In a remote Himalayan state a unique school is under construction.
Russell Steadman reports from Ladakh.
High in the Indian Himalayas, a young monk trickles grains of coloured sand and tiny chips of paint through a narrow brass funnel to build up a mandala. Over four days the symbolic picture of the world is painstakingly created. On the fifth day it forms the centrepiece of a religious ceremony at the end of which it is swept away, reflecting the central Buddhist tenet - the impermanence of life.
In Shey, 20km east of the Ladakhi capital Leh, a more lasting mandala is being created.
Over a 10 year period, the Druk White Lotus School will provide classrooms, science and computer facilities, a multi-purpose hall, library and administration buildings to cater for 750 pupils including 250 boarders, all forming part of a vast mandala 120m square.
Funding for the project is from the Drukpa Trust, a UK based charity set up by His Holiness the 12th Gyalwang Drukpa, head of the Drukpa Kargyud Buddhist School, who has numerous followers in the West.
What is unusual about the school is that teaching emphasis is on preserving the Ladakhi language and culture as well as passing exams.
The design of the school is similarly intended to reflect the Ladakhi culture, which is predominantly although not exclusively Buddhist. Architect for the project, Arup Associates, has been keen to develop or enhance existing Ladakhi building methods and to use local materials wherever possible. As Jim Fleming of Arup explains, a typical example of enhanced local design is the ventilation improved pit, or VIP, toilets.
Lying behind a range of 5,000m high mountains, Ladakh misses the monsoon that benefits the rest of the country. Water is in short supply and large areas of Leh and the surrounding villages are served by bowser.
Flushing toilets are not the 'norm' and anyway there are no treatment plants. Contemplation in Ladakh has traditionally been on a long drop composting toilet, emptied on an annual basis to fertilise fields and gardens.
Arup has developed toilet blocks, each cubicle having two squat holes connected to separate pits, which are used in alternate years. Waste is therefore left for a full year to decompose before the pits are emptied. At the front of the block is a black solar screen which forms part of the solar flue which draws up hot air, flies, smells and moisture. Construction manager Angdrus Sonam, who has more than 30 years experience of using Ladakhi toilets, is convinced of the benefits: 'They really are much less smelly.'
Work on the school site started in October 1998 with excavation for the 1m deep foundations for the first 40m by 40m section of the mandala - the kindergarten and infant classrooms. Some six weeks later work came to an halt as winter set in with temperatures falling to between -20degreesC and -30degreesC.
After some design changes, work resumed in June 1999 on the 700mm thick walls for the classrooms, comprising a 450mm stone outer face, 100mm cavity and 150mm mud brick inside wall. The massive walls are designed to act as a thermal buffer against the extreme range in temperature. The classrooms are positioned to maximise the solar gain from the early morning sun. Inside the classrooms are light and airy in contrast to the often dark rooms of traditional homes.
Materials are mostly obtained locally, although the 30 strong workforce of skilled stone masons, carpenters and labours are from Nepal. The 3m high classroom walls are strengthened with a concrete ring beam at 2.85m to provide additional stability in the event of an earthquake and the roof is supported independently of the walls on a braced wooden structure sitting inside the walls. India is still recovering from the devastation of the Gujarat earthquake and suitable precautions need to be taken when building in the Himalayas - a natural seismic region.
The roof is a traditional design with a base of 150mm diameter poplar branches followed by a layer of 30mm diameter willow then grass to stop the surface layers of 215mm of mud percolating into the classroom.
Timber is brought in mainly from Srinegar, a journey of some two to three days. Despite the political tensions in the region, Sonam has always been able to secure materials within a month of ordering, although with the roads into Ladakh blocked by snow for up to eight months of the year, ordering materials has to be carefully scheduled.
In August 2000 work started on the foundations for the dormitory blocks, the first of which is nearing completion. These are southfacing to benefit from solar gain throughout the day. The Trombe walls comprise a glass surface with 100mm cavity and blackened wall with five holes into the dormitory. The sun heats up the air in cavity, which passes into the dormitory. The blocks are 29m by 10m with room for 25 children plus a house parent, and shower facilities.
The total cost of the project is US$1.9M to US$2.2M, which Fleming estimates is a tenth of the price of a similar school in Europe. To date US$935,000 of funding is in place.
Construction is being phased so that that classrooms and facilities are ready as the first intake of pupils moves up through the school. Demand for places has been such that headteacher Dolma Tsering has admitted 10% more pupils that had been intended when the school opened in September 2001. She also notices that some of the four years olds have the teeth of a seven or eight year old!
Sonam believes it may be possible to speed up construction although little can be done during the winter months when much of Ladakh hibernates.
At present the road from Shey to Thiksey marks a clear delineation between the green meadows adjacent to the Indus and the barren, arid ground on which the school is being built. Tsering is determined that in 10 years the school grounds will be as green as the other side of the road. Parents have already organised planting of willow and poplar saplings, irrigated from a 49m deep borehole sunk by the local government. Solar power pumps up to 17,000 litres of water/day from the borehole which also feeds the school, gravity fed from a 60,000 litre tank.
The project has already attracted international attention, winning awards as the Best Green Building, Best Asian Building and Best Education Building in the World Architecture Awards 2002.