‘Ma-guru’ in Chhattisgarh forests: How a spiritual leader turned barren red laterite rocks into a biodiversity paradise

‘Ma-guru’ in Chhattisgarh forests: How a spiritual leader turned barren red laterite rocks into a biodiversity paradise

Intercropping, crop pairing, organic farming, permaculture design, Sambhav Baba’s ashram manifests most principles of sustainable farming. It is meticulous to note his methods of water conservation and agriculture as well.


Tucked between ancient Gondwana yellowstone hills and verdant forests of Jashpur, Chhattisgarh lies the lonely hermitage of Sambhav Baba, a spiritual leader who performs miracles. Don’t expect water turning into wine, but through his hard work and vigour has grown tea & coffee plantations in bauxite laden red soil (A novelty in Chhattisgarh and an agricultural miracle). His life’s work is agriculture, and I travelled to his ashram to know how he has converted barren red laterite rocks into a biodiversity paradise.

Apart from agriculture, his organisation holds the national and Guinness records for running the largest free leprosy medical camps and continues to run an indigenous fakiri/ayurvedic medical centre. His spiritual order, dedicated to public welfare, also had a tryst with Indian politics. The ashram has photos and a hundred stories floating around. Some of them featured Indira Gandhi, who visited Sambhav Baba’s predecessor Bhagwan Ram for spiritual advice.

The journey

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Cool breezes and green crops spread across the plains. I was on a dusty bumpy road from Ranchi. Wild castor and corn greeted me on the way and as Jashpur neared, the landscape began to change. Little rivers started to giggle, and giant rock mountains preened in the sunlight.

The smell of marigolds and carnations in the ashram’s driveway evaporated my weariness. The white walled ashram was surrounded by crop fields and a government school. I was welcomed in and led to Sarveshwari temple and then to Baba.

While waiting, I noticed cardamom, paan, and a variety of indigenous spices and medicinal plants grew right around Baba’s residence. It was a biodiversity heaven, a vatika with thousands of trees from Sal, mango, litchi, kiwi, loquat, and 9-acre tea and coffee plantation. From spice to headaches, Baba’s garden had a plant for everything. Although a man, people around him often said, “baba’s love for us is like a mother, hence he is our Ma-Guru”.

Maguru in Chhattisgarh forests How a spiritual leader turned barren red laterite rocks into a biodiversity paradise

“Ma-guru” Sambhav Baba. (Image shared by the author)

He met me around mid-day, after his pooja. Dhoti-clad Baba was surrounded by devotees and visitors. After greeting me, he didn’t talk much, but affectionately said, “first go see the place”. At this point, I looked straight into his eyes, they conveyed nothing but depth. Baba’s eyes were very non-revealing, serious and yet affectionate.

But the tea plantation awaited me and my guide was a young devotee Manas Singh. He explained Baba’s life and ashram. As he was talking, I noticed that the tea plantation has very thin topsoil. Manas smiled and explained, “All the land you see here was barren bauxite ore rocks. It had no topsoil. Baba together with devotees, dug out and then blasted the rocks. All the biodiversity you see around here was planted by Baba himself. When he came here, all this was a jungle with only one or two trees on the ashram property.”

Manas was right, it’s quite rare to have a tea garden surrounded by varieties of indigenous lemon, oranges, rare flowers, et al. Ashram also had a mini-tea factory processing green and black tea.

Intercropping, crop pairing, organic farming, permaculture design, Baba’s ashram manifested most principles of sustainable farming. I was taking meticulous notes on his methods of water conservation and agriculture. But during the day, it became clear that Sambhav Baba led a very different life before he joined his guru. Born to the king of Narsinghgarh, MP, he joined his spiritual guru at 22. He was pursuing history at Ramjas College, Delhi and when asked about the transition, he said, “One has a sanskar, I was supposed to be here, so I came here,” he stoically said.

But his spiritual order had a different story. Manas told me, “A few generations ago, the order’s guru Aghoreshwar Bhagwan Ram was invited by then Jashpur King to spread dharma, public welfare and help stop the Christian conversions. Over time his order centred around three villages – Gumariya, Sogra, & Narayanpur, managed to spread among the people and gained their love and respect. Conversions also stopped eventually.”

