Aranyaka Upanishad Forests Ecosystems:
The place we call ‘Aranyaka Upanishad’ is home to a rich variety of forest trees like ‘deodar’, cedar, pine, chestnut, oak, himalayan rhododendron, fir, spruce, walnut, apple, and dogwood. Since the forests here have been untouched since posterity – the earliest title deeds go back to Emperor Auranzeb – they are at once dense and resilient with highly mixed foliage. The forest bears marks of a timeless and uninterrupted growth – waves upon waves of succession have nourished it so each tree and each plant is the result of hybrid apex and fulfillment.
The forests of ‘Aranyaka Upanishad’ are in fact in connected flow to a range extending out for miles towards ‘Dhanolti’ and further on towards Chamba and towards the ‘Woodstock School’ estates on the other. As such, they form a seamless belt and function as a corridor for migrating wildlife from upstate in Uttarkhand and down to the Gangetic valley forests near Rishikesh.
Adjoining the sprawling ‘Woodstock School’ estate, this forest is encircled by trees on all sides. Here, undisturbed since posterity, one can observe the rich interplay between young and old trees in their full cycles of life. Each tree is part of an intricate eco-system that is dynamic and interactive giving way to waves of forests. Some varieties are found only here in these parts – such as the crimson himalayan rhododendron trees that explode into color at spring time. There is also a rich diversity of wild-flowers that bloom in early spring and continue in waves until the end of summer.
Each flower seems to carry a special presence and fragrance that local Garhwali folks believe is healing for different ailments. Flower remedies are rather popular in these parts. However, the custom is that there is special time of day for plucking a flower and permission is sought from the flower before doing so. The potency of the flower is then preserved.
Rhododendron flowers are especially used to heal ailments such as anemia, high blood pressure, insomnia and weakness. Rhododendron wine and juice is really delicious to drink. As well, wild roses bloom in lush vines. There are wild poppies, daisies, lilies, orchids and many other wild flowers.
Bark of trees, moss and lichen:
The bark of certain trees like “padam’ is also believed to treat fractures and bone-loss. The bark is ground and cooked into a poultice that is then applied on the broken or weakened bone. It is believed that the bark ‘grips’ the skin and will slowly fall away in a few weeks when the bone is healed and whole again.
Perhaps among the richest in biodiversity, the forests here are also filled with exotic herbs, plants, flowers, moss, and lichen. Their richness can be seen in the complexity of distinct eco-systems that co-exist here within a small densely-packed range. In a few minutes of walking on trails, one can see the shifts of layers in flora and fauna.
‘Re-enchanting our world’ :
Indigenous peoples in the surrounding regions of Garhwal and Uttarkashi have long known that living amidst the natural world is to live in enchantment and wonder. This perception that nature is alive and deeply connected to human subjectivity is reflected in every aspect of life – including song, dance, work, love, and worship. There is no psychic split between ‘self’ and ‘other’, or human and natural, but a flow of inter-perception so to harm oneself is akin to ecological injury. Therefore, conservation is a way of life through cycles of renewal. This sense of enchantment in being alive to nature’s presence as magical and joyful has been mostly lost with urbanization and growth of cities.
This loss is an injury to all and a reclaiming is vital to our existence – without it, one could see no real hope or future in being alive to soul. Connecting to nature allows such re-enchantment on deeper levels – when we open our eyes and can feel or touch and sense the incredible beauty around us. Our passions can awaken and we can come alive. A direct experience of the natural world – such a walk in the woods, or the touch of bark or forest floor – is like none other and it allows reconnection to the fundamental joy of existence. Joy needs no object but the experience of life itself and nature is just so – alive, deeply alive.
‘Aranyaka Upanishad’ forests – a microcosm of himalayan regions:
The conclave of emerald forests we call ‘Ithaca home’ are unique because we find here at once a concentration and an abundance of features that are usually dispersed in specific eco-systems across Garhwal and Uttarkashi. These forests are ‘mixed’ in growth as if centuries of time have created a fusion and a transfusion of trees and plants. The adaptation of ‘Deodar’ here, for example, is dense both in proximity and in scale and an admixture of indigenous oak with himalayan rhododendron – like interwoven tapestry – makes for an extraordinary eruption of bio-organisms and invites rarest of butterflies and birds to flock here.
