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FROM ‘GOD-FORSAKEN’ TO GOD-BLESSED


The story of how the Sai youth of Andhra Pradesh rescued a forgotten clan lost for centuries in the dense and dangerous woodlands of West Godavari District.

They did not cook cereals and pulses to sustain themselves; instead they filled their bellies with roots and shoots, flowers and fruits, supplemented with the fauna they hunted with their indigenously developed tools and equipments: bows and arrows, spears and shafts.

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Their instruments for survival...
Time has stood still in this hamlet

They moved deep into the jungles, traversed mountain terrains, tamed animals and built shelters made of bamboos and branches. Completely in sync with nature, they became active when the sun rose and when it was dark, lay down on leaves and twigs. They knew no light other than the Sun, no music than of the birds and the breeze, no water than what flowed in the nearby stream and no clothes other than tattered rags.

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It is in such dry and dreary jungles that they lived
...only vegetation and streams surrounded them
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Nature untouched and in Her pure form
...a perrenial unchanging view

They lived in their own world - a little patch of land cleared and smeared where they built their flimsy huts and hung on with their kids, pets and meager belongings. Their every breath was in harmony with Mother Nature.

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Their homes offered scant protection from the elements, insects and animals

These children are as innocent as they can be - they know of no toys or books, only twigs and trees

Did you think we are describing primitive man who lived in caves and forests centuries ago? What if we tell you, this is actually the scene of a hamlet just 20 kilometres away from a 21st century town swamped with TVs, mobile phones and what not. Are you shocked? Well, that was the case with the Sai Youth of Andhra Pradesh too. When they first heard of this hamlet that existed on a hill, cloistered in the middle of forests, that no man would dare plan to visit, they could not believe it could be true. But, when they finally reached the place, surmounting a multitude of challenges, of course, they were only stunned and shaken by the life of these people and their plight.

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Their hamlet of Thanegudem,
is located in the West Godavari District
 

This is the story of Thanegudem, an obscure and ‘God-forsaken’ hamlet which few knew about, let alone wanted to help. But did God really forsake them? As you read along, you will know how His love reaches to even the remotest corners through mysterious ways and brings out transformations at all levels which are unimaginable.

A Lost Tribe is Found

It all began in April 2005 when the Sevadal volunteers of the West Godavari District of Andhra Pradesh conducted a mega medical camp in the Mothugudem forest area. As they served this community and struck a chord in their hearts with their selfless love, the villagers revealed some startling facts.

“Twenty kilometers from here,” they said, “there exists a hamlet which is like an island, cut off from the rest of humanity. The tribals there do not converse with any strangers and live with bows and arrows, just like the early man on earth.”

This was interesting news for the Sai Youth. They wanted to know more. “This place, called Thanegudem, comes under the ‘Primitive Tribal Group’ categorization,” said the Tribal Project Officer present in the village.

The youth now wanted to visit this area at any cost because they knew the need for support and sustenance of the tribals, living in subhuman conditions with animals in the jungle, would be far greater than anybody else’s. Bhagavan had always emphasized on serving the needy and they were more eager than ever to undertake this journey, however Herculean it may be.

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The Sevadal team plan their service project...
...under the leadership of Sri Bhaskar Rao (right)

The settlement, which was locked inside a deep forest, was virtually inaccessible by road and one had to walk through hills and boulders, wade through waters and rivulets, and trek through undulating terrains for a minimum of 20 kms to reach this obscure place on earth. There was no water on the way to quench the thirst or boards posted to say how far one was from the destination - even to say if one was on the right track! And the Youth knew that if they did not return well before sunset the same day, there was every chance of being trapped in the dense forest for the whole night. But emboldened by their faith in the Lord and raring to serve the most neglected, they embarked on this adventure.

(The pictures featured below depict journeys to the hamlet after the Youth laid a motorable road.)

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The Sai convoy begins on smooth roads...
...which quickly turns into dirt tracks
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There are no bridges along the way
Their strength is only Sai's Grace and perseverance

Recalling their percarious maiden trip, Sri Vasudeva Rao, a volunteer of the Organisation's service corps, the sevadal, says, “The route through the dense forest, strewn with leaves and branches, was most difficult. It was almost impossible to keep track of the way. And taking one wrong direction meant getting lost in the thick jungle.”

