Sholai School: In Harmony With Nature

January 8, 2009 at 12:27 pm (Dominic Alapat, Essay)


Nine children sit in a circle in one of the several one-room structures at Sholai School. Rodney Walker, an environmentalist from Chile, is taking class. Opposite him, his partner of many years and Sholai teacher Viv Macadam distributes masks to the children. The masks are beautifully painted and represent sun, cloud, wind, horse, lion, forest and so on. Walker lights a candle and places it in the centre of the circle. He says the candle is the universe because it is solid, liquid and gas.


Walker continues speaking in his rich and deep voice. He has received the ‘forest’ mask and he speaks of man destroying him over the years with advancement in technology. He talks about his ancient brothers and sisters. Trees, millions of years old. Then, the session progresses clockwise. The children speak about caring for nature, man’s greed, his desire for comfort and his wrongheaded attitude towards life. There are passionate voices here. Some are blunt and condemn the urban man. One young boy says the case is already hopeless. Walker tells him there is hope, and explains why there must be hope. Then I, who has been designated ‘human’, am asked to speak. I am asked to state my resolution after having heard the group speak.


Walker’s class ‘Council of All Beings’ is a session of playacting, learning about nature and also improving one’s speaking skills. Outside, at 1,140 mt, the air is cold and birds chirp amidst the verdant surroundings of the Palani hills. Over the face of these blue and grey hills, the mist moves like wonder. The school area is vast and the River Periyar runs through it. Flowers of red, yellow and purple dot the green valley. The farms, the forests are all visible from here. Tall silver oak trees rise straight into the sky. Walker’s class is something of a spiritual experience.


How It All Began


Losing his father at the age of two, principal of Sholai School Brian Jenkins (63) grew up with his mother in London, lonely and sensitive. As a young teen, he often pondered upon the injustices in the world. Young Jenkins reflected with sorrow on the division between rich and poor. His ideals led him to Kenya after his schooling, where he worked as a schoolteacher for two years. He returned to England to study Social Anthropology at Sussex University. Here, his interest in spirituality led him to Bodhgaya in India, where he practiced satipattana vipassana (Buddhist meditation) for a year.


“When I arrived at Sussex, a friend gave me Commentaries on Living by J Krishnamurti. Hence, after obtaining my BA (Hons), I joined the J Krishnamurti school in Brockwood Park, UK, where I remained for 14 years. It was with this background that I sought a good locality for a school in South Asia after leaving Brockwood Park in 1985,” Jenkins says, sitting in the beautiful wood and stone interiors of his home at Sholai.


“I was fortunate that my grandmother generously left me a small inheritance in 1980. I bought a Porsche Turbo and discovered the delights of driving at 260 km/hr on English motorways. But then changes took place at Brockwood Park. I also felt that I needed to step out from under the umbrella of that unusual and special school. So I sold the Porsche and went out to India,” he adds.


Jenkins traveled to Sri Lanka and Nepal before exploring south India. He drove 7,000 km through Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, finally settling in the Palani Hills in Tamil Nadu. Jenkins started building Sholai (tropical evergreen forests) School in 1989. In a way, it is still being built. Since 1989, they have been building constantly with a small team of masons, their assistants, carpenters and electricians-cum-plumbers. Jenkins’ experience and exposure to most of these disciplines enabled him to guide the workmen well and demand quality work from them. He designed most of the buildings at the Centre for Learning, Organic Agriculture and Appropriate Technology, the school’s parent body.

The buildings are a mix of English and local architecture. Open to ideas, Jenkins sought to discover aesthetic and functional solutions based on local knowledge. Most of the raw materials for the buildings were sourced from the property he had bought. Stone, the popular vengai and nava wood and brick comprise the basic raw material. Brick is made in the Auroville method — compresssed earth block technique. The brick is 60 per cent mud, 35 per cent sand and five per cent cement. Teacher Ramesh says it is twice as strong as regular brick.

