Seeing life in a dying language

Seeing life in a dying language

Tulsidaran, 14, tugs and knots his sikha, the tuft of hair behind his head, to keep it in place before he settles down with his plate and glass for the midday meal. The menu for the day is rice and sambar with mango pickle.

Tulsidaran and his classmates chant the Shanthi mantra, and perform the parisecana before eating the food. He seeks a second helping of mosaru (buttermilk). His friend Darshan mock slams the plate on his face and both double up in muffled giggles.

“They are always taunting at each other,” says G P Srinath, the kitchen warden. He points at the CCTV cameras placed at various corners of the school for security reasons. “Children’s security is very important to us,” he adds.

It is mid-April, and we are at Anandashram, one of the last Sanskrit schools to exist in the temple town of Melukote, which once boasted of hundreds of Sanskrit schools or pathshalas.

It was heavy rain last night, says Srinath. And every time it rains, the roof of this residential school leaks, forcing the boys to scamper around for a dry area to curl up and spend the night. Today, it is humid, and under the asbestos roof, we are sweating. The children lug a huge table fan, the only luxury they have, into the classroom. One of the children turns the fan towards us.

A grey scene

Padmini Prasad, principal of the school, says that if not for their desire to educate and keep a dying language alive, the school would not be functioning as they are struggling to run it. “The roof is leaking, rats ruin the wiring regularly. We don’t have enough staff as it is very difficult to retain them on low salaries and in a remote place like this. Labour is expensive, too. Without regular funding, it is difficult to run this institution,” she rues. The students are largely from poor Brahmin households in villages.

Anandashram was started in 2010 by Sri Satakopa Ramanuja Jeeyar, 81, a sanyasi originally from Mysuru but settled in Aghalaya, a small village near Melukote during the rule of Jayachamarajendra Wadiyar, in 1950. Apart from Sanskrit, the school educates Agama (Hindu scriptures) and Vedas. Considering the importance of contemporary holistic education, the school grooms students with computer and vocational training, general education and spoken English skills.

“Students are groomed to become priests or Sanskrit teachers or scholars,” says Agama teacher Balaji, who was one of the first students at the school and is continuing his higher education in Sanskrit. He says that temple priests are now paid a fair salary to maintain their living, which also persuades the younger generation to take up a priesthood path. “If the children have the aptitude, nothing stops them from pursuing medicine, engineering or any other streams when they leave the school after five or six years of study and training,” he adds.

An inspiring fact is that the school does not restrict education to Brahmins alone but to those from the non-Brahminical background, preferably the underserved sections including girls. “If the student is ready to abide by the system of education, caste or gender would not stop them from joining the school,” says Jeeyar.

The Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam has recognised Vedic education at the school and approval is given by the Endowment Department, Government of Karnataka for the schools to provide Agama education.

According to Jeeyar, Melukote was a holy place known for Sanskrit education. There were at least 150 schools run by vidwans with an average of five students pursuing gurukula system of education in each school. Over time, they closed one after the other. Children of these vidwans showed no interest in continuing the schools.

Silver lining

In its original form, the school was a rented establishment with about five to six students. Jeeyar managed everything on his own and the money to run the place came through donations he got as an attendee at various spiritual functions and gatherings. The number of students slowly increased to 20 and it became obvious that the school needed a bigger, better place and more teachers to handle the rising demand for Sanskrit education. “I got this piece of land through donors and built this school here,” he says. The school has been running through donations, largely from the business community in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, until recently. Every year, the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam donates Rs 1.5 lakh to the school. However, for the school to function smoothly, it needs about Rs 2 lakh every month.

Jeeyar says, the donors began pulling out slowly and it reached a point where he thought the school needs to be closed down. When aired his grievance through social media platforms like Facebook, a Chennai-based businessman suggested the idea of ‘crowdfunding’.

The idea worked well and the school managed to raise about Rs 30 lakh. This elated the school to better its infrastructure and pay off its loans.