In the first week of November 1980, armed with nothing but a toolbox, Lobzang Zotpa, a Buddhist monk and teacher at the Lamdon Model Senior Secondary School in Leh, set out on the back of an army truck with feelings of excitement and anxiety.
He was heading towards the picturesque Nubra Valley to start the region’s first English-medium school on behalf of the Lamdon Social Welfare Society, an educational non-profit.
While many on the way and in the Valley mocked the idea of starting an English-medium school, he remained undeterred.
His conviction worked. In the four decades since, the Lamdon Model School in Diskit village of Nubra Valley has seen more than 5,000 students from primarily economically disadvantaged families pass through its corridors to become successful doctors, engineers, changemakers, army officers, police officers and teachers.
Recalling the initial days in an interview with The Better India, Lobzang Zotpa, who is fondly known as ‘Gyenlay,’ (‘respected scholar’) says:
“In the beginning, the school had only nine students. Without any real funds, I reached out to the residents of Diskit, and they were kind enough to offer us an acre of land to set up our school. Each household also donated anywhere between Rs 10 and Rs 50 and offered building material like wood, stone and sand for the construction of the school.”
Transportation was also a real problem sincere there weren’t any proper roads at the time, so he reached out for help in that area too.
A man offered five of his camels to help carry construction material, and a farmer allowed him to use his tractor to move heavy construction material like stones. After a year or two of getting by with help from locals, Gyenlay got assistance from the local public works department and even the armed forces personnel stationed there.
“Before the basic structure was built, classes were held in rented rooms that belonged to the Diskit Monastery. After a few rooms were set up at the school site, we shifted the students there for regular classes. There were two classrooms and one room for my residence. Initially, we didn’t have doors or windows and to protect ourselves from the cold we made use of discarded army parachutes,” he says.
Classes began in early 1983, starting from Kindergarten. However, as the school started taking in more students, Gyenlay realised that the plot of land wasn’t enough. Help came once again from residents and government authorities, and they were allotted a further 200 kanals of land in the same village to expand their school.
The current Lamdon Model School you see today was built in a staggered manner from 1989 to 2010 including additional classrooms, a hall and hostel.
Funding for these structures came from residents and sponsors based out of Europe, primarily in France, Belgium and Germany, who were some of the first tourists to arrive in Ladakh.
Today the school has boarding facilities for nearly 70 students and has over 300 students, who study there upto Class VIII before they are transferred to Lamdon School, Leh.
Aspiration to Reality
Education in the early and mid-1980s was also not a top priority for most parents in Ladakh. They were content with their children being educated at a nearby government school—this way they could also help out in the farmland or with household work. Sending a child to an English-medium school in a faraway village, along with a monthly fee, was a big decision they had to take.
“Out of their four children, my parents decided to send me to this school after Gyenlay personally visited my home and convinced them. Initially, most students were from Diskit itself because there were no hostel facilities. If you were from a faraway village, you had to stay with relatives there,” says Dr Nordan Otzer, an ENT specialist and noted Ladakhi social activist, who studied at the school until Class 6.
“During those days, English medium schools were unheard of in the Nubra subdivision. But my parents encouraged me to enrol because they believed in Gyenlay’s vision,” says Stanzin Losal, who was part of the very first batch and is currently serving as a Superintendent of Police.
What helped Gyen Zotpa to enrol more students was his ability to find foreign sponsors, who would take care of the education costs for children from remote villages in the region.
“With assistance from the then Principal of the Lamdon Modern School in Leh, Tundup Dorjey, we found sponsors from France, Germany, and Belgium—in the form of different social organisations, non-profits and societies—to help pay for the tuition and hostel facilities of poor students. Once I started finding sponsors, more children began to enrol,” he says.
“Thanks to Gyenlay’s efforts, today, more than 60 students have sponsorship today thanks to charities and societies like the Julley Enfants Du Ladakh of France and Kinder Himalaya of Germany, who have supported serious educational initiatives here,” says Mr Spalzang, the current Headmaster of the school, speaking to The Better India.
Finding qualified teachers was also a difficult task. With great difficulty, Gyen Zotpa initially found two locals who could teach. Instead of settling for them, he reached out to his contacts in Leh and within the Tibetan refugee community. “Today, we have qualified people teaching students, and we no longer face difficulty in hiring quality teachers,” says Gyenlay.
Although it’s technically an English-medium school, the school places heavy emphasis on teaching Bothi, the local language, and raising awareness about local culture.
“Since the time it started, the school has offered a higher standard of education in Nubra Valley than many of the government schools present there. Gyenlay was a very strict teacher and disciplinarian but ran the establishment exceedingly well. The school would begin around 8.30 am with an hour of prayers from Buddhist scripture and classes would go onto 4 pm,” says Dr Otzer.
“While I studied at a government school, my two younger brothers studied there. Thanks to the education and values they learnt there, today one is a successful engineer while the other has become an officer with the Intelligence Bureau. Most students who pass out of here end up reaching top positions in their respective workplaces,” says Headmaster Splazang.
Why the emphasis on education?
Lobzang Zotpa was born to an impoverished family of farmers in the picturesque Panamik village of Nubra Valley, which is known for its hot water springs.
When he was about 10 years old, he expressed a desire to become a monk in the Diskit monastery. Back then, low-income households would often send one of their children to become a monk at a monastery, and since this was the child’s wish, his parents consented.
This simple decision would turn out to be a blessing in disguise.
“I studied at a Buddhist institution in Leh until my matriculation, following which I was sent to Varanasi and studied at the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies. After finishing my studies there, I taught Hindi and Bodhi at the Lamdon Model School in Leh for two or three years before I was sent to Nubra. While I had the benefit of having my education expenses taken care of by an institution, many poor children in Nubra didn’t have that luxury and thus access to quality education. In starting an English-medium school here, I wanted to change that,” says Gyen Zotpa.
This is also what motivated him to give close attention to each student there.
“The school played a pivotal role in shaping my career because Gyenlay was very particular in imparting values of public service, besides moral values. He emphasised discipline, punctuality and particularly health and personal hygiene. He would regularly check our nails and feet, and would often ask us about our wellbeing,” recalls Stanzin Losal.
“He was the kind of teacher who would closely look after and take care of every student. Whatever I am today, I owe everything to him,” claims Dr Otzer.
For the Planet As Well
Besides his work in single-handedly establishing this school, he has also closely engaged in afforestation initiatives in the Nubra Valley, sensitising the general public about the region’s rich cultural heritage and conducting sanitation-related efforts.
“The land on which Lamdon School stood was completely barren but has now turned into a mini forest. Recently the school was extended, and a new building was constructed, for which wood came from the trees he helped plant. The hostel itself was built from about 130 trees he had planted over the years. Thanks to assistance from SECMOL, the school even has solar-powered classrooms. He would direct cultural shows and raise funds for various social causes, visit every village and spread the gospel of environmental protection and personal hygiene,” says Dr Otzer.
Gyenlay finally retired from all activities related to the school in 2016, and today, he spends his time relaxing and meditating at home in Panamik. Speaking to him, one does get the feeling that he hasn’t quite taken cognisance of the impact of his life’s work on thousands of young minds from Nubra Valley.
It’s high time that changed.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)