My time spent with Veerayatan in Kutch and Palitana made me, for the first time, truly enjoy being in India. The entire experience was moving and uplifting from start to finish.
Until this summer, I did not know much about Veerayatan and I began the trip with some apprehension. However, the moment we arrived at the school in Kutch, we received the warmest welcome I have ever witnessed and any trepidation instantly disappeared. A huge amount of preparation had clearly gone into the welcome and our entire group was touched by this gesture, I only hoped that we would be able to give the students the education they truly deserved. We were then greeted by the Sadhvijis and given some information about our time in India.
After our welcome we were shown to our rooms, we then had a delicious dinner and an early night in preparation for our first day. We would begin each day with meditation and prayer time with Acharya Shri Chandanaji and Sadhviji Shilapiji, this time would ensure a peaceful start to our day. All of us would sit in Anukampa, listening to the Acharyaji’s preaching along with the birds singing in the early morning. During this time, Sadhviji Shilapiji would translate and explain Acharyaji’s preaching and each day tell us a poignant story about Acharyaji. Out of all of the stories that we were told, there was one that particularly struck me. This story was about Acharyaji sharing the small amount of food that her and some other Sadhvijis had with them on a trip. When they sat down to eat this food, some workmen walked past and Acharyaji invited them to join the Sadhvijis, despite there not being a lot of food to go around, everybody felt satisfied, simply because they shared. This act of sheer of generosity on behalf of Acharyaji is something that everyone should try to embody and is something that I hope to carry forward in my life.
We would usually, after prayer time, begin teaching our classes at the school; however, on our first day we began with a tour of the campus. This included the office, the school, the pharmacy college and the engineering college. This truly showed how much work Veerayatan is doing in one area alone. We were able to see the way that the organisation can take a child right the way from the beginning to the end of their education. Our campus tour also showed the many ways that Veerayatan is ensuring that the site is as environmentally friendly as possible, from solar panels powering the kitchens to water collection tanks. Veerayatan’s aims stretch even further than just helping children, but all the way to doing more than their part to conserve the planet for future generations.
After our campus tour we made our way into allocated classrooms for tuition time. The moment that I entered the classroom I felt such a wave of emotion. All of the children were so excited to see us, without even knowing anything about us. All they wanted was for us to teach them. I had never seen such a pure and genuine desire to learn and I think from that moment all of the volunteers were so thrilled to be teaching. My group and I initially found it difficult to contain the student’s delight but we eventually managed to begin our teaching.
During my lessons I was struck by so many incredible aspects, the children were so willing to learn and unafraid to be wrong, they would try over and over again and listen carefully so that they could make improvements. The work ethic of students and the respect for teachers is something that contrasts greatly to the way it is in the UK and it is something that everyone here should learn from. The students in my class would stand and greet us whenever we would enter the classroom and listen intently to what we had decided to teach. Our lessons would be broken up by a dance lesson, in preparation for the farewell presentation on our final night. These dance lessons turned out to be unexpectedly enjoyable and we would go back to our students refreshed and ready to begin teaching again. During afternoon tuition we would sometimes assist with the eye screenings. To find out that a child may potentially benefit from having glasses felt like it would truly make a huge impact in their lives.
After lessons we would have lunch, and each lunchtime, a group of us would be allocated to serving the hostel kids. The children would be so polite and give us the warmest smiles as we served the food to them. Lunch would be followed by afternoon tuition and after that we would play with the students in their free time. Some days this involved volleyball, cricket and football and on other days we had the chance to play the board games that had been donated. We were playing games such as Connect4 and Kerplunk, games that we had all played throughout our childhood but we quickly found that we were being beaten by the hostel kids. This chance to spend time with the kids during their free time enabled many friendships to form as we were given time to be with them outside of the classroom.
We would then have dinner and then attend the hostel children’s evening prayers and talent shows, which for me, was usually the highlight of the day. Seeing the children get up and sing or tell jokes night after night with complete confidence was so inspiring. There would then be prayers, sung by the children or a Sadhviji, which were incredibly emotive, the entire vibrations that would be created by the children singing in harmony whilst the sun was beginning to set was something that I will never forget.
This was our daily routine for most of our time in Kutch and we ended our stay with a wonderful farewell presentation. The evening festivities began with a pooja for the new medical vehicle for the school. There were then beautiful performances from the hostel kids and two dances prepared by us volunteers but I believe the true highlight for the majority of people was the pyramid finale. We were all sad when this night came to a close because we knew it meant the end of our stay in Kutch and although only a week of our trip had passed I knew that everyone had made lifelong memories.
Our last day in Kutch was on Indian Independence Day and we attended the flag raising ceremony before we began our eight-hour journey to Palitana. As Palitana was a day school we were staying in a Dharamshala nearby and travelling to the school each day.
Upon arrival at the Palitana school we received another warm welcome, the children were far younger but still so talented and hard working and this took us all aback. The children had prepared several speeches in English and many dance performances in the theme of Indian Independence, for us to enjoy. When we began our teaching here, we all soon realised that we had to adapt our methods and our lesson plans for the younger children that we were now teaching. We would teach until three ‘o’ clock, when the children would go home and we would stay and plan our lessons for the next day. We were able to teach a larger range of lessons in Palitana, including arts and crafts.
The school in Palitana is beautiful, with panoramic views of lush, green, mountainous land. All of the children were, as they were in Kutch, so overjoyed and delighted to learn. The school has only recently been constructed and anyone would instantly be able to see the bright future that the school will have. We had entirely different experiences of the two schools but present in both is the compassion and enthusiasm for education carried out by the Veerayatan organisation.
During our evenings in Palitana we were incredibly lucky to have Sadhviji Sanghamitraji come to our Dharamshala to talk to us and for prayers. She would give wonderful and clear answers to our questions about being young Jains and to satisfy our curiousness about the lives of Sadhvijis. However, Sadhviji Sanghamitraji went beyond this and took care of our every issue, for any problem that arose, she was ready with three solutions to hand and her genuine kindness is something that I will never forget.
Whilst we were in Palitana we climbed the mountain, which was initially difficult given the early start but instantly became worthwhile once we started seeing the stunning views and the architecture of the temples along the way. We visited some of the 900 temples and then began our descent just as the sun began to hit us. Climbing Palitana was a wonderful end to the trip.
Everyone who worked in Kutch and in Palitana was a true ambassador of the Veerayatan philosophy of service to all. In addition to this, throughout our trip, the adults amongst the volunteers took the greatest care of us, they were our parents for the two weeks that we were in India and ensured that we would be able to give our all to the Veerayatan children. It was a true honour to be part of the organisation and I learnt so much about Jainism, India and myself during the two weeks.