed to be somewhat optional and some vehicles would head towards us with full beams on. Others that were seemingly motorcycles because of their one feeble beam would turn out to be a lumbering bulging-trailered tractor. And of course there were the “stealth vehicles” – sometimes we could see a shape between us and the oncoming vehicles; a bike, a rickshaw, tuk tuk and every so often, a cow. Thanks to the brilliant driver we arrived unscathed and vowed to only move in daylight from now on.
The next day we were to visit and interview the farmer of the farmstead we were staying on. He was very knowledgeable, informative and entertaining.
The day started at 6.15 with him giving all three of us a yoga session. He was kind enough to notice and take into account that my legs just do not fold up like a deck chair and he soon found a position in which I was comfortable. The stretching, breathing and humming (I had never realised that each hum is designed to vibrate a particular part of your brain or targeted organ) was actually very enjoyable and I daresay that I may well be tempted to do more of it during my travel.
One of the things about his farm was that he was completely organic and the soil was gradually improving over the eight years since he had ditched the chemical route. He explained that he was an organic island in a sea of chemical farming but slowly farms nearby were seeing some of the benefits and changing some of their activity too. He acknowledged that his yield was lower but so were the cost of the inputs. The equation, along with the premium for some of his products, especially the butter and buttermilk, meant that he was still ahead of the game without exhausting the soil. He used many different innovated crops and systems, such as using cow dung as an energy source (as most farmers in the Punjab did) but he also had a biodigester to produced bio gas which had a different heat and was instant.
He talked eloquently about how farming was more than the simple exploitation of natural resources and that in some way he was hoping to get back to a spiritual position that was not unlike that of thousands of years ago when the proto religion that spawned Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism was one that was in a balance with nature. He saw the birds, wild cows, black bucks etc eating crops as simply taking nature’s share. He was almost annoyed to tell us that despite tens of thousands of tons of wheat being overproduced from the previous season, there had been another bumper harvest and now the Indian government had to contemplate ditching tens of thousands of tons in the sea so as not to affect the world grain price.
The Shisham trees followed the perimeter of his farm and were evenly spaced, each was numbered and recorded and he showed us trees of different ages and some of the pruning activity. He said he was pleased to be working with TFT and saw it as an extension of his own beliefs. He intimated that despite being entirely organic, he hadn’t sorted out accreditation because he had no trouble selling his produce and there was a cost. Later, it was explained that a charge as small as £10 could be too high for a small farmer to go organic because the margins are so minimal.
Around 11 o’clock we bade Virod Jyani (Jyani Natural Farm, Katehora) farewell and headed southeast to our next destination in Haryana.
I am a photographer and writer and I have been an advocate for the conservation and the sustainable utilisation of the world’s trees and forests for more than 25 years. Over that time I have had the opportunity to visit more than 40 countries and write or co-write more than 30 books including Ancient Trees – Trees that Live for a Thousand Years.
Over the last decade I have the great pleasure to visit and produce images from almost all the areas where TFT have projects including the Congo, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia, including Sabah, and parts of Indonesia including Java, Sulawesi and East and Central Kalimantan.
I am teaming up with TFT once again as I begin a journey through India and Sri Lanka that I first thought about 15 years ago. The plan is to retrace the remarkable journey taken by Sangamitta, the 25 year old daughter of King Ashoka, nearly 2,300 years ago. Sangamitta carried a cutting from one of the most significant trees in religious history. It was a cutting from the very tree under which Buddha had gained his enlightenment and the small tree she took all the way as a gift to the King of Sri Lanka is still thriving and is considered to be the oldest verifiable broad-leafed tree in the world.
I am always looking for ways of getting people to think positively about trees, forests and their utilisation and I thought that I may be able capture people’s imagination by undertaking a journey, not only in space but also in time.
My plan is to start at the present day Bodhi tree (an offspring, sadly not the original) in Bodhgaya travelling along the Ganges to Kolkata and the Sunderbans (with its dense mangrove forest and 300 Bengal tigers) before heading down the east coast, looking at trees and forests along the way before finally heading on to the Bo Tree in Sri Lanka. Here I am looking forward to being able to sit beside (possibly touch) a tree that has been alive for more than 2,200 years and which is as revered today as the day it arrived on the island in its golden urn back in the late Iron Age.
I am hoping that my own journey over the next five weeks will inspire people to think about the “journey” we are all on and how central trees and forests have been, and still are, to everyone on the planet.