It is a principal feature of ‘hybrid’ forests such as these that they are ‘climax eco-systems’ – meaning here waves upon waves of succeeding ecosystems have created a ‘resilience’ that is self-sustaining. This does not mean that forests such as these are immune from possible destruction. Human intrusion is always a threat. Entering the forest here, one is struck at once by its enormous power and its vulnerability. Therefore, preservation and conservation is an article of our faith here as we live and walk here. One learns to listen deeply – senses open and mind in quiet attention – to the life that exists on each limb and branch and beneath the feet.
Streams and Springs and Waterfalls:
The forests in and around ‘Aranyaka Upanishad’ are filled with mountain streams and natural springs that offer pure drinking water and refreshment to visitors all year around. The hillsides are as green as they are because of a rich under swell of waters. Water is a highly precious resource here that supports all the plants and wild-life. A quiet afternoon beside a mountain stream in full flow or a waterfall can be both healing and rejuvenating.
Forest as Microcosm of our world:
Living in this extraordinary forest I call ‘home’ has taught me many, many, lessons – both difficult and sweet in savour. Above all, I believe I am learning that a forest is an apt representation for world. As humans, we are in fact deeply interconnected – both to the natural world and to each other. Our health, our well-being, is inextricable from the larger eco-systems that surround and to the natural world. How we interact with living beings – be they plants or animals or trees – reflects in our own states of mind and physical being. We are linked in a million ways to eco-systems and every breach or rupture is an injury that resonates with consequences.
This is a lesson that we are in the midst of learning as the ‘Corona virus’ unleashes its deadly consequences worldwide. We could do well to understand just how real nature is and how its existence lies as pure inter-relationships – energy lines that flow across space and time with little regard to political entities or ‘nations’ and ‘states’. To generate systems of power in isolation from the land and from the natural world is fundamentally destructive and breaches the fine balance at the heart of all life. That balance is a dynamic equilibrium wrought from countless intersections of living beings – invisible perhaps to the physical eye but implacable as a force that reclaims its integrity at some point of discrete mass.
Relationship to forests and wild spaces:
So how does one begin to rebuild a genuine and authentic relationship to the natural world when there has been so much rupture and division from it? It is my sense that a first step could be to allow an openness of heart and mind, to feel honestly and to trust ones’ personal experience above all. There is no ‘expert’ needed here – just a zen-like perception and an admission of humility in beingness. To be in a forest requires no ‘control’ or ‘structure’ – rather it elicits a playfulness and readiness to connect through aspects of ones’ being that are content to let go and be guided.
Another way to reconnect with a forest or wilderness is to awaken a sense of curiousity in exploring. To wonder and question and examine with all ones’ physicality and beingness. To touch, sit amidst, encircle a tree, examine a leaf. To let it speak and reveal its marvels – a leaf is a microcosm of details and each detail speaks of life lived and experienced.
Listening is Connection:
A simple way to attune to nature is to quiet the mind and open the senses as fully as possible. Emptying out thoughts and pre-concieved notions or ‘ideas’ that have roots in an artificial environment. To listen to everything happening around in a forest space. There are birds singing, trees breathing, leaves rustling, even the air has a subtle sound one could tune into. Light even has a vibration. Stillness of mind opens to all these magical expressions of a forest if one could only listen.
Spending time, opening pools of stillness inside a forest, staying in the senses, paying attention, moving slowly through a forest, watching at each step – these are ways to reconnect to the deeper web of life of which we a part.
