Abundance is not the first word that springs to mind when you visit the Garwhal, in the foothills of the Himalayas in India. Only a few years ago in this majestically beautiful area seventy five per cent of all village children were illiterate and malnourished, the infant mortality rate was the highest and womens literacy rate the lowest in India.
Now, thanks to the efforts of a few dedicated people things are beginning to change. At the beginning of March I visited the orphanage which an old friend of mine has been running in Rishikesh, on the banks of the Ganges, for the past 12 years.
Prabhavati is a great character, feeding her 54 kids on organic vegies they grow themselves, & has just opened an Eco Tourist Lodge in the last bit of virgin forest in the Garwhal, near the source of the Ganges. The rest of this area has been turned into desert through deforestation by villagers who don't understand the consequences of endlessly cutting firewood, and the mafia in cahoots with local politicians cutting down 300 yr old trees to sell to America for blockboard.
As well as preserving the forest this beautiful place provides a healthier climate for the children to escape to in the hot season, and a source of income for the orphanage. I stayed there, three hours drive into the mountains above Rishikesh, for an amazing few days. One morning we went trekking along some of the most gorgeous trails I have seen anywhere in the Himalayas, past orchards of blossoming plum trees, through virgin forests of rhododendron hung with scarlet flowers, a 160 degree view of snow capped peaks always beside us.
The next day we all had tremendous fun planting tomatoes and pumpkins for the kids and guests to eat when they come up here in the summer. There are not many places in India where you can eat hygienic, freshly picked organic salads for lunch on a terrace underneath majestic pines. In the evening we had dinner around a roaring log fire listening for the strange coughing bark of the leopards who still roam this ancient forest.
An American woman in her 50s with a huge heart, tons of courage and energy - Prabhavati does enjoy a challenge! A couple of years ago some greedy politicians bribed a bunch of village men from down the mountain to burn down the Lodge. Sixty drunken men turned up waving flaming torches, and Prabha and her 5 workers faced them down with a few garden tools. I imagine her standing there like a Valkyrie, blond hair flying, as she shouts Were prepared to die for this forest are you? You may kill us, but well certainly kill a few of you! Eventually the attackers sobered up and turned tail, with their womenfolk giggling behind them.
Prabhavati has 2 spiritual masters, Osho, whose approach can perhaps be described as: there will only be a chance to eradicate poverty if we change our mind set and stop regarding it as holy, and Poonjaji, a more traditional advaita guru, and disciple of Ramana Maharshi, the sage of Arunachala. Twelve years ago Poonjaji sent Prabhavati to meditate in a cave on the bank of the Ganges, where local children would come and visit; some of them had no parents so they kind of stayed, and thats how the orphanage came into being by chance and bit by bit.
Many of the children do not know their birthdays. Some are literally orphans, some have only one parent still alive who is too poor to take care of them and some are Nepali refugees fleeing from the situation in Nepal, where they can find themselves caught between the Maoists and the government forces. Whole families walk hundreds of kilometres over the mountain ranges looking for work in India, and a lucky few work for Prabha as cooks, gardeners and watchmen, while their children live in the orphanage, which is known as Ramanas Garden.
The childrens stories are unbelievably horrifying but so is their capacity for healing and joy. One girls father got drunk and murdered her mother then made the nine year old girl work as a prostitute. She was found by the police deep in the forest, beside the rotting body of her mother. She has been living in Ramanas Garden for a year now, and is a talented artist drawing beautiful designs for quilted cushion covers the children are making to be sold in their little shop.
The parents of a 4 yr old boy were working on the roads, high in the mountains, and at night they and their five children would sleep under a tarpaulin by the side of the road. One night a truck came careering past and ran over the entire family, dragging the bodies for a hundred yards.
The next day, when the police were removing the bodies they heard a cry, and found the little boy, who miraculously had escaped with just a few cuts. Not knowing what to do with him, the police put him in a cell, still covered with blood. Luckily a local headman knew about Prabhas work and brought the child down the mountain to her where he was christened Lucky. He had arrived only a month before my visit, and is one of the youngest children there. But he very soon attached himself to Ramesh, known as Big Boss, a charming 18 yr old who was one of the earliest arrivals, and has taken on a lot of responsibility for the younger children. Lucky decided he liked this idea, and is now known as Little Boss. The local police are often helpful and when they find children in a desperate situation, bring them to Ramanas Garden.
In spite of their traumatic histories the children are friendly, fun loving and affectionate, and very supportive of each other. The older ones speak fluent English, and are having as broad an education as possible, including dance, art, and many practical skills as well as the basic three Rs, plus a grounding in interpersonal relationships and meditation that sometimes makes children visiting with their families from the West want to stay and join in instead of going back to their schools at home.
Prabha is married to an Indian man, an ex-Jesuit priest from Kerala called Johnson and they both work tirelessly to find ways to make the children self-supporting, and to extend their work for education, food and health care throughout the area. But of course all this is very expensive, and they are completely dependent on donations and volunteers, who come for anything from a few afternoons to several months to work with the kids usually having a terrific time in the process. And Prabha makes a lightning world tour every year to raise money; she has friends all over, and an inexhaustible fund of amazing stories that make an evening with her worth a few dollars, and having met these kids I find myself in tears just thinking about their courage and beauty.
India is a country where the heights of human consciousness exist side by side with the depths of degradation. Very tempting for the western mind to leap in with cries of horror and value judgements, but probably a temptation best avoided!
The film: Ramana's Garden, & a talk by Prahbavati on Orphanage and Eco-retreat in the Himalayas: on SAT JULY 2nd, at 6.30 pm: Venue: The FLEAPIT CINEMA , 49 COLUMBIA RD, E2 7RG The Fleapit cinema has been given free in order to support this work, for which many thanks. (The fleapit has a great screening room & luxurious bar where they serve booze and organic vegie food. We're suggesting a donation of £5 entry for the orphanage kids).