Auroville’s Pebble Garden: A young forest that was brought back to life by termites and two conservationists

Auroville in Tamil Nadu has made remarkable strides in ecological conservation. The story of Pebble Garden reveals the rich biodiversity that once existed in the region, how it disappeared and why it is necessary to revive such a history.

ByJoshua Eugine

Published Feb 24, 2024 | 11:55 AMUpdatedFeb 24, 2024 | 11:55 AM

The Pebble Garden is not just a forest or farm, but a centre for regenerative land use. (South First/Joshua Eugine)

When I first walked into Auroville’s Pebble Garden, it was difficult to believe that this piece of green goodness wasn’t always here. Upon my arrival here, I witnessed the towering trees stand with the confidence of perpetuity, while the bushes and brambles seem to be a permanent residence for far too many creatures. 

That’s why it came as a surprise to discover that this patch of wilderness resting beside Tindivanam Main Road is a ‘young forest’. Its caretakers, Deepika Kundaji and Bernard Declerq, have carefully been a part of its growth, tending to its nourishment since day one.

Mumbai-born Kundaji and Belgium-native Declerq met at Auroville in 1994. Together, they have made significant contributions towards organic farming, forestry and seed conservation. 

In 2017, Kundaji won the Nari Shakti Puraskar award by the President of India for her efforts. And Declerq is now one of the pioneers of organic farming in the country. Their contributions were most recently recognised at the Organic Farmers National Convention in December 2023. 

While the story of their work on Pebble Garden begins in 1994, the history of the land goes way back. It reveals traces of ecological wealth that lie forgotten under the scars of colonial havoc. 

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Regeneration station

Termite garden where fungi is cultivated. (South First/Joshua Eugine)

“We were at a historical moment when we came here,” Kundaji tells South First, “where the land was so degraded because of past actions.”

The eponymous pebbles that lie scattered across Pebble Garden was once all that existed in the area. It was on this virtually barren and irredeemable landscape that Kundaji and Declerq sowed the seeds for the Pebble Garden. Since they worked on eroded land, their efforts were centered around ‘regeneration’, making Pebble Garden not just a forest or a farm, but a centre for ‘regenerative land use’. 

“Our aim was to revive terribly eroded lands and make them productive again by building up the soil and bringing back forests which could help in the growth of food crops,” she shares. 

But how could anything grow in a place that had no soil? 

Pioneers of the forest

Since the area was full of hard rock and pebbles, Kundaji and Declerq ‘s first task was to generate soil.

Clay Deposit at Pebble Garden. (South First/Joshua Eugine)

“We wanted to reintroduce forest species and wanted to see if we can build up soil without bringing external inputs,” she shares. “If we bring soil from outside, we’re creating a desert somewhere else to fix this one,” she adds. 

With this consciousness, they decided to first establish pioneer plants. 

“If your eyes and mind are open, you can see that even in harsh conditions, there are some plants that can grow,” explains Kundaji. 

Pioneer plants are those that grow on hard, desert terrain with the ability to germinate on pebble land with ease. 

“Our criteria for choosing pioneer plants was that they should be relevant to this particular region. They should be fast-growing without the threat of becoming an invasive species,” she informs. 

The duo selected one exotic plant, the Australian Acacia, and two more local plants as pioneers. They grew them for three years, with the awareness that these should naturally die once the indigenous trees establish themselves.  Although the pioneer plants produced a large amount of biomass, soil was still nowhere to be found to plant the indigenous trees. 

Until one day, when they discovered a thin layer of earth covering the leaf litter of one of the pioneer plants. 

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A little help goes a long way

Deepika Kundaji and Bernard Declerq. (Supplied)

Both Kundaji and Declerq credit termites as the creators of Pebble Garden’s forest, calling themselves only ‘facilitators’. Pebble Garden’s pebbles had grains of soil surrounding each one of them, making it impossible for human beings to retrieve. 

“We noticed one day that termites were bringing soil surrounding each pebble, grain by grain,” Kundaji reveals, explaining that the leaf litter attracted the insects. 

Deeming this as a ‘natural miracle’, Kundaji and Declerq found the biggest solution in the hands of the smallest helpers. 

“It’s a spiralling process, because once the termites appeared, other organisms followed,” explains Kundaji, adding that ultimately, “nature shows the way.”

Pebble Garden is now home to a variety of fauna including snakes, peacocks, porcupines, civet cats, monitor lizards and other animals that share the forest with its original termite inhabitants. 

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Historical roots

Kundaji and Declerq resurrected this area in 1994. Records show that the early days of Auroville witnessed little to no greenery in the region. 

