At the Peace Hill Garden on the outskirts of Pune city in Maharashtra is a five-feet tall kesar mango sapling. The sapling, planted just beyond a bust of Kasturba Gandhi, MK Gandhi’s wife, is no ordinary kesar mango plant.

On 30 January, the anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination, the kesar mango plant was grafted with a Pakistani “chaunsa”.

The chaunsa is a mouth-wateringly sweet and juicy mango variety and its sapling was lovingly carried across the India-Pakistan border by peace activist Yogesh and his two fellow peace-walkers in Pakistan, Nitin Sonawane and Jalandharnath Channole.

The trio had spent a memorable 24 days in Pakistan in the summer of 2022.

I was fortunate to be present at the grafting ceremony.

Also present was Jayeshbhai Patel, a mentor to the peace activists, and head of the Gandhi Sabarmati Ashram north of Ahmedabad in Gujarat, once the residence of Gandhi and Kasturba.

Sonawane, an engineer-turned-peace activist, said that as they were leaving Pakistan, Irshad Ahmed of the Humanist Group presented them with a four-feet tall mango plant.

“We decided we would plant it in Pune as a ‘peace tree’,” Sonawane told Sapan News.

Rules bar the export of trees across national borders – “and this one was a whole four-feet” said Sonawane.

The Pakistani immigration authorities initially disallowed the activists from taking the tree to India.

Sonawane tried to convince them saying it was a token of love and peace from the Pakistan side. The officials were unmoved. Then a pair of eyes fell on the flute Channole always carries. One of the Pakistani officials was also a flautist.

The tense atmosphere melted into one of amity and belonging. The immigration officials agreed to let the tree through, reminding the trio that the Indian immigration officials at the Wagah border would probably confiscate it.

On the Indian side, Channole played the song Vasihnav Jan Te, one of Gandhi’s favourite hymns and the trio sang their signature Jai jagat (victory of the world) song, which the officials appreciated.

That is how the peace-walkers were able to take the mango plant from Punjab in Pakistan to India.

Yogesh with the peace pilgrims and bringing the chaunsa sapling across the Wagah border. Credit: _yogeshmathuria

“The Pakistani chaunsa is now deeply rooted in this land,” said Sonawane. Once the chaunsa-kesar tree bears fruit, he said, “we will take the mangoes to Pakistan and share it with our friends and even the Pakistani Prime Minister one day”.

The peace activists’ vision includes a plan to graft mangoes from Bangladesh this year. These mango trees will bear “the fruit of unity” with three distinct varieties in a few years.

They will be more than just a horticultural marvel- they will be a testament to aspirations for peace, unity. They will symbolise the symbiotic relationship between nature and spirituality that can help heal the troubled region.

Peace activism

The lives of the peace activists deeply inform their ambitious visions.

Sonawane was born and educated in a small town in Maharashtra. He belongs to a syncretic family of Hindus – his mother accepted Christianity, his father fasted during Ramazan, and one grandmother followed a sect of Sikhism.

The Peace Hill Garden where the kesar-chaunsa sapling was planted, set up by Yogesh, a software engineer-turned peace activist.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, Yunusbhai Shipchandler, the owner of the The Hidden Oasis wellness resort, donated an acre of land to Yogesh.

Following the shock of his wife’s passing in January 2005 due to pancreatic cancer, Yogesh on his 50th birthday Yogesh left his 30-year career in the information technology industry in the United States and to research on health and wellness and returned to Mumbai later.

Twelve years ago, Yogesh had dropped his surname and taken on the name “VishwaMitra”, or friend of the universe.

Yogesh used the donated land to build a home-ashram, RaviKusum, named after his father Ravindra and mother Kusum who moved into the premises in 2022. His father passed away here last year.

In 2022, Yogesh started the Peace Hill Garden, populating it with statues of “those who contributed for peace”, he says.

