Project Annam: A Report by Ms Richa Verma, UK.
In March 2016, I visited Punarnava Charitable Trust in Tamil Nadu, South India in an attempt to understand their daily process of feeding the neglected elderly of several nearby villages. In addition to other charitable activities, Punarnava also hold a monthly free Medical Health Camp, treating and feeding hundreds of poverty struck villagers in the surrounding area.
The philosophy of Punarnava is 'maitreya’ (friendship) and 'karuna' (compassion), a belief in abundance, in whatever form possible, for everyone around us. Greed, a strong sense of ownership, and making life only about oneself are seen as unethical and egotistical. People should be instruments of a larger, positive purpose.
On arrival, I met Geetha, a remarkable woman who has dedicated her life to administering the charity. She works purely on a voluntary basis, simply for the love of making the world a better place. She introduced me to her co-workers, Suresh and Somu, both articulate, focused and passionate young men who oversee the logistics, delivery and problem solving of the both of these much needed projects.
Every morning fresh vegetables, rice and dal are cooked by two village women. The meals are then packed into tiffins and loaded onto a jeep. The jeep makes 5 stops in the centre of each village, where the elderly eagerly await the day's hot meal. Thus, a hundred meals a day are delivered each day!! This initiative serves the dual purpose of supporting both the elderly and the women who cook, permitting them to earn a safe, independent income. Like so many women in the region, they also suffer at the hands alcoholic husbands, who may beat them, and who certainly either gamble or drink any money the family may have.
Those elderly who do not have regular access to food or any relatives to support them are considered eligible, and there is a comprehensive selection process. Disabled villagers are also fed, as are widows with young children. I spoke to several villagers in an attempt to understand how they became victims of such circumstances.
No Earnings, No Hope, No Family... Elderly Victims of Circumstances
Maraal is a soft spoken woman in her eighties. It is obvious she must have been stunningly beautiful in her youth. She lives next door to her alcoholic son and daughter- in-law and is only allowed to eat the leftovers they throw out. On the days there are no leftovers, she goes hungry. She has a 1000 watt smile, which was very visible when I askedher if she enjoys her regular tiffin.
Bagyam is a widow who doesn't remember how old she is. Her son and daughter-in-law died in an accident and she was left to raise her grandson. She spends the day herding her seven goats, but she does not have enough to feed herself.
Munni and Kanamma, an elderly couple in their 80s, have one daughter who is married. The daughter is not allowed to visit or support her parents, expected instead to sacrifice her life for the in-laws, husband and children. They are too frail to work and depend on Punarnava for the only meal they get.
Arunchamy is paralysed and his wife Ramathal takes full time care of him to the best of her ability. He has improved with treatment from the free monthly medical camp, but still does not have use of his arms. They would have starved were it not for the regular tiffin delivery.
These are the stories of alcoholism, domestic violence, accidents, disease, social problems and gambling breaking up families. The final victims are so often the elderly, who traditionally rely upon their sons to care for them in their twilight years. These elderly have nothing: no earnings, no hope, poor health, no family, and no youthfulness on their side. They are without exception painfully thin and malnourished. There was a palpable sense of insecurity and fear. Time and again we were asked "will you feed us till we die?"
I asked one man what the worst and best part of his day was. He said waking up with gnawing hunger in the middle of the night was the worst. The best part was the hour before the tiffin was delivered. He always arrived over an hour early to wait in the hot sun as the anticipation of food made his "heart soar with happiness".
Another lady said her grandchildren would sometimes come and pick at her food.
Although it meant less for her, it gave her great happiness to have the social interaction and time with them.
The incredible thing about this whole operation is the minimal costs. There are only four costs: the salary of the village women who cook, provisions (rice, lentils, vegetables, spices etc), petrol and cooking gas. The office, jeep, kitchen use, administration, driver and logistics are all free.
It is clear that every penny donated goes directly to where it is needed with no wasteful administrative costs
First Anniversary of the Dhanwantari Temple Consecration - April 21, 2016
Lord Dhanwantari, the God of Medicine, was the one who brought the nectar of immortality (or Amrit) out of the depths of the kshirasagara (the ocean of milk) during the Amrit Manthan. The Dhanwantari temple situated at Vaidyagrama completed one year of its consecration ceremony. The anniversary day pujas were led by Tantri Sri Damodaran Nambudiri, with music by Ramadasan Master. The ceremonies started with the Ganapati homam, followed by Abhishekam of the Dhanwantari idol.
Visit of dignitaries to Vaidyagrama:
The former President of Maldives, His Excellency Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, and his wife Mme Nasreena Ibrahim, came to Vaidyagrama Ayurveda Healing village for a 3 week stay in the month of March. This is their fourth visit to Vaidyagrama, for getting Ayurveda Care. They visited Balagrama and Agraharam and gave their best wishes for the future projects of the Trust.
