Kerala: Mitraniketan in Vellanad
Monday, March 2 – Tuesday, March 9
After flying into Trivandrum’s airport trom Jaipur we were met by a nice guy from Mitraniketan (Mi-tra-knee-kee-ton). He ushered us into the Ambassador vehicle, a car synonymous with India. Manufactured by the Indian company, Hindustan Motors, since 1958, this car was styled on the British Morris series and was called “the king of the Indian roads” but the company was shut down in 2014 due to bankruptcy. In spite of it being a hot and humid night, it was a pleasant ride especially as we neared our destination in the small village of Vellanad, an hour NE of the airport.
We were returning to the campus we had visited briefly at the beginning of our trip with Noel and Diana. Wanting to volunteer somewhere while in India, Noel arranged for the three of us to do so at the NGO, Mitraniketan. Diana would be helping them with a revised web site while Max and I would be working on development and marketing plans for a U.S. Friends of Mitraniketan organization soon to be started by Noel.
Not feeling too well from Jaipur and it being late, we opted out of dinner and and quickly dropped off to sleep at the visitors’ dorm.
The next morning we rose and headed to breakfast where we met another volunteer, Marcel, who was working as an intern for a college semester.
Hailing from a small town in New Mexico, this young man was teaching English to the youth attending the Vikas Bhavan High School (although called high school it actually begins at first grade and ends at tenth).
We visited his class one day and discovered just how difficult it is to teach a language to a classroom of energetic kids without knowing theirs.
Our friend Carol W. will soon be doing the same in Nepal only she does have a teaching background and has taken an ESL course to prep for it.
My hat and Max’s sunglasses soon became photo props…
We also witnessed the closeness. It was these times when we realized that these young children left everything familiar to them to attend this school.
With an average of 250 students, the majority of these young kids (at the tender age of five) begin as boarders from the tribal District of Wayanad, 600 km north, and graduate at age 15 (grade 10) where they then can join mainstream schools. Headmistress Sethu Viswanathan, the founder’s wife, leads a staff of 20 teachers and 5 craft instructors. We enjoyed her company at meals served in her home by one of her three daughters who was an artist and had taught batik (something I’d love to learn).
Since our volunteerism didn’t include any structured activities, Max and I were there to interview the leaders and participants for the purpose of obtaining as much knowledge as possible about this respected NGO. Our meeting with Reghu and Sabith would be later in the morning so we proceeded to wander around and poke our heads into various activities, including a stop at the Creche and nursery school. Here we were quickly and lovingly surrounded by an inquisitive and bright-eyed flock of tots. And, I so wished I had my polar bear puppet from the Y!
As the founder’s philosophy stated, these children are embraced by a community that teaches them the power of being self-sufficient and contributing to others’ well-being. This included such mundane tasks as doing one’s laundry (starting at age ten), and we saw many clothes line hung around the boys’ and girls’ hostels as proof.
They definitely enjoyed being part of the action.
When there in February our three-hour tour enabled us to meet briefly with the co-director Reghu, head of the People’s College, a school teaching practical skills, leadership development and personal empowerment to those individuals 18 years of age and older. We had been impressed by his dedication (and the work load) then, and, after discussing more with him and his associate, Sabith, we were in awe of not only the scope of their work but also their accomplishments.
Prior to visiting Mitraniketan I had mistakenly thought of this organization as a school for disadvantaged tribal kids. After being there I realized the multi-faceted programs this NGO offered and quickly expanded my perception. When asked what exactly is Mitraniketan, Reghu aptly described it as a rural community development center. Founded in 1956 by Vellanad native, Sri K. Viswanathan (1928-2014), this secular, non-profit organization thrives on a 60-acre campus comprised of over 400 members including teachers, students, farmers, and volunteers.
Viswanathan and now his successors follow principles and practices drawn from Mahatma Gandhi (humanity is the real educator), Rabindranath Tagore (the Upanishad philosophy of abolishing ignorance through a teacher sharing knowledge with a group of students, some say similar to Plato’s line of thinking but, please, you can read more to get a much better understanding than what I’ve tried to describe here), Gurukula System of Education (development of mind, body, and soul to create a healthy and mindful individual with community spirit), and the Danish Folk High School (a public school alternative to university elites, based on informal, open dialogue between teachers and students).
From these guiding lights Viswanathan stated “Progress of society through the total development of individuals is the avowed mission of Mitraniketan. This ‘Abode of Friends’ has evolved over the years with rural development at its core.” And, the best part is his experiment is working.
