On Monday May 18, I took a train from Dehradun to Delhi, then a plane to Varanasi (Banaras), where our students will spend a full month during their overseas adventure. The Ganges View Hotel is, true to its name, right next to the holy river, with guaranteed 24/7 action as I was soon to observe.
My room included a lovely -- and sweltering -- foyer. It's 7:30 on Tuesday morning now, just back from a walk along the Ganges.
Here's the early sun over the Ganges: activity has been in full swing for at least an hour as evidenced from the shouting and music and dogs barking, all happy sounds though.
A view of the rooftops from the Ganges View rooftop: can you see the man pacing his domain? I suppose I was doing the same.
Now down on the Ganges; here are a few assorted shots. As we all know, the river has long been used for a number of sacred rites, yet it is also extremely polluted, and my walk only confirmed the relative impossibility of arresting the flow of sewage, solid waste, remains of the deceased, and laundering byproducts, let alone the industrial and agricultural effuents that enter elsewhere.
The holy Ganges serves all needs…
…even for Elvis lovers.
These two young women selling flowers spoke very good English, which bodes well for their futures: English courses are advertised everywhere.
A man offered to lecture me (for free) about cremation of the departed on the shore; there was one such pyre near where we sat, with men (only) witnessing. He straightforwardly mixed the religious dimension with all the gory details about who is not allowed to be cremated (and what fate their bodies receive), what parts of the human body don't quite burn, that sort of thing -- again, there generally is no purification of realms, with all out in the open. And of course, at the end he demanded a donation! Here is the wood purchased for cremations.
This wastewater stream is heading directly into the river -- just what I'd brush my teeth next to as well.
Now I'm at Southpoint School, the Varanasi campus of the Nirman Centre (nirman.info) headed by scholar Nita Kumar, my sponsor in Varanasi, who also heads up Lewis & Clark's month-long Varanasi portion of the India program. Southpoint is where Nita puts her scholarship on postcolonial education to practice, and its antiauthoritarian, dialogic, creative engagement with youth is a marked departure from what much of Indian education has become.
Nirman also operates a school in Betwar village, southwest of Varanasi. Here's Nita along with a student and staff member.
The Betwar Village School is right next to the Ganges, the site of a ferry service and a noisy and unpopular sand-harvesting industry.
Here are some examples of the students' work from Betwar Village school…
Ecological issues are woven into the fabric of Nirman education: the village, for instance, features a set of murals on global warming and the like. Given the proximity and significance of the Ganges, water-related issues are paramount.
Art and creativity are an important part of the Nirman philosophy, though students also discuss and establish rules to guide conduct. Nita observed how creativity and expression among youth typically receive little emphasis, but so does a sense of responsibility for shared space (e.g., how to deal with one's trash), so students discuss and observe rules to guide positive behavior in their space here.
Betwar Village school has rooms for boarding and an extensive library on education, including a large set of children's books. Nirman stresses bilingualism (English/Hindi), with an emphasis on English as an important language for the youth of India to learn well. Their approach is thus a hybrid one, not so much hearkening back to a mythical tradition as much as rediscovering their heritage, setting it alongside modernity, and discussing what to embrace and what to let go of as their youth prepare for India's future.
The community of Betwar, viewed from the top of the school.
A group of youth heading to Betwar school grounds for an evening match of cricket…
…which, by Nita's decree, must include girls.
The village Hindu temple is built around this sacred tree, possibly called peepal (pipal) or religiosa indica. The temple is a place of rest and ritual, and overseen in a sort of passive way by a priest who moved in one day.
Nita conferring with a villager, who is getting ready to…
…milk his cow!
Now I'm back in Varanasi on Wednesday AM, heading toward Banaras Hindu University (BHU). Here's a typical multi-purpose establishment on Assi Ghat, which leads to the Ganges View Hotel.
Banaares Hindu University (www.bhu.ac.in) bills itself as a "holistic system of education," a "unique capital of knowledge where east meets west." Nita brought me here to meet its faculty and administrators and explore ways in which BHU can serve as a resource for our Lewis & Clark students, as well as opportunities for them to meet and interact with BHU students.
Here Nita is talking with two M.Sc. graduates in environmental science from BHU. The young woman on the right completed a thesis essentially in botany (enviro science at BNU is overseen by Botany and primarily allied with physical and life sciences, biotechnology, and engineering), whereas the other did an important study of heavy metal contamination of BNU wastewater, which when treated is applied to vegetable crops. She indeed discovered heavy metal contamination (possibly arising from untreated lab disposal), which was no surprise for those irrigating with the water: they refuse to eat their own produce.
Here's my bike rickshaw driver who took me the short distance from Ganges View Hotel to Southpoint School. These rickshaws are functional works of art, and the rickshaw drivers in great shape (minus whatever they inhale).
Some youth participants in Southpoint School, helping me pick out souvenirs to bring home. Many of their crafts are purchased directly from the makers in Varanasi, including silk weavers and curio painters.
As I left I grabbed a picture of Irfana (Nita's daughter, who has been playing a main role at Nirman since her graduation from the Univ of Chicago) and her fiancé Mirza, who is heading off soon to study public policy at Singapore University. Best wishes to them both, and to Nirman Centre as it seeks to build a new model of education.