Great news! The Majkhali village homestay mothers’ group, the Jagrati Swayam Sahayta Group, has won the ICIMOD Mountain Prize 2020. (www.icimod.org/mountainprize)
This is a really a great honour for everyone involved. This award really rewards the tremendous effort and achievements of the women of Majkhali and can be held up as a beacon to other villages in Uttarakhand.
Building connections, sharing a sustainable way of life. The Jagrati Swayam Sahayta Group is a women self-help group based in village of Majkhali, district Almora, Uttarakhand, India. The women organized themselves into a group in 2011 in order to collaborate with the Foundation for Contemplation of Nature, Majkhali and invite students to experience life in the village.
The idea was simple; to offer residential courses on Resilient Leadership in the Himalayas to university students from all over the world, so that students can experience first-hand how a traditional lifestyle is a holistic skillset and mindset that can inform all aspects of modern life.
Since 2011, the group and the foundation has offered more than 30 2-week long immersive courses to over 500 students from across the world. Since 2018 the course has been recognised as a semester credit course by the School of Sustainability Studies, Western Colorado University.
The course has been taken by many groups of students, mostly from the United States, including Princeton University, Pittsburgh University, Western Colorado University, Nanda Devi Outdoor Leadership School, Where There be Dragons, Realms of Inquiry, Lakeside School, and Menlo School.
A host family house in the village.
Sustainable mountain development and resilience building The place-based learning modules of the course are built on 3 pillars of sustainability: Dignity of Physical Work, Interdependence and Interconnectedness. These pillars emphasize ways of constructing society that are in harmony with nature, community and self-cultivating inner and outer resilience.
Together with the villagers, the students have raised awareness around the issues of waste disposal, environmental health and energy efficiency, gender, education, forestry management and the benefits of an organic and zero-waste lifestyle.
Seeing the passion and engagement from the students who visit the village has given the residents a fresh perspective on the value of their natural and cultural heritage. They feel very motivated to connect with their landscape and cultural heritage and explore opportunities within the village that will ensure that their traditions and knowledge are sustained while they enrich their life and livelihoods.
Transformative change The program has created opportunities for women who didn’t believe that they added much economic value to their household. Through the collaboration the women understand how their tremendous contribution as primary care givers and holders of traditional knowledge crossing all aspects of village life is at the core of their survival. As well as being homemakers the women are farmers, physically engaging in over 90% of all agrarian tasks.
The group has given recognition to their skills and demonstrated how their culture and food traditions are intrinsic to maintaining balance with the environment. It has increased their self-respect, empowered them to communicate their knowleddge and engage their menfolk, and demonstrated the importance of engaging women as decision makers not only in the family but in the broader regional community and society.
The visiting students have also demonstrated a transformation in their world view and attitude to life, moving from seeing rural farming families as poverty stricken, illiterate and helpless to understanding the depth of knowledge and culture in village life and its relevance for developing sustainable thinking.
It’s through this cultural exchange that the students learn hands-on skills and understand the efficiency of a holistic and integrated perspective to natural resource management on one hand and the balance of emotional values and happiness through simplicity on the other.
9 households and 40 members have benefited from the project over the course of 10 years. The group has collectively earned over 20 lakh rupees enabling the women to contribute towards their children’s education, their family’s health and develop better housing facilities in the village.
Gender and social inclusivity The project has also raised awareness amongst local people about the importance of gender equity for the health of society moving forward. Villages in India have a deep-rooted caste system and gender bias. Women are considered inferior to men and certain castes are looked down upon. Despite holding the knowledge and effectively running village life and being responsible for the health and sustenance of the whole community, women are traditionally excluded from decision making. And this does t stop at the home, it extends to local administrations, banking, local government, and even NGOs. As well as the gender divide, dominant castes also often avoid any interaction with people from other castes, even refusing to eat food cooked by them.
This programme has broken these deep-rooted hierarchies and created an inclusive space where the students and villagers work, eat and celebrate together, irrespective of their gender, caste, religion or age. Students from the western universities challenge the local youth when the local girls are performing all the work! The villagers are slowly incorporating equality into every aspect of their lives. Men have started to see value of their women folk and even start to participate in tasks and projects connected to farming which were earlier thought to be only for women.
Through this the home stay program, the women have become financially independent and self-reliant. They have brought an additional income which usually came from men being forced to leave the village to work in the cities. They not only managed to get people from outside to take interest in their traditions and environment, but also increased awareness with the residents of Majkhali. Majkhali is now a much more inclusive, equitable and aware space. A vibrant and welcoming space.
The proof of success is in the farewells between host mums and students- not a dry eye in sight!
Ajay Rastogi’s life is a journey of passion, enquiry and action for the protection of nature, biodiversity and sustainable livelihoods. To practice what he preaches, Ajay left a gleaming career as a conservationist to move to the village of Majkhali, Uttarakhand, India, at the foothills of the Himalayas, and work in a hands-on way with the villagers. Ajay set up headquarters of The Foundation for the Contemplation of Nature, the Vrikshalaya Centre, to be a meeting place for the local village community, a hub of knowledge exchange with extended communities in the Himalayan lowlands, and a destination for people interested in deeper and more meaningful forms of sustainability.
Nature-centred contemplation can be held anywhere.
Through his work promoting nature mindfulness, and resilient thinking, Ajay has challenged the caste system and gender inequality in the region, and created a network and cultural exchange between west and east, urban and rural – and helped the villagers find a new form of income that is meaningful and future focussed. The proof of concept is in the eyes of all the people involved; the host families and visitors, the neighbouring tribes and volunteering conservationists. When the guests leave, says Ajay: “Every farewell is always tearful, always connected.”