He takes inspiration from the Ahmedabad Environmental Sanitation Institute run by his mentor Jayeshbhai Patel. It was the Global Peace Pole inaugurated in 2018 at the Gandhi ashram that inspired the Peace Hill Garden.

In 2022, the busts of Mahatma Gandhi and Vinoba Bhave, both prominent advocates of nonviolence and human rights, were at the Peace Hill Garden in 2022. In late 2023 they installed a 22-feet Global Peace Pole, “one of the largest in the region”.

In January, Yogesh and his friends installed the bust of Kasturba Gandhi. They also have a statue of the Buddha and are planning to install busts of South Africa’s Nelson Mandela and civil rights revolutionary Martin Luther King Jr.

Walking the talk

Beyond the Peace Hill Garden, Yogesh said his other endeavours involve taking his message forward – on foot.

Yogesh says he is the only Indian to have walked across Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan besides South Africa, the United Arab Emirates, Iran and Armenia – an estimated 21,000 kilometres spanning eight countries without a single penny in his pocket.

Two heart attacks in 2017 halted his travelling, but he kept going and aims to keep waking till the very end, he told Sapan News.

Over the past year, he said he has been meditating for 15 minutes every day for six categories of people: army, police, farmers, politicians, bureaucrats and judiciary. “I find myself at peace,” he said, especially with elections around the corner.

Yogesh plans to go to the United States to “plant seeds of peace and positivity” in this election year.

Gandhi forgotten?

Kanshin Ikeda, a Japanese monk who was also present at the grafting ceremony, had an important reminder. Commending Yogesh’s endeavours, he said, “Indians have forgotten Gandhi but Japanese remember Gandhi.”

“Gandhi was Indian but his heart and his thoughts were non-violent,” said Ikeda, who has been travelling across the world spreading the message of peace.

Ikeda also talked of Nichidatsu Fujii, a Japanese Buddhist monk and founder of the Nipponzan-Myōhōji order, who was inspired by Gandhi.

Fujii was inspired by Nichiren Buddhism, a branch of Mahayana Buddhism based on the teachings of the 13th-century Japanese Buddhist priest Nichiren.

Arriving in Calcutta in 1931, Fujii had met Mahatma Gandhi in 1933, an experience that left a lasting impact on both. Gandhi, deeply honoured, incorporated Nichiren’s “daimoku” chant into his ashram's prayers.

This encounter laid the foundation for Fujii’s global initiative of constructing Peace Pagodas for world peace.

A place for humanity

At the Peace Garden, I also met Sister Lucy Kurien, the founder of the nonprofit Maher (meaning “maternal home”) and its president, Hirabegum Mulla.

The organisation aims to uplift communities including women, the destitute and the mentally disabled, with a presence in eight states in India.

Kurien said the Peace Hill Garden is a place for humanity. “It is needed for every nation and village,” she told Sapan News. Mulla emphasised that humanity is the basic foundation.

The mango-tree grafting ceremony ended with a home-cooked organic feast, a celebration of sustainable living and a harmonious relationship with nature.

From the Buddhist chants to the grafting experiments that brought together trees from different countries, each element contributed to the tapestry that transcends boundaries of race, colour, culture, caste and country.

“We have to decide what we want to do,” said Sonawane. “The normal trend is to work for money. I think life is beyond that.”

Whatever happened in the past is good or bad, he said, “and many times imaginary”. “We don’t want to live in the past, we want to live in the present,” he said.

“If people love stories then we should tell them about Gandhi’s story of truth, justice, equality and fight for change,” said Sonawane. “He is my inspiration.”

Based in Pune, Katherine Abraham is an author, legal journalist, and an advocate for peace and human rights who was recently awarded with the global Rex Karmaveer Silver Award. She is the Associate Editor for India Business Law Journal and an editor-at-large for Red Penguin Books, USA. She is also a research associate for the Indian parliamentarian and former UN Under-Secretary General Shashi Tharoor.