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Dharmalaya: an institute for compassionate living

Posted by
on January 04, 2017 at 01:28 PM

Set amidst the serenity of the Himalayas, nestled with the local community of Baijnath in Himachal Pradesh, Dharmalaya is an Indian charitable organization, working fervently towards education and empowerment of compassionate living. Their practical focus remains on sustainable village development, contemplative service-learning, immersive ecotourism, and the preservation and adaptation of traditional wisdom. Set amidst the serenity of the Himalayas, nestled with the local community of Baijnath in Himachal Pradesh, Dharmalaya is an Indian charitable organization, working fervently towards education and empowerment of compassionate living. Their practical focus remains on sustainable village development, contemplative service-learning, immersive ecotourism, and the preservation and adaptation of traditional wisdom. 

© Courtesy of Dharmalaya Institute

They go by a humble name but with a lot of deeper meaning attached to it. The expression Dharmalaya is coined by two Sanskrit words that have different layers of meaning - ‘Dharma’ and ‘alaya’. Dharma literally translates into ‘that which is held’ and conventionally used to refer to philosophical understandings and meditative practice. It also stands for moral duty so in a way the interpretation of the term Dharma would be to live with ‘universal responsibility’ and ‘secular ethics’. While the word alaya renders accurately into abode or repository. If you break it down further, it can be described as ‘reservoir of energy, knowledge, experience, memory, or potential’. Thus taking into consideration various profound connotations, Dharmalaya represents a ‘place to live responsibly, learn deeply, and work with joyful diligence to activate our great potential for the benefit of all’.

Dharmalaya Institute is a group effort made possible by a multi-disciplinary team with a pooling together a diverse collection of skills, experiences, and sensitivities. Chief members of the board and faculty include Mark Moore - president and founding director of Earthville Network, Savita Paul - Retired Principal and Cofounder of Billing View Public School of Bir, Didi Contractor - Celebrated architect specialising in traditional eco-friendly earthen construction methods of the Himalayas, Sourabh Phadke –Teacher and eco-architect, Sidney Rosario - Professor of computer science, with a strong interest in sustainability, Savneet Kaur - Principal architect at Imarat Architects, Karishma Khakhlari – vegan cuisine expert, Naresh Sharma - Foreman and earthen building advisor. From the local village of Dhanaari are the construction manager, Rajinder Thakur as well as gardens and grounds manager, Pushpa Thakur. Other collaborators are C.A Sandeep Kakkar, Bamboo specialist architect Virsingh Kawarchhatri, earthen architecture specialist Chiara Chiodero, Certified organic agriculturalist Jaswant Paul, Leigh Taylor - Administrator and facilitator of women’s workshops and Justin Van Uytrecht - I.T. specialist and environmentalist.

Located near a Himalayan town of Bir, Himachal Pradesh, Dharmalaya Institute is currently under construction. Designed by renowned earthen architect Didi Contractor along the principals of vernacular eco-architectural traditions of Kangra district of Himachal Pradesh, the construction commenced in the year 2010. Built on parallel lines as Mahatma Gandhi’s Sabarmati Ashram, Dharmalaya institute also believes in the blend of social service and personal development. 

Once completed, the institute plans a holistic approach by integrating three key aspects of sustainable living school, sustainable development and social welfare programs and seva ashram. The sustainable living school will provide education and hands on training for sustainable and compassionate living with vocational training in natural building, organic agriculture and green cottage industries. Social welfare programs and charitable programs for the benefit of community and environment will be organized. Seva Ashram is a centre for study and practice of ancient art and wisdom learnt from the Himalayan traditions like meditation, yoga, philosophy, and holistic health.

They offer various integrated programmes of experiential learning, economic empowerment, traditional wisdom, immersive ecotourism, cultural exchange and volunteer service. As the institute is designed on principles of sustainability and is currently in construction phase, lot of their programmes are related to eco-friendly construction. Architecture students are provided with a formal internship in knowledge of Kangra vernacular architecture under the guidance of esteemed Didi Contractor. Their own campus is used as a canvas for training locals and visitors in the theory and practices of earthen eco-architecture and green building as well as organic gardening and natural landscaping. Volunteers and students from around the world are greeted with open arms to learn by working hand in hand with the local artisans and propagate cultural interaction and educational ecotourism. Periodically short workshops and certified programmes for building techniques in adobe masonry, cob, rammed earth, bamboo are held. In addition, programmes in meditation and yoga are also organized.

Dharmalaya observes and proliferates traditional Indian principles of ahimsa (non-harming), karuna (compassion), maitri/metta (loving kindness), and seva (service). Their understanding of these ideologies and interpretation is not restricted to just living beings but extends further towards ecological responsibility. Inspired by Hindu and Buddhist traditions and teachings of exemplary idols of humanity – Gandhi and Dalai Lama, they give utmost importance to compassion and respect for all forms of life. As part of the four-fold Indian philosophy, they serve only plant based vegetarian food without animal products. All the food cooked in their vegan kitchen, is grown organically without chemical fertilizers and pesticides. No products of animal origin or tested on animals like honey, silk, soaps, shampoo etc are used as part of their mission of compassionate living. Plastic and their products are also not used at Dharmalaya.

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