As dawn breaks out in the two villages of Mattur and Hosahalli, 10 km from Shimoga, the young greet the old with suprabhatam.
This rustic idyll, complete with dense arecanut plantations, is the laboratory for an experiment that aims to popularise Sanskrit as the language of the masses, not one confined to holy precincts, or the homes of sadhus and sants. Over the last two decades, about 30 per cent of the 3,000-odd people at Mattur and a smaller number at Hosahalli are working to turn their villages into Sanskrit grams. Signboards, slogans in Sanskrit, a smattering of the language as two men pass each other and a school (at Mattur) where children are taught the language, are conspicuous signs that these twin villagesthough separated by the Tungaare a milestone of sorts. In the school, children of all communities learn this language as well as other subjects (up to Class 10).
This is affirmed by children like Rumana Anjum and Abdul Razak, students of class 9. They read Sanskrit fluently, and Anjum also tells you: Aham shikshika bhavami (I want to become a teacher).
Of the two villages, Mattur is larger, has a population of 3,000, with facilities like a bank, post office, a primary health centre, a telephone exchange, even a dish antenna to bring all television channels to households here. But people are candid about the fact that it has not achieved 100 per cent literacy. Says Mattur post master M.R. Ganapathi: You must report about our sanskriti (culture). Dont misrepresent facts by writing that even a barber here speaks Sanskrit. Its an experiment to make it a Sanskrit grama (village). Its impossible to make everyone speak the language.
Ashwathnarayana Avdhani, 50, president of Shruthi Shankara Sanskrit Prathisthana, a gurukul that runs a six-year course in the language, Vedas and shastras in Mattur: Beyond the language, its the meaning of dharma shastras and Puranas that people look for. So, its not merely to earn a livelihood that one learns the language.
His nephew Keshav Avdhani, 37, says: Everything here (at the gurukul) is learnt through chanting, followed by a detailed explanation. Its wrong to classify Sanskrit as a language solely meant for pujas or one thats the monopoly of a single community. It has unique traits and gives one the ability to think deeply.
At Hosahalli, on the other side of the Tunga, Venkatachala Avdhani, 72, teaches Vedas and Sanskrit at Gayatri Pathashala. There are 10 boys now in the age group of 16-22 years who are learning Sanskrit and the Vedas, but none admit that their efforts will bear no fruit as learning the ancient language will not fetch them decent employment. Says 16-year-old T. Sridhar, who has come here from an Andhra Pradesh village: I want to studies the shastras. When I do that, Ill be respected and earn something.
Although Samskrita Bharatithe movement that set out to popularise the languagehas made some headway in these two villages, it has failed to replicate the results in other areas. Its efforts to expand into new areas through an array of coursesfrom 10-day speak Sanskrit courses and books with a collection of 1,000 common sentences to training teachers and volunteers, launching books, cassettes, videos, CDs and correspondence courseshave not helped achieve significant numbers. Offices have been set up in the US and the UK to ensure a global spread. But the progress seems inadequate for an effort that took off two decades ago.