I ask one grey haired man sitting on one of those wooden plank benches in a tea shop if he knows where Laxmi Ashram is. His needle beard and hollow eyes make him look sad about his life. With inquisitive glances, he directs me towards Gandhi Ashram, where father of India, Mahatma Gandhi spent a few days here in Kausani and penned down the notable Anashakti Yoga (The Gospel of Selfless Action), a commentary on Bhagvad Gita. Like what happened when history is commodified by opening to commercial tourism, Anashakti Ashram, akka Gandhi Ashram, is also crammed with tourist vehicles and decked-up passengers who are out for sightseeing. I inform him I am not looking for Gandhi’s museum but a school where girls live, study and reflect. He looks at me arrogantly and dismisses me saying no such school exists in Kausani. However, I am determined about my search and destination - I am looking for the school that gives birth to free-spirited independent girls.
Without being discouraged, as I move a little ahead from the chow of Kausani, I find three young girls on their way to collect fuel and asked them about Laxmi Ashram. Their faces gleam with wide and innocent laughs amongst themselves. They look at each other and one of them points her index finger towards the top of a mountain on the right and says it is located up there inside a jungle. Seeing my bike, the girl informs me no bike or vehicle goes up to the ashram. You have to park your bike on the road and then climb the stairs and it takes 15 minutes to reach the ashram, apparently. I bless them with many more smiles and set off on my trek for the ashram. The stone-paved wide stairs, like those I find in forts, traverse through between houses and suddenly end in dense woods. The hike continues along the clear marked path with forests on either side till a place where a board welcomes me to Laxmi Ashram and directs me to go right for the main office. After taking right and climbing up for a few minutes I hear joyful clamour of girls. Almost half an hour of breathlessness after, young and happy eyes beaming in curiosity greet me with open arms.
I ask their names. Payel, Kusum, Diksha, Manju, Neha, Janvi and Kavita. Without any hesitance, they promptly ask mine. Payel and Kusum immediately run off to call their Neema didi. Perhaps they get regular visitors and hence are familiar with processes for visitors.
Neema Vaishanava, or Neema didi, as the girls fondly call her, is the secretary of Laxmi Ashram, quietly nestled amidst the jungle in the lap of Himalayas in Kausani in India. The bespectacled lady has a warm and welcoming voice. I tell her I have come to know the story of Laxmi Ashram and her girls. Neema hands me over a cup of steaming hot tulsi-tea. They do not drink usual tea/coffee and instead drink tulsi-tea, which drives away many diseases including throat and lung infections and helps build immunity. Lakshmi Ashram is home to forty-seven girls, aged from seven to twenty, who study, play, cook, spin, weave, plant, exercise, wash and do everything else that is required in order to be self-sufficient. A disciple of Mahatma Gandhi, an English woman named Catherine Mary Heilman, came to be known as Sarla Behn later on, set up this alternative school in 1946 with six local girls, all daughters of freedom fighters, with a vision to empower rural women. Neema details the ashram not only provides formal education like all schools, but also offers a sustainable and reliant lifestyle that equips a girl with all necessary skills towards making her a dignified, independent and an empowered woman. At the ashram, the girls are taught on the holistic ideals of Basic Education or Nai Taleem, as developed and conceptualised by Mahatma Gandhi.
By the term Nai Taleem, Gandhi meant knowledge and work are not separate but intertwined to form education, that is lifelong, holistic and social. Mahatma Gandhi anticipated problems of industrialisation and over urbanisation along with a contempt of manual work dominated by individual career-based aspirations. Gandhi’s model of education speaks of handicrafts as the sole process of exchanging education through spinning, weaving, leatherwork, pottery, metal-work, basket-making and book-binding along with with sowing, harvesting, looking after cattle as opposed to text-based knowledge imparted in traditional schools.