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The landscape is desolate and hot
Risks along the way are umpteen
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Even the jeeps need assistance
Finally they arrive in Thanegudem

After four hours of trekking through the rough terrain, which tested their tenacity to the hilt, they finally reached their destination – ‘Thanegudem’. And what did they notice once they stepped in there? The inhabitants of the tiny hamlet of nine houses immediately hid behind the delicate doors of their huts! They looked confused about the ‘alien’ intrusion into their abode, an insular world, untouched by civilization or outside influence!

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This is home for these 'primitive' tribesmen

Living Precariously with Mother Nature

Only after the Sai Youth started talking to them lovingly and the tribal welfare officer, who accompanied the volunteers, explained clearly the purpose of their visit did the head of the tribe feel reassured enough to speak to them. As the conversation ensued, the Sai Youth discovered that they belonged to the ‘Kondareddy’ tribe and had been living in the forest for generations. It would be grossly fallacious to call their huts ‘shelters’ as they protected them from neither Sun nor rain, and in the night, they could, with ease, see the celestial spectacle of the stars while still remaining ‘indoors’.

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A tribal elder
Sweet children - how often had they seen a camera?

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A family at home - notice there is no proper wall .
One lady elder of the 'lost tribe'


“We are 42 people living in 9 houses in this tribe,” revealed the head of the tribe. They collected forest produce like honey, tamarind, shikakai (or soap nut), and bamboo products to carry on with their life; and whenever there was an opportunity hunted too and sought their food. It was the Stone Age living next door to the Software Age!

As the Youth began probing into their living conditions and problems, it was an agonizing experience. What struck them most was the menace of poisonous insects of the forests which have, at times, taken the life of many members of the tribe. The innocent folk knew of no healthcare. Mention to them about doctors, and they look confused, having never heard the term before.

“There is no medical facility here for any injuries, medical problems or even deliveries. They rely on a midwife who is an elderly experienced lady in their group; and there have been many infant deaths due to lack of proper medical help,” says the Tribal Project Officer.

The Tribe Had No Knowledge of Cooking!

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The tribe live simply, creating
everything they need on their own
 

The hearts of Sai Youth sank seeing the pitiable condition of these ‘children of God’ living in the lap of Mother Nature. That people in such a destitute state still existed in Andhra Pradesh and they did not know about it, let alone do something to better their living conditions, hurt them the most. “The first time we visited them, they did not have proper food and clothing, and wore only a loin cloth,” recalls Sri Ramesh, another Sevadal. “We decided to give them food and groceries, but when we gave them rice, we were shocked. They just started eating the raw grains! They had no idea what cooking is all about! It was absolutely astounding to see such people in the district of West Godavari, which is considered as one of the developed regions of the State.”

Dr. Bhaskar Rao, the District President of Sri Sathya Sai Organization, West Godavari District, says, “When we saw this area and the heart rending living conditions of its tiny populace, we felt this was a great opportunity bestowed on us by Bhagavan. He has been always instructing us to undertake sustainable development in the rural areas and we knew this is where Swami wants us to work.”

Rushing to Save an Emergency Case

Right from the time the team entered the hamlet, a nauseating stench, which seemed to pervade the whole place, made it difficult for them to breathe. When they enquired about this sickening smell, the only response from the tribals was silence. Determined to locate its source, the Youth moved in the direction of the origin of the odour, and finally when they reached the spot, the scene there made their stomachs churn. It was grotesque, to say the least.

A young boy sat helplessly in a corner of their colony, with bones exposed from below his knees, in the lower half of his legs. The worms, the puss and the infection breeding in his legs were the cause of the terrible reek.

“Due to an epileptic attack, this youngster had accidentally fallen into a fire from a tree and both his legs were afflicted with third degree burns,” said a member of the tribe on enquiry. Apparently, this had happened many months ago, but with absolutely no treatment given, his leg was now affected with gangrene at 4 or 5 places. And it was appalling to see hundreds of worms callously eating away his leg.

