Ancient Futures

A social entrepreneur has created a facility on Sindh foothills with a focus on reviving the traditional culture and lifestyle in twentieth-century Kashmir. Apart from taking students for ‘living in past’ for a change and educating them about sustainable transformation, Fayaz Ahmad Dar hopes that copying the model can help individuals live a tension-free, self-sufficient life and revive the forgotten culture, reports Khalid Bashir Gura

Fayaz Ahmad Dar, the promoter of Sagg Eco Village, stands next to its board at the entrance in Lar belt of Ganderbal. KL Image By Syed Ahmad Rufai

In the lap of mountains, treading a green alley as one unlatches the wooden door of Sagg Eco Village, at Lar (Ganderbal), one instantly zooms past into Kashmir’s recent cultural past. From the orchestra of cicadas to birds chirping, one is filled with serenity as fresh wafts of cold breeze provide relief from the scorching summer sun. At dusk, as the crescent moon reclines on mountains, the city from far twinkles and the unpolluted dark blue sky is filled with galaxies of stars. As invisible insects buzz in the abundant sea of flora, the night is filled with serene silence and cold.

Spread over 11 Kanals of land, Sagg founder, Fayaz Ahmad Dar, 45, believes he is reclaiming pristine past and healing polluted present with universal core values.

Sagg (Kashmiri word for nurture) is an eco-cultural, recreational, educational farm with camping facility besides hosting and facilitating individual and group recreational stays, events and retreats, social gatherings, treks, walks, bike rides, and eco-therapy sessions,” said Dar who leads a team of ten members. “When someone enters Sagg they are coming home as it is a place where one is reconnected with oneself, reflect, rejuvenates, detoxifies.” De-stressing is natural as visitors are far away from the din and fast-paced life.

Enter The Village

As one enters the Sagg, optimal use of space and discarded products adorn the pathway. Kashmiris traditional hand-made products are omnipresent in the dwellings and cafés. The floor of the restaurant is plain soil, which emanates a soothing smell when watered to mop. Its benches and chairs are made of wicker and wood. Similarly, the reed mats gone out of fashion adorn mud walls and floors.

Night sky view from Sagg Eco village as the main wooden hut in bathed in lights. KL Image: Syed Ahmad Rufai

“We prepare and sell healthy foods based on natural ingredients and traditional recipes, and handcrafted lifestyle products based on eco-friendly processes,” said Dar, who coaches individuals, groups, and organizations to achieve the desired transformation for personal development, professional enhancement and social wellbeing. “We explore the connections between beliefs, behaviours and values to understand their impact on the quality of our life and the ways we can transform them.”

Sagg also collaborates and works with individuals, groups and organizations on social entrepreneurship, participatory action research and developmental projects.

Evolution

Dar still remembers a haunting call from his father to go to school. “I was sowing rice sapling in the paddy field when my father called and compelled me to go to school. I loved to be in the mud. My heart sank as I hated monotonous classrooms, syllabus and being far away from family,” said Dar who has travelled to more than dozens of countries now.

The main cafeteria ‘Ground Zero’ at Sagg Eco village. KL Image: Syed Ahmad Rufai

Dar is now a social entrepreneur as he develops regenerative systems and coaches people and organizations for sustainable transformation. He is also trained and experienced in personality transformation, sustainable development, regenerative agriculture, business and human resources management, and conflict resolution. “For over 20 years I studied and worked in different cultural settings and varied fields – including educational, organizational and developmental practice, administration and research.”

After studying at Government Middle School, Wahidpora, Dar availed scholarship to study at Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya School. After passing his matriculation, he pursued science. However, he had no great academic interests and putting himself in a rat race of being meritorious.

After passing his higher secondary, his academics took a back seat in his priorities as he prioritized working full time and studying part-time.

In August 1995, he went to Delhi to pursue higher studies and study foreign languages. Having exhausted his father’s money, he had to fend for himself. “My first job was cleaning the clinic and assisting the homoeopathic doctor. My monthly salary was Rs 320,” he said. He juggled with diverse jobs and somehow learned to operate a computer. He changed jobs and employers till he became an assistant to the joint secretary to Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts.

A Counsellor

Somehow, Dar completed his Bachelors in Commerce from Delhi University. In 2001, he joined United States – India Educational Foundation in Delhi where he mainly counselled aspirants about procedures for admission.

“I grew from an administrative assistant to the director and resigned as projects and administrative officer in 2009,” Dar said. Simultaneously, he worked on various projects involving children and underprivileged groups. Meanwhile, he completed the MBA evening program and by 2009 he owned a flat in Delhi.