“This valley is beautiful, but human beings are complicated. I discovered that self-centredness is a common thread that runs through society, whether rich or poor. Poverty destroys culture. While middle-class culture can bring a certain refinement and softness to human beings, poverty tends to harden its victims. This is because there is little exposure to culture with a capital C and very little leisure too. There are exceptions to the above generalisations. In fact we found that whenpoor people’ are given regular employment and other benefits, such as micro-credit and medical facilities, they are more open to learning about themselves than the average knowledge-ridden victims of middle class values,” Jenkins says.

Sholai School began admitting its first students — poor local children — in 1992. Since then, the school has had a steady stream of students, both from the local area and around the world.


What Is Sholai School 


Education, Jenkins tells me, comes from ‘e-ducto’ in Latin and it stands for bringing out the very best in a human being. During my stay at Sholai, I experienced first-hand the meaning of what Jenkins told me. The students, even those between 10-12 years, have a very different approach to the world than the regular children one comes across in urban schools. These children don’t have to be told to do something. There is a high level of motivation among them.


On the second day of my stay at Sholai, young Dinesh shows me around the school. We cross the pretty wooden bridge over the Periyar River and head to the other side of the school. Dinesh spots an eagle, which flies very close to him. He immediately updates me about the various kinds of eagles found in the school. He names the trees, the fruits; he tells me the function of each of the several check dams the school has built. Getting down into the pit where the Micro-Hydro system is located, he moves knobs here and there, shifts levers, and explains to me how the machine works. Dinesh’s skill and enthusiasm leave me awestruck.


There are many such examples at Sholai. Students are taught not only the regular subjects, but also learn carpentry, designing buildings, automobile repair and other skills. Groups of children run their own farm plots within the 30-acre organic farm at the school. They do this with almost no supervision. One finds minds that have received a well-rounded education.


So what is teacher-student relationship? I ask Jenkins. How would he describe relationships at Sholai. “We expect sensitivity from staff and students towards one another and towards this place. This is a very dangerous statement because such an expectation can lead to conflict and misunderstanding. Hence in our relationship with our students, we put a lot of energy into explaining what is right behaviour, which is not a matter of establishing certain rules, but exploring what is appropriate. I was very fortunate to be surrounded by exceptional human beings like J Krishnamurti in Brockwood. I learnt a lot from them,” he says. He tells me how children are taught about awareness, conditioning, observing oneself and being aware that one is self-centred.

I ask him how he deals with difficult situations involving students at school. Jenkins says the staff spends time with the students discussing their problems, which are openly voiced and debated. He tells me about Litish Kumar (13). Litish, he says, was an unruly and hyperactive child who often got into scrapes with people. One day while he was supposed to be in class, Litish, speeding on his skateboard in the coffee drying yard-cum-tennis court, knocked down a 60-year-old woman working there. The collision broke the woman’s hip and she was off work for two months. Jenkins says he witnessed the incident and was furious about it. He called a staff meeting and they decided that Litish would work on the farm for three weeks. With the money Litish earned, he would help in the treatment of the woman.


Jenkins says Litish eventually came to love working on the farm and two years later, is the group leader of his batch in Farm Skills. “It is important to see the right response in a situation. There is no standard response as nothing happens the same way twice. Passion plays an important part,” Jenkins says.


Arun Kumar, physics and mathematics teacher, has been at Sholai for over eight years. His wife Menaka and his father Ramchandran are also teachers at the school. Sitting in a small room adjoining the Science labs, Arun tells me he met Jenkins through a common friend and decided to take up Jenkins’ offer of a job. He left Chennai where he was pursuing an IT career and came to the hills. His father, though initially opposed to Arun’s career, came to love the place after he visited his son there, and eventually stayed back as a teacher. Arun goes on to describe how he ended up marrying Menaka, his former student at the school. “There was talk of her family getting her married to someone in the plains. I went and spoke to her father, and we got married,” Arun says. Their three-year-old son Ashwath is cared for in the school crèche. 

”I would have found life difficult if not for Sholai.
This place made me,” he says. Arun is an avid bird-watcher and has recorded 130 different types of birds at Sholai. He tells me that he loves photography and often takes pictures of the birds. “Verditer flycatcher, bluebearded bee-eater, paradise flycatcher,” he rattles off some of the names.


