The Navadarshanam Search for Technology Alternatives

Ever since Navadarshanam began to function at this wilderness near Ganganahally hamlet in Tamil Nadu in 1991, we have been questing for a sensible way of living on the land, a way which is simpler and more sustainable than what we have been accustomed to.

Finding our feet—the first five years

In Oct – Nov 1990, Swami Sahajananda constructed for us a tiny 10 ft. x 10 ft. hut with local stone and thatch. We named it Sampige. This was our first abode at the site and it accommodated up to five of us. In Jan – Feb 1991 Partapji built a small open well some 300 meters away at a lower level in the valley from which we lifted water—by rope and pulley in the traditional manner—and carried it up in pitchers for our washing and cooking needs. For lighting we used kerosene lanterns and for cooking a kerosene stove and an energy saving hay-box.

Around the same time, Sunny built Tulasi, a 30 ft. x 15 ft. hut, with local skills and materials; for several years it served as our kitchen, dining room, meeting hall and dormitory for up to ten persons—all in one. It too had a thatched roof supported on wooden rafters and reapers. To keep white ants at bay, we used a simple cow’s urine drip at the upper end of the stone columns, but the ants soon started relishing it and we had a tough time maintaining the thatched roof.

In 1992, Mallige was built and a simple solar cooker was acquired to supplement LPG cooking. The smokeless chullah followed. Efficient though it was, the absence of smoke made it easier for insects to feed on the thatch. Ultimately, with much reluctance, we had to remove thatch from the roofs of all three dwelling units in favour of Managalore tiles.

In 1994, we sunk a bore well nearer to the forest as a source of water for the villagers’ cattle and another one next to Tulasi primarily for the kitchen. The India-Mark II hand-pump was modified to pump water into two drums perched atop stone pillars. All able-bodied visitors were encouraged to pump for a while before the meals would be served and this gave us water on tap for the first time. We also put a hand pump at the open well with an auto-shower device: as you cranked the handle, water would pour over you from an overhead shower. This was a great hit with residents as well as guests.

Compressed mud-block housing

Our first compressed mud-block house, Parijat, was built in 1995. Gitanjali, the youngest member of our original team, an architect deeply committed to ecology, got us the design, know-how and a hand-operated press with moulds from IISc. She also trained our men and women in making the mud-blocks from local soil along with river sand and 5% cement and roof panels in ferro-concrete. This unit cost us around Rs. 125 per square foot. The roof panels, however, took much care and skill; in later construction we gave up this design and went for the traditional Mangalore tiles. A solar water heater was installed next to Parijat to provide hot water for bathing.

Partapji built the simple and elegant Chandan in 1997 and Om constructed Manjari in 1999. This time we had the benefit of Chitra Vishwanath’s jack-arch design of roof panels—lower in cost and easier to build than an RCC roof. This also enabled us to build a mezzanine room at the rear end of the house, which is the most sought-after accommodation at Nd, better known as Hawa Mahal. The last of the houses, Pankaja, was built in 2000. With Ramu Kattakam’s spacious design, the masons’ enhanced skills and Swami’s greater confidence, it has come to be the best crafted. Its red oxide flooring and paneled doors add special charm to Pankaja, one room of which also houses the Navadarshanam Library. Partapji went for a cheap old-fashioned brass water heater whilst at the other two houses solar water heaters were put up.

Mallige, which houses the kitchen, has just been rebuilt to replace the crumbling roof and walls. Its spacious verandah and sitting spaces under the trees will enable us to accommodate larger groups of visitors.

We have found the stabilized mud-block technology cost effective, using mostly local skills and materials, relatively biodegradable, and requiring less power to build and to live in. Each block has a volume 2.22 times a normal fired red brick and costs Rs. 3.10 to make; for the same volume as a red brick its cost works out to Rs. 1.40 whereas the normal brick costs around Rs. 2.75 each. It offers an attractive option in suburban locations but it still remains out of reach for the villagers.

The use of solar energy

As for electrical energy, we deliberately opted to stay away from the State power grid because it is highly centralized, wasteful, and ecologically destructive; besides it breeds corruption. In stead we went for solar panels and are now working on other options too.     

We procured our first set of solar panels through CST, Auroville in 1995. They are capable of producing 1064 watts peak power; on an average, sunny day, in six hours, this would give us about 6 units of electricity, i.e. 2190 units per year. The panels—subsidised by IREDA—run a highly efficient Grundfos submersible pump capable of delivering 17,600 liters of water per day to a head of 50 meters. The equipment cost us Rs. 70,000.