Pyend at Sagg Eco village, where people sit and interact with each other. KL Image: Syed Ahmad Rufai

“Even though I gave my best, deep down I knew this is not forever and I always wanted to listen to my calling as I had realized my limitations,” Dar said as his heart yearned to come back to Kashmir.

In 2009 he began to prepare to come back. He had never been a full-time student at university or college; he decided to pursue a course that will help him come back. He chooses a programme in Conflict Transformation and Sustainability in the USA. After spending a year he fulfilled the yearning of his heart.

The Return

Back home, Dar said he carried the baggage of childhood traumas and in the healing process; he started working on pitfalls that others especially young may go through.

“I wanted to tell people what education and schooling is. Schooling is necessarily not an education. Education is life,” he said. He started engagement with youth in order to find the like-minded.

Children at Sagg Eco village play on a trampoline in the children’s area.KL Image: Syed Ahmad Rufai

In Delhi, Dar had started an NGO Koshish (effort) with a focus on sustainable development. “In sustainable development, we underline living life or creating an institution or infrastructure that does not damage anything in social, economic, and ecological terms,” Dar said, insisting the human beings are not owners but custodians of resources for progeny. Koshish failed as he left for the US.

When he came back, he launched Mool, the root, Mool sustainability research and training centre, a charitable trust since 2012, working for sustainable socio-economic development through participatory capacity building, sustainable development, and rehabilitation in Kashmir. The ongoing work includes participatory research with youth (capacity building via participatory dialogue, fellowships, internships, volunteering opportunities), promoting sustainable practices in farming and development.

“One of our ongoing participatory research projects is the articulation of a common and shared value-based vision for our life and society,” Dar said. “It is this participatory work that paved the way for the idea of sagg to emerge. Sagg and Mool now nourish each other.”

In Mool, social sustainability entails participatory consultations and regular engagement with the community, including farmers and practitioners associated with indigenous methods, trades and skills, science and technology fraternity, and people in public service delivery to improve quality of individual and community experience of life – in areas of education, livelihood, healthcare and ecology, and explore a sustainable and integrated way of living. These interactions build shared networks and a culture of collective problem-solving.

Similarly, for economic sustainability, Mool collaborates with a sheep and vegetable farm to provide youth with the opportunity to learn skills and acquire the knowledge necessary to operate a successful small farm.

Mool also ensures ecological sustainability by using eco-friendly systemic practices. Optimum use of infrastructure, materials, and time are key values for Mool. Through these values, Mool uses and promotes zero waste systems, cost-effective earth-building designs for infrastructure, organic practices, and materials for farming such as zero pesticides and organic manure. Through the community wellbeing program, the attention of the community is drawn towards the need to create zero waste systems.

The Sagg Initiative

Dar’s interactions with youth resulted in developing land-linked initiatives to survive and sustain. “When Kashmir’s highway is closed there is a crisis as our dependence for materials especially food is aggravated,” Dar said. In order to diminish dependence Dar believes land-based initiatives are indispensable.

A mud house at Sagg Eco village. KL Image: Syed Ahmad Rufai

Dar launched Sagg eco-village in 2012 as an eco-cultural, recreational and educational farm and a camping facility. It develops and promotes regenerative lifestyles based on the integration of resources and needs.

Sagg offers creative services, spaces, products and programmes promoting healthy and re-creative lifestyles, which include educational, work, and leadership capacity building and consulting programmes for individuals, groups, and organizations,” Dar said. “The idea is to integrate traditional with the modern.”

Education and Recreation

With the aim to develop critical thinking, reflection, leadership, planning, decision-making and entrepreneurship abilities in children and youth from 5-14 years age group, Sagg organizes collaborative, educational and recreational camps for school children and youth. “We primarily focus on fear-based decision making and understand the phenomenon. And also on self-expression like organizing theatre activities, paintings, art, drama,” Dar said. The students practically understand the science from germination of seeds to blooming of flowers. They also participate in various group activities in the field and nature, which help in their cognitive and holistic development rather than being bookish and lived on an ingrained fear mental framework.

“Children besides playing in the open do various activities like playing in the mud to learn farming, cook, indulge in artistic activities,” Dar said.

A wooden hut at Sagg Eco village with mountains and clouds in the backdrop. KL Image: Syed Ahmad Rufai

Besides personal, educational and professional counselling and coaching packages, the education menu has a lot to offer like, the eco-educational tours, seminars, career planning, goal-oriented capacity building programmes, coaching capsules with personalized feedback, mental health programmes, facilitated day workshops and seminars for youth, students, teachers, parents, farmers, professionals and entrepreneurs.