“Here there are luxuries you can’t afford outside. As a community you are able to afford certain things, which as an individual you can’t. Organic food is one of the luxuries,” he says. “There is a retired IISc (Indian Institute of Science) professor who comes down the valley twice a week. He teaches me mathematics and physics. By the time he’ll be through with me, I would be worth a lot. That’s just a sense of security. Everything is undefined, everything is shared here. Other people think I’m paying a price. I don’t,” Arun says. He then goes on to tell me about classes at the school.


Classes at Sholai


Currently there are 50 students and nine teachers at Sholai. The student-teacher ratio makes it possible for each student to get personal attention from the teachers. The youngest student is seven years old and the oldest is 20. Arun tells me that only seven per cent of the students are locals. Thirty-forty per cent receive almost 100 per cent scholarships. “Most of the current students are from Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, but we have had Italian, French, German, American and Omani students in the past,” he says.


Sholai School is affiliated with the Cambridge University, UK, and is an International Examinations Centre for the Cambridge International Examinations. There are no grades at Sholai and the students are roughly divided into groups in a system called Vertical Grouping. For example, the International General Certificate of Secondary Education group, which usually comprises students in the age group of 14-16, may also have an 18-year-old student, who is doing his/her A’ levels. A student who is doing his/her IGCSE may also be attending classes with a lower group to improve his/her English.


Sholai has two primary groups. The first group has students till 10-11 years. The second group comprises of students till the age of 12. Then, there is a middle group of students between 12-15 years. After this, there are two IGCSE groups. The first one has students being prepared to take the IGCSE exams (equivalent to the 10th standard in India). These students are roughly in the 14-16 age group. The second group has students preparing for the A’ levels. These students are usually between 17-18 years. All Sholai students fall into one of the above groups.


For the IGCSE exams, students are free to choose a combination of five of more subjects, solely on their own choice. Unlike the Indian system where subjects are grouped into Science 1, Science 2, Arts and Economics — where only a certain combination of the subjects in these groups can be taken — Cambridge offers individual subjects, and a student may choose to take up any combination of subjects. For example, a student may take up Physics, Chemistry, Information Technology, English Language, Business Studies and History.


After the IGCSE exams, students move on to the A’ levels (or General Certificate of Education Advanced Levels). At the A’ levels, students are given a choice of four subjects (with English being mandatory). After successfully completing the A’ levels, students may choose to pursue their education in any British or foreign university. The Indian government has recently recognised the Cambridge syllabus, and students who complete four A’ levels are eligible for admission to most good universities in India.

Former student Siddharth tells me that by the time students venture into their A’ levels, they are aware of the subjects they are interested in. “The A’ levels are tough and challenging. The syllabus makes students think beyond their books and understand concepts. ‘Mugging up’ won’t help. The examinations (both IGCSE and A’ levels) are based on the understanding and application of concepts, and out-of-the-box thinking,” he says.


Alternatively, Sholai also offers the National Institute of Open Schooling (New Delhi) syllabus for students who are not pursuing CIE. With NIOS, the school offers the Secondary (10th) and the Senior Secondary (12th) courses.


Sholai School does not believe in examinations, though teachers give tests to students at times, to check their level of learning. A student moves to a higher group based on his/her knowledge of a subject. “As an educator I’m not concerned with examinations. Education is all about allowing a human being to flower. Therefore, coercion, persuasion and pressure should never be a part of the process. Society has the requirement of examinations. Therefore, we prepare students for the international IGCSE and A’ level examinations,” Jenkins says.


Sholai has well-equipped Science laboratories certified by the Cambridge authorities. The Computer lab has the latest gadgets. Computer teacher Ramesh tells me that Sholai is the first place in India where Broadband is available at a distance of 10 km from a telephone exchange.

