A Man on a Mountain


“Generally I like things to be simple and self-acting…For me, simplicity is beauty, simplicity is the ultimate satisfaction.” Sonam Wangchuk, the famous inspiration behind Rancho’s character in the film 3 Idiots, says this in an interview with The Guardian. This environmentalist-scientist won the Rolex Award for Enterprise in 2016, officially recognizing him among those “who have reshaped the world with their innovative thinking and dynamism”. The accolades he has received are only the tip of the iceberg, quite literally a pun when his ‘ice stupas’ will be explained. He is well-known in the Ladakh region for promoting alternative systems of education, with his renowned Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL) school only admitting students who fail in class 10th Board Exams, and then imparting them education through practical application and interesting theoretical understanding. Upon being asked how so many of them graduate to become successful, he says, “If failures can achieve what toppers dream of, then there is something wrong in the system.” He is currently interested in setting up the Himalayan Institute of Alternatives Ladakh, a higher education institute (college/university) developing from the plan of the pioneering school, by collecting funds through different means (crowd-funding, award prizes etc.). He emphasizes learning through experience, close contact with cultural origins, and a uniquely mystical-scientific connection with the environment. This can be best understood by illustrating the ‘ice-stupas’ that he is credited for having making.

The temperature in the Ladakh region goes as low as -30 degree Celsius, while it gets approximately 100 mm annual rainfall, leading to water scarcity in the early crop growing period of April to May. Ladakhis have traditionally engaged in ‘glacier grafting’ to preserve water for irrigation by cutting pieces of glaciers, as their primary water source. Ladakhi innovator Norphey had previously created horizontal glaciers for water use in this cold desert region but it was limited to certain areas. Wangchuk adapted that model to a vertical ‘stupa-like’ conical tower formation that shoots solid-liquid ice-water upwards from underground pipes, which the low temperature freezes in an instant. Since the structure only has a small surface area that is in direct contact with sunlight, it is able to sustain itself for the summer months by slowly melting water and transporting it to the neighbouring fields through channels. “A pipe brings water from the upstream to the downstream. When you do that, the built-up of pressure in the pipe is used to run a fountain that sprays water in the air,” As a result of which the seasonal water is saved from simply flowing away in the spring months. On the other hand, his school builds on the principles his mother ingrained in him through informal education by playing “in the fields, sowing seeds, working with animals, jumping in the river, climbing trees”. This experiential knowledge is founded on harmonious and holistic education for students in terms of teaching them how to solve real life problems.

We often rue the lack of alternative education, but examples like those of Wangchuk affirm that a system distanced from rote-learning and competitive marking is equally formative and achievement-oriented as the traditional format, if not more. He exposes the inadequacy of the motive of education, because its conventional end in appropriate jobs is met with unemployment, dissatisfaction in case of employment, several rounds of company-based training despite years spent learning, a sense of personal and communal alienation etc. He emphasizes praxis without disregarding the role of theory in the formulation of ideas, but completely displaces the evaluation of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ students by evoking the unique potential that everyone has for productivity. He proves how our perceptions of questions of talent, choice, and intelligence are so fallacious, because our techniques of measurement are being applied to human beings who are not exact like scientific phenomena. By working towards the welfare of mankind and nature without exploiting resources, he proves how genius can exist even in the toughest times. A man who never went to a formal school has about 400 patents to his name today. His case has several parallels like Einstein, Curie and Tagore. Intellectual or creative faculties are often suppressed by standardised methods of teaching, because they limit the scope of all students. Claiming that they are designed keeping the average student in mind also limits the average student.

But, Sonam Wangchuk teaches us that alternatives are always possible. One only has to work towards them dedicatedly.

-Contributed by Tript

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