I want to meet those free-spirited chattering girls and make them my friends. We don’t we pour our hearts out to each other? Children don’t take time to become friends. I was only uncertain about myself. Payel, Kusum, Diksha, Manju, Neha, Janvi and Kavita meet me on the ground. Three of them wearing dresses of same orange flower print. I assume they probably tailor their own clothes from the bulk print fabric. They have a steady list of questions for me. Are there mountains in Kolkata (my hometown)? How can you live with no mountains around you? Are there forests and rivers in Kolkata? Do I have a boyfriend or am I married? What’s his name? Do I have siblings? Do I earn money - how much? What do I do with the money that I earn? The questions keep coming to me one after another. Holding my patience, I respond to them. This is the only way to become the confidante of young ladies whose lives are full of colours with cattle, teachers, friends, sowing vegetables, languages and a busy schedule and are far and away from pangs of urbanisation and fruits of modernisation. Now it was my chance to turn the questions. How do they spend their days in the ashram? All of them begin speaking together.
A typical day in their lives begins at 4.30 in the morning when they wake up and take bath to start a meaningful day. Kausani is cold during winters and gets snow regularly for two months. A session of prayer begins at six followed by yoga and exercise and it’s time for breakfast at half past seven. The morning is spent by gathering firewood from nearby forests, spinning and weaving own clothes, looking after cows, cooking rice and lentils and making rotis (Indian breads). They also sow seeds and grow vegetables with their teachers in the six-acre agricultural land that the ashram owns. The girls eat their lunch by noon and then it’s time to study. For the next three hours, the girls learn about languages, science, history, geography, environment and art in big classrooms that turn into dormitories for students and teachers by night. As the sun sinks, the girls are out of their classrooms to play for two hours followed by evening prayers after which they talk and discuss at milan about how their day was spent before all students and teachers. Speaking in front sixty people takes a lot of courage but it makes them confident and assertive at a young age. Dinner takes place around eight in the evening and post dinner it’s self-study time for girls till ten o clock when they gradually fall off to sleep.
What do the girls do after completing their education at the ashram? Neema tells me the girls go out of the ashram to pursue higher studies and become teachers and professors. Many of them come back to the ashram and work as teachers too. Names of some of India’s prominent women reformers and grass root workers like Radha Bhatt and Vimla Bahuguna figure in the Lakshmi Ashram’s alumni list. The ashram is funded by ‘The Association of Laxmi Ashram’ an organisation, located thousand miles away in Denmark, that supports girls and the ashram financially and also sends volunteers and researchers to work with the girls. Without any affiliation from the government or any organising body and without providing any certification document to its students, this alternative school for more than sixty decades has been transforming ordinary shy timid ‘Kumaoni’ girls to self-sufficient, articulate, independent and empowered women who go on to make progressive social changes in towns and villages of India.
Take for example, Krishna Bisht, a 58-year old lady, was brought to Laxmi Ashram by her father when she was just eight year old. She grew up under the strict discipline and guidance of Sarla Behn along with ten other girl friends. Krishna tells me during winter vacation she did not want to go home and missed her friends. She spent seven years in the ashram and those years went a long way in reshaping her thoughts and perspectives towards society and humanity. Due to manual work that she did in her foundation years, Krishna manages all her personal work on her own without relying on any one even at this age. The girls were introduced to different disciplines including Ayurveda, naturopathy that helped in creating interests and opening their minds to ways of the world. Krishna Bisht is now the general secretary of Mahila Haat that works for empowerment of underprivileged women in remote mountains through facilitating women artisans, strengthening women in panchayats, promoting organic farming and developing skills of young girls. Probably the seed of being a pillar to needy women that was sown during Laxmi Ashram in Krishna’s character encouraged her in lending a helping hand to millions of underprivileged women through Mahila Haat.
Sixty-two year old Professor Diwa Bhatt is another admirable fruit of this institution. Diwa went to study and live in the ashram as a six year old child and after ten long years she graduated from the ashram and went out to pursue higher studies and do her PhD in Hindi language and literature. She tells me Laxmi Ashram opened her puerile eyes to a broad spectrum of authentic knowledge, through visiting villages and living lives of diligent villagers, talking to volunteer foreigners on sciences, learning about and experimenting on geography of their landscape, and understanding environment and its delicateness, which eventually bridged the gap between textbook knowledge and education of real life. Diwa feels proud of the fact she is a yield of Laxmi Ashram that taught her at a tender age all religions, castes, creed, races are equal and self-reliance to the key to success and happiness.
