The summer afternoon makes this sleepy hamlet near Meerut seem sleepier. At the Gurukul Prabhat Ashram, students have retired to their rooms and the head priest, Swami Vivekanand Saraswati, is getting ready for afternoon prayers.
Eight boys in yellow dhotis and kurtas though aren’t in the rest or prayer modes. They are fidgeting with bows and arrows, adjusting their quivers.
The combination of Sanskrit and archery makes this a rare seat of learning. But it is their ability to churn out champions for 17 years that make it special.
Among its alumni are Satyadev Prasad, Mangal Singh Champia and Ved Kumar.
Life is tough here with children — sometimes as young as 10 — virtually cut off from the rest of the world for the next 11 years.
“Our parents can visit us only twice a year and no one can leave the ashram till he has completed seven years of stay. We graze cattle, till land, seek alms in villages and a chosen few, who show inclination towards archery, are encouraged to pursue the sport,” says Abhay Dev a former student now with the Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) because of his abilities as an archer.
“This place has given me everything… education, archery skills and a job. My father died when I was just three and my mother, a primary school teacher, brought up the children.
For 11 years, I studied here...this is my home now. Whenever I get leave, I come here to be with my gurus and train young ones. It’s a tradition here. Satyadev too comes here often,” says Dev.
“Not that everyone is from an impoverished background like me, though. Many are from well-to-do families from far flung states like Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra.
They come here to study the Vedas and become Shastris and Acharyas. Some like me decide to pursue archery. But at the end of the day, we are all equals…
“This ashram has produced some 12 internationally renowned archers, with Satyadev and Ved Kumar being trendsetters. We are only following into their footsteps,” says Dev, a gold medallist in the 2005 junior nationals.
On young Lalit Kumar, Dev has a lot of hope.
Lalit, whose father owns three shops in Meerut, says: “I chose this way of life because I wanted to be an archer. My brothers and sisters go to English-medium schools in Meerut. Here, life is tension-free and I can pursue my sport without distractions.”