India 1997: A thousand eye operations in one day



In huge tents, hundreds of beds are standing side by side. Here, patients and their relatives live for four days. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




One day, around 2,500 years ago, a younger man named Siddharta Gautama was hiking along a dusty road near the present-day town of Gaya, Bihar, northern India. For five years, he had been travelling the length and breadth of northern India, trying to get an answer to a question, which had bothered him for a long time: Why did people suffer so much?

He now sat down in the shade of a large pipal tree, determined not to move before he had found a satisfactory answer to his quest. For 49 days, he was seated beneath the tree, in deep meditation. Then he arose, convinced that he had found the answer, and that he was able to recognize the coherence of life.

From this day, he walked about, giving lectures to people about his new philosophy. His followers called him The Buddha (‘The Enlightened One’), and the place he had been meditating was named Bodhgaya. Today, it is a major Buddhist pilgrimage goal. A large number of temples have been erected here, and an offspring of the original pipal tree has been preserved. (The life of The Buddha is related on the page Religion: Buddhism, whereas the pipal tree is presented in depth on the page Plants: Pipal and banyan – two sacred fig trees.)


At a small restaurant in Bodhgaya, I get acquainted with a young Dane, Michael Lundgaard Jensen, who hasn’t come to Bodhgaya to admire the temples, but to work as a volunteer for the Samanwaya Ashram.

This ashram was established in 1954 by Dwarko Sundrani, who is now 76 years old. He was given a piece of land in Bodhgaya by philosopher and advocate for human rights Vinayak Narahari Bhave (1895-1982), often labelled Acharya (Sanskrit for ‘teacher’), who was a disciple of the freedom fighter Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948), often called Mahatma (Sanskrit for ‘venerable’ or ‘one with a great soul’). Samanwaya means ‘harmony’, whereas ashram means ‘fellowship’.

The main goal of the ashram is to make people more harmonious, peaceful and socially conscious through education, meditation, and social work. Residents and guests are required to comply with Gandhi’s 11 principles: speak truthfully, being non-violent, not stealing, live in celibacy, work physically, not amass wealth, not succumb to pleasures, be fearless, be self-sufficient, have equal respect for all religions, and, finally, work actively to remove the Indian caste system. (This system is described in depth on the page Religion: Hinduism.)

The ashram is situated at the outskirts of town, consisting of a large meeting hall, a library, offices, dormitories, and a large kitchen with a dining hall for 30 persons. Michael introduces me to the leader of the ashram, Dwarko Sundrani.

“We receive much help for our work, from the Indian state as well as private people, also foreigners,” he says. “Volunteers like Michael come here to work for up to four months, receiving only lodging and boarding.”



Leader of the ashram, Dwarko Sundari, pays a visit to Bhogta tribal people near Bodhgaya. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




Activities of the ashram
Activities here is divided into five main subjects:


1. Spiritual enrichment
Seeking people may come here to meditate and discuss religion, outlook etc. Seminars and camps are carried out, with teachers and guiding counsellors.


2. Being self-sufficient
One hectare land near the ashram is cultivated intensively with crops like potatoes and various vegetables and fruits. The four cows of the ashram produce milk, and their manure is utilized in the garden together with compost. The work is done by the residents, and the yield is very large. Many farmers nearby have copied the method.


3. Social work
You don’t have to meditate or be spiritually seeking to stay at the ashram. Many people come to carry out social work among the poor and landless in the vicinity. New land is often given to the ashram, and this land is distributed among the landless. Houses and wells are constructed for indigenous tribes, which formerly made a living from hunting and sale of firewood, and they learn to grow various crops to be self-sufficient.


4. Education
Many landless people haven’t got a clue how to cultivate crops on their own, as they were previously serfs for rich landowners. They literally have to learn to be self-sufficient. Following a massive drought in 1967, help from abroad arrived in the form of corn, chemical fertilizer, tools etc. Following the program Food for work, and work for food, volunteers from the ashram tought starving people how to utilize the gifts.