Another precedent of this finer education model is Radha Bhatt, popularly known as Radha Didi or Radha Behn, an eighty-year old mature beauty, a Gandhian who has been a pioneer in a whole range of movements, anti-alchohol campaigns in Uttarakhand, the Sarvodaya movement, ‘Save the rivers’ and the Chipko movement in India. For her exemplary contribution to women empowerment and child welfare, Radha Bhatt was honoured with Jamnalal Bajaj Award in 1991 and presently serves as the chairperson of Gandhi Peace Foundation that supports study and research on teaching and practice of Mahatma Gandhi in order to maintain peaceful and harmonious social relations with everyone. She joined Sarla Behn at Laxmi Ashram at the age of 17 as a student and then went on to become a teacher and administrator and for more than sixty years till date Radha has been unrelentingly guiding and supporting the ashram with diligence and inspiration.
While sharing happiness and joys of children of Laxmi Ashram, Neema doesn’t shy away from talking about the challenges that girls face today. With developed countries sending soldiers to war and terrorism mutilating individuals, Gandhi’s principles of non-violence are being threatened. Lakshmi Ashram’s style of holistic education also faces several challenges, thanks to uninterrupted interference of technology and lack of will of being closer to agriculture and own roots. I observe funding and finding self-motivated and dedicated teachers for Laxmi Ashram are also important challenges that the ashram faces. Anupam Agarwal, assistant professor of business administration at College of Business at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is a benefactor, consultant, and well wisher of Laxmi Ashram. In an email conversation, Anupam speaks of difficulties existing in nature of this education model. Since the Ashram is built on self-sustained model, many a time students face hardships. Solar panels were installed for water heating only last year. Till then, everyone had to take bath with cold water, or a large amount of wood was used to heat water. Anupam admits this problem is partly because of funding and partly because of the nature of self-reliant education model. Another gripping difficulty that Laxmi Ashram faces is increasing thoughts of employment and individual success among the girls instead of social service, thanks to the influence of rest of the world, Neema points out. Perhaps the ashram needs inspiring and self-motivated Gandhians like Radha Behn in more numbers to instil the spirit of freethinking, free-speaking and free will among the girls to help them create a self-reliant balanced personality.
Nevertheless with existing challenges, alternative modes of basic and holistic education like Nai Taleem are robust and hence can be sustainable. I wonder if this education model can be replicated in elsewhere in this country. A few education centres practising Nai Taleem are already working in some parts of India. But their number is only a few. However, with more and more people in this world are disdaining manual work and hiring workers and maids to do their personal work, optimum development and coordination of mind, body and heart is hold back leading to almost non-existent balanced personalities in the world and creation of wide gaps between rich and poor and hence such alternative education model becomes the urgent need. Anupam also accords that, as we progress, and as internet provides access to knowledge, such centers of holistic education may actually become more sustainable. This is because such centers may provide an outlet to kids who have different abilities or interests, to develop those abilities and interests. This would be in contrast to the “modern” education which really is a remnant of the age-old British educatiuon system, and wherein every student goes through the same rote-learning routine. Thus, as individuals seek different career paths, and therefore seek different schools where such career paths may be developed, such different schools may flourish.
Payel, Kusum, Diksha, Manju, Neha, Janvi and Kavita eye dreams of becoming doctors, teachers and nurses. Some of them come from as far as Benaras, while some are from nearby villages. Most of them have parents and siblings at home, but they love staying here with their girl friends. “The best part about staying at the ashram is I get to celebrate all festivals, be it Christmas, Holi or Diwali with my friends”, said Kusum, while Diksha loves playing and spending time with her friends. When asked why they want to become doctors and nurses, nine-year Janvi remarked, “I want to help cure patients who suffer from different diseases and be a support to the people of the society.”
I take my leave from the ashram. Let the girls be blessed always.