It can be that such attempts at slowing down and truly feeling the world that is a forest brings with it feelings of pain and sorrow. One has been numbed to the core from generations of life in urban settings and artificial conditionings – as it were. Opening up is not easy. There can be tendencies to ‘spiritualize’ an experience, to become lost in the mind. Genuine spirituality, however, seems not apart from the natural world and the experience of being present to exactly what is – just as it is. Indigenous spiritualities of the Garhwal region are remarkable for their wisdom traditions, healing practices in nature, and attunement to the world around them. Knowledge of plants and leaves and trees here is not different from worship of ‘gods’ that reside in waterfalls and niches and caves. It can be painful to acknowledge that we have lost this unitary sense and the ‘gods’ have left our hearts and souls. However, one can begin where one is and the road opens – step at a time.
‘Aranyaka Upanishad’ as home:
Living here for over two years now, I have made this my home and am opening up to the wider world. After some repairs and renovations, there is now a retreat center for friends. It is set in a gentle valley surrounded by dense forests on all sides. This encirclement, a deep emerald-green waterfall of trees, as it were, creates a distinct atmosphere so the visitor is always and everywhere looking directly at the dramatic presence of the forest in the hills. Watching the sunlight reflecting on this forest-wall while relaxing in an armchair on a wide-angle balcony can be a profound experience in itself. For many of our friends and visitors, meditation happens spontaneously and by itself.
At ‘Aranyaka Upanishad’, we believe that Its far easier to offer critiques of our post-modern urban environments than to offer a genuine alternative.
At the core, we believe that each being is an energetic living force who is part of a complex and beautiful web of interrelationships. One can choose to be grounded in this truth, to connect with forests, and let the health of our communities guide our actions.
The facilities at ‘Aranyaka Upanishad’ reflect our philosophy for personal connexion to the forests. Each space is set as a private domain for quiet and reflection. It is open to the forest and yet comfortable in every way. Cottages are self-sufficient and ‘warm zones’ for cozy occupation. There is a flow between inside and outside without artificial settings.
Surrounding the valley and guest-houses, are a network of mountain trails that lead up and into the forests. One can climb to the top of the hills – an average hike is about an hour and a half each way- and look upon the stunning mountain ranges from the ‘Pari Tibba’ peaks. Camping facilities are available for those who might wish to camp overnight or for longer intervals. Guides are also available for trekking purposes. One takes time to feel the presence of the forest and to observe the flora and fauna all around – the forest-floor, for example, or the bark of an older tree… The forest speaks in many ways and one has but to listen and be aware – to relax the senses and mind so nature can enter in.
In the evenings, we offer the warmth of a wood-burning stove and a gathering place for visitors who may wish to meet and to exchange their experiences. There are often some rather interesting stories to share and questions to ask. There is a library filled with books on the himalayan forests, ecology, spirituality, and local folklore. Our local staff can also offer a wealth of views on related subjects.
Exact Location and Details:
‘Aranyaka Upanishad’ is set seven kilometers outside of the main town of Mussoorie in Uttarkhand. It adjoins the well-known ‘Woodstock School’ and access is from Woodstock parking lot. The closest airport is Jolly Grant in Dehradun, the capital of Uttarkhand, and the drive up to Mussoorie is about 60 kilometers. We offer a taxi-service with a chauffeur who can pick up and drop off guests with ease.
We offer basic services such as comfortable accommodation in the form of discrete cottages and private suites that are fully independent and self-sufficient with fully-stocked kitchen facilities. Each cottage is maintained by staff members who are always available. Fresh linen and towels are provided daily.
We also provide delicious and simple vegetarian meals on request. All our vegetables and fruit is grown organically in our own green-houses and fresh-picked daily by our resident chef. There are a variety of jams and cakes and pies that are available in our main kitchen.
For those who are interested, there are daily hiking facilities along the forest trails leading to look-out points with spectacular views. Camping or tenting is offered on request with guides who are there for personal assistance.
We also offer personal yoga instruction on request and meditation sessions that can help facilitate our connection to ourselves, each other, and to the exquisite web of life all around.
Staff members also provide Ayurvedic massages with oils and potions from local herbs and flowers in the gardens of ‘Aranyaka Upanishad’.
There is a temple for meditation and prayers and a swimming pool with stunning panoramic views to the forest.