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  • Writer's pictureUrvashi Singh

A GEM AMIDST THE THAR

Towards the end of the 13th century, the founding sultan of the Khilji dynasty, Jalaluddin Khilji and his forces had laid siege to the Sonar Kila at Jaisalmer. The then Bhati ruler, Maharawal Moolraj Singhji and his army defended their fort against Khilji’s army for 12 long years before giving way. One of the central figures in the Bhati defence of their motherland was a Rajput princess, whose acts of valour continue to be remembered to this day. It is believed that the fearless princess captured many of Khilji’s commanders and troops by closing all entry and exit routes of the fort. This formidable woman was none other than Rajkumari Ratnavati, the niece of Maharawal Moolraj ji and sister of the future ruler, Maharawal Gadsi ji Bhati. Various bards and informal records even credit her for following humanitarian protocols amidst a raging war, whereby she assured food and rations were provided to the imprisoned army men from the rival camp. Some believe that she even sacrificed her share of alms to sustain her fellow men. 


Today, Rajkumari Ratnavati’s name lies etched, not only in tales of a bygone era, but also atop a beacon that ushers us into a brighter future. Situated atop the Thar desert in rural Jaisalmer, the Rajkumari Ratnavati Girls’ School isn’t just any school of our time. An architectural zeitgeist, this oval-shaped structure made out of sandstone was commissioned by Michael Daube. The school currently provides an English medium education rural girls up to the fifth grade under the Rajasthan State Education Board, and has accumulated much appreciation and praise for its strongly sustainable ethic, design and vision. 


Primary credit for transforming the vision of this school to reality belongs to Chaitanya Raj Singh Bhati, the present-day scion of Jaisalmer. As the founder and working director of CITTA Education Foundation, India, Chaitanya toiled very hard to bring together the collective resources of Daube, Kellogg and his people for an educational cause. In an exclusive conversation with Rajputana Collective, Chaitanya shares the journey of the school, and the larger Gyaan Centre complex that offers many more promises towards a brighter future for Jaisalmer and its womenfolk. 







THE GYAAN CENTRE COMPLEX 


The Rajkumari Ratnavati Girls’ school is the inaugural structure of the Gyaan Centre Complex, which is planned to have three buildings in all. The other two will include a Women Co-Operative Centre alongside Medha, an exhibition space to showcase Jaisalmer’s embroidery and textile crafts. The centre is being designed as a dedicated space for local women to acquire craft skills and thereafter, earn livelihoods as active agents in the textile sector. So far, as many as three hundred women have already enrolled into the program that will provide them vocational training in embroidery and handicraft making.


AN INFRASTRUCTURAL PROTOTYPE 


The very possibility of the Rajkumari Ratnavati Girls’ School came into being as a result of the generous donation of land by Shri Manvendra Singh Shekhawat. Shekhawat is the managing director of the MRS Group that birthed iconic hotels such as Suryagarh and Narendra Bhawan amongst many others. The land he donated in Kanoi became the developmental site for a collaboration between Chaitanya and Mr. Michael Daube back in 2013. In Chaitanya’s words, “The beginnings of this landmark educational institution were deeply rooted in the pursuit of gender equality and empowerment of women. Girls and women have faced long-standing historical barriers in accessing education and opportunities in the region, and being inherently connected to our community, we felt a profound responsibility to attempt to remedy this.” 


Using locally sourced hand-carved Jaisalmer sandstone crafted by local artisans, a 14 inches-thick rubble wall was erected in a distinct oval shape. A sandstone cladding on the outside, and a lining of lime on the inside, with small openings towards the upper section of the wall further optimise the climate sensitive intent of the building's architecture. This purposeful design aided in reducing internal temperatures while shielding the complex from prevalent sandstorms in the region. 


Apart from acting as a protective structure against Jaisalmer’s unrelenting climate, the structure also harnesses what the desert sun offers best. Solar panel canopies are upheld atop its roof, not only to harness renewable energy, but also to provide a shaded area for the school girls to play in. An inbuilt water tank within the complex is capable of harvesting as much as four lakh litres of rainwater. Thus, with reliable energy and water management systems in place, it’s no wonder that this testament to local Jaisalmeri heritage and female strength was announced the Building of the Year by Architectural Digest towards the end of 2020. “Using local materials minimises carbon emissions and reflects a sustainable approach to infrastructure development. The architecture of Rajkumari Ratnavati Girls’ School goes beyond aesthetics; it embodies a commitment to sustainability, local craftsmanship and the creation of a conducive environment for quality education”, Chaitanya says. 


Image courtesy: Vinay Panjwani (all rights reserved)


Chaitanya (R) with Michael Daube (L)


BATTLING THE CAUSE OF FEMALE LITERACY IN RURAL RAJASTHAN 


The Rajkumari Ratnavati Girls’ School welcomed its first-ever batch of 62 girls in 2022. At present, that number has grown to 141. This number in monumental in the history of Jaisalmer, for the relative lack of female literacy in rural Jaisalmer isn’t unknown. Chaitanya further elaborates, “securing initial participation and regular attendance was a challenge, especially since most students were first-time learners from villages far away from Jaisalmer. To solve these issues, we personally visited households, stressing the importance of education. We introduced flexible school timings to tackle extreme weather conditions. Thanks to generous donations, we were able to arrange three buses to transport girls from a 30-35 kilometres radius. Our focus on prioritising lower-income families is to ensure their participation without financial strain”. 


Image credits: Vinay Panjwani (all rights reserved)


This educational initiative by Chaitanya and CITTA has spread to hamlets in far-spread villages such as Salkha, Sam and Kanoi amongst others. To further enhance the educational experience of the school’s students, CITTA has rolled out a Rural Academy Fellowship Program. 


“This is an 11-month practical teaching exposure for young aspirants to bring change in the rural landscape of the country. The fellowship will provide an excellent opportunity for aspirational minds to test and scale innovative teaching-learning practices in classrooms and the community. The school’s learning and development team will work closely with the fellows in order to improve the overall quality of education for the girls, with a strong dedication to community-centric values”, Chaitanya explains. Each fellow will be granted the responsibility of teaching 1 subject to a class in the primary section, while also preparing an action research case study, which they will get to showcase to a senior panel of members towards the end of their term. 

THE VISION AHEAD 


The Rajkumari Ratnavati Girls’ School is slowly gearing up to be able to educate over 400 girls from kindergarten to class 12. In a region where female literacy has barely crossed a meagre percentile of 30, an iconic infrastructural prototype such as the Gyaan Centre spells out a twofold success. One, it impacts local, underprivileged communities with sustainable educational imperatives. Two, it showcases to the world a novel and innovation-driven concept that is likely to amass international attention and funding to further drive its cause. 


By facilitating the participation of eminent Indian & global philanthropists in his native land, Chaitanya Raj Singh has inspired a fresh wind of change in his region, and showcased a collaboration that is not only desirable but also possible. After all, what’s the world without its fierce warrior girls and future heroes? 




Chaitanya Raj Singh Bhati | Image adapted from Hola.com

All views shared in this article belong to the person featured. Chaitanya Raj Singh Bhati bears full rights to all the content shared in this feature. Rajputana Collective does not claim any intellectual copyright or rights on any of the content and views shared in this article. The photographs that have been borrowed from the internet for illustrative purposes clearly mention image credits while recognising their respective copyright owners.

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