Despite millions being spent on women welfare and development, the knowledge and creativity of India’s
women remain unearthed and often ignored in India’s hinterland. A group of thirty people has set out to find
those creative women during SRISTI’s 31st Shodh Yatra in Wardha, Maharashtra from 5th to 12th May, 2013.
A Personal Journey Log by Marianne Esders
THE SWELLING ROAR
OF SILENT TIGERS
is a journey
for the search of knowledge,
creativity and innovation
is an attempt to reach out
to the remotest parts of the country
with a ﬁrm belief
that hardship and challenges
of natural surroundings
are the prime motivators
of creativity and innovation.
31st Shodh Yatra, Wardha, Maharashtra
Plastic bags pop up and down the river’s surface. The
flowers of puja chains float here and there between bottles,
trash and dirt. Closeby, the steps of a temple scale the
embankment and further down, some bores appease their
thirst. Quickly we approach the blue painted walls of the
Ashram on the other side of the river. We are running
I am told in the Ashram lives a lady of 85, who has spent
many years of her life walking. Walking through the states
of India to share Gandhi Ji’s thoughts. Upon arrival, we
learn that she has fallen ill. Only very few of us may visit her.
But first we are asked to sit and listen to the welcoming
words of another elderly woman. Some of us buy the
Ashram’s letters. I also give some money but do not take
the paper. I want to travel light and would not be able to
read the Indian script, which is still completely alien to me.
After a few minutes, a second elderly woman approaches,
and soon a third. Their hair is cut short and one of them
has shaved her head. Though we don’t know much about
him, we pay our tribute to the grave of the Ashram’s
founder and listen to the words of the ladies. Finally, a small
woman joins us. It seems the sight of a group of walking
shodh yatris makes her feel stronger. Some illnesses need
a cure for the soul. She shares Gandhi Ji’s message and
the Professor translates into English for me. Except for the
yatris I don’t see any men or younger people around. Is
nobody interested in Gandhi Ji’s ideas any longer?
The women are strong in their preaching. The atmosphere
reminds me of that created by the nuns in the catholic girl
school that I attended when I was younger. Something
sacred floating in the air, little flower beds here and there,
discipline, chastity and something sublime that I can’t easily
nail down in words. Maybe some form of passion soaked
with years of life.
When I get up from my knees I discover Jesus nailed on a
cross hanging above a small hindu shrine. I refrain myself
from taking a picture. It is all the same, I think and wonder
about the meaning of life. A few steps further, a naked
godess stretches out on the walls of a temple room. It is
time for us to leave and the women ask me to take the
other yatris with me to the Ashram’s gate. I smile at how
naturally they approach me to lead out the group. So
different from the patriarchal India that I have experienced
in many other places.
On the way back over the river, I hear the Professor speak
about what friendship is not. But what is friendship? He
says, it is making another person become better. I think it is
also accepting another person exactly the way he or she is
or would that be love.
A RESOLUTION FOR DAILY MEDITATION
The yatra begins with a day at Sewagram Ashram nearby Wardha and the resolution for daily meditation. Reflecting on it now, I
kind of followed this resolution, though not always by sitting in silence. For some yatris it feels as if Gandhi Ji’s spirit is still strongly
present in the Sewagram compound. I cannot sense it. But the place is quiet and calming. I leave my signature in the Visitors Book
before we slowly start our walk. Around 100 kilometres ahead.
The coming days we will walk over fields and through forests. I’ll see some Nilgai in a dried riverbed and a little lake not far off the
road will invite me to wade right into it, without hesitation and fully dressed. The water will cool my body, thoughts and sun-burnt
skin. Every day, I will walk myself stronger and at one point feel the wish to walk a million miles more. It is pure joy to be outside, far
away from the office desk, though the temperatures are unbelievably high, around 48 degree Celsius.
During the walk, I don’t speak much and try to stick mostly to those who are silent, say little or do not speak my language. For
some reason discussing about this or that gets to my nerves and is somehting that I would rather avoid than spilling out a never
ending flow of words. I don’t feel like explaining why I am in India, where I come from, what my plans are, and where I will go. To be
honest, I do not know, and time has taught me that too tightly planned paths are illusionary; there are always unforseen twists. I
just walk and see, take a right turn here, a left turn there, and sometimes, I take rest or walk a little back when I realise the path
leads to a place where I do not want to go.
THE HARDSHIPS OF LIFE
In the early morning light, a mother kneels over her archaic
brick making tools to earn the money she needs to send
her children to school. Everything worth its effort must
emerge from the hardships of life. But must it be this hard?
