The journey of a thousand miles began with the launch of Shikshangan in 2008 and continued much beyond this distance by covering the length, breadth and depth of our country. In the course of these journeys and the many interactions they brought, Vijay and I learned from individuals, communities and multiple stakeholders in the education landscape. I reckoned it would make sense to share these experiences with a wider audience with the aim of documentation and a hope that these will both entertain and educate. Each tour was unique and I hope my storytelling skills will amuse and not lose – readers.
Some of our travels took us to ancient temple towns, creating the opportunity for encounters that made me confront my own ambiguous relationship with religion, but in the process, led me to interesting discoveries – about myself and my teaching practice.
Third stop – Kamakhya – Basistha – Army Public School – 2011
A quiet request to my father-in-law, Maj.Gen SN Manohar (Retd.) – Daddy, army mein mulaquat karwainge? – found me armed with a letter of introduction, inside the spanking new building of the Faculty Development Research Centre in Delhi. FDRC is the training division of the Army Welfare Education Society, an umbrella organization entrusted with the task of teacher development for all the Army Public Schools in the country. Maj.Gen Manmohan Singh was the MD of FDRC then, a gentleman with a twinkle in his eye and a mischievous smile, displaying deep insights into the way army minds think. Every meeting in the MD’s office for the next two years of our engagement with FDRC thereafter was a full-blooded Sikh delight!
Our first meeting with the astute Gen MM Singh in 2008 swept us off our feet and would have indeed taken us far from the Sahyadri Hills where Shikshangan now nestles, had we surrendered to his persuasive request of moving to Delhi for two years, to assist the fledgling FDRC take flight, by setting up training courses. We settled instead for committing 15 days of our time each month, and travelled to Delhi every other fortnight, to be greeted by the MD, his sharp Dean of Academics Col.Braria and a waiting batch of 50 teachers and school leaders of Army Public Schools from the remotest regions of India. Who can deny movement orders? I was fast becoming familiar with the language of the forces including this puzzle shared with the readers – What do you think is PCK? Hint – the acronym is related to the courses!*
FDRC spurred us to launch our flagship program, Effective School Leadership. We designed and developed a robust course for school principals, coached most of the Army School principals on it, and saw the impact of our work through continued association with some of the schools over the years. There are stalwarts in APS across the country, and we were richer for these interactons; not just the wealth of shared stories of battles fought by their officers, but battles on the school grounds as well, including seemingly insurmountable ones like the sudden movement of students, for e.g., from Kaluchuk in J&K to Burnacherry in Kerala or from Pithoragarh in Uttarakhand to Agartala in the North East due to short notice postings, and dealing with the language and cultural gaps. Shikshangan salutes the effort of AWES.
As our contract with FDRC was coming to an end, there were requests from far flung Army Schools to visit their campuses and continue to handhold teachers in the practice of pedagogy. My mind is filled with memories in multiple hues, flying together like a synchronous flock of the most beautiful birds, and it is hard to pick one to write about. I have picked Basistha, because of the alluring Bramhaputra and the mysterious shrine of Kamakhaya.
On the flight to Guwahati, I strained to catch a glimpse of the mighty Bramhaputra and saw it glistening as it ran around the mountains and the city. The only Indian river adorned with a masculine name (son of Bramha); this is a magnificent cross-boundary river originating from a glacier in Mansarovar near Tibet and flowing eastwards below Nepal to enter Assam as Bramhaputra, then turning again at right angles to enter Bangladesh as Jamuna, locally called ‘Podda’. In Bangladesh, the Ganga meets Bramhaputra and they empty themselves together into the delta in the Bay of Bengal. Have you ever seen the intricacy of a delta from the skies?
We reached the Basistha cantonment and checked into the army barracks late in the evening. A straightforward and businesslike welcome by the principal got us started and Vijay and I trained the staff on lesson planning for two days. Giving in to our wanderlust, we boarded the ferry ride across the Bramhaputra one evening and undertook a visit to the Kamakhya shrine the next afternoon.
The river runs along the main MG road but once the ferry leaves the docks, you see an ever widening expanse of water. It creates an illusion of being on the ocean, the large river fish jumping up to continue the game of deception with their sheer size. The smooth flow of the water, and the bends the river takes bestows upon it infinite grace, and it reminded me of a vigorous yet graceful male dancer…was Shiva around?
Legend has it that he danced in destructive fury – the ‘Shiv Tandav’ – with the body of a lifeless Sati on his shoulders. Fearing an apocalypse Vishnu aimed his Sudarshan Chakra to fragment Sati into 51 pieces. As Shiva danced, the parts of Sati’s body fell at different spots on the land …each of these now known as Shakti Peetha.
Kamakhya, situated on the Nilachal Hills in Guwahati, is a powerful Shakti Peetha. Legend has it that this is where Sati’s yoni fell. It thus symbolizes female energy and I was warned by the Army School authorities to be careful since we were there in the month of June, when lakhs of devotees of the Goddess throng to the shrine for the annual Ambubachi fair. The fair is also known as the tantric fertility festival and the temple remains closed for three days in the belief that the Goddess is going through her female bleed, thus completing her cycle of fertility. We must have climbed the hills after a week or more of the temple’s reopening.
I was overwhelmed with a fearful fascination for the first time in a temple queue, with tantric practitioners in black outfits, vermillion on their foreheads, and unknown, intriguing spells and skulls around their necks. I had some knowledge of what tantra vidya is but had never met a practitioner. There were tantric worshippers with flashing eyes ahead of me and behind me in the feminine line, and I felt the unmistakable presence of the eternal Shakti.
Vijay stood aside not wanting to take the mysterious trip to the inner sanctum, as well as the dip in the flowing water above the ‘Sati Yoni turned to stone’. Visitors cannot see the stone. It is said to be deep inside the cavity which has flowing water that you can fleetingly touch if you get to it, which I did! One trivia is that the pandas (priests) inside the sanctum sanctorum at Kamakhya addressed the flowing water in an Assam temple as ‘Ganga’.
Strange I thought. But then in our country, Ganga is everywhere, is it not? Including in our minds. But, are we truly cleansing it?
*Previous Course Knowledge.
The author has been engaged in the domain of school education for the past three decades. She is the co-founder of Shikshangan Education Initiatives, Pune, along with Vijay Gupta. The scope of their work includes teacher development by sharpening pedagogical skills and working with school leaders on their instructional and organizational leadership skills. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.