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(Plus how to make a Madras brick and lime roof)
Let me take you to another place, far away from lockdowns and empty supermarkets. Let me take you to southern India, to a beautiful mud sanctuary pioneered by a brave soul called Karen Shetty. Four years ago, the Divyalok eco-spiritual centre was treeless and empty, and Karen was staring at it wondering how to make her vision a reality. Today it is a mud, lime, and regenerative dream. What can I say? This amazing project is a testimony to the power of belief and inner strength.
On the surface Karen doesn’t look especially cut out for creating an eco-sanctuary from nothing. She was born in India and calls herself a cocktail of Scottish, German, English, and Rajput genes. For a long while she lived a more mainstream kind of life, with a Master’s in Business Administration, she ran a garment export firm for twenty-two years. But then ten years ago things changed, as they do. Karen met her guru, did a stack of meditation, and decided to live a little differently.
Taking the plunge
Four years ago Karen realised she yearned to live more sustainably in nature, so she took the plunge and bought seven acres of land close to a reserve forest, a sacred mountain and river, in a remote village in south India. From here on she began to build a retreat centre. Not that such a thing is a picnic, especially if you have no experience.
On the face of it she had no clue:
Karen was a complete novice to farming and construction when she bought her land, so she had to figure it all out by experimenting. Her first shelter (she calls it her mud building research centre) was made from coconut fronds, with a mud floor. The entire thing was built in a day! But it was a roof over her head, and that’s what you need.
On the face of it, Karen had nothing much to prepare her for the new life she was entering. She had to face a heap of utterly foreign situations and tasks: living alone, planting trees, no electricity or running water, and using mud to build, to name but a few. For three weeks she managed with a kerosene oil lamp. The water was from the river bordering the west boundary.
I point this out because I see so many people obsessing about building techniques and engineering skills when they enter this type of project. The thing is, these skill-sets (while useful) are not actually what’s going to get you through. I’ll tell you why Karen’s project is blossoming, and why she and her team managed to get five stunning earth cottages up, secure water and power, and plant an entire forest, all without much of a clue about what she was doing at the outset: Karen had both some spiritual/life strategies in place to keep her going when things got rough, and a pretty solid vision.
One Skill You Need to Cultivate
I used to mention this as a timid little aside, but as time goes on and I watch the same kind of people make a decent go of this game while the same kind falter, I will cut to the chase, and tell it how it is: One skill you need to cultivate when you move into this type of life, especially if you’re doing it alone, is meditation (or similar). Laugh if you like, but I see it over and over again. Someone with zero building or farming skills makes an amazing mud world appear, while a qualified engineer, architect or carpenter for some reason doesn’t. I’m not saying none of these folk make it happen, nor that practical skills aren’t important – my neighbour is doing just great and he’s an engineer – but the technical knowledge alone isn’t enough.
The Mud Buildings
Back to the building. Karen and her team have created an incredible array of stunning mud buildings. Sometimes they used adobe, and sometimes they used earthbag. All were built without architects or professionals other than a plumber/electrician, and with the help of local villagers.
The first building Karen and her team created was made of adobe bricks. Karen researched how to make them, and then gathered a team to help stomp the mud. These bricks were made from clayey mud and straw mixed, then poured into moulds, and left to dry rock hard in the sun.
A Special Madras Roof Made by Eighty-Year-Old Thatha
The next structure was an earthbag hut, and boasts a very special brick roof. It was constructed using an ancient Indian technique of lime, herbs, and jaggary. “The tiny cute bricks were specially ordered from an old brick maker who had put aside these moulds as they weren’t popular anymore,” Karen explains. “The technique was taught to us by an eighty-year-old mason who we affectionately call 'thatha’ (Grandpa in Tamil). It took us a year to find the right person. Other masons who came by said this technique failed miserably and the bricks would keep falling through the beams. Hahaha! We felt "thatha" was God-sent, as he was not practising his trade anymore and looking after his farm instead. He was so patient with my learning skills and I remain grateful to him. Always on time and very clean and neat in his work.”
How Thatha Made This Roof
“Lime was bought from a kiln close by and we slaked it at our place, mixed it with sand, and had to keep moist until we used it. We then took a herb called kadukai in Tamil (haritaki) which is also used for natural dyeing purposes. This was soaked in water for minimum 15 to 20 days and the water was used in the lime mortar along with a jaggery solution. This lime slurry was used to fuse the bricks on the roof which worked like magic. Without a support or any formwork the bricks stand together in the open spaces between the roof beams. We used wooden reapers from the timber mart, but traditionally they use the trunk of the palm trees which are tall and sturdy,” says Karen.
The Madras roof is created in three layers: For the first layer the bricks are placed vertically. For the second layer the bricks are laid flat and horizontally. The third layer is terracotta tiles.
This kind of roof is called Katta Kuthu or Madras roofing. “It really makes a difference, with the inside temperatures being much cooler than the outside heat,” Karen told me.
All the subsequent buildings have the Madras roof. Cottage number three is a beautiful adobe brick structure with a gorgeous natural interior.
When Karen and friends bought this property it had just one tree on it. Today the trees and medicinal plants total an incredible five thousand and counting! In the beginning there was no power or access, but after countless negotiations with government officials (having experienced Indian bureaucracy, and I can only imagine how much breathwork you need to do to get through this), today Karen has light, and two bore wells for water.
The next phase of Divyalok is to introduce weaving and handicrafts for local women who are often abused by drunk husbands and partners.
Divyalok really is an incredible story of regeneration from nothing. Never say you can’t create your world and make an impact, because the most unlikely people are doing it in the craziest conditions all over the planet. These days though, I will stick my neck out and say this: If you want to succeed, invest in and master the right tools, which are usually the inner ones.
You can learn more about Divyalok and connect with Karen here.
Things to Take Away from This Project:
1. You definitely don’t need to be an architect/engineer to create an awe-inspiring mud world for yourself and others.
2. As usual, perseverance is everything. Karen just keeps chipping away at her vision, and low and behold it manifests.
3. Traditional techniques are often the best. If you can find anyone who remembers the old ways, listen to them, hire them… heck, kidnap them if you have to:)
4. Belief in yourself and your mission can take you a long, long way.
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