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Opening School, Building Orphan Home for Poorest of Poor

Bodhgaya, India. This weekend we opened our Saraswati Centre’s free primary school and broke ground for Gaia Holistic Orphan Home with Dr. Kazuko Hillyer Tatsumura, founder. Extreme heat plagued us, with temperatures above 110 degree, but about 100 children and their parents attended the ceremony which was covered extensively by the local media.

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Sitting barefoot, lotus-style for a lengthy and elaborate Hindu opening ceremony performed by three pandit.

Three Hindu pandits and a yogi, as well as a Buddhist priest were present, along with elected public officials. The school was officially opened when Dr. Kazuko and I cut the red ribbon. Her Gaia Holistic Foundation banner hung in the first classroom and our Orphans International and J. Luce Foundation banner hung in the second.

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Students wearing new school uniforms in “Yale blue” with Jim Luce.

There are about 400 children in the immediate neighborhood belonging to the caste known as “Untouchable” (Dalitwhich was formally dismantled in 1949 but sadly has not been eradicated. In Bihar, India’s poorest province about the same size as Ohio. These kids are literally the poorest of the poor, living with their subsistence farm families often in huts constructed of mud with no source of running water.

Dalit, meaning “broken” in Sanskrit, were historically excluded from the four-fold varna system of Hinduism (Caste system). Predominantly Hindu, they can also be Buddhist, Sikh, Christian, Muslim, etc. Jurist and reformer B.R. Ambedkar (1891-1956) said that ‘untouchability’ came into Indian society around 400 CE, due to the struggle for supremacy between Buddhism and Brahmanism (an ancient term for Brahmanical Hinduism).

Climate change has brought upon Bihar a heat wave – the temperature during the ceremony hit 111°  – the hottest in memory. Our car procession stopped at a large bamboo arch built across the dirt road for the occasion. Celebratory pennants were strung across the road and oncoming, old-style farm tractors had to be helped to pass under them.

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“Free School Opened for Poor Children.” Hindustan Times, April 29, 2022.

As we waited in the sweltering sun, a colorful drum band came down the road to escort us, with student merrily waving flags from around the world we had brought from New York. I chuckled to see the Greek flag looking out of place in the middle of India, and puzzling at first as it was upside down.

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Vicky Sharma with Dr. Kazuko Tatsumura at Groundbreaking of Gaia Holistic Children’s Home at Saraswati Centre, Bodhgaya, Bihar, India.

We arrived at the gates of Saraswati Centre, across from the first giant bodhi tree that Lord Buddha had sat under as he searched for enlightenment. Dr. Kazuko and I held a pair of scissors to cut the red ribbon to open the facility itself. The crowd of parents, students and staff cheered, although the extreme heat kept the numbers smaller than anticipated. We were showered by the students with flower petals and ceremonial Indian and Tibetan khata were placed around our necks along with garlands of flowers.

We then were ushered onto special carpeting, in our bare feet, to sit lotus-style for a lengthy and elaborate Hindu ceremony performed by three panditWe followed as directed, sprinkling marigold petals and holy water from the River Ganges (“auspicious!”) on the temporary brick alter laden with fruit specially constructed for this ceremony. Three commercial air conditioners labored nearby, overwhelmed by the heat.

Decked out like an Indian wedding or circus tent, our compound was covered with parachute-like material with the sides decorated with brightly colored fabric. The entire tent was carpeted. Chairs covered in cloth were neatly arranged in rows.

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Saraswati Free School of the J. Luce Foundation India, Bodhgaya, Bihar.

We then crossed the road for a Buddhist ceremony under the tremendous bodhi tree named Saraswati” after the Hindu and Buddhist God of Culture (Benzaiten” in Japanese). A statue of Lord Buddha sits at the bottom of the tree where many of the crowd bowed reverently. A pack of local boys merrily climbed the enormous branches of the tree unfettered by the extreme heat. A Hindu yogi took place in the ceremony as incense was burned and then tucked into the thick bark of the old tree.

