Some years ago I worked in a corporate office awash with garbled management-speak. People were given to saying things like, “We’ll come to the nitty-gritties later. Give me the 30,000-foot view.” We were incapable of having a meeting or a discussion without calling it a brainstorming session. Which produced something we called actionable items (though not much ever seemed to get done). The one thing we sought above all else was traction. All meetings and conference calls ended with the promise that another would be set up “once we have some traction” on the actionable items of this one. We sent emails to our managers saying we would revert back—it was always revert back—once we had traction on whatever it was we were supposed to be doing.
But the thing about traction was that even as we spoke about it all the time, there seemed so little of it in our physical working environment. The tables our computers rested on were made of some sort of faintly glistening brown substance that was either wood trying to be plastic or plastic trying to be wood. The brainstorming would happen on glass-topped tables with actionable items squeaked out on shiny white-boards. We sat in chairs whose casters allowed us to glide over to the next cubicle. Vast panels of glass divided spaces, presumably so people could watch and be watched, a literal manifestation of transparency that was internalised by nobody. We smiled brightly at each other and exchanged greetings but beneath the surface was petty conspiracy and circumlocutious back-biting. It was all slick, and in more ways than one.
All this comes back to me from spending a couple of days at Aura Kalari, on the outskirts of Bengaluru. And it comes back because this is a space that embodies the opposite of the slickness that pervades malls, restaurants, offices and affluent urban life in general. The place looks unpretentious, even shaggy from the outside: a large thatched roof of reed over mud walls, and behind it a lush mango tree bursting wildly out from some sort of elevated living quarters.
Aura Kalari calls itself a tree and mud homestay. Its creator is a civil engineer named Rajeev Balakrishnan, who says he bought the plot because he liked the look of the mango tree growing in it. Besides, his friend had opened a kalaripayattu school next door and Rajeev thought he could build something that visitors to the school could use to stay in. He wanted a structure that even while being in the city would challenge ideas of what it meant to live in the city. A place that would cause a person in it to reflect on the boundaries between what is natural and what is man-made. “The whole idea of this place is to break patterns,” he says.
On the next plot, there was a kuzhi-kalari being dug—the pit in which kalaripayattu is traditionally practised. Rajeev decided to use the mud to construct a house. He brought in a team of eight workers from those parts of Tamil Nadu where mud houses continue to be constructed. They put up a pyramidal scaffolding and began laying out reeds (also imported from Tamil Nadu since a nearby lake never went dry enough to supply reeds) to build the thatched roof. Mud and jaggery were mixed and the walls built up in layers, allowing a section to dry so it could take the weight of the wall above it. Rajeev made some innovations, retaining portions of the scaffolding that are usually removed, running large bamboo shafts through the wall to let in light. (Asked to make holes in the wall for light, the oldest of the builders, a man of around 80, apparently asked: “Is this engineer a madman?”)
The mud house is a large room with beds to sleep, a dining table and chairs, and an attached bathroom assembled from unpolished granite slabs. The room is unusually cool, smells faintly and pleasantly of mud, and is silent. Below the apex of the pyramid is a raised block of earth, intended to be used for meditation. In the tiny yard behind the mud house is the mango tree—of the sort that branches out close to the ground. It has a small fish pond near it. Somehow, much of the space occupied by the tree is also occupied by a house. There was no question of cutting the tree, Rajeev says, so he built a bedroom, dining hall and bathroom amid the branches of the tree.
Bengaluru is not new to taking trees into account while building houses. This is particularly true of coconut trees since, I’ve heard it said, it’s inauspicious to cut them. Perhaps it makes a difference that the lifespan of a coconut tree is around that of a human, and to the extent that the texture of human relationships arises from people being at different stages of a similarly limited lifespan, might we not ever so slightly be predisposed to forming emotional bonds with coconut trees as well? Anyway, a walk around one of the older neighbourhoods is bound to turn up a few houses where some delightfully awkward architectural allowance has been made so as not to disturb a pre-existing coconut tree. A side of a building sharply tucked in around a tree. Or balconies on multiple floors with a tree trunk passing through them. I remember visiting a house as a child where a coconut tree passed right through the middle of the hall. They had made the best of it by clamping a table top to it.
Still, a sprawling mango tree is an altogether different challenge. The Aura Kalari tree house is not a typical tree house in that it isn’t a house that rests on top a tree. Here, the house and the tree are independent entities, both just happening to occupy the same space. The structure feels like an extension of the tree in that every decision about it has had to take the tree into account. The house is built from wood, bamboo of different types—thick and hollow, thin and solid—used for different purposes, matting, and light-weight bitumen-based roof tiles. Sections of tree trunks serve as stools. The tree’s branches pass through the house everywhere, but they are unburdened by the house. The weight of the structure is communicated through bamboo beams to slender granite pillars on the periphery.
What is it like to spend time in a house like this? It’s great fun. For one, you don’t need hooks because there’s a convenient branch everywhere to throw clothes on. The house initially calls attention to itself for the cleverness of its design, for the audacity of it all. (An attached bathroom in a tree house!) But then, occupying it for a while makes one pay attention to the physical experience of moving through it. You don’t want to trip on a branch or hit your head somewhere. And this calls for a reworking of habit. I’m used to navigating living spaces in certain ways—usually briskly, with many right angles—but it’s all different here.
Take the room I slept in. Half a dozen branches enter through the floor and many more leave through the roof. A raised platform—necessary for the branches to diverge enough to provide a clearing—supports a mattress and mosquito net. Climbing on to this platform is via a convenient branch. It’s a happy way to get into bed. Once there, I reached out for my phone, flicked a finger to run through my messages, mentioned in passing to a couple of friends that I was sleeping in a tree-house. There’s no getting away from all the scrolling, all the smooth little suggestions that surround us that something somewhere might be slipping away. Strangely reassuring then to be able to extend an arm in the dark and grasp the bark of a living tree. It’s the traction, I suppose.
The Aura Kalari Tree and Mud Homestay is in Chikkagubbi village, off Hennur main road, Bengaluru (25km from the International Airport/22km from the city railway station).
The Tree House
Weekend stays, for up to eight people, cost ₹2,500 per day per person, all meals included. Groups can also do half-day visits for ₹750 per person with either lunch or dinner included. Call 9844019891 for more details, or see aurakalari.in.
What To See & Do
It’s worth quoting from the website here: “No AC rooms, no TV, no wi-fi, no swimming pool, no luxury. Nothing! Just four mud walls, a tree house and absolute silence.” The caretaker Ramesh cooks some fine, simple meals and operates a barbecue grill. Activities in the neighbourhood are archery and kalaripayattu martial arts lessons. Walks in the mango grove are soothing and ayurvedic massages can be had by prior appointment. You can get your own amenities and insect repellent. Liquor is not provided but you can carry your own. If planning late nights out, beyond 11pm, do inform the caretaker.