Why do the brick makers we meet on our journey not use
more advanced machinery?
The dusty air and muddy clay have turned the woman’s
clothes and hands into the same colour as the earth under
her muddy feet. Her face is veiled, her eyes wide awake. I
come closer to see what is going on but only understand
fractions since my Hindi is still very bad. Later someone
tells me that her daughter studies at medical college.
The woman is not shy. She is on Facebook, she says, and
the Professor is thrilled. I wonder why she would not be,
mobile technology is everywhere. What does she think
about 30 shodh yatris walking by? What do I think about 30
shodh yatris walking by? I take a picture of her with son. He
spends his summer holidays working with his mother. I think
about the project for the elimination of child labour1 that we
carry out at SRISTI. But before I am able to ask questions,
the group has started walking again.
One thing I told myself before going on this walk was not to
fall behind. Nothing makes it harder to keep the spirits high
than falling behind a group that marches ahead. In the early
morning hours the heat is still bearable but throughout the
day the sun will turn into a burning fireball, the asphalt will eat
the bottom of my shoes.
1 Woman working at a brick making site in Wardha, Maharashtra
2 Time for a little rest and chat with those who labour hard every day
My shoes have served me well in the
two preceding shodh yatras. Probably
this time they will fall apart. I know that
the heat of Wardha will get to my brain,
drain more water out of my body than one
can take in. But so far, acidity has not set in
and I am doing my best to prevent it. Wardha is the
region in India where many farmers have committed
suicide to bring their families out of debt. In the morning
light it looks peaceful and like any other part of the country.
Some water buffaloes pass by in a stoic trot.
After two days we find our rhythm, start early and
take rest when the midst of the day brings too much
heat. Before noon, we hold three village meetings,
after noon another three or four. I am almost never
hungry. The food is cooked very spicy and it is just too
hot for me to eat much.
Sleeping outside is better than under a roof. With so
many stars, I quickly fall asleep in the cooling night air.
When waking up on the second morning, I feel all my
muscles and bones. The third day, I feel my sunburnt
shoulder and my left hip. The fourth day, I feel no more
pain. The fear that I won’t make it declines with every
step and I become more confident in the belief that I
can do it, that my body can take it, the walk, the food,
unfiltered water, and the incredible heat. No need to
sit in a car or to visit a doctor as I had to in the
preceding shodh yatras. With every passing day, I walk
better in the heat of Maharashtra.Walking over dry fields in Wardha, Maharashtra
31st Shodh Yatra, Wardha, Maharashtra
PAINTED COTTON FLOWERS
Dusk is approaching when we reach Khairi. It is situated
on a hill and its entrance is framed by a beautiful tree. I
wished we could spend the entire night under this tree. We
stay some time with the villagers and visit the house of a
deaf and mute girl. She has decorated her room with dried
and colourfully painted cotton flowers. The girl’s eyes and
smile are warm and welcoming and I realise that her
expressive way of communication makes it easier for me to
understand her signs than the foreign languages that
surround me every day.
Besides the girl’s efforts to bring beauty to her room, we
have not come across many signs of creativity in the region.
Her door steps are ornated with bangles. Nitin calls them
half-broken and the professor rebukes him for his choice of
words. Women don’t like the word broken - they are
partitioned bangles, he points out.
After visiting her house, we sally quickly. Though it is dark by
now, we have one more village to reach. The path
meanders downhill. We are at the edge of a wildlife
reservoir. It is the first time the yatris start speaking about
tigers. We try to stay close together and torches come in
This night we spend in the huge schoolyard of Saldhara.
While the men wash off the walk’s heat at the yard’s water
tap, the villagers listen to our nightly presentation. As a
woman, I have to find some hoarding at the far end of the
school building behind which I can hide in the dark to wash
my face and feet. Right now I would not mind taking a bath in
the open as the men do. But I should not forget that I am in
India and I do not want to cause a riot.
I do not like this schoolyard. Maybe it is better than the
crossroad on which we spent the other night where those
sleeping at the outer edges were scared to lose their lives
to cars rolling over their heads – a fence of white plastic
chairs could only serve as slight protection. But tonight’s
schoolyard is situated a little far off the village and I feel it
could be any schoolyard anywhere in the world.
