We met Pushkaran, a retired engineer, after ending our vow of silence at the end of a vipassana course. During conversation, we told him about our pottery journey and in turn he invited us to a project, which has a pottery unit that he was sure we were going to benefit from. The project is called Mitraniketan and that is how we spontaneously ended up at it.
Mitraniketan is an NGO, founded in 1956 by the late Sri Viswanathan. Its aim is to provide tribal and underprivileged children with an education, empower rural women with practical handicraft skills and contribute to the rural farming community with developments in farm science. It is largely self-sufficient; with its own bakery and food processing unit where everything from baked goods to jams and tapioca chips are produced; tailoring and weaving units where things from cotton towels and casual pants to sling bags are hand woven and stitched; a farm science center (KVK) that has a lovely nursery, a pepper plantation, mushroom cultivation, fish (and hopefully goats in the future) and that also develops and provides the local community with farm technologies such as a mechanical coconut tree climber and a jack fruit cutter; and finally a rural technology center that houses the carpentry and coir units, the engineering and welding section that is responsible for producing the jackfruit cutters but also rain water harvesting systems and the pottery unit where Anil the master potter throws large pots used for an in-home compost system, amongst other things.
We arrived and were invited into a quaint round open cottage, the director’s house, for tea before being escorted to the “guesthouse”. Both the guesthouse and director’s house are designed and built by architect Laurie Baker and have a wonderful lightness to them. We felt instantly at ease. Our room was at the end of a corridor: a room with no shelves or cupboards to speak of but 4 walls full of nails. It was already fun. The room was in fact inhabited by a company of 10 lizards whom we quickly grew to love (despite their daily display of disapproving droppings on our pillow). They were a stealth anti mosquito team: better than any mosquito repellent on the market. A quick exploration of the guesthouse revealed a large rooftop, ideal for meditation and yoga, painting and reading. In Vellanad we purchased two plastic woven mats: a great Indian substitute for costlier yoga mats and which when folded also serve as perfect meditation mats. With our new mats in tow we began our daily meditation and yoga on the rooftop at 5 am.
Sethu, the wife of Sri Viswanathan continues the tradition of volunteers eating at her home. It only takes a few moments of conversation to understand how deeply magnetic her open-minded nature and vision is. Undoubtedly she is a very special woman. We quickly became acquainted with the people and friends of Mitraniketan: a global community of volunteers, many who return annually. Penny, a glass painter, is one such friend of Mitraniketan: she runs the art class whenever at Mitraniketan. In fact most volunteers who come have direct contact with the children by either teaching them an academic subject or with an extra curricular activity such as singing or sewing. We were the exceptions; who were participating in the production of terra-cotta wares at the self-sustaining pottery unit. Despite our “jobs” we still found time for football and conversation with the children on weekends. Our day was usually spent at the pottery unit from 10 till 5. On our way home, we would have chai and Kerala cake at a small family run chai and convenient shop outside Mitraniketan. Life was simple.
If you’re interested in reading further about Mitraniketan, visit their homepage.