In 1998, we installed our second solar powered system—a 72-volt DC vertical floating pump driven by energy harvested by an array of 20 Solarex panels—at the open well. The pump has a phenomenal capacity to pump up 66,000 liters of water per day to a head of 12 meters. The pump and panels cost us Rs. 65,000.

We are using solar energy for lighting, running small pumps and grinding mills and for the computer. Three solar water heaters—and two old-fashioned wood-fired boilers—provide hot water for bathing and two solar lanterns give us portable lighting.

Charcoal Cooker

Another interesting development in 1998 was the introduction of the Malik Cooker, a simple, efficient and eco-friendly charcoal fired steam cooker that is easy to use, needs little attention, and makes tasty and health promoting food. A size-8 cooker costs Rs. 650, and uses 25 paise worth of charcoal per person. Food for 8 persons gets cooked in two hours and remains piping hot for another two hours. A Pune based NGO, Appropriate Rural Technology Institute (ARTI), have now developed a still better stainless steel cooker and we are expecting our first cooker from them very soon. We make our own charcoal from dry branches of lantana bushes and acacia trees virtually free of cost. A parabolic solar cooker was built and gifted to us by our German friend Helmut in 2001.

Gobar gas plants

In August 2002, skilled masons from Coimbatore built our first gobar gas plant. It is a 3 cubic meters per day Deenabandhu model unit that requires 65 kgs. of cow dung each day and produces enough gas to cook food for 10 persons. This ended our dependence on LPG, which saved us over Rs. 5,000 per year. As a precious by-product, we now get some 10 tons of rich manure per year, which is worth well over Rs. 20,000 and which nourishes our highly depleted soil. The plant cost us Rs. 12,700 after allowing for a modest subsidy of Rs. 2,300. A second plant was added in 2004 primarily to power a diesel engine. Because they were constructed with sufficient cement and without cutting corners, they have not met the fate of the BDO-executed plants which fail to perform in most cases.   

It may help understand the link between choice of a technical option and available resources at a particular point in time if I were to clarify here that:

  1. wood stoves were built when the eco-restoration process yielded enough deadwood
  2. increase in dead wood allowed for making charcoal
  3. a gobar gas plant became feasible when the land could take on higher level of grazing - and so we increased the number of cows.

The choice of technology employed has had as much to do with ecology as with economy, each time. Availability of funds, which has always been limited at Nd, is also a factor we reckon with in choosing our options.

In 2003, we built our larger stone-lined open well to put to use for farming some of the water that was now being better harvested on our land by the grass, the tress and the earthen dams.

Diesel engine run without using diesel

In February last year, we acquired an 8 HP Kirloskar diesel engine coupled to a 7.5 KVA alternator, which we are running on a combination of gobar gas and hongey oil. No diesel is used at all. Villagers from the adjacent forest bring us enough honge seeds and we are also taking better care of honge trees that are native to this place and are coming up all over our land. Oil is extracted at MYRADA in Thally.


100kg of honge seed @ Rs. 8 per kg. costs us Rs. 800. The processing cost is Rs. 3 per kg. So the total cost is Rs. 1100 for producing 22 liters of oil. We also get 80 kg. of honge cake——nitrogen rich food for the plants—which is worth Rs. 640. So, the net cost to us is Rs. 460 for 22 liters of oil which works out to Rs. 21 per litre. Adding Rs. 4 for transportation of seeds and oil to and fro between Nd and Thally, the all-in cost works out to Rs. 25 per litre, a saving of Rs. 10 per liter over diesel. Besides, much of this cost goes to the forest dwellers and creates an incentive for them to preserve the forest. It is a win-win situation for all—the users, the forest-dwellers and the environment. The need for esterification of the oil to make it real bio-diesel which is better for the engine has been pointed out to us recently by some experts and we are now looking for ways to do so by ourselves on a small scale.

Harnessing the wind

We have also set our sights on harnessing wind energy. Our initial experiment last year with a Bangalore made roof-top turbine—a copy of a tiny American model—was a disaster. An enterprising Coimbatore team has demonstrated another small turbine which they are improving upon and we look forward to having a unit working on our site soon. Another attractive option we are exploring is a 500W wind battery charger from China where small wind turbines are being extensively used in farms and homes in Inner Mongolia. A hybridized wind-solar system could give us abundant power throughout the year.

Modern science and technology are coming up with the hydrogen cell and other exciting new inventions to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. We will have to carefully evaluate them against the twin touchstones of ecology and economy before we dabble in them. The biggest challenge for us is to not become slaves of technology at the cost of inner development.

Prepared for the Navadarshanam Workshop,

August 2005,

by Om P. Bagaria