Seed conservation. (Supplied)

However, Kundaji’s recent discovery reveals that the land was not always in such a devastating condition. With a background in archaeology, she was curious to unearth the history of the land. 

“I was aware of the archaeological depth of the place,” she reveals, referring to the cairn circles found in Auroville’s Edayanchavadi region. 

“This was evidence of an advanced, sophisticated society. So I wanted to know what the landscape was like during that time,” she says.

After discovering that this evidence was from the same era in which Sangam literature emerged, she dove into the ancient Tamil compositions to find detailed descriptions of the region. 

“The corpus of Sangam literature is huge and its poetry comes from the land. It was about human life,” she shares.

Sangam literature is the earliest literature of South India. Dated between 600 BCE to 300 CE, it had the unique characteristic of being an ancient Indian literature that included non-religious subjects. 

To her delight, several ancient texts like the Perumpaanatruppadai and the Thirukkural  described the life of the times in vivid detail. It was nothing short of  ‘ecological wisdom.’ 

Lay of the land

One of the treatises described a five-fold classification of the land. It listed them as Kurinji (mountain), Mullai (forests and grazing lands), Marudham (fertile agricultural land), Neythal (coasts) and Palai (desert). 

Corn diversity from the vegetable garden. (South First/Joshua Eugine)

Kundaji’s study of the Sangam text Perumpaanatruppadai reveals descriptions of the lifestyle of hunter gatherers and pastoralists in Mullai regions of Tondaimandalam – the ancient name of the region in which Auroville currently resides. 

“The text describes special meals of monitor lizard poriyal and bold upland paddy being served to visitors,” she shares suggesting the presence of a thriving eco-system in the region. 

Verse 742 of the Thirukkural recites, “Multi-layered forests are the fortresses protecting life, ensuring crystal clear water and fertile soil” in its description of Kurinji and Mullai land. It emphasises that life force existed in the land due to the presence of water.

“What’s very interesting is that, from the five classifications of land, the Paiai or desert land was not a separate category but was considered to be a degraded form of Mullai land!” she reveals. 

Other historical records confirmed the Sangam descriptions of Pebble Garden, Auroville and the larger region’s ecologically rich past. But further study revealed to Kundaji why it was in the degraded Palai state when it reached their hands in 1994. 

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The age of exploitation

“Historically, agriculture was the first big blow to wild diversity,” reveals Kundaji. She explains that the introduction and promotion of ‘cash crops’ resulted in the clearing of forest land for large-scale cultivation. 

Beehives at Pebble Garden. (South First/Joshua Eugine)

Under the colonial regime, this process became the norm. It increased the impact on forest land and soil tenfold. Wars between the English and the French in the 1700s inconsiderately razed forests to the ground to rebuild towns.

Policies that allotted patta or land ownership in exchange for the clearance of ‘scrub jungle’ witnessed the downfall of a holistic approach towards land use. They ravaged the forests for timber, steel and charcoal to satisfy the incessant demands of colonial expansion as the railway network penetrated through the landscape.

Even after Independence, this industrial outlook on forest land stayed back to further haunt the landscape.  The nation embraced an economic system that Kundaji defines as ‘intrinsically socially and environmentally exploitative’.

Out of India’s land mass of 329 million hectares, 147 million hectares of land are now degraded, she reveals. 

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An ongoing revival

The Pebble Garden region of Auroville could have been forgotten as just another number within that statistic, if it were not for Deepika Kundaji and Bernard Declerq. With its successful regeneration over 30 years, it has returned to a state where it can grow life. 

Gourds at Pebble Garden. (South First/Joshua Eugine)

The duo aim to revive the ‘clever, intelligent and creative way of living in harmony with nature’ that the land was once accustomed to. 

“Human beings don’t live in a vacuum,” Kundaji explains. “We can’t separate our wellbeing from the wellbeing of all other life forms on the planet.” 

While most of the world loses itself in the pursuit of progress, individuals like Kundaji and Declerq steer their actions toward the right direction. Even though their Pebble Garden is more than 30 years old, it still has a long way to go, she explains.

In the lifetime of a forest, 30 years is a small duration as it takes over 100 years for a forest to mature. As Pebble Garden readies itself to settle into longevity, Kundaji and Declerq are aware that they will be long gone before seeing the forest mature. But they resume their work in the hopes of the forest’s continued existence, enriching the land in the surrounding region.

“Forests are a community of thousands of living organisms,” shares Kundaji. 

Familiar with her place in that community and hoping that more people realise their dependence upon it, she asks, “Everyone plays a part in it, no?”