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Jim Luce touching “Untouchable” children in Bodhgaya, Bihar, India.

The next order of business was to cut the second red ribbon opening the Saraswati Free School, two temporary brick rooms covered with a galvanized blue roof, complete with white board – modern chalk boards. One room had a Gaia Holistic Home Groundbreaking ‘step-and-repeat’ banner measuring ten-by-ten feet, while a matching Orphans International and J. Luce Foundation hung in the second room.

Following this red ribbon ceremony, our guest of honor Dr. Kazuko distributed books and school uniforms to the eighty students assembled. We had desks for only 75, but 150 had shown up to register; we estimate 300-400 children of school age live in the community.

A Tibetan film crew working on a documentary of Dr. Kazuko continued to gather footage as she reached out to each and every boy and girl, with a look of joy on all of their faces. Dr. Kazuko always looks her happiest in the presence of innocent children.

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“Free School Opened for Poor Children.” Hindustan Times, April 29, 2022.

However, the extreme heat was taking its toll and we only distributed a sampling of her Gaia Holistic Groundbreaking t-shirts to the children before rushing to the speeches so that we could end the program. This part of the ceremony was coordinated by our Saraswati principal in conjunction with the principal of our partner Lotus Free School located in a neighboring community. Three years old, the Lotus School is similar to our own, funded generously by Japanese benefactors through Nirvana Japan NGO in Tokyo.

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Bix & Jim Luce with Lama Thupten Phuntsok of Manjushree Orphanage.

Dr. Kazuko spoke on the need for compassion, I spoke about education being the surest ladder out of abject poverty, Lama Thupten spoke on the need of all people to gather to protect the poorest of the poor regardless of race or creed, and local public officials warmly welcomed us and thanked us for coming to their community to assist the neighborhood children. Local news crews covered the event resulting is several video reports and newspaper stories which made the nations Hindustan Times in both Hindi and English.

There was a stage, podium, and dais with sound system, and our program continued there. A large “Welcome Dr. Kazuko Tatsumura!” blue banner hung across the stage, complete with Gaia Holistic’s logo.

Dr. Kazuko was wilting but steadfast. She refused to take a break. After two hours, I cut the three-hour program short and helped escort her to the waiting air-conditioned car. I slapped the back of the car to leave immediately and, as the children crowded to wave goodbye, I could see her eyes roll up to the top of her head as she fell back against the head rest, fainting with heat exhaustion and jet lag. She recovered with the car’s a/c and was safely returned to the Sakura Hotel where she crashed in her ground floor room until the next day.

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One of two temporary classrooms housing 80 students at Sarasawati Free School.

The rest of us crowded into various vehicles and convened at a restaurant in the town center to celebrate an almost perfect Opening. Other than heat, over which we had no control, it had been perfect.

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The principal and staff of our school overseeing Jim’s interview.

We toasted the Board of the J. Luce Foundation India — Dip Agrawal, Ansar Ali, Santosh Kumar, Ramdhani Yadav — for coordinating such a Herculean event. We recognized the teachers and staff of our Saraswati Free School and the Japanese Lotus School, about twenty minutes, distant. We broke roti together and pledged to cooperate fully as Saraswati Free School grew. I was so proud, pleased and profoundly moved by the camaraderie.

We will be back to monitor progress of the school and orphan home in August and then November. My ten-year visa to India was a good investment! We hope to expand rapidly to 150 students and will begin a free lunch program shortly. We will now focus on building the toilet and septic tank facility to expand the one toilet temporarily in place.

The day I carried my own infant son Mathew into the hot equator sun from an orphanage in Sulawesi, Indonesia 28 years ago, and another day distributing New Year’s gifts to nearly naked yet dignified children living in the largest garbage dump of Bali were indeed watershed moments in my life. The Opening of Saraswati Centre for Dalit children in Bodhgaya, Bihar, India has become yet another.

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Originally published in Daily Kos, May 3, 2022.

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