Having studied in the U.S., the U.K., Scandinavia and India, Viswanathan was influenced by Arthur Morgan (1878-1975), a social philosopher, civil engineer, educator, and public servant, who believed in a holistic approach to education–study, work, and community involvement. Mitraniketan (“abode of friends”) took root in Viswanathan’s home village on family land, and the campus evolved into not only a boarding high school and a community college but also an agricultural science center (Krishi Vigyan Kendra), where we met a class learning better ways to irrigate,
a rural technology center (RtC),
a women’s empowerment center, and a production training center.
During our stay we visited all of the areas with the exception of the women’s empowerment center, which occurs at select times during the year.
As I had mentioned earlier, the scope of Mitraniketan’s programs is a surprise, especially since both Max and I thought of it as a singular school. The campus spreads over a verdant and serene landscape, one populated with open-air classrooms and red brick buildings springing out of lush vegetation and rich earth.
And, everywhere we walked we were greeted politely with smiles and, from the kids learning English, ‘how are you? what is your name?’. We felt like honored guests, ones who had wandered into another world where children grew into thoughtful adults.
During our discussion with Reghu and Sabith we heard about some of the specific programs geared towards building self-sufficiency and empowerment. One was a women’s group where a savings fund created a micro-lending program and some of the agricultural research performed at the farming center taught better irrigation methods.
Our conversations with these two along with the brochure created by Sabith served as excellent background for both Max’s and my projects.
After a formal tour with a young woman who had showed us around in February, Max and I walked back to the Rural Technology Center. Here we were enthusiastically hosted by entrepreneurs who had fashioned several machines, such as one for digging the deep holes required for banana planting and another for more easily husking a coconut.
and jute weaving were other industries taught at these buildings along with water conservation.
I don’t know which impressed us more–the products or the creators. It was a fitting end to our wanderings.
After two days we decided to find a hotel in Trivandrum where we could use the Internet and a computer to start our plans. We landed at the Hyacinth where we were hosted by the nicest hotel staff we’ve ever encountered. At one point, after receiving complimentary cookies and fruit in our room, we thought they must think we’re writing a travel article (I was often at the business center working on a draft plan).
I’ve never stayed at a hotel where everyone, from the doormen to the cleaners to the waiters to the front desk, seemed genuinely welcoming.
Once again we felt spoiled causing Max to revert to a familiar pose as we wandered around the hotel’s premises.
Our time in Trivandrum coincided with one of the most famous festivals in Kerala, the Attukal Pongala. To quote a Trivandrum (or Thiruvananthapuram website)
“Attukal Pongala is celebrated late February/early March, every year, at Attukal Bhagavati Temple. It is a ten-day festival. On the 9th day, thousands of women devotees from many parts of the state gather in the vicinities of the temple to prepare pongala, a favourite offering to the goddess. Pongala (literally means to boil over) is a ritualistic offering of a sweet dish consisting of rice porridge, sweet brown molasses, coconut gratings, nuts and raisins. The uniqueness of the festival is that only women are allowed to do the offerings on that day.
Devotees offer pongala to appease the presiding deity of the temple – the Goddess – popularly known as Attukalamma. Right from the night before the Pongala day, thousands of women, regardless of religious faith, assemble at the temple premises and on either side of the roads leading to the shrine, to make the Pongala offering. Devotees from across the country and even from abroad participate in the ritual.”
We had arrived the day before the ninth day, so the next morning we strolled out the hotel to walk amidst the preparations and then the cooking for this goddess. We didn’t see any other foreigners and were, once again, thrilled to be embraced and welcomed by everyone celebrating this time-honored tradition.
The women of Kerala have set a Guinness Book of World Records as the single largest gathering of women for a religious activity; and, the smoke burning our eyes was proof it was an extremely large celebration.
Another day we visited the royal palace of the local rulers and the nearby landmark, the Shri Padmanabhaswamy Temple.
As non-hindus we couldn’t enter the temple but we had heard the story of a royal treasury found in 2011 worth $22 billion (yes, billion) dollars of gold jewelry, utensils, weapons and coins. We heard more about this mysterious treasure when we met a journalist, Renu Malhorta, editor-in-chief of the Afro Asian Business Chronicle, staying at our hotel. To say she was a live wire is understating her exuberance. Growing up in northern India and raising two children and leaving an abusive husband, Renu was irreverent, full of stories, and a walking, talking example of creating one’s own world in a male-dominated one. Her tales of putting the kibosh on male interviewees’ sexual advances were brazen and hilarious, and she definitely provided an insight into the workings of doing business in a testosterone-centric culture. She said she’d send us her article once it’s published, and I’m looking forward to reading it.