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It was burnt first, then eaten by worms
The sevadals, immediately, offer first aid

Immediately, the Youth sprung into action. To save this youngster, they decided, would be their first project in the hamlet. They pulled out the worms, cleaned his legs and provided first aid. And from the next day onwards, there were Youth trekking up and down the challenging 20 kms every day to nurse this young patient. “Each day I would remove hundreds of worms from his leg with the help of Sevadals,” says the medical assistant who accompanied the Sai Youth. “Now, there are no more worms and his condition is definitely improving,” he said a few weeks into this exercise. “But amputation of his limbs seemed to be the only way out to save him then,” he continued. “And once it was done, it would mean a vegetable existence for him. He would have to depend on others for the rest of his life. Therefore, we determined to try our best to save his legs.”

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The dedicated workers nurse him travelling
20 kms, up and down, everyday
Finally, the impossible happened. Skin grafting was done, thanks to His grace

With fervent prayers for the young tribal and hope in their hearts, the Sevadals continued to provide first aid for many months. And by Divine Grace, the improvement in the youngster’s condition was remarkable. In fact, it improved to such a stage that later, the Youth brought the youngster to Jangareddygudem, the nearest town, for a free skin grafting surgery. Now, the youngster, who was a sore in their group, smiles and walks like every other folk of his tribe, and does not know how to express his gratitude and joy to the Sai Volunteers. The Youth, in their hearts, were convinced beyond doubt, it was not them but Bhagavan’s love which reached out to this neglected lad and performed the incredible healing.

Providing Complete Shelter

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As they studied the plight of the tribals and understood the traumas and tragedies of their life, the Youth brainstormed and decided that the next course of action would be to provide proper shelters to these men of the jungle, which could protect them from venomous worms and toxic creatures, apart from saving them from the onslaught of the scorching sun and hard-hitting rain. They prayed to Bhagavan to guide them through the whole endeavour.

Later, once the plans were ready, they carried the proposal with them and went to the presence of Bhagavan, who was then in Brindavan, Bangalore. Swami’s response on seeing the pictures of the tribals and the idea of the project, was overwhelming, to say the least. The Lord would eagerly and inquisitively ask about the location of the forest many times during their stay and would even go to the extent of excitedly saying, “Give Me the opportunity to do this project.” For the Youth, it was yet another manifestation of the infinite and overflowing concern of the Lord for the forlorn and the forgotten. From Bhagavan, they learnt how eager and zestful they should be and march to serve with confidence and compassion.

Having secured His blessings, for the Youth, now there was now no-stopping them. They were assured that ‘Thanegudem’ will soon be transformed into ‘Tana gudem’ (His village)!

A Pathway of Selfless Service

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“This land is our mother” - the tribals
 

With right earnest they began to execute the plan for constructing the houses. But to their utter dismay, there arose another grave obstacle. The construction of houses would need bricks, cement, sand, asbestos, etc. to be dropped at this remote hamlet. But how on earth were they going to transport these materials when trekking to this hamlet itself was a Herculean ordeal?

Therefore, they decided to convince the tribals to relocate to the foot of the hill where it would be easier to build the houses. But when they went to the tribal folk with this proposal, the answer they received blew them over. It was truly an eye-opener.

“This land is our mother,” the tribal head said. “We have been living here for generations and will never give up this sacred earth at any cost. If you wish to construct houses for us, you can do so here. Otherwise, we do not need them.” Saying so, the elder man knelt down, bowed his head and reverentially kissed the ground.

It was a defining incident which demonstrated how great the values of these simple folk of the forest were, which is often missing in the ‘highly civilised’ men of the modern society.

The youth touched, by their devotion to their Motherland, decided to construct the houses in Thanegudem itself, come what may. There was no way to go about it except first laying a 20 km road to the hamlet, which could enable jeeps and lorries to reach the difficult location.

“It was such a challenge to construct the road,” recalls Dr. Bhaskar Rao. “The rains made it even more difficult. The half constructed road was washed away when it poured. But we reconstructed it and in a few days it was ready for vehicles to commute. Though it was a mud road, it enabled construction material to reach the settlement.”

