Aurovalley Ashram in north India is a place for seekers to find peace. Aurovalley founder Swami Brahmdev describes the ashram as an experiment in consciousness living. It’s also an experiment in conscious eating and sustainable food production.
Three times every day, several of the women who live and work at Aurovalley Ashram line up behind the counter and ladle mild, vegetarian food, like rice, dal, and sabzi (vegetable) onto the stainless steel thali (plates) each person carries. The basic fare is usually enlivened by the addition of things like fresh salad, fruit, home made curd (yoghurt), hot ginger tea, buttermilk or home made pickles.
Fresh, healthy, vegetarian lunch at Aurovalley Ashram
It’s not food that’s going to win any awards, and it’s not what foodies dream about, but it is simple, healthy, nutritious and vital. At Aurovalley Ashram, food is part of the spiritual life. People are expected to eat in silence, and clean their own plates afterwards.
Aurovalley Ashram founder Swami Brahmdev explains that eating in silence gives ashramites the opportunity to experience food as a divine gift. “When you’re eating, you are in direct contact with the divine. By eating in silence, you show gratitude for life-giving food.”
I have found eating in silence to be more difficult than it sounds. In fact, it can be a life-changing experience to eat in awareness. I remember the first time I did it, at the ashram several years ago, and I actually started crying. I discovered that I was eating in a state of anxiety, and this “experiment” released a lot of pent-up emotion.
Since then, I have learned to love peaceful mealtimes. When the weather permits, which is most of the time, I sit outside at the base of a large tree, or on the tiled roof, among the palm tree branches.
Outdoor dining at Aurovalley Ashram
A conscious approach to food
Food is also part of the spiritual life in the sense that it is collected and disposed of in a responsible manner. Swami Brahmdev and Dhyana — a woman from Colombia who has been helping run and manage Aurovalley Ashram for about 12 years — and the others who are involved in buying and cooking the food are all keenly aware of making sustainable choices. The fruit and vegetables grown on the ashram grounds, and the dairy goods produced, are all organic.
A large kitchen garden is planted throughout the year with fruits and vegetables in season. Carrots and potato in winter; lettuce in spring; bindi (lady fingers) and jack fruit in monsoon; pumpkin in the fall — as well as cabbage, bengal (eggplant), tomatoes, strawberries.
When the buttery soft lettuce is growing, green salads are common and very welcome. In India, salad is often a risky thing to eat due to hygienic concerns. But at Aurovalley, the food is absolutely clean, safe and organic.
Just on the periphery of the ashram grounds, a gaushala (cow shed) is home to half-a-dozen cows. When I was there recently, one of the cows had given birth, which meant milk was readily available. Every day, we were treated to completely fresh milk products, like curd, buttermilk, ghee and lassis. I watched one of the local men milk the cow, using simply his bare hands a clean bucket.
The vegetable walla
Kitchen staff, including long-time cook Mohan, make pickles from the fruit of the ashram trees. When I was there in February, the amla trees had borne fruit, and I ate amla pickles almost every day. During summer, the dozens of mango trees on the ashram property come into season, and are picked and eaten right from the trees, and also made into chutney, pickles and juice, and added to lassis and salads.
If they have to buy foods to supplement what they produce — things like rice, beans and bananas — they choose organic foods when possible, and either avoid or reuse plastic containers. Periodically, a vegetable walla shows up, with things like big heads of cauliflower and small sweet apples piled up on a wooden cart.
Water is of course a big concern to Indians and travellers alike. Tap water is deemed to be unsafe and plastic bottles litter the landscape. At Aurovalley, a large reverse osmosis filter provides clean water. Residents simply fill up their reusable bottles.
Responsible and sustainable food production includes garbage disposal. At Aurovalley, all the organic waste is fed to the cows and dogs, paper is burned and gardening waste is composted. There is almost nothing left, except for plastic and glass, which is reused.
A girl from the ashram delivering lettuce from the kitchen garden
Back to Earth
It’s very satisfying for a city girl like me to be so close to the food I am eating, and to eat such astonishingly fresh food. One morning, I saw one of the girls who lives on the ashram grounds with her mother pick lettuce that we ate shortly afterwards at lunch. It wasn’t cut, but served as full leaves, which I ate with my hands. It seemed to be filled with sunlight and goodness, happy food from a peaceful garden.
At lunch, sitting on the roof eating the lettuce salad, I noticed a drop of water hanging at the end of a palm tree leaf, and reflecting eternity from its tiny mass. A glossy green parakeet landed on a nearby branch. Looking further, I saw mist floating on the ruddy, golden field and turning the distance forest into cloud. All I could hear were the sounds of birds singing and palm leaves rustling in the warm breeze.
This is harmony, I thought as my heart expanded with love for the perfection of nature all around me — the palm trees, the parakeets, the mist-covered forest and the golden lettuce.
Learning to live with more consciousness is the goal of Aurovalley Ashram, and that includes raising awareness around food choices.
The garden at Aurovalley Ashram
Laxmibhai helps pick marigold flowers to decorate the meditation temple
Flowers grow in profusion at Aurovalley Ashram