Former student and now teacher Bala says Sholai follows a well-planned time-table and students are also given homework. Day begins at 8 am when teachers and students meet for breakfast in the school dining hall. Everyone at Sholai has fresh vegetarian fare, most of which is grown on the school’s farm. The students wash their own plates, and every week a different group is assigned the responsibility of cleaning up the kitchen after meals. After breakfast, the entire school meets for Assembly where they usually listen to music or discuss current affairs. They may also watch a film, perform a play or sing to the accompaniment of music teacher Viv Macadam’s piano. School ends at 4.15 pm and till 6 pm the students play games and relax. Sholai has a football ground, tennis court and swimming pool, which the students use daily. After study hour, which is a little more than an hour, the students have dinner at 7.30 pm and by 8.30 pm they retire to the two boys hostels and one girls hostel on the campus.


Thrice a week, the students have Skills. These include Farming, Woodwork and a class called Machine Shed. The students mend things that are broken or make new windows and doors. Electrical, plumbing, and construction work is also taken up.


In Mechanics class, the students learn about architecture and repairing motors vehicles. They put together bicycles after sourcing spare parts. The younger students work on Mechano Sets — a game aimed to develop technical skills. A Mechano Set is a box with removable screws, nuts and bolts, which the students put together. 

Sholai also has a good library of books and films. Students watch landmark films and documentaries, and then discuss them among themselves and the teacher.    

Most schools around this area are based on rote learning. Always theory is stuffed into

the students’ minds, whatever their capabilities may be. There is little teacher-student interaction. But at Sholai, partly because of the student-teacher ratio, students are better looked after and encouraged in careers they are interested in. The syllabus is based on understanding concepts — using a wide range of sources and hands-on experience in every subject,” Bala says.


Teachers may teach a particular topic from various text-books. The criteria is not just to learn from the text-books Cambridge University approves of, but also to go beyond that and understand what one learns throughly.


The Organic Farm


When I first arrived at Sholai, I was taken straight to the dining hall as it was lunch time. A wonderful spread of fresh vegetables awaited me. Sitting along with Jenkins and some students, the principal told me that much of the delicious fare we were consuming was grown on the school’s farm.


After lunch, Jenkins requests CLOAAT student Dipika Choradia (20) to take me around the farm. Choradia shows me the small patches of cultivated land, which groups of students tend to. Everything looks neat and cared for. I ask her about the vegetables and the trees around. Spotting a guava tree, she plucks a guava and hands it to me. I am moved by the simplicity and beauty of this well-run place.


Choradia (20) is pursuing an 18-month Organic Farming and Appropriate Technology course after completing her 12th standard in Pune. The daughter of a surgeon with interests in organic farming, she intends to run an organic farm someday. “I love this place. There is so much I have learnt after coming here,” she says.


The school’s 30-acre farm is now certified organic with Control Union (formerly SKAL International), an international certifying agency. Locals work on the farm for pay. Students and staff also assist in running it. The farm grows coffee, pepper, banana, jackfruit, citrus fruits, parsley, cabbage, carrot, cauliflower, tomato, radish and a mix of Indian and foreign vegetables. In the last two years, students and staff have been putting in more time at the farm, working up to five hours a week.

Some of the farm produce is sold at Kodaikanal. The school, however, is the major consumer. Organic produce is not appreciated much and the remuneration is small, Jenkins says. In the future, the school intends to set up a fruit and vegetable drier to store dried fruits and vegetables for later use.


Cows are reared in the school’s two cowsheds for milk. There is a small building nearby in which cheese is made. I am shown various types of cheese, lying on the shelves. There are cheese making machines too. I am told that apart from what the school consumes, there are regular customers for the various types of cheese made here.


The school believes in imparting environmentally-friendly farming techniques to the locals. So the locals who work on the school’s farm learn about alternative and productive methods of farming. There are regular lectures and meetings held with local farmers to persuade them about the benefits of environmentally-friendly farming techniques. Narayan Reddy, a well known farmer from Bengaluru, visits the school regularly to educate local farmers on organic farming.


CLOAAT also offers a Mature Student Programme, which are mainly courses related to farming. These courses could be taken up after school or college. Organic Farming, Appropriate Technology, Solar Energy and Biogas Technician are some of the subjects taught at CLOAAT.


