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An offbeat Ladakhi school that famously starred in the hit Hindi movie 3 Idiots

Shyam G. Menon, The Hindu Business Line, 23rd July 2010 - Ever since 3 Idiots captured the fancy of India and became a box-office phenomenon, a school on the outskirts of Leh has become an unexpected tourist attraction for having featured in the film. Every day, a handful of tourists arrive at the Druk White Lotus School at Shey to glimpse Phunsuk Wangdoo's idea of education.

That was Bollywood. In Ladakh, where tradition, modernity and small community pose questions at every step, education has at times attracted controversy. The best known incident is probably the rise of the Students Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL) to iconic status and its subsequent cut down to size - a story that is still puzzling.

"Our vision is to provide a modern education for Ladakhi children, grounded in their own culture and spirituality, and in a sustainable manner," the official handout of the Druk White Lotus School said. It was June third week. The school was all ready to host a visit by His Holiness the Twelfth Gyalwang Drukpa, head of the Drukpa Lineage (a sect within Buddhism) to which the school belonged. Children waited in line to welcome him while in the school's courtyard, a mix of parents, followers of the faith, teachers and the media indulged prayer beads and each other.

The Druk White Lotus School courts a mix of tradition and modernity. There is English, IT and other paraphernalia of modern schooling, plus culture and tradition. Given the region's winter when temperature dips to minus 30, the school runs from November to mid-December, then early March to mid-July and early August to end-October. It had nearly 600 students. Characteristic of emergent Ladakh the school greets the sky with a battery of solar panels. Its environs are clean, free of plastic and the school is eco-friendly.

Built and run by the Drukpa Lineage, which also manages Ladakh's famous Hemis monastery, its architecture is engaging from afar and close.

At the orientation room for visitors (it had a poster of 3 Idiots placed at the door) a young lady explained the overall plan. The blueprint had a couple of reference points - there was a circular structure roughly in the middle of the complex and a large building at its far end, dedicated to the great sage Naropa and aptly named Naropa Palace. The classrooms and hostels were positioned around the circle. The circle was said to resemble the Buddhist Mandala, of great significance in the religion's practise of meditation and aspiration for enlightenment. Very simply put therefore, the overall plan had a touch of journeying through stages to the Naropa Palace beyond. For its environment-friendly architecture, the school has won several awards.

As part of its project called 'Living Traditions', the school is also setting up on campus a Heritage Centre and a Cultural Archive. Approximately $2 million has so far been raised for the school; its supporters span individuals, trusts, companies and volunteers. An estimated $800,000 is additionally required to complete the school. "We have a lot to do. We have started a journey," Prasad Eledath, the principal, said.

Like elsewhere in Ladakah, Shey too had monastic beauty. It was brown expanse nearby and mountains on the edge, led by the 6,150-metre Stok Kangri. According to the school's handout, the location was chosen so as to be near Leh and its resources, but far enough to distance itself from the increasing external influences brought by the large number of tourists. Phunsuk Wangdoo may have just changed that!