In 1968, the management of the ashram decided to include schools in the education. The first one was built on 31 ha of donated land, and a kitchen, a dormitory, a stable, and a dairy were also constructed, besides two water reservoirs. Jungle was cleared to be able to start cultivation. Today, this place is flourishing with fertile fields, 50 milking cows, and no less than about 100 children and 11 teachers in the school.

The children are not only taught reading, writing, mathematics, and natural science, but also hygiene, a feeling of community, and religious tolerance, and practical issues like crafts, cultivation, cattle farming, and digging wells. English is not taught, as the goal for the children is that they should return to their village. When poor Indian children are taught English, they often leave their village, believing, erroneously, that English is the key to work and wealth in the large cities.

The creative mind of the children is accomodated through song, dance, drawing etc. A new initiative is Vriksa Sansar (‘tree world’), in which the children learn to plant bamboo, mango, teak, and other trees to provide the village with timber, firewood, food, and cattle fodder. Surplus production can be sold.

Today, Samanwaya Ashram manage no less than 350 education centres in 160 villages. The teachers are mostly locals who have been educated in the ashram, after which they return to teach their own people. About 10,000 poor children have received practical education, enabling them to have a better chance to get work – often with excellent results.

A few children, mostly orphans and outcasts, are educated at the ashram itself. It is the duty of Michael and the three other Danish volunteers to take care of these children. They have come to Bodhgaya through the Danish society Venner af Samanwaya Ashram (‘Friends of Samanwaya Ashram’), established in 1992.


5. Medical care
Due to the widespread poverty in Bihar, there is much malnourishment and uncleanliness, which are the breeding ground for many diseases. For this reason, poor people are taught hygiene, and they are helped with medical care.

Poor hygiene, combined with the intense sunshine, result in the fact that at least 2 million people in Bihar suffer from cataract. The Bhansali Trust has been founded by an enormously wealthy diamond family in Gujarat, western India, and a part of this wealth is donated every year to carry out eye operations in Bihar. Over the last 13 years, more than 111,000 people have been operated for cataract in Bodhgaya, taking place in the world’s largest eye camp.



22 eye surgeons working side by side
Dwarko proposes that I should attend the eye camp of this year, which takes place right now. In a field behind the ashram, several large sheds and tents have been erected. A couple of months before the operations are going to take place, doctors and nurses drive around to villages in the neighbourhood to localize patients. When the time approaches, they are brought to the camp, sometimes accompanied by their nearest relatives. Arriving at the camp, they are registered on a computer and then shown into a tent where they are going to stay.

Patients and their relatives are also fed in the camp – as opposed to the Indian hospitals, where patients or their relatives must bring food and cook it themselves. Three times a day, huge amounts of rice, vegetables, and dahl (lentils) are cooked in enormous cauldrons, sometimes for up to 7,000 persons at a time. Then patients and their relatives line up, each carrying a plate. Spoon or fork is not necessary, as most Indians eat with their right hand. Everything takes place peacefully and quietly, without commotion, which is rather surprising in India.

In a tent in front of the sheds, the patients are waiting, sitting in long rows. The vast majority are old people, wrinkled and furrowed after toiling in the field throughout their life. A few are younger people and children.

Only one eye on each patient is operated at a time, and prior to the operation it is anesthetized. The patient lies down on a bed with wheels, and a long syringe containing anaesthesia is injected behind the eyeball. It looks rather fearsome, but not a sound is uttered by the patient, who has to rest a bit until the anaesthesia takes effect. Then he or she is wheeled into the adjacent shed.

Here, 44 beds are lined up, close together, and at every second of them an eye surgeon and his assistant are standing, operating under primitive conditions. However, everything is nice and clean. “Our infection percentage is only around 2,” says one of the surgeouns, as his experienced hand cuts into the eye, removing the hazy lens with a tweezer. Then he quickly sows the wound, placing a bandage on the eye. Meanwhile, another patient is ready on the next bed.

One of the assistants stands out from the crowd with her blond hair, Swedish nurse Karin Malmberg, who lives in Denmark. This is the second time she participates in an eye camp.