Along with the organic farm, Sholai School also has a 70-acre forest. The harvesting period for the hardwood trees that grow here is roughly 20 years, says Jenkins. Hence, the school plants new trees on a regular basis. According to Jenkins, wood from the hardwood trees that grow in the forest make excellent furniture. All of the school’s wood is sourced from the school’s own property. Rosewood, nava, wild mango, kadukai, vengai, fish-tail palm, vaagai and axelwood are some of the trees that grow here.


Sholai’s Sources of Energy


Sholai’s staff, many of them locals, are actively involved in imparting to others the environmentally friendly practices they learn at the school. Along with practices like roof-water harvesting, many local farmers have also taken to biogas.

“We are so fortunate to be born on this beautiful planet that we have a responsibility to live lightly on this Earth, to have a soft and small step. Hence, I established this school without a connection to the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board. All our energy comes from nature. I want to explore this concept further. It is important to live abstemiously, thereby doing least harm to the planet,” Jenkins says.

At Sholai, there is great faith in Alternative Technologies. Time and again, the school found them superior to conventional energy that runs on non-renewable sources. Sitting in the school’s dining hall, Jenkins and Bala update me on the school’s energy producing systems.



All the minor electrical systems at the school are de-centralized. This means that even if one fails due to an unseen problem, there will still be others that are working.


Most of the electricity that the school uses comes from SPV Cells or Solar Panels. Sholai has about 80 panels across the campus that use 50 batteries. Each panel provides either 75W or 35W of power. Electricity stored in the batteries are used directly as 12V DC, which powers all the lights at Sholai. Inverted to 220V AC, this is used to run the computers, TV, DVD players and the mixers and grinders in the kitchen.


There is also a third system in use — a 24V DC that is connected to the inverters, the intercom telephone system and the refrigerator in the kitchen.


During the monsoon, the school uses a DC Micro-Hydro system that produces about 450W power to charge the batteries when sunshine is scarce. A Micro-Hydro system is a hydel power plant on a smaller scale. The tank is built at a higher altitude than the plant. Water from the river fills up the tank. This water runs a turbine, which in turn powers a generator. The wind generator trickle system charges the batteries when there is wind.


In spite of being very abstemious, Sholai could face power problems in the near future when its new auditorium is built. Anticipating high power consumption, the school has purchased a 3,000W generator set that currently runs on diesel. There are plans to make it run on bio-diesel.  


Solar Water Heaters


Heating requires a lot of energy and the proven alternative technology for the school is the Solar Water Heater. The school has four of them that provide 65°C of water on a normal sunny day.




Sholai has two big (4 M³ and 25 M³) biogas plants that provide gas for the kitchen, Food Processing and Science labs. The biogas plants run on cow manure. Two smaller plants run on human waste. The school has a water heater and refrigerator too that runs on biogas.


The Ambassador Engine


An Ambassador car engine has been modified to run on duel fuel — petrol and biogas – at Sholai. A multi-purpose engine, it is used to run a water pump for the vanilla plants. The engine is attached to a coffee grinder and a generator to produce electricity.

Petrol is to be replaced by bio-diesel or ethanol that is currently under research. Jatropa and pongayam plants that provide such oils have already been planted in the school campus.





The school also has a hydram, which is essentially a water pump. Water runs into the hydram (drive pipe), which has another large pipe (6 inches). This pipe pumps out water through a smaller pipe (delivery pipe-1 inch) to a great height. The higher the pen-stoke, the higher the reach of the water. The remaining water runs into the river. Water from the hydram is used for the school’s farm.


About the alternative energy systems at the school, Jenkins explains, “Lots of things were subsidized when I started the school. My technical losses are zero. The grid electricity system is at least five times costlier than the energy producing systems at Sholai.”

“The Ministry of Science and Environment is supporting us in taking up the environmental upgradation of the entire valley, along with the improvement of the lives of the locals. That we do in a quiet yet aggressive way by giving employment to them,” he adds.


