The sun set on the Empire in India decades ago, but its shining in the Palni hills near Kodaikanal. In Tamil Nadu’s very own Hogwarts, Sholai School with its founder Brian Jenkins,68, playing Dumbledore, a magical realm of green, rolling hills, continues to generate its own power and water by harnessing the energy of Nature. The school practices organic farming and grows pepper, coffee and seasonal fruits and vegetables. It also runs its own dairy, and not just produces its own organic milk and cheese but even exports home-grown coffee to Germany.
Students here are taught swimming, yoga, bird watching, horse riding, trekking and outdoor and indoor games. In the past, they have also built check dams and a bridge across a small river that runs through the campus.
Sholai School with its other divisions collectively called CLOAAT (Centre for Learning, Organic Agriculture and Appropriate Technology), is one of its kind in all of India.
It was founded in 1991 by Brian Jenkins (68), a British social anthropologist, thinker and teacher. Jenkins first came to India in 1969 to study Buddhist meditation at Bodhgaya. By then, he became familiar with Jiddu Krishnamurthy’s teachings, and later the man himself as he began teaching at Krishnamurthy’s Brockwood Park School in the UK. After 14 years in Brockwood, Jenkins decided to do something on his own. Krishnamurthy advised him to not be “a blueprint”.
With the small inheritance left to him by his grandmother, Jenkins began looking for a place in India and in 1989 found this scenic 100-acre area, 18 km from Kodaikanal.
“I did not have a master plan as people normally do; first we built a small building with a kitchen and a toilet. Then when we felt the need for another, so we built one more and so on,” says Jenkins. Today, the sprawling school complex includes a dining hall, a kitchen, the classroom block, a boys’ hostel, girls’ hostel, a library, and so on. There’s also a swimming pool and a badminton court with an auditorium in the pipeline.
From xenophobic to swindling locals, Jenkins had to deal with a lot before things settled down. “In the beginning, there was one teacher —me and my two children, my first students. Later a boy from Ladakh and another from the Gulf joined us,” he recalls. This is a far cry from the 51 students that the school has today, with a student-teacher ratio of 4:1.
Unlike conventional schools, students here are not grouped by age or class (entry level is 8 years and goes up to 19 years) but rather according to their academic abilities and liking.
“They have the choice of moving up or down the order,” says a teacher here. There is an interesting mix of students here with half being underprivileged local kids who receive 100 per cent scholarships.
The administration also steers clear of conditioning, a sentiment supported strongly by Jenkins and his mentor Jiddu Krishnamurthy. “In my school, children are learning not to be conditioned,” says Jenkins. That is why at Sholai mathematics is taught along with farming, science with carpentry and woodwork and games with masonry.
There is interplay of roles for teachers as well. Dhruv, a 24-year-old teacher from Bangalore teaches biology as well as milks cows on the dairy farm. The milk, like the coffee produced here, is sold with some being used to make cheese. Similarly, Bala, who teaches computers, and Josephine, who teaches developmental studies, are both involved in a government-funded GIS survey. In fact, Jenkins likes and encourages everybody to share their skills, encouraging practice rather than theory.
The school is powered by solar panels and generators powered by micro hydro energy. “We have some 70 solar panels. Our micro hydro is another contributor, our wind generator also gives us some power,” affirms Jenkins.
“For cooking, we burn wood and we also have a bio gas and a bio-mass, with the former being our biggest energy provider. We also have zero wastage,” says Jenkins.
Like no other
■ The school practices organic farming and grows pepper, coffee and seasonal fruits and vegetables.
■ It also runs its own dairy and not just produces its own organic milk and cheese but even exports home-grown coffee to Germany
■ Students here are taught swimming, yoga, bird watching, horse riding, trekking and outdoor and indoor games.
■ The school is powered by solar panels and generators powered by micro hydro energy
The Path finders
Mirambika, New Delhi
This New Delhi based experimental school run by Aurobindo Ashram is based on Sri Aurobindo and Mother’s principles.
Isha Home School, Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu
Founded in 2005 by Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, Isha Home School strives to incorporate his educational approach into its day-to-day working.
The Valley School, Thatguni, Karnataka
The Valley School is based on the teachings of the eminent philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti.
Vikasana, Bangalore, Karnataka
Vikasana is a rural centre for education inspired by David Horsburgh’s philosophy of learning. It provides free education to children of all ages from landless farmers of neighboring villages.