“It’s fantastic to be here,” she says, “the working moral is very high, and the atmosphere is fine, albeit a little hectic. There is time to fool around a bit, despite operations taking place from 7 in the morning to 12.30, and again from 13.30, until the insects start swarming around the lamps in the evening.”

Often, more than a thousand people are operated in one day. A few days later, when the camp is over, the number for 1997 is calculated at 13,400, operated in 18 days.



No less than 22 eye surgeons are operating for eye cataract simultaneously under primitive conditions, each with an assistent. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



On a long concrete couch, patients are waiting for a control to make sure that the operation was successful. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




Strong eye glasses
Following the operation, the patients walk in single file after an assistant, resting a hand on the shoulder of the person in front of them. They are led into one of the huge tents, in which hundreds of beds are placed close to one another. For four days, this is the home for the patients and their relatives.

The day after the operation, several hundred patients are lying side by side on a long concrete couch, waiting to be examined. If the operation has been successful, they are given a pair of strong eye glasses instead of artificial lenses, which are expensive and require a more complicated operation. Only children and younger people receive such lenses.

Four days later, patients and relatives are driven back to their village, and a control visit is made a couple of weeks later, to make sure that the wound is not infected.



After a successful operation, the patients must rest. There is a shortage of chairs and beds, and many will have to sit on the ground. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Volunteers, cleaning huge amounts of rice to be cooked for the patients. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



In huge cauldrons, rice, vegetables, and dahl (lentils) are cooked, whereupon the patients and their relatives line up, each carrying a plate. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




Visiting Bhogta tribals
The following day, I accompany Dwarko for a visit to a Bhogta village, which is supported by the ashram. The old jeep is loaded to its bursting point. Besides the driver and his assistant, there is also Michael and his three Danish colleages, and three of their successors who have just arrived from Denmark.

We follow a bumpy gravel road, full of holes, and after some time it is blocked by large piles of stones, to be used to improve the road. We shall have to walk the remaining 5 km. On our way, we encounter several Bhogta people, carrying large bundles of firewood on the head. They often spend an entire day collecting a single bundle, after which they face half a day’s walk to the nearest town, where they sell them for the meagre price of about 50 pence per bundle.

“They have not completely abandoned their habit of making a living from hunting and selling firewood,” says Dwarko. “I would prefer that they concentrate on growing vegetables and fruit, which gives more money, but you cannot expect to change people’s lives from one day to the next.”

We walk across the fields to a small village with brown wattle-and-daub houses, the majority thatched with grass, but a few with tiled roof. We are received by the village elders, and two beds are hauled out for us to sit on. Dwarko relates how the Bhogta were formerly living.

“They were nomads, roaming the low mountains you see behind the village. They made a living hunting wild animals like deer, wildboar, and bears, and the women collected edible leaves and roots. Just 30 years ago, there was enough space and wildlife, but up to now the population of India has more than doubled, growing from 450 million to 950 million. The space dwindled, and the competition securing wildlife increased. Finally, there was not enough space or wildlife for the Bhogta to continue their way of living. They constructed primitive houses here, but were living in poverty, as they had no knowledge of cultivation. We have helped them to start growing crops and to improve their houses, and we have constructed a well, so that they have access to clean drinking water.”

The well-tended fields around the village bear testimony to his words. A small school has also been erected, and we pay a visit to it. In the class room, about twenty small children are sitting on the floor with tablet and chalk. One of them bursts out crying on seeing the unfamiliar strangers, and the teacher must console. She herself is a Bhogta, who received her education at Samanwaya Ashram.

In a country about to suffocate in population growth, corruption, and egoism, it is indeed a relief to encounter a person like Dwarko Sundari, who has dedicated his life to give some of the poor, landless, and suppressed people of Bihar a dignified life.



Bhogta tribal village near Bodhgaya. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



These Bhogta women have been collecting firewood near their village. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Dwarko Sundari and Danish volunteers in the Bhogta village. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



In the school room, about twenty small kids are sitting on the floor with tablet and chalk. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




(Uploaded September 2021)