Before I post the coherent version of the MTS camp experience, I must note that this wouldn’t have been done if Mala Aunty hadn’t given me a deadline.Further, I would like you to excuse me for any euphemisms that may have been included or awesome things like our all-nighters excluded, this version is for the press, so I had to keep it press-friendly. Third, I would like to thank Shivam for helping me write this… So here it goes:
Excitement filled the air as more than 50 participants eagerly awaited departing the Sri Meenakshi Temple on Wednesday, June 9th. The day began with a prayer to the Lord Ganesha, the remover of obstacles and it was clear from the beginning that our prayers had been heard. The bus was loaded as lunch was served and we promptly began our journey to Barsana Dham in Austin, TX.
The bus was filled with chatter as new friendships were made and elaborate plans for having fun were discussed, as we rolled across the varying Texas terrain, with tall skylines one minute and short grasses the next. The four hour drive seemed to pass by in flash, and we were soon engulfed in the peaceful and serene aura that pervaded the environment of Barsana Dham due to its remarkable balance of natural beauty and human architecture. Every child, from age 6 to 18 helped in unloading the bus and allowing the camp to quickly get started.
Upon entering the building, snacks were served to kids that as they were assigned to their rooms. We started off the camp with Rudra Abhishekam for the Gopeshwara Mahadeva shrine. All the kids devotedly offered milk and water to the Lord while the Rudram (mantras in praise of Ishvara from the Rig Veda) was chanted. This was followed by a melodious recitation of the Lingashtakam. After just a short hour with our dedicated and interest grabbing instructor, Dr. Partha Krishnamurthy, everyone felt more confident in their vocal talent. After a short overview of our Camp Ishvara, discussing the family of Lord Shiva, we broke for dinner and then sleep to begin our next day bright and early.
Thursday morning began with yoga at 6:30 AM in the morning. Our yogacharya Dr. Shriram Sarvotham, began with the basic rules of yoga and transformed our understanding of it as a physical practice to a prayer to the lord. As he made even the toughest asanas (postures) seem like child’s play, he taught us the Surya Namaskara (Sun Salutation) and other postures and filled us all with energy that lasted throughout the day.
We soon proceeded to breakfast and then an ice-breaker as we broke into five teams named after the pancha bhootas (the traditional five elements), Akash (air), Vayu (water), Agni (fire), Prthvi (Earth) and Varuna (water) and got to better know each other. We then began our first session of the day quite appropriately with Lord Ganesha. While we discussed the various interesting stories regarding the god, we delved deeper into the symbolic meaning for Lord Ganesha, and taught important morals, such as listening to parents. Each team then presented what they had learned from the session by illustrating the body of Lord Ganesha and discussing the symbolism behind it. We concluded the session with the bhajan Shakti Sahita Ganapati.
Free time featuring various sports followed and soon a scrumptious lunch was served. The children quickly assembled back for Arts and Crafts where everyone made their own murthy (idol) of Lord Ganesha from blocks of clay. Everyone was amazed by the success in this as nearly 50 Ganeshas adorned the Lotus Hall.
After a few quick snacks, we gathered once again to learn about Lord Kartikeya, through another highly interactive lecture. We began by learning different names of Lord Kartikeya and then discussing their significance and stories surrounding his birth. We then learned a Tamil bhajan, nada vindu kaladhi on Lord Kartikeya. This was followed by a session on garba dance. We learned how to perform this dance in preparation for having a formal garba outside the next day, before enjoying an extremely satisfying dinner.
This was followed by a couple of tremendously fun games of kabadi and everyone soon went to sleep in preparation for the next day.
The morning once again started with an early yoga session. We were taught a more grueling variation in the surya namaskaras and the peacocks joined us as we stretched our muscles. We also learned the bridge pose, the spinal twist and the chair pose among others before moving onto breakfast, invigorated by the challenging yet rewarding Yoga session.
Once again, we launched into another fascinating session, this one about Lord Ayyappa. The story of Ayyappa was told in a very interactive manner with lots of thought provoking questions and life-lessons as the resulting answers. The story was told in a unique picture form which led to lots of creative interpretations and a higher level of understanding of the rather complex tales of Lord Manikantha. We finished the session with a heartfelt singing of a newly learned Bhajan, the Harivarashtakam. Everyone was amazed at the synchronization of the students and the melodious chanting.
The session was followed by a delicious lunch break where the participants discussed the recent sessions and highlighted their favorite parts so far. While this was going on, preparations were underway for yet another fun-filled and creative arts and crafts session, decorating the Ganeshas that were made the previous day. The children expressed excitement while painting their personal Ganeshas and creating colorful garlands to adorn the lord. Indeed, the originality of the participants was something special.
After another quick break one of the most tranquil camp activities began. By unanimous decision, the participants voted to hike up Barsana Dham’s Goverdhan Hill. We traveled up, enthralled by the natural beauty of the green surroundings and were rendered to an awestruck silence as we reached the zenith. The peak of the hill provided a magnificent view of the temple and the surrounding areas and was also a great Kodak moment against the picturesque, natural backdrop. Despite the long walk, the children quickly got ready with their traditional Indian clothing for a camp favorite, Garba. We walked out to the Maharaas Mandal and played an enthusiastic round of Garba. It took lots of coercing to get kids to return back inside for dinner.
The daily routine of Yoga and breakfast continued on Saturday morning until the first session began. During that, we learned of the many stories of Lord Shiva in his many forms. Everyone had their own take and we ended up learning many insightful events involving about the lord. After lunch, we were given some background information on Mother Parvati and then Mr. Bala launched into an attention-grabbing story of Devi Mahatmyam.
The lecture was followed by the camp talent show. The participants had prepared independently for the duration of the camp and were ready to showcase their abilities. It was a magnificent show filled with singing, acting, and other original acts by all ages. And immediately after, due to an overwhelming request from the participants, we played a final round of Garba. Our final dinner at camp was an appetizing one and the participants slept in anticipation of the grand finale.
The concluding Yoga session was definitely the best as the participants performed as if they were masters of Yoga. The children then gathered into their groups to present aspects of what they had learned over the past several days. All five teams had to make a presentation on one of the of the five forms of god that had been discussed over the course of the camp. The children got a treat when they were given the chance to perform a bhajan on the Voice of Sanatan Hinduism Radio during the Sri Meenakshi Temple Segment. After a wonderful performance by the entire camp, the groups made their presentations on Lord Ganesha, Lord Muruga, Lord Ayyappa, Goddess Parvathi, and Lord Shiva. It concisely summed up the 5 days of learning and was a great way of exhibiting what had been learned. Our cook and volunteers were given a break on cooking as lunches were prepared by our hosts at Barsana Dham. We then boarded on the bus and traveled back to the Sri Meenakshi Temple. The return trip was filled with memories from the camp and our plans to return next year. As we said our goodbyes it was apparent to all that this had been a fun-filled, educational, and successful camp.
We would like to thank all of the volunteers that gave us their valuable time for every aspect of the camp. Since there are many uncles and aunties that helped us out greatly, it would be difficult to mention all of their names. Therefore, we would like to once again give our most sincere appreciation and gratitude to everyone who made Camp Ishvara a grand success.