By the time our walk ended, it was raining hard. Tired, I lay down on the common room mattress.  The skies were thundering, often illuminating the trees from the window. The rest was silence and rain, and then distant drums were heard, the conch shell sounds harmonising with the rain, creating a melody for the black, scythe sword carrying deity – Sarveshwari Mata.

Day deux, the sun shined brightly, as if nothing had happened the previous night. I woke up at 6 am and headed straight to the tea gardens. To my surprise, Baba was exercising in the fruit orchard.

For the rest of the morning, I got a crash course on tea at the tea factory. Here I discovered that mostly adivasi women are employed at the ashram. Ashram for long has helped the local population. Many villagers help during the picking season (May to mid-September), gathering as much as 9 quintal leaves per week from the 8-acre farm.

As the sun was almost overhead, we left to see the Narayanpur ashram, where elephants had recently caused some damage. The second ashram boosted wild biodiversity, indigenous crops, and some commercial varieties too. Although the agriculture is mostly organic, the ashram does use agri-chemicals when needed. They also breed seeds for the government as a way to ensure stable incomes for the farming operation. I toured the ashram, chatted with the people, ate a fiery chicken curry served for lunch and returned to Sogra ashram by nightfall.

Finally, it was day three and quite misty at 5:52 am. Apart from an occasional dew on my shoulder, it was all grey green and silent. The tea leaves were still dreaming, as mother branches were trying to awaken them, but my mind was still on the interview.  Baba had hardly spoken, but he was an action oriented person. He had ensured I spent enough time outdoors around his work, with an occasional meeting with him here or there. My mind was filled with questions. And it was only this morning that it struck me, all of Baba’s answers lay before me – the tea, fruit vatika, coffee, and the story of his blood and sweat all written across the ashram, etched in trees, soil and crops.

The real test

The real test of a writer is how to interview a man who is averse to media, videos, photos or audio recordings, and doesn’t even want to talk about himself. It took me three days to get him to speak on agriculture.  He had a child-like glitter when we spoke about the plants and forest. So why did he farm and dedicate himself to agriculture?

“We have the land to feed people, so I started.” His answers were always to the point, and yet very warmly stated. I still couldn’t get why tea and coffee. Baba explained, “After people started coming to the ashram, they wanted to drink tea too, so we said to ourselves- let’s grow tea and then coffee. We got the first saplings from Jharkhand and then some even from Darjeeling and started here. We had to dig by hand first, and then got JCB to help out. Overtime, we did this so other people in the area can also see our model and help themselves and their families by working with nature.

Maguru in Chhattisgarh forests How a spiritual leader turned barren red laterite rocks into a biodiversity paradise

Sustainable agriculture in the ashram. (Image shared by the author)

But was agriculture viable? 

“Who runs an ashram just on agriculture. Everyday it’s becoming more and more difficult,” Baba replied. He was also deeply concerned about the destruction of forests and nature around him. “When we came here, elephants used to come to our property, now illegal logging and other factors have driven the wildlife and caused the change in climate too. It’s getting very hot here now.”

As we were conversing, many people had come and gone, while others were waiting to speak to him. I quickly asked my last question- how is all this happening?

“With government collusion, there is environmental degradation. If the governments are strict and enforce the law, no one breaks the laws. Either criminals change their profession or leave the place. For example, look at the Yogi government. Some criminals changed professions, while others simply vanished from UP.”

My time was done, and the cab to Ranchi was waiting. I thanked Baba and left with a feeling of having met an agrarian saint who through labour provides nutrition and sustenance to ashram dwellers and seekers, a “Ma-guru” indeed.

The author is an independent agri-policy analyst and former director – Policy and Outreach, National Seed Association of India. He tweets at @Indrassingh. Views are personal. 

Source: https://www.firstpost.com/opinion/ma-guru-in-chhattisgarh-forests-how-a-spiritual-leader-turned-barren-red-laterite-rocks-into-a-biodiversity-paradise-11908511.html

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