How will we learn more about the people of this region if we
stay outside their village? Should we not meet, eat and sleep
closer to their homes? Throughout the shodh yatra we
enter many schools, some of them lifeless, others beautifully
decorated, but how many visits do we pay to the people
living here, how many houses do we see from inside? How
close do we really get to the people’s lives, worries and
Jahangir Shaikh is the hero of our yatra and a “hit” with all
villagers. In Belgav he shows his modified scooter which was
featured in the Bollywood movie “Three Idiots” to the local kids.
The following morning I start a hungry walk. I have grown
sick of the waste we leave behind. We make use of plastic
cups and plates layered with aluminium foil though we have
brought our own reusable cups and plates. I am sick of
throwing waste into nature. But my plate is somewhere in
my bag under many other bags at the bottom of the truck.
I remain hungry.
Some village meetings take place without women, though
we have called them for recipe competitions. It is not
always easy to convince the women to join and many times,
they remain in their houses. But in Parsodi, the presence of
women is overwhelmingly strong. The Panchayat is a
woman herself and has mobilised the others from five
surrounding villages. I wished this would happen more
often. They have cooked a vast variety of dishes from local
plants and traditional recipes. This time, we taste a lot,
learn a lot more and have many awards to give
During this yatra only few of us think about reusing their
own plates and cups and many just throw the trash into
the fields without thinking twice. Wind blows the foil into all
directions. I think about how it soon will affect the cattle
and birds. It takes more than double our lifetime until a
piece of plastic is decomposed. Burning it does not make it
“How long have you been that green”, one yatri asks. “I am
not that green”, I respond, “just, I was raised not to throw
trash into nature.” One of the boys asks the locals for a
bag and silently collects what the others have dropped
carelessly. Nobody thanks him for it. But I see in his face
that he feels better about himself.
1 Local dish winning the 1st Prize in a recipe competition
2 Women presenting their dish varieties made from local
31st Shodh Yatra, Wardha, Maharashtra
out to the women. In another village, however, I cannot
find a single girl child. Neither at the meeting nor while
walking through the streets. I remember a village girl
speaking up on the second day of our walk in Belgav. She
wanted girl child abortions to be persecuted. After her
speech, a boy got up and added that girls should be
allowed to sit on the back of a boy’s bicycle without being
teased by others. Another boy told us that he would like
to see a system in place that prevents parents from
taking away their children’s scholarships without having
On another day, two people from France join us for a few
hours. The sun burns their skin and before I find out why
they have come, they have already left and taken two yatris
with them. Sometimes people decide to drop by for a while
or to drop out. Maybe they could not bear the heat.
In almost every village, children welcome us with
overwhelming smiles, curiosity and creative ideas. They
always have questions, many times too difficult for us to
to consult them first. We award these kids for their
outspoken sense of fairness. Maybe the future generation
has already internalised what many others are still
struggling to understand.
In Khervada, we are received with tribal music. Villagers
play goat drums and flutes and the sounds animate a local
boy to perform a dance for us. After lunch, we visit a
cheerful centenarian. She is almost deaf but her mind is
sharp and humorous. In Parsodi, we find a living knowledge
register, a healer who has extensive knowledge about the
local plants. And then, unexpectedly, a man approaches us
holding a pamphlet of the Honey Bee Network in his hands
that he had collected nine years before our visit. He says, he
always wanted to come to Ahmedabad but never made the
long journey. We are touched and happy to meet him.
Kinhala reveals a beautiful but neglected villa speaking of
times that were more prosperous. Along with a few others,
I am invited to enter and in the dusty attic, the professor
finds a few tattered looking diaries containing poetry and
scribbled philosophical reflections. It feels as if we have
found a real treasure. The attic’s doors hold beautifully
stained glass engraved with flowers. Many of the windows
have already shattered and instead potatoe bags flutter in
the warm desert wind. But some of the colours have
remained to rejoice our hearts.
FAIRY TALES AND TIGERS
What worth is the taste of water without a desert on the
tongue. A white jungle tree embracing a dark door to
unknown lands – fairy tales in my mind – the next moment,
I think of tigers spurting downhill, catching one of us out of
the steep path that we have to take, without escape. We
are laughing at the thought of it. I take a picture. Someone
takes a picture of me taking a picture. “Hurry, hurry, dusk
brings bears, bores and tigers!” On top of the hill heavy
breaths, I take a sip and share my water, a little for
everyone except for the last who might have needed it
most. I do not ask. I only wonder. It seems, nobody else
notices it. Another white tree in the midst of darkness. I
take a picture and wonder what will I do with it. I don’t even
know what kind of tree it is. But it is beautiful. The curly
roots spread through the ground, now and then revealing
their white skin. Trees without leaves, the ground covered
with mazes in decay. I pick up one of the giant leaves and
am stunned by the size and beauty of it. Do we ever take
time to notice. “Hurry, hurry, we have to hurry!” I throw it
back to the ground and speed up my steps.
