Indian students archer aim for their future

Gurukul Prabhat Ashram
Dressed in traditional robes and secluded in a tranquil rural garden, 20-year-old Somendra draws his bow in the knowledge that his archery form this year could determine the course of his life.

If he does well, he'll be offered a coveted job with a police force. If not, he might hope to become a teacher. For Somendra and dozens of youths like him at the Gurukul Prabhat Ashram boarding school which along with archery is dedicated to the learning of sacred Hindu texts in the ancient language of Sanskrit life holds few simple options.

Gurukul Prabhat is a throwback to medieval times, despite being just 72 kilometers (45 miles) from the teeming Indian metropolis of New Delhi. The school embraces a systematic (or systemic?) program that insists its students cut off all worldly ties, including those with their parents and siblings.

"My parents have visited me a few times over the past 10 years, but that is about it,'' says Somendra, tinkering with his bow. "This is the world for us and everything outside seems alien.''

The archers go through their practice sessions much like others studying at the school, with a quiet confidence and a monastic demeanor emphasized by the traditional Indian dress of dhoti-kurtas (a wrap-around lower garment and a long shirt) in deep yellow.

"There are only some six to 10 students who are selected for archery each year. I came here wanting to study Sanskrit, but became one of the main archers,'' says Somendra, who is banned from using his full name at the institute so as to disguise his caste.

The institute, established in 1939, may be following centuries-old systems, but has embraced a progressive outlook in eliminating India's age-old caste system that decides people's social status on the basis of the families they are born to.

Irrespective of their family background, Somendra and his 84 fellow students equally share chores such as farming, tending cattle and cooking. They also forego the other trappings of modern culture most other teenagers take for granted _ television, movies and computers. For Somedra, it's the archery practice that matters most in his life.

"I'll get a job with a police department if they select me at the national championships this year. I'm sure I'll do well, it is only the food that I need to adjust to,'' says Somendra, who is used to eating bland meals without the oil and spices that are otherwise intrinsic to Indian cuisine.

Getting a police job is paramount for the archers, as it allows them to continue with their sport by representing their departments in national-level competitions.

Gurukul Prabhat is headed by Swami Vivekanand, who operates the institution with the help of private donations.

Vivekanand speaks only Sanskrit, except when under a particular tree where he agrees to talk to the Associated Press in India's modern language Hindi.

"I want India to win gold medals, not just any medal,'' Vivekanand says in reference to the six silver and bronze medals India won at this year's London Olympics.

As for gold medal prospect Deepika Kumari, who left London without a medal, Vivekanand says with confidence and a careful measure of words: "She got rattled with all the attention. That is not something that would happen to one from our institute.''

But are the archers at Gurukul Prabhat really that much different to those from more conventional backgrounds?

"There is a lot of difference between boys here and outside,'' archery coach Anuj Choudhary says. "What an archer learns in one year at some other place, he will learn in only six months here because of the serene atmosphere.''

Choudhary, a national-level archer whose brother, Ved Kumar, graduated from this facility and went on to qualify for the Olympics, has the added task of informing students about the world outside.

"There are no newspapers here. Archers here could not even see Deepika in action during the Olympics. It's my duty to keep them informed,'' says Choudhary, who has been at the school for two years.

"There have been several international level archers from here and I'm sure there can be one who wins at the world level someday.''

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