“We also focus on ecological entrepreneurship training in which we build a business that also seeks to undo the damage that the commercialization of our life has done to ecology and quality of our life,” Dar said as designing a business that serves the needs of people improve quality of life and ecology are all interconnected.

Sagg also organises recreational activities like eco-therapy sessions, mud therapy, art therapy, treks, and rides.

Products

In a life flooded with adulterated eatables and products which inevitably impact the health of individuals, Sagg produces organic foods, vegetables, fruits, poultry, and meat. The un-adulterated produce is processed in the kitchen. There are a number of products that Sagg sells, like Kashmiri wuer (a traditional mix of herbs and spices), wild honey, dried apples, lotus stem, pickles, and jams. Sagg also provides a wide variety of handcrafted lifestyle products based on eco-friendly processes.

Places

In the vast, hygienic, and ventilated kitchen organic food is processed and served. The smell of brewing Kahwa, herbal and salty tea lingers, alongside the aroma of traditional food being prepared from a wide variety of natural products.

Kothas

Unlike any palatial hotel stay, for any guests desiring a calm and cosy stay in a natural setting, Sagg’s two spacious cottages with thatched roofs, mud walls, beautifully adorned in Kashmiris indigenous architecture makes a big difference.

“In Kotha, we integrate vernacular architecture with modern techniques to create a unique blend of eco-friendly dwelling experience with health benefits, modern comforts and traditional nomadic feel,” Dar said. Kotha is a traditional nomadic hut-like dwelling constructed mainly using stones, timber and mud. At Sagg, however, concrete and iron rings have been used to add strength to the structure. The walls are finished with mud plaster and the roof has wooden tiles, thatch or tin sheets.

As traditional architecture has been replaced with modern concrete and glass, the huts at Saggs like traditional old houses have natural insulation as it is warmer in winters and cooler in summers. The thick mud-plastered walls are also good sound absorbers. “The architecture of the house is integrated with our healthy living as it is mind and body-friendly – calms our senses and reduces chances of many diseases including respiratory problems, bone diseases, and allergies,” Dar explained.  Also, in the construction of the houses, we generated livelihood for locals as we used local materials and labour. It will also help in culture revival and preservation.

Besides, traditional huts, there are many raised platforms of stone and earth called Pyend surrounded by wooden poles erected to hold the roof, which can be finished with wooden tiles, thatch or tin sheets. It offers a panoramic view of the backwoods and afar city and is an impressive place to relax, reflect and work.

Till recently, the human excreta was used as manure but has been abandoned. At Sagg, the methods to decompose have evolved into Souan eco-toilet, a natural, hygienic and cost-effective way of processing human waste. “It is modified for hygiene traditional toilet, which uses a drum to store the solid waste, and can also have a urine separation facility. It is an environment-friendly sustainable sanitation system which renders human waste as a resource for agricultural purposes,” Dar said.

However, it uses replaceable and recyclable drums to accumulate solid waste. It produces safe and natural manure for agriculture purposes thus ensures a healthy food system.

Tamah Eco Club

Tamah eco-club is a multi-faceted lifestyle offering that brings to you services, spaces, products, and programmes for an integrative and regenerative lifestyle and society. “Tamah seeks to fulfil all your individual, family and community needs for recreation, rejuvenation and reflection,” Dar said as Tamah also endeavours to run public awareness and engagement campaigns on safeguarding our ecology.

In the facilities Food Forests, Sagg is growing different species of food trees like canopies, fruits and nut trees, shrubs, herbaceous, berries, and climbers.

Vision

Having started the forest farm village academy in 2020 with a mission to help 100,000 people build ecological entrepreneurship ventures by 2030, Sagg envisions an ecologically sensitive and regenerative future that is socially integrative and equitable, and economically self-sustaining.

So far, more than 8500 youth have participated in capacity-building programmes. “It is an open-source ecological entrepreneurship venture. Aspirants can come and replicate the model,” Dar said, insisting he provides consultancy services to train and equips people to become ecological entrepreneurs.

Sagg is supported and sustained by the revenue it generates from its products and services. “I need more investments and I will be turning it into a private limited company to organize it better,” Dar said as he working for its growth. Sagg charges Rs 199 to Rs 499 per adult per with no charges for girls and only up to Rs 15 for boys.

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