Qi gong class at the Vrikshalaya centre, held by teacher Christoph Eberhard.
Learning Resilient Leadership Skills from Village Women
One of Ajay’s major initiatives is to connect international students with the women of the village through homestay immersion courses. Combined with course work and village development schemes, these short residential courses aim to increase authentic leadership skills and critical thinking as well as share the latest conservation frameworks and models through practice as well as theory. The Foundation’s 3 principles of resilience are at the heart of all the teaching, as well as work on intensifying inner resilience and soft skills needed for the next wave of sustainability; collaboration, co-creation and empathy, mindfulness, mindful communication, resourcefulness in the face of adversity, and human, compassionate values.
Students are sent every year from top universities such as Princeton, Pittsburgh, Western State Colorado, NOLS (www.nols.edu), Where There be Dragons (wheretherebedragons.com), Realms of Inquiry (realmsofinquiry.org) Lakeside School, and Menlo School. Ajay’s aim is to spread the Resilient Leadership method to other types of organisations by setting up teacher training courses. Our podcast is interviewing conservation and human rights leaders to explore what tools and cases should be included in Resilient Leadership workshops and courses for government and other forward looking organisations.
View from Majkhali Village. Photo by by Dhirendra Bisht.
Inner Motivation through the Contemplation of Nature The teaching sessions are always preceded with half an hour practicing The Contemplation of Nature. This a straight forward secular mindfulness meditation, but on surrounding nature- the source of all life. The method is documented in a book published in Spanish in Chile, and available in print form. This specific form of mindfulness practice is based on robust scientific research into proven benefits of mindfulness, nature immersion and compassionate values.
The Relaxation Response- a state where the body’s physiology reacts to not being under stress, is an important factor for health and wellbeing, and compassionate values are known to result in increased civic participation and a positive effects on sustainability.
When mindfulness is practiced as a group before a conference or work session, something incredible happens. The atmosphere changes, and so does our openness to engage with each other and simply listen. Ajay believes that Nature-based Mindfulness, together with Resilient Thinking, are powerful catalysts for personal transformation and motivation to evolve our relationship to the planet and humanity.
The results; increased awareness and dialogue with ourselves, each other, society, and of the world beyond.
3 Principles of Resilience. Through his work, Ajay aims to share the first-hand experience of 3 foundation’s core principles of Resilience;
The Dignity of Physical Work, Inter-connectivity and Interdependence.
Land and forestry management is in the hands of women. Shown here, the women of Majkhali take compost to the fields.
Edgework; Place-based learning. Ajay’s residential courses begin with teaching how to perform bio-cultural mapping and other tools of the conservationist. He introduces big concepts such as The Common Good Economy and Community Capitals Framework. He creates active workshops where the participants actively map deeper contexts of environment and culture working with villagers to tackle topics of indigenous knowledge systems and practices, gender dimensions and roles, or caste systems.
For his work as an experiential teacher, Ajay has already received the Global Maverick Teacher Award in 2008. The cultural exchange between the students and the village has challenged both to think about how lifestyle, social equity and environment are as interconnected.
Transcript from Podcast; Ajay Rastogi, ON INNER RESILIENCE
Hi my name is Ajay Rastogi. And we live in the village of Majkhali. It’s in the state of Uttarakhand, in the Indian Himalayan region. And it’s about 400 kilometres north of Delhi. And we overlook the high Himalayas. Many 6000 meters high peaks from maybe. I have been an ecologist and an environmentalist for a large part of my life.
The fact that we are unable to make big changes in the society which are needed for sustainability required that we also relook at the approach that we have taken so far in the environmental movements. So, for that reason I was thinking what can be more transformative than a meditative practice, which can be done in nature.
Meditation is being considered as the methodology for inner transformation.
The contemplation of nature is done in a natural surrounding. It’s a multi-sensory experience. It helps because we are a biological organism and, therefore we have an inherent drive to connect with nature. It’s kind of we are genetically wired, so it is not that abstract as many people find many other meditative practices to be. So, it is a good beginning.
People can begin with it and then get to deeper levels of meditation whichever part they want to follow. But meditation in nature contemplation of nature is definitely an approach which can be done on a daily basis and it leads to that level of tranquillity and gives us the benefits of the meditation the compassion the kindness and the deeper connection to the natural law as well as to the social community around us.
At about 23rd minute a tranquillity factor causes deeper trigger or physiological relaxation. Which brings the body and the internal chemistry, in a much more regulatory and balanced way.
That’s called the relaxation response, and that’s what we are trying to achieve, also at the physiological level besides the psychic and other benefits, that the meditation will bring.
So, as we sit and observe with a soft gaze
One may not have access to such landscapes so it can be done indoors.
And it can be done with very simple objects of nature, then following the three steps of native contemplation that we have designed.
So the three steps simple three steps is observe nature with a soft gaze except with gentle detachment and send love with sympathetic attention. Observe nature with a soft gaze, we accept the gentle detachment remaining. Not interested in finding details. Of course, the mind would wander here and there but as soon as we realised that we have gone further and drifted we can come back to observe nature with a soft gaze.
One additional element which is a very important element of Need contemplation practice is to let go and this happens by just as we sit down and begin our contemplation, we send love with sympathetic attention, we just remind ourselves of the gratitude the feeling of gratitude. And then we sit, observe softly with a gaze, and continue a gentle detachment.
The let go is not to make any judgment about where we are What are we doing. And this is a step which is a transcendental in nature and therefore it is very therefore itself a fundamental aspect of the practice that we are able to somehow transcend this call of judgment and thinking mind at least for a little while.