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MiriPiri Academy: A School With a Difference



It's sunset hour at The Golden Temple in Amritsar.

As its gilded domes are bathed in a fiery glow, a lesser radiance catches the eye of many local worshippers - three graceful white-skinned girls, sitting cross-legged, preternaturally erect, clad in blue kurtas and bright white turbans.

One, sporting headphones, chants silently to herself. Another caresses a string of beads, while a third flicks her forefingers apart in an arcane scissor-like mudra, an expression of otherworldly bliss on her face.

The sight is enough to distract many from their prayers. Young men with camera-phones creep across the marble floor to take stealthy aim at the girls. Older men, flashes flaring, brandish theirs from a prudent distance. An elderly woman, eagerly inching closer, slips and lands in a painful tangle of limbs.

The three young girls at the heart of the melee go by the names of Atma Kaur, Akaljeet Kaur and Sat Nam Kaur, and come from the US, Mexico and Germany, respectively. They are students of Miri Piri Academy, a famous boarding school, run primarily for Sikhs of the diaspora.

The academy's 17-acre compound on the outskirts of Amritsar, lush with bamboo groves, ficus trees, and regal poplars, houses over a hundred turbanned young Sikhs from 13 countries across Europe, America and Southeast Asia.

Miri Piri Academy derives its name from the two swords of the sixth Guru, Guru Hargobind, which symbolize the Sikhs' mission to balance one's temporal obligations with the spiritual worlds - and that's what the Miri Piri Academy aims to instill in its students through a punishing daily schedule.

A day at Miri Piri typically begins at the ambrosial hour ("Amrit Vela" in Sikhi) of 3 am, when the bleary-eyed students don their turbans and go by the busload to the Golden Temple for seva - for example, stepping into the sarovar, and then sloshing bucketfuls of water on the great courtyard.

They return at 5 am for two hours of shuteye, then rise to have their rooms inspected by solemn senior prefects. Kirtan and simran are followed by breakfast at 7.30 am.

After an assembly of kirtan-singing, in twangy American accents, school hours commence at 8.30, with a regular academic programme that prepares students for the International Baccalaureate exam. Lunchtime brings an end to the academic session, but more arduous exertions soon follow.

Such as the hour-long physical training session at 3.30 pm, during which students thrash their way through exercises and bouts of "gatka" - a Sikh martial art which has them flail a variety of weapons and engage in hand-to-hand combat. This is followed by an hour's team sports: frisbee, basketball, football, as well as kabbaddi, for which Miri Piri's girls have a reputation that strikes terror into local school teams.

The sports session is followed by an early dinner and a postprandial prayer session. An extracurricular hour follows, during which the campus reverberates with a clamorous chorus of tablas, sitars, guitars, saws, pottery wheels and bhangra music. After two hours of such activity-packed down-time, lights are turned out at 10 pm.

As if this wasn't enough to have them spinning around from sheer exhaustion like turban-topped dervishes, Miri Piri's students also make time for Sat Nam Rasayan - a sort of Sikh reiki session - and attend intensive kundalini yoga teacher-training sessions. Plus, they frequently go on gruelling meditation and simran trips to Anandpur, Hemkunt and Goindwal Sahib.

This frenetic pace is an essential part of the philosophy of the Miri Piri Academy, designed to keep students constantly brimming with positive energy.

Explains school principal Sada Anand Kaur (Armenia-born, Los Angeles-raised): "Our kids are so radiant and shiny, they can be picked out from a line-up. As Bhai Harbhajan Singh ji Yogi used to say, 'Put so much pressure that they become sparkly like diamonds'!"

Bhai Harbhajan Singh founded the Miri Piri Academy 11 years ago. In the worldwide community of diaspora Sikhs - several million Sikhs live around the globe, outside Punjab, the birthplace of Sikhism - huge numbers can be traced back to his mentorship.

