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The Katarmal complex has 46 temples, built around the 10th century. The biggest temple houses the Burhadita, the old sun god and is about 7m in height. Some of the temples are less than 2m. Large stone blocks have been used for the construction. Many of the panels have intricate engravings. But there is nothing particularly noteworthy about the history or architecture of this temple complex; it’s one amongst hundreds such in this country. That’s till you stand there and look down, from its perch on a mountainside at 2,116m.

How were the stone blocks dragged up that steep slope? Why did the Katuriya kings build the temples there? There are no adequate explanations.

When I asked the students of the Government Upper Primary School of Katarmal village about the temples, they narrated the local myth. The most important element of which is that the temples were built in one night. When I asked them whether it was really possible, they said it wasn’t possible, and then the conversation went to how that myth may have been formed.

Katarmal is about 20km from Almora. The temple overlooks the school, which is perched on another slope.

The school has an unusual layout, four rooms open into one large central common hall, which has a sliding grill door, which once shut closes the school completely. I haven’t seen many rural schools like this, which can be completely closed by one grill door. It’s a very clean school. I see many clean schools, but this one stands out. As we chatted with the two teachers, Snehlata Bisht and Nirmala Uppadhay, it became clear as to how the temple looms over the school, not only physically.

The two teachers have been in this school for a few years. Their early days in the school were very difficult. Each day would bring a new disaster e.g. smashed pots, muddied walls or human excreta in the hall. It was methodical vandalism, by youngsters from the village. It’s perhaps because of this that the grill door was made. For reasons that they didn’t understand fully, the school had a history of fraught relationship with the local community, and the vandalism was only one expression of the inherited hostility.

Inside the school they faced even more complicated issues. The children came from two different parts of the village, which were virtually two different villages, divided on caste. Local legends hold that the village of Dalits was the traditional home of the temple devadasis. This worsened the discrimination with the village. The temple devadasi tradition even if it had been there, must have stopped a century ago. In the school, the children from the two villages won’t even sit together.

The teachers grappled with this fragmented school. While the educational activities of the school had the usual challenges, they decided that letting prejudices determine the basic character of the school, made any other educational progress hollow. They felt that helping the children come out of these prejudices, must be a core educational objective.

They engaged with the community around. They revived the mechanism of the school management committee, which had parents from both villages. More important than that was the informal personal dialogues that they established.

Their efforts in the classes were equally sincere.

They gave personal attention to all students, and fostered a culture of open dialogue. All these efforts in the school and the better teaching-learning environment were visible to the village community. The vandalism stopped after a while. After a couple of years the teachers were invited to a wedding in the upper caste village. They agreed to attend only if all the students were invited. After much consternation in the community, all students, including the ones from the other village were welcomed to the wedding.

When we visited the school last month, all this was long past. The school was a cheerful place, with confident students. There was not the slightest sign of a divide, in fact there was also no sign of the gender divide that pervades most schools. While the teachers were conscious that the divide in the villages remained, they were satisfied by the progress within the school. They have good reason to feel satisfied, the experience in the school has and will continue to influence the students.

Our educational aims and curricular approach would require that any school facing such a situation must act as these teachers did; this is just one dimension of the complex role expected of a teacher. What we want of education, in the context of our society, and the natural environment of any class full of children, makes the teachers’ role highly demanding and extremely complex. There is scant societal recognition of this basic reality, and it is reflected in the lackadaisical support to teachers, the poor teacher preparation system that we have built as a nation, and the irrational scapegoating of teachers for all ills in our education system.

Anurag Behar is CEO of Azim Premji Foundation and leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd. He writes every fortnight on issues of ecology and education.

Comments are welcome at othersphere@livemint.com. To read Anurag Behar’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/othersphere

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Updated: 24 Jun 2015, 04:15 PM IST
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