Are the people I walk with different from those I have
walked with before? Some of them I have met on the earlier
two walks. In the morning hours, something strange had
happened. I had pushed myself into a state of horror by the
sight of a tormented cow surrounded by eighty creatures
that were barely skin and bones. I could not swallow my
food and shared with one of them, a very skinny one,
roaming around, trying to eat my shirt. I realised I would not
hesitate to kill the half dead cow for the sake of relieving it.
Holy cow, left on the street dying in gleaming heat because
of a fractured bone. This is customary, I was told.
Unquestionable? Isn’t this only a more sadist way of
killing without taking responsibility? Some people that we
have met on our way have thanked us for coming into this
neglected, drought prone area. Others have watched us with
sceptical eyes. But then, how far does our responsibility go,
towards the people, animals and spirits that we visit? I think
31st Shodh Yatra, Wardha, Maharashtra
of the cowshed that we saw at Sewagram Ashram a few
days back. Maltiben had given each cow a name and each
animal listened to its name when it was called by it. I shed
a tear and walk away in sadness and anger. Should I have
stayed to sit next to the animal watching it die?
“Are you still thinking of it?”, asks someone a kilometre
later. Yes. And I am going to dream of it. Because it places
me before a huge wall of puzzles that I cannot easily solve.
“Well, we tried to help, heave it into the shade of a large
tree. Isn’t that enough, did we not do our duty, it seems I
am still on the insensitive side.” I did not know there were
sides when it comes to compassion. But I am here to
discover. Even the different sides of pity. Three monkeys sit
on my shoulder, I lower my head and for the time being
decide to consort with the group of silent tigers watching
us from the forest.
In the evening, during a discussion round, I cannot hold
back and express my feelings, in tears. Momentarily, I
wonder whether I am insane to cry in front of the entire
group, but then, it is my true feeling about how we shodh
yatris did just walk away from a tormented animal.
The night we spend in a fenced schoolyard. Biting bugs
wake me from time to time. At one point I find myself at
the edge of the group. The others must have shifted their
sleeping places further to the middle. But they left their
sleeping mats behind. Confused I sit up to observe my
surroundings and see the light of a torch flying over the
path downhill to the village well. Two nightly shades move on
the giant water tank. What are they doing up there? I am so
tired, I fall asleep again. Around three, the village dogs start
barking firercly. Maybe a tiger is close. How to fight a tiger
with bare hands? The schoolyard light is burning. The bugs
are still biting. I wonder why I am not really scared before I
already fall back asleep. With early dawn, I leave for the
train station to catch the train back to Ahmedabad. I have
to leave early. Just before those staying behind hear the
roaring tiger. Too bad I missed it.
Back in Ahmedabad, I come to know that a decision was
made. A traditional healer was found. Maltiben, the herder
of the Sewagram Ashram met the herder of all those less
fortunate cows for each other’s consultation. And maybe
even the truck that carried innovative farming utilities from
village to village alongside our walk was utilised to transport
the dying cow away from certain death in the biting sun. At
this point of time, I do not dare to ask further questions.
What do I take away from this shodh yatra. Not the sight of
beautiful landscape and people I experienced in Manipur.
Not the fascination I carried away from Madra Pradesh,
when I had just arrived in India and everything was new.
Maybe this time I have grown stonger, physically, mentally.
There is still a lot to reflect on. Maybe I learnt that our
prejudices influence the questions we ask and the answers
that we seek, as Anil Gupta wrote in a paper in 1988.
Maybe there are too few women participating in shodh
yatras to actually come closer to the life and creativity of
village women and girls in India. But there is always hope.
Marianne Esders, May 2013
All my gratitude and love goes to SRISTI, NIF, the
Honey Bee Network and its members, my most
wonderful colleagues, who have become my
brothers, sisters, advisers, and invaluable helpers
in many situations during the three Shodh Yatras
that I was allowed to join and throughout my first
year in India. Thanks to them, I survived drinking
ground water from village wells and many other
stressful situations. Maybe I have become a little
bit more Indian throughout the process. For sure, I
have grown much stronger and for sure I have
found some very good friends.