My son Rahul and I were stranded on a visit to India in the wake of the Covid pandemic. India declared a total lockdown in mid-March, banning all flights in and out of the country. Fortunately, we were sequestered in an entirely safe and spectacularly beautiful place in the foothills of the Himalayas called Devanya (“Land of the Gods”), the summer home of my cousin Sangeeta Srivastava in the state of Uttarakhand (UK).

Our sequestration came to a sudden and dramatic end last week when a narrow window of opportunity came up to bring us back to the U.S. Air India announced it was sending several aircraft to different countries to repatriate Indian citizens stranded there. One such flight was bound for Newark, and Air India offered seats on the outbound empty flight from New Delhi to U.S. citizens stuck in India.

During a 24-hour nerve-wracking period, we were able to book ourselves on this flight and arrange a taxi ride for the seven hour journey from Devanya to the New Delhi airport. The taxi had to traverse three states and since each state had its own lockdown rules prohibiting travel, permits had to be obtained from each. It was touch and go from start to finish, but we made it back.

Devanya

I am happy to be back and reunited with my husband, Sunil, who remained in Darien during our enforced separation. But I must admit I also miss Devanya where Rahul and I spent 10 magical weeks.

At about 7,000 feet, Devanya is situated between small villages at the foothill of the Himalayas among densely forested mountains covered in oak, walnut, and Himalayan rhododendron trees, as well as invasive pine trees (introduced to the area by the British). These trees are not only aggressively replacing native trees that provide habitat for creatures within the ecosystem, but also are a fire hazard for the forest.

From the top of Sangeeta’s 90-acre property and all around, there are amazing trails to explore among old growth Himalayan forests with stunning views of the snow capped Himalayan range. The natural meadows are filled with wild flowers and many varieties of butterflies and bees. On birding walks with a local guide, we spotted at least 25 varieties of birds, including the spectacular turquoise verditer flycatcher. Monkeys and barking deer abound, and we have also spotted a pair of yellow-throated martens. There have been occasional sightings of leopards. Rahul believes he saw one from a distance.

Organic farming

Sangeeta and her son Udai are supervising the development of Devanya for a nature-loving community that wants to pursue an organic lifestyle, away from the noise and pollution of city life. As part of this effort, they are establishing an organic farm and native plant nursery that will supply vegetables, fruit, native plants, dairy and poultry to the Devanya community. While there, Rahul and I were tasked with managing this part of the development.

The plan is to build an organic bio-diverse farm at Devanya, with ‘desi’ or heirloom cows, goats, chicken and a variety of vegetables and flowers. The crops have already been planted on fields ploughed on the existing terraces carved into the mountains.

Uttarakhand has countless small subsistence farms. For generations the farmers have used traditional methods to farm without the use of chemicals. More recently, encouraged by western ‘Big Ag’ and subsidized by the central government, they switched to using chemical fertilizers, pesticides and other non-natural products.

In November 2019, after pressure from environmentalists and in a bid to go organic, the UK government passed a law that bans this usage of chemicals. The law will be rolled out to the entire state in the next few years. The UK government has provided some resources online to help farmers convert back to organic farming, but most farmers are unaware of these new guidelines. Since word spreads very quickly in these remote villages, our goal at Devanya was to create a model organic farm so that area farmers can learn by example. Specifically of interest is the use of natural substances like cow manure, forest compost, wood ash, cow’s urine, neem, and other plant derivatives to make organic farmland amendments.

Drawing connections

Our experience at Devanya instilled in us an appreciation that nature is so finely balanced and that it revolts when thrown out of balance by aggressive human intervention. We could draw connections between the invasive non-native plants, the big Ag-promoted chemicals, the growing income inequality particularly between urban and rural areas around the world, the fast pace of urban life, the unpreparedness of political institutions and leaders to care for all people, and the rise and spread of coronavirus.

By promoting local culture, values and behavior, our hope is that Uttarakhand natives will find productive and fulfilling livelihoods in their native villages. The Saksena family will continue to be closely involved with Devanya and hopes that in the post-pandemic world we can make a small difference.