In the hedonistic days of the '60s hippie movement, Yogi ji (later given the honorific, Sri Singh Sahib, or popularly known as Yogi Bhajan) went to America to train kundalini yoga teachers. Though conversions were never on his agenda, his disciples were eager to adopt his faith, and formed the 3HO (Healthy Happy Holy) movement, under his guidance.

This movement spread across 13 countries in the Americas, Europe and Southeast Asia.

Thereafter, Miri Piri Academy was established so that the children of these disciples - second generation 3HO Sikhs - fully understood and immersed themselves into the faith their parents had adopted.

But Miri Piri Academy's atmosphere of austerity and discipline also makes it a popular - and effective - course of inculcating Sikh discipline in children. Jagat Guru Singh, the imposing director of spiritual studies, whose parents in New Mexico were among Yogi Bhajan's first adherents, says, "It's a Sikh school, and therefore with a strong emphasis on discipline - which makes it like a military school! Students have to stand to attention in 'formation' eight times a day, to ensure punctuality. And if they are late or skip something, they are punished by being made to run, or stand on the field in the evening for half an hour." There are also strict rules of behaviour, so students aren't likely to earn themselves the diplomas-in-debauchery so often associated with Indian international schools. "No drugs, no meat, no smoking, no drinking, no cutting hair, and no dating," intones Jagat Guru Singh sternly.

Nevertheless, Miri Piri students aren't complaining - at least, not publicly. The combination of intense spirituality, austerity and friendships they form here seem to provide intoxication enough.

Hargobind Singh, 15, finds he's outgrown the typical preoccupations of high school kids in the U.S.. "I went back to school in Boston after being here for some time," he muses, nudging a football cleat into the grass, "and my new friends were just not deep enough - all they could talk about was fun, parties and movies."

Fellow Bostonian, the blonde and blue-eyed Atma Kaur, also says she's grown too wise and spiritual for her friends back home to understand. "They're in awe of me. They tell me about their problems, and find me uplifting."

Akaljeet Kaur, 17, recalls how she "fell in love" with the Golden Temple at first sight, and now feels so "completely at home" there that her earlier life, growing up in a Catholic family in Mexico, seems very far away.

Their intensely-meditating Sikhi, with even the women wearing turbans, does seem to bewilder and enthrall the home-grown Sikh folk of Amritsar.

Akaljeet once found her tranquil prayer session beneath a tree interrupted by a fluttering sensation on her toes. "I opened my eyes to find an old lady kissing my feet!" she exclaims, laughing.

"We're really not as strange or exotic as people think," protests Atma.

Tell that to the elderly pilgrim at the Golden Temple, who lets forth a startled "Oye, aah ki hoya?" at his first glimpse of the Miri Piri girls.


[Courtesy: OutlookIndia]

March 16, 2009

Conversation about this article

1: Raj (Canada), March 16, 2009, 10:58 PM.

These kids should teach Punjabi youth what real Sikhi is.

2: Gurdev Singh (Unionville, Ontario, Canada), April 17, 2009, 8:43 AM.

There should be a Miri Piri Academy in every town whereever Sikhs are. SGPC/Akalis/Sikh Charities could take a hint. Here is a chance to earn well-deserved respect and gratitude from the Sikh masses worldwide.

3: Jasleen Kaur (U.S.A.), February 02, 2010, 12:51 PM.

You paint a very rosy and flattering picture of Miri Piri Academy! I've seen photos and videos of their "discipline", harassing teachers, throwing things in class, using foul language, all in the bana. Back when their school was in Amritsar proper, they could be seen smoking or drinking near the school, the girls running around with local boys ... I guess moving to a suburb has reduced that a bit. There are two sides to every story. These kids are not perfect. The fact that most of them are 'white' should not blind us to the fact that they're human and make mistakes as well.

4: Amandeep Kaur Mangat (Australia), May 22, 2010, 8:26 AM.

When I saw the few photos of students of Miri Piri Academy, I immediately thought of putting my kids in the same academy one day. I really feel proud of being a Sikh.

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