One of the environmental issues addressed by the school is hill burning. Many locals set fire to the hills in the summer due to lack of grass. When hills are burnt, new shoots of grass grow easily, which is used to feed cattle and horses. However, this also destroys new trees that are coming up, thereby affecting the forest line. The school approached the local forest authorities and conducted meetings with the local people, persuading them about the destructiveness of hill burning. Since Sholai’s intervention, the frequency of hill burning has reduced in the past few years.



Jenkins is proud of the school’s achievements. Sholai uses 109 watt-hours per person, per day. Ideal usage proposed by the Centre for Science and Environment is 2,000 watt-hours per person per day, he tells me. Sholai won the Model Green School award for 2007/2008 from the centre for their conservation of water, energy and eco-friendly practices. This, he says, is an award that everyone at the school is proud of.


Spirit of Sholai


“When I had a one-to-one with J Krishnamurti in Brockwood about starting my own school, he had said, ‘Let it be your body. Be married to it.’ I learnt a lot from many innovative educators there. However, let me clarify that this is not a J Krishnamurti school,” Jenkins says.


The school does not impart the philosophy of any guru to its students. Sharing, debate and discussion are the founding principles of the institution. The older students have an almost automatic sense of responsibility towards the younger ones. They assist teachers in lectures and keep class in order in a teacher’s absence.


Teachers have about four hours of lectures a day. Yet, as Arun says, they are expected to stick around to be of assistance to anyone. I noticed this spirit of sharing in everyone I met at the school. Multi-talented, multi-tasking, students are trained to develop a holistic approach to life.


Dr T C Gopalakrishnan, an engineer by profession and author of In Quest of the Deeper Self: Towards Enrichment of Life, comes down once a month from Kodaikanal to hold lectures at the school. In his class, everyone discusses how relationships can be improved between students and students, teachers and students and teachers and teachers. Students and teachers discuss their problems and try and find solutions to them.


At Sholai, knowledge is imparted creatively in a spirit of openness and freedom. I attend Ramchandran’s Assembly where this former Information Bureau officer discusses the state of the global economy with the students. He goes on to talk about oil prices, world trade, the future of India and China and so on. You can tell by the pin drop silence in the class how every student is taking in this expert analysis with so much interest. Outside, the birds chirp and mist moves over the hills. Here, young minds learn much more about the ‘real world’ than their urban counterparts.


Future of Sholai


It is late at night on the second day of my visit to Sholai. The students have all had dinner and gone to bed. Jenkins, Bala, Dipika and I sit in the dining hall talking. Jenkins discusses about solar batteries and their running costs with us. He speaks from experience. I notice how intelligent and organised, yet light-hearted he is. During questions, he jokes with us and the kitchen staff. It is very dark outside and we are cosy and comfortable after a nice meal. I ask him about the future of Sholai. Jenkins speaks frankly with quiet passion.


“There’s no place like this in India,” he says. “This concept of giving responsibility is not very clear to the teachers yet. As a school we’re vulnerable. This school is run by the Sholai Trust, which has five trustees including me. I have bought 60 acres of land in Chittayankottai, 50 km from here. Let’s see where it goes. I have a responsibility to see that this place continues if I kick the bucket tomorrow,” he adds.


On my last day at Sholai School, senior student Murali walks me to the school gate. The whole place is a maze in my head. I walk up the winding stone paths while Murali shows me his photo album — it is full of pictures he has clicked here. He shows me pictures of sunset, birds, snakes, the farms, trees and the valley. The photographs are beautiful. So much talent, so much enthusiasm, so much creativity, I think. I thank him for showing me the pictures. The white mists over the hills move slowly. It is cold. I get into the waiting car and begin my journey home. Sholai School has been a dream.


– Dominic Alapat


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January 4, 2009 at 4:18 pm (Dominic Alapat, Poetry)


There is a silent cry rising

to the stars. An endless

outpouring of tears, a wall

of pain. This is the world

wall, the human wall, the wail.

No my friend, you will not

get past. You are here, part

of the moon’s dark shadow.

The tears roll on, the cries

are menacing in their silent

shrieks. All fail, tears,

whispers, love, move like

ghosts around the stars.


– Dominic Alapat

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