The Kuthiramalika Palace Museum or Puthenmalika Palace Museum is a lovely two-storeyed palace next to the above temple. Built by Maharaja Swathi Thirunal Balarama Varma, the King of Travancore, it features beautiful wood carvings as well as priceless artifacts collected by the family. No photographs were allowed inside but Max was able to shoot the famous horse-head carvings, giving the residence the nickname “the horse palace”.
Unfortunately, the building isn’t being maintained very well by the owners, the royal family; and, the tour guide made sure to point this out to her group of ten visitors, us included. We had also heard that there was a court battle occurring between the royals and the government over who owned the treasure found in the Temple.
It was still a bit ironic to see this sign,
and then see this:
Saturday we re-visited Kovalum Beach, which had resembled Maine’s honky-tonk beach in Old Orchard the night our group went with Noel. What a surprise, then, to find it relatively uncrowded and tranquil. Populated by a few swimmers and surfers, most, if not all, being sun-worshiping foreigners, we took turns frolicking in the surf and resting on the sand. The bus ride to and from was also easy and only 60 cents each for the A/C version and half that for the non-A/C bus.
Enjoying authentic Indian food was a bonus during our travels. Or course there was the odd mistake where I offered what I thought was a green bean to Max…
only to discover it was really a green chili.
Sunday was our day for visiting the most southern tip of India, Indira Point, named to commemorate Indira Ghandi (1917-84). Located in the city of Kanyakumari in the state of Tamil Nadu, this peninsula is the meeting point of three great water bodies: the Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean.
A short and wavy ferry ride takes you to a pilgrimage site, Vivekananda Rock Memorial built in 1970 in honor of Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) who swam, meditated and became enlightened on this rocky outcrop. He raised awareness of Hinduism as a world religion and Indian nationalism. He also helped introduce the pretzel-bending discipline of yoga to the western hemisphere.
His philosophy based on the philosophical part of the Veda, the ancient Indian scriptures, is quoted below:
“Each soul is potentially divine. The goal is to manifest this Divinity within by controlling nature, external and internal. Do this either by work, or worship, or mental discipline, or philosophy—by one, or more, or all of these—and be free.
This is the whole of religion. Doctrines, or dogmas, or rituals, or books, or temples, or forms, are but secondary details.”
Standing on another rock is Thiruvalluvar Statue, 133-foot stone monument of the Tamil poet, Tiuvalluvar, begun in 1979 but only recently completed in 2000. This poet born before 1 B.C. E. wrote down-to-earth couplets, 1330 of them, espousing virtue, wealth and love. He was practical and felt learning was useless unless passed onto others, that farmers were important to society, poverty was destructive and that virtue without some sort of wealth was difficult to sustain.
It was quite an experience to once again be the sole whiteys amidst the orange-bedecked Indians as we rode out to the Temple.
What was also interesting to note were the bunny trash cans. They looked good but I’m not sure how effective they were.
Our two-plus-hour ride back gave us another opportunity to glimpse the busy life of India, spotting the over-crowded buses, baby on scooters, agriculture and tree hauling, and even a car carrying a coffin.
We also spotted quite a few churches, and I knew we’d been in India for a bit when Max pointed out what he called a ‘Christian Temple’.
Back at the Hyacinth we fine-tuned our plan drafts for our meeting with Reghu and Sabith the next day, our last full day in Kerala.
Riding the local bus to Vellanad we passed the ubiquitous billboards advertising wedding jewelry, which explained the large number of gold and silver shops lining Trivandrum’s city street. Believe it or not, I didn’t purchase any of the precious metals.
Monday’s discussion at Mitraniketan was another wonderful day of learning even more about this successful NGO. We also heard about an upcoming visit of Saudi princesses who were interested in this organization’s community development programs. What they intended to do with this knowledge is unknown but it’s no surprise Reghu is sought out for speaking about this NGO’s success.
We walked back to the bus stop hoping that we’d be returning in the future to Mitraniketan for it’s a place that gets into one’s heart before you know it. Yet another reason to return to this beautiful and intriguing land.