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The first time trucks had ever visited the hamlet
was to help them
Slowly all the material arrived - bricks, sand, etc.
to begin the holy task

Citing one challenging instance while construction, Dr. Bhaskar Rao, says, “The cost of the fly-ash bricks was Rs. 6 each. But the transportation cost for each brick to reach the destination was Rs. 8! The impediments were immense, but the dedicated work of 25 Sevadals from Jangareddygudem and Polavaram, who visited this site daily ensured that the construction proceeded at a fast pace.”

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Laying the foundation trenches
Steadily the work proceeds
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The wall foundations are laid
Doing the work as a team - dedicated to Him
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The plots take shape
Quality frames are trucked in
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The outside walls...
...going up
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Working with the name of the Lord on their lips
Now one can see the beautiful homes' design
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The roofs and outer walls are finalised
Everybody chipped in enthusiastically
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The construction went up quickly and in a matter of weeks, stood a testimony of selfless love
"The Sai Organisation has achieved
a phenomenal task” - The Tribal Development Officer

Their First Homes - Gifts from the Lord

By His grace, in a matter of few weeks, the houses were ready and on June 7, 2007, the Gruha Pravesam (house warming) ceremony for all these families was celebrated with great joy and fervor. All the houses were painted lovingly by the Youth of West Godavari district. They also provided the tribals with provisions which would suffice for a month. In order to ensure that they have drinking water next to their homes, a bore well was dug and a hand pump was installed. Four big solar lamps would now dispel the darkness in the hamlet.

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Proud owners of their unbelievable home
In new clothes in front of their new dwelling

The Tribal Welfare Development Project Officer visited the village after this function and said, “Neither the government nor any other voluntary organization has ever attempted an activity like this in such a remote area. It is only the Sai Organization which has not just attempted but also achieved such a phenomenal task.”

Reflections on His Work

Congratulate the Youth on this commendable job and they say, “Bhagavan uses us as His instruments to accomplish such tasks. Just like He advises us to sit in a calm place after every Darshan and reflect on the uplifting experience, every Seva activity too, when contemplated upon reveals many profound insights and deepens our understanding of life and our role in His Mission.

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Nagasankeertan in the jungle
The devotees worship Sai in the village shrine

“Why does Bhagavan make us undertake such tasks in such a remote hamlet? Was it to provide better homes for the tribals or to bring about a transformation in them? Or, is it just an awakening spiritual exercise for those of us who think we have alleviated the suffering of the poor?

“These tribals had been surviving in such pitiable conditions for many generations. True, now they have houses. But who has been taking care of them for all these years? Who has protected them and stood by their side in the face of calamities? If His unseen Hand is their only succor, then what great difference have we made in their lives?

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This young family are assured of a bright future now
Three generations here - they all now Love Sai!

“Moreover, on seeing their way of life, one wonders if modern man is actually enslaved by the modern gadgets and comforts. Do we really need all this opulence to lead a happy life? Perhaps, in the pursuit of comforts, we have only multiplied our woes.”

The reflections of the Youth were as profound as their selfless seva offered to the tribals. They say, “It seems as though Bhagavan manifested Thanegudem only to broaden our perspective of life and make us realize the transient nature of the modern day comforts and fleeting pleasures. The episode of the youngster who suffered from third degree burns also taught us valuable lessons. The Lord used him as an instrument to lessen our attachment to the body which is ephemeral. In the end it is difficult to decipher who was serving whom? Did we help the youngster or did he serve us by opening our eyes to a new understanding of the Truth of life.”

Every act of the Lord, every activity inspired by Him, is infused with inner significance and subtle nuances which unravel when we think deeper and look within more closely. Swami has any number of times said that the purpose of selfless service or Seva is not to alleviate the suffering of the deprived, but more importantly to annihilate the ugly head of the ego that pops up at every available opportunity within us. And the only way to completely decimate this ego is to serve more, with greater sincerity and more selflessness. What the Andhra Sai Youth have done is truly a great demonstration of how this can be achieved.

- AP Sai Youth And
The Heart2Heart Team

 

To access all the previous issues of Sai Seva, please click here.

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Vol 5 Issue 12 - DECEMBER 2007
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