Visit by Swami Samvidananda Saraswati:
Swami Samvidananda Saraswati ji is the chief functionary of Kailash Math Trust, Nasik. The Trust runs a 56-room dharamshala (hostel) in Nasik, a pilgrim town in Maharashtra, India.
Here there is a Ved vidyalaya, where the Vedas are taught to students, along with English, Science, Maths and Social Science. The Trust runs free homeopathic and naturopathic clinics in Nasik.
Visit by Dhananjayans:
Padma Bhushan Shri V P Dhananjayan and Padma Bhushan Smt Shanta Dhananjayan, also known as the famous dancing couple Dhananjayans, visited Vaidyagrama on February 28, 2016. Bharata Kalanjali dance school was founded by the couple in 1968.
Bharata Kalanjali has students from different parts of the world, and training is given not only in dance, but also in various culture-oriented lessons. It has branches in different parts of the city and country. Classes are operated individually by senior faculty members, who are otherwise attached to the Institution. Bharata Kalanjali alumni have well established dance schools in different parts of USA, Japan, UK, Germany, Spain, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Singapore and Australia.
Narayaneeyam at Vaidyagrama:
Narayaneeyam is a medieval Sanskrit text, composed by Melpathur Narayana Bhattathiri, (1560–1666 AD), one of the celebrated Sanskrit poets in Kerala.
Every month, Narayaneeyam is recited at Vaidyagrama and everyone eagerly awaits this recital, when 15 older ladies from the city come to Vaidyagrama and from early morning to evening they do the ‘Parayana’ or recital of Narayaneeyam.
The ‘Parayana' of Narayaneeyam is believed to possess the wonderful power of healing afflictions, both mental and physical, of its devotees. It is a work consisting of 1034 slokas, or verses, divided into 100 dasakams or chapters, each dasakam consisting of approximately 10 slokas. It is a condensed version of Bhagavata Purana, authored by Veda Vyasa, which consists of 18,000 slokas.
Summer vacation camp: May 1-10, 2016
Venue: Vaidyagrama and Balagrama
Number of participants: 36
Young children from the surrounding villages, children of staff of Vaidyagrama and children of friends came to the Vaidyagrama’s 3rd Summer Camp to experience and satisfy their need for physical activity, creative expression and participation in a community environment.
They were taught yoga, prayers of different religions, values, natural farming, group games, and creative expression in the form of art and craft training, and above all team spirit. The outdoor activities included a visit to Gass Forest Museum, where the children got much information about the plant and the animal kingdom. The children met and interacted with the young sports summer campers at Avinashilingam University.
In the afternoon they visited the Science and Technology Museum at Avinashi Road, Coimbatore and witnessed some very interesting inventions of science. They also visited the Car Museum of G D Naidu, at Avinashi Road, with its rare display of vintage cars. On the last day of the camp, during the valedictory function, they enthralled the audience with an educative and entertainment program. The audience included the staff, parents and patients of Vaidyagrama.
The children went away from the camp with their learnings, good memories, self confidence and with a promise to come back for more in the ensuing months and eventually become a part of the community.
Monthly free Ayurveda Medical camp:
Punarnava Trust conducts its free medical camp, every month, at Rottigoundanur village, and each month 20-25 poor villagers get the advantage of free medicines, oils etc. The follow up medicines are given at the hospital on all the days.
Annadanam - Community lunch:
Every month, on the 1st Saturday, the Trust members set up a camp at the village to feed the Rottigoundanur villagers, a sumptuous meal. Volunteers from the Trust which include some villagers lovingly prepare and serve the meal.
From time to time, villagers are invited to Balagrama and Vaidyagrama for the tree plantation. Every guest and patient who comes to Vaidyagrama plants a tree of their choice just before they leave. The place is growing to be a veritable forest and as a result of all this planting, some very rare birds have
made it their home here with us.
Tree plantation by guests at Vaidyagrama
Red-vented Bulbul (Pycnonotus cafer) at Vaidyagrama
Punarnava Ayurveda Trust, in collaboration with Aravind Eye Hospital, organised an Eye Camp cum Diabetic Screening Camp on March 5th 2016 at Chavadi, in the Social Welfare Hall. The patients from Chavadi, Ettimadai, Rottigoundanur, Kaliapuram, Velanthavalam, Pichanur, Madukkarai etc participated in the eye camp. Out of the 100 patients screened, 64 patients were identified with various eye problems.y 8, Monday 11 July. I am happy to share it with you. I will call it 'Glimpses of Vaidyagrama'
25 patients underwent cataract surgery.
28 patients were identified with refractive error.
2 patients were identified with Glaucoma,
2 patients with retinal defects.
4 patients with childhood eye defects.
4 patients were identified with early cataract
All the above were prescribed effective treatments at Aravind Eye Hospital.