It was a proud moment for the ‘University of Life’ when two of Syamantak’s former students - Mohammad Sheikh and Omkar Keni - were inducted into the Board of Trustees of Syamantak. Mohammad boasts to be the first student at this ‘School Without Walls’ as it was formerly known, is now pursuing Masters in Rural Development and is currently the treasurer here while Omkar is pursuing Bachelor of Law at Mumbai University. Not too long ago, the Goans connected with Mohammad who was one of the speakers at the first ever TedX talk event held in Panaji in January 2017.
What is so very special about Syamantak, one may wonder. It’s a project of educational experiment initiated by Sachin Desai and his wife Meenal. It’s not a school, it’s a commune. Every person, factor and the ecology around this project shares a common responsibility - to live and let live. Living in the midst of nature and creating a balance between humans and the surrounding ecology is what is Syamantak.
Syamantak’s University of Life is a centre for experiential, life-long learning and sustainable development. “Our education is related to our Mother Earth. We believe that nobody should be forced to leave his village for bread, butter and education. None should be detached from his Mother soil for the sake of keeping body and soul together. We had, in days of yore, excellent architects, super human medical men, amazing space walkers, all that in villages. None of the great that time had to leave their villages. Why now?” asks Sachin.
Sachin who is happy to see that the concept got well digested and the experiment has borne fruits with several success stories of those who stepped in to learn and unlearn, shares “Following the basic rules of science we aim at the maximum utilisation of available ingredients and resources without harming the natural environment.”
There are no bars, no strict rules or restrictions and there are no limitations either, set on the open learning process that happens here. But a discipline, sincere efforts and management is seen sowed in each of the endeavour. Yes, there are no teachers, no exams and no classrooms in this commune that runs from an old mansion sitting on 2.5 acres of land.
Sachin elaborates the concept, “Based on the principles of Mahatma Gandhi and Aurobindo Ghosh, ours is a contemporary ashram where like-minded people live together on the basis of eternal truth of life.” Today’s education is artificial. It takes our children away from nature leaving no space for roots or shoots. Actually, it squeezes humanity out of them, making them simply robots. Life no more throbs in their hearts. As adults and citizens they lead a mechanical, self-centred life aimed at only monetary gains. Life offers them pleasures but there’s no real joy. “We wish to change this scenario,” claims Sachin. Backed by wife Meenal and numerous like-minded individuals, the project has taken wings.
University of Life is a residential commune of youth. Processes of self-designed organic learning run by the students for the students. It may appear to others as vocational education. “What we are aiming is not vocational education, but education using real life activities as a medium of spiritual self-evolvement, exploration of basic social entrepreneurship skills with the perspective of ecological sustainability and social justice,” briefs Sachin.
One of the trustees, Mohammad Shaikh, explains, “People visit us, some join us to share knowledge or offer help. Some come to learn themselves or teach others. It’s an open school without walls where practical life skills take a lead over written textbooks. One is taught life skills that take one back to nature. Adapting to a natural way of living than adopting mechanisation is the mantra. Parents too come and live along with their wards. We have no hard and fast rules. Ours is a centre for sustainable living and open learning is the process we believe in.”
With the partner organisations - Botanical Society of Goa, National Council of Rural Institute (Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India), Green Essentials (Goa), Avdhoot Charitable Trust, Mumbai and Vigyan Ashram, Pabal - the project is marching ahead. The complex houses a food lab where research and development work is carried on. There is a gaushala where innovative experiments on cow products are carried on. Swayam, a start-up entrepreneurial venture of Syamantak resident interns is registered as joint liability group (JLG) of University of Life. Everything that Swayam makes is 99 per cent hand-made in small batches from carefully selected raw materials and the ingredients are 100 per cent natural. No artificial preservatives, colours or flavours are used. For example, our natural tooth powder is herbal and contains no fluoride, no sodium laureth sulfate, propylene glycol, no artificial colours or flavours. It has antibacterial, antifungal, antipollutant properties that keep teeth and gums strong and clean as the ingredients are gomai kari, guava leaves, babul, triphala, mulethi, sandal wood, manjishtha, bhimsen camphor, rock salt, clove, ajwain, etc.
“Swayam is our experiment based on rural industries that aims at boosting the rural economy,” adds Sachin. To nurture the spirit of social entrepreneurship among ambitious interns and self-sustainability of the organisation, the concept of incubation has emerged at Syamantak. It is to take a lead and earmark space, infrastructure and professional support for nurturing new ideas and also for maturing promising ideas up to maturity levels. The incubation programme’s mission is ‘giving life to new ideas’ and to provide a fertile environment for the growth and development of new ideas, to create opportunities for the application.
“Following traditional methods of preservation, our fruit-based products are made from fresh fruits and flowers and sulphur-free cane sugar only. We do not use pre-processed fruit pulp, high fructose corn syrup or commercial pectin. In our jam production we use the traditional open-pan method, which gives our jams distinct home-made flavour. Each batch is individually stirred and poured by hand. Our traditional wood-oven is used for baking our cakes and cookies and for roasting breakfast bread, cakes, seeds and nuts. This is how our baked goods get their special delicious taste,” claims Mohammad who himself is the product of University of Life and a living example how it has helped youth to carve a niche for themselves.
The products made by Swayam are unique - wood apple syrup, red hibiscus flower syrup, cashew apple syrup, cranberry pickle, raw turmeric pickle, raw jackfruit pickle, cashew apple pickle, finger millet, green gram, black gram ready to eat crispy chips, kokum-jackfruit jam, naturally grown turmeric powder, hand-made natural soaps (orange peels, guava leaves and rice water) and Sanjeevak compress blocks made of vermicompost and panchgavya infused with beneficial fungus for organic farming. One compress block has more than 10 million micro count beneficial for soil health. One box contains 20 compress blocks which have potency more than 40 kg vermicompost. These have great demand in Punjab.
It’s a laboratory of education. For volunteers the benefits are endless. They have the experience of a lifetime, learning new languages and embracing new cultures. In true sense, University of Life aims at eradicating the fears and phobias that haunt today’s children. The fear of failing exams, losing jobs, market recessions and so on… Over the years it’s been proved that it is possible in a school of this kind to help children to have no fear whatsoever. The noble aim, to help children to be honest, incorruptible and masters of a holistic mind, can be seen translated in their lives when one meets the resident interns like Venkat Narayan, Aditi Srivastav, Mahesh Kadam, Vishwas Patil, Krishna Chawhan, Mohammad Shaikh, Sukhlal Pawra and many others who have passed the test of life with flying colours!