Written by by Aishwarya Phadke
Imagine you’re in a forest shelter and it’s pitch dark. You have, in the dim yet cozy light of the candles and earthen chulha just cooked and eaten a simple meal made with the freshest ingredients. You are sitting quietly, mesmerized by the simplicity of the moment when a light flashes through the forest. Even before you can locate it, the twinkling gathers speed and suddenly the forest is completely lit up with fireflies. The soothing tunes someone plays on the flute next to you are enough to make you feel like you’re in paradise. What else does one really need when nature blesses you so?
Deep in a forest, about 15 kms from Neral lies Vanvadi. It is a non-profit forest collective started by a group of like-minded people over 25 years ago. What is now a dense forested area teeming with wild foods, birds, and wildlife was once a dry, clear-felled area one would’ve otherwise built commercial resorts on. The group, with a dream of regenerating a forest and practising natural farming, together bought that 64-acre land.
It was a couple of years back when I first read about Vanvadi in an article in the Outlook Traveller. It was written by someone called Sanjiv Valsan. The photographer-writer had taken compellingly vivid images of the Adivasis native to that area and written in depth about their knowledge about forest foods. The image of the forest foods’ feast had quickly caught my attention. Adding the place to my mental wishlist, I had put the magazine aside. Travel Dirty was barely 2 trips old then, and I was always on the lookout for novel experiences to curate trips for people.
The words ‘wild forest foods’ would’ve till a few years ago, left urban folks squirming uneasily. Today, they stir excitement amongst nature, travel, and food enthusiasts alike looking to reconnect with their roots and I was one of them.
When I found out that Vanvadi was so close to Pune, I immediately wrote to Bharat Mansata, one of the active members who started Vanvadi. After discussing Travel Dirty’s style of immersive travel, he asked me to come visit to really see how rustic the place was.
‘There is a house with a roof, but it is open on all sides. There is no electricity, the toilets aren’t attached and you could easily encounter snakes amongst other creepy-crawlies.’ One could have been deterred by such information, but I was further convinced that a very special travel experience was in the making.
In my first visit, I quickly noticed that the place was as remote, its design as rustic as I had been warned it would be. In less than 2 weeks, I showed up at Vanvadi again, this time with a group of 9 participants.
We met Bharat but also Sanjiv, who had written that article and was a regular volunteer at Vanvadi. We also had the privilege to meet Bua, Ambibai and their family. This family, belonging to the Thakur Adivasi community, lived in the nearby Chinchwadi village and were associated with Vanvadi since its inception.
Bua was a human library of tribal wisdom. In his amiable ways, he would impart wisdom by sharing names of medicinal plants and their uses in healing. If you were lucky, you could also get him to sing folk songs and bhajans from times untold.
The 2 days we spent at Vanvadi were filled up to the brim with ancient lore. It was a beautiful journey of unlearning city ways and relearning our instincts. Vanvadi didn’t allow any chemicals, so we had to brush our teeth with neem sticks. No soaps meant using ash to wash our hands. It was raining the whole time and since we were often outdoors in the forest, there was never a need for an extra bath. No electricity meant only fresh food that didn't need freezing was available. We all helped in cooking, all the while listening to stories from the olden times.
How the seeds of the Mahua tree can be pressed for oil, how its flowers and leaves can be used to treat diseases were facts that helped us look at Mahua with more respect than just as the alcohol tree. This happened over and over with countless more plants and trees.
On our forest foods’ foraging walk on day 2, we learnt names of plants we’d never seen before, let alone taste. Taakla, Shevli, Loth, Kakad, Bondara...the list went on. We opened our minds and tried to fill in as much as possible. Two days were never going to be enough, but they were a start. An entry point into the magical world of wild foods and tribal wisdom
Vanvadi showed us how nourishing ourselves with organic, natural produce while learning about our roots could transform our well-being. It gifted us Bharat and Sanjiv who showed us how to really care for nature; it gifted us Bua and Ambibai who proved to us how much exploration into the past still needs to be done to really live wholesome lives. We all came back a bit more alive and a lot more curious. Vanvadi, for all these and more I’ll be eternally grateful.
For more on Vanvadi: