Acharyashri Chandanaji – My tribute to a living legend

February, 2022 by Dilip V. Shah
We were all delighted to hear the announcement of Acharya Shri Chandanaji receiving Padmashri on 26th January 2022– a day of her 86th birthday. The scheduled virtual celebration on the Zoom platform became a more joyous occasion. There was little time between the official announcement and the 3:00 pm celebration at Rajgir, home of Veerayatan.  Traditionally, every January 26th over a thousand people would gather around Tai Ma wherever she may be – at Rajgir, Kutch, Palitana, or Nepal. All the Veerayatan Sadhvis were present but due to Covid regulations a lot fewer people were invited as guests this year.

The virtual birthday celebration combined with the award of Padma Shri on the Zoom platform was generously designed to permit 500 attendees but somehow the news spread, and many more people opted to join in.  Once the attendance limit had reached, many could not take part in the event.

How did Acharya Shri Chandanaji’s Veerayatan in a remote part of Bihar become a global oasis for Jain values? How did an organization made up of a small group of Sadhviji’s become a household word in hundreds of thousands of homes not just in India but globally? How did Acharyashri become Tai Ma?

What was the turning point for the organization? The story below has answers to all these questions.

Twenty-one years earlier, I was at Rajgir along with 125 other JAINA Yatris from the USA on our way to Shri Samed Shikharji. Our previous stop was Lachhuar – land of the three kalyanaks of Bhagwan Mahavir. Most of the yatris were saddened by the poor facilities at the only Dharmsala in Lachhuar. Even more disturbing was a visit to the local school requested by the principal of the school. Some of the yatris returned from the visit somber and sad. One yatri had tears in her eyes describing a dilapidated school building that was even missing a roof! Students were required to stand under the trees when it rained. Yatris decided that JAINA should build a school in Lachhuar – Chayanbhoomi, Janmabhumi and Dikshabhumi of our Bhagwan. As a group leader, I assured the yatris that we shall discuss the subject further once we get to Veerayatan.

Upon arriving at Veerayatan the yatri’s mood improved dramatically. Compared to Lachhuar, Veerayatan was a heavenly place. The rooms were clean, the food was wholesome, and our host – Acharyashriji was extremely gracious. At night, in a meeting with Acharyashriji, we asked her if JAINA were prepared to fund the building of a school in Luchhuar, can Veerayatan manage it? We had no idea how wide and open- ended our request was or the fact Veerayatan had never really worked outside of Rajgir or ever operated a school. But the answer was unambiguous. “Yes, if JAINA funds it, we will certainly run it”.

We thanked Acharyashriji for her magnanimity and called it a night being tired after a 16-hour day including road journey from Lachhuar.  We were told to assemble bright and early next morning after breakfast for the flag hoisting ceremony.

The next day January 26 was designated as that of dual celebration – marking Republic Day and the Sixty-fifth birthday of Acharya Shri Chandanaji.  The weather was cooperating offering up a cool sunny day and a light breeze. There was an air of anticipation for the festivities to begin. The plan was for everyone to assemble at ten in the morning in the courtyard around the flagpole. A marching band consisting of nearby school students in their cute and crisp uniform was on hand for the hoisting of the Tri-Ranga by the Acharya Shriji. After the solemn flag-raising ceremony, there was going to be a brief celebration of her birthday with some singing and speeches. Next, everyone was going to be treated to a royal feast. And a week later, Acharyashriji was to go to Rajkot to grant Diksha to a local lady.

Next morning at 10:30, everyone was in position, except Acharyashriji was nowhere to be seen. There was an unexplained delay, and some grumbling was afoot. Finally, around 11:30 Acharyashriji entered the crowd solemnly and swiftly proceeded to raise the flag. Next, she took the microphone and in an exceptionally soft trembling voice made the shocking announcement. A massive earthquake had hit Bhuj – Kutch a couple of hours earlier and mass casualties were feared. The festive mood became a somber tone. No further details were available of conditions in Kutch as Rajgir did not have a good cell phone reception and the landlines to Bhuj were not functioning.

Before the crowd could digest or make sense of the catastrophic events of Kutch, Acharyashriji made another announcement.  I was standing right next to her under the flying flag of the nation when she declared that she and a few other Sadhvis of Veerayatan will travel to Kutch in a few days to take part in relief operations.  What about Diksha ceremony in Rajkot I asked. With a spark in her eyes and a steely resolve, “Diksha can wait, Kutch cannot” was her answer. We were told she had never been to Kutch before, but she was determined to answer the call the land, the need of humanity.

The two decisions within the span of twenty-four hours – to build a school in Lachhuar and to launch a relief operation in faraway Kutch must be considered watershed events for the Veerayatan organization. The rest is history. Following up on those two decisions, Veerayatan metamorphosed into a true incarnation of its moto: Seva, Shiksha, and Sadhana. Veerayatan was no longer just a Rajgir entity. It was entering a new phase of activism and national visibility. From local, it was jumping into a global arena. The educational and humanitarian projects that materialized over the next twenty years are there for everyone to see and admire. But what I saw up-close in Acharyashriji was the inner resolve and a deep-seated stream of compassion. After all, the guiding principle of Veerayatan is “Compassion in Action.”

What a far-reaching beneficent vision of Acharyashriji? The Last twenty years have been a transformative and positive force for the scores of thousands of needy poor people in the most remote parts of the country. It has educated tens of thousands of students and pulled their families out of the cycle of perennial poverty. Recognizing the value of education along with an urgent need to protect our Tirthdhams, Acharyashriji has given us a slogan that is the guiding principle of Veerayatan now: “Jaha Jinalaya, Vaha Vidyalaya”.  Acharyashriji believes that instead of building temples in the villages, we must make villages the Temples. With schools, environmental campaigns, vocational training, health and hygiene initiatives, villages can indeed be transformed into Temples. Veerayatan initiatives in Lachhuar, Pawapuri, Rudrani, Jhakhania and Osiaji etc, have proven the wisdom of Acharyashriji’s vision.   It has also seen Veerayatan expanding in the UK, USA, and Kenya.

Seva– Shiksha and Sadhana. To Tai ma, these are not empty words. They are the marching orders for all the Veerayatan Sadhvijis, volunteers, and donors.  If you were ever fascinated by the attentive skills of the ringmaster of a three-ring circus, you will be absolutely floored to learn of all the Veerayatan projects underway that she is presently shepherding. During the last 30 months, – the Covid period, Acharyashri was in residence at Rajgir. That unusual extended stay of Acharyashriji has been a tremendous boon to Rajgir as several new philanthropic and educational projects have spawned at Rajgir. Here is a glimpse of seven projects underway at Rajgir alone.

Veerayatan Diagnostic Center: A modern diagnostic center with state-of-the-art equipment and facilities budgeted at Rs 200 million is expected to be completed during the current year. The diagnostic center is being set up adjacent to the present eye hospital. The diagnostic center will initially comprise of two sections: Pathology and Radiology. The pathology section will house Histopathology, Clinical Pathology, immunoassay Room, Hematology/Coagulation room, and Serology lab. The Radiology section will have X-ray machines, Ultra-sonography, CT scans, and MRI equipment. Findings of the tests conducted here results will be shared electronically with the large center in Pune, where expert Doctors will analyze them and send back their recommendations to the diagnostic center.

As part of the diagnostic center, there will be a Telemedicine facility so the local population of Rajgir and its adjoining towns and villages can consult expert doctors for proper medication or further treatment. A full-fledged pharmacy will also be set up next to the diagnostic center.

JAINA Vidya Mandir: In view of the lack of high-quality education facilities for students in the region, a high school of international standard affiliated with the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) is being planned for 1100 students. The two hundred million Rs. project is being partially funded by JAINA of USA. Land for the project has been identified and land development and construction of the boundary wall has commenced. The construction of the school is expected to begin in the month of May of this year and the project will be completed in 24 months.

Gautam Gurukul:  A free school for extremely underprivileged children up to class V with a capacity of three hundred students is under construction with a budget of Rs 12 million. The classes are expected to commence next year.

Ayurvedic Research Center: Rajgir is blessed by nature with surrounding mountains where many rare herbs and plants are found. The Covid -19 outbreak has awakened interest and reliance on ayurvedic medicine not just for prompt care but also for building a strong immunity level. Veerayatan is setting up an Ayurvedic Research center to study the properties of various herbs and plants found in the region. The project is in a very initial stage but is close to the heart of Acharyashriji, who has always believed in nature Cure.

Upasak Center: Twenty-five independent residential villas facing the mountain ranges are proposed to be built within Veerayatan Complex. The right to purchase the villas will be given to the interested Shravaks on a “first come first served basis”. Acharyashri thinks that if a few interested members have their second home at Rajgir, it will implore them to contribute greater time and resources for all the philanthropic work being carried out by Veerayatan. Land for the project has been identified and development work has started. The layout of the complex and plans for individual villas are in the final stages.

Kripanidhi Retreat Rajgir: Spread over two acres of land within the sprawling Veerayatan campus, Kripanidhi Retreat Rajgir is a fully airconditioned fifty room guest house built to the standard of a four-star hotel.  All the rooms and suites will have a balcony facing the majestic Vaibhavgiri mountain range. The fully vegetarian retreat has a multi-cuisine restaurant serving Indian and Chinese dishes that are cooked without onions or garlic. The retreat will have a large banquet hall, a conference room, an indoor games room, and kids play area, and two large, landscaped gardens.  It is a unique CSR project entirely funded by two Suchanti brothers and their families from Kolkata and gifted to Veerayatan. The retreat will be operated professionally, and the entire surplus will be donated to Veerayatan.

Prachin Bihar: An exhibit with a model train passing by replicas of number of historic towns, Temples, and landmarks of Bihar was inaugurated in the first week of February by Acharyashriji and members of the Firodia family. Every landmark was painstakingly handcrafted with exquisite details by Acharyashriji, and it will surely be a supplemental attraction for the visitors of Bramhi Kala Mandiram.

Besides Rajgiri, Lachhuar and Pawapuri in Bihar are also important Veerayatan education centers where Veerayatan built TMVM – Tirthankar Mahavir Vidya Mandir schools from Primary up to high school level. Lachhuar is where the first school for Adivasi children by Veerayatan was started in 2002 with the cooperation of JAINA. Today, there are one thousand students learning here. Pawapuri School was started in 2005 and has 1400 students. In 2007, a B. Ed. college was inaugurated and later in 2014 moved to a larger campus. One hundred students are admitted every year. It ranks first amongst all B. Ed. Colleges affiliated with Magadh University, Bodhi Gaya.

Tirthankar Mahavir Vidya Mandir (TMVM) schools of Lachhuar and Pawapuri

With the attention she bestowed on Rajgir over the past 30 months, Acharyashriji did not neglect the ten other Veerayatan centers around the globe. Below are just a few brief mentions.

Primary and secondary schools at Jakhania and Rudrani, Kutch

These two schools were the first relief works launched by Veerayatan in the aftermath of the disastrous earthquake in 2001. The Primary school of Rudrani has 375 students. The Jakhania school from Jr. KG to class 12 has a student strength of eight hundred in both Arts and Commerce streams. Jakhania campus is so beautiful, that a visitor might mistake it for a resort.

Veerayatan Vidyapeeth, Kutch is 150 acres of Eco-friendly campuses comprising of:

  1. Technical and Professional institute of Veerayatan is for the educational and holistic development of rural youth.
  2. Veerayatan Institute of Pharmacy The first- degree college of Kutch has reached a remarkable height since its inception in 2005. It is in top 10 Colleges of Gujarat. Currently, two hundred students are enrolled in bachelor’s & master’s degree programs.
  3. Veerayatan Institute of Business Administration and Computer Applications Established in 2005, has been catering to the needs of skilled professionals for the huge Industrial infrastructure that came into being after the 2001 earthquake. Presently 152 students are studying in BBA/BCA college.
  4. Veerayatan Institute of Engineering Spread over 5,00,000 Sq. ft. of construction, was established in 2010. Currently, 757 students are enrolled in Diploma, Degree, Polytechnic and post-graduation courses in various streams. It has a sports stadium complex, separate boys’ and girls’ hostels.

In addition to the academics, Veedyapeeth students are expected to take part in many social activities like Blood donation camps, Cleanliness campaigns, Tree plantation, communal harmony march, Health, Hygiene and Sanitation seminars, and Women empowerment campaigns.

Additionally, Veerayatan Kutch, under the guidance of Acharyashriji and supervision of Sadhvi Shri Shilapiji  is working on three new and ambitious projects:

  1. Project Samosaran: Acharyashriji envisions an incredible and inspirational creation “Samosaran”, The World of Harmony in 45 acres of Veerayatan Kutch campus. It will manifest the timeless wisdom of the revered Tirthankars in the most captivating way for the first time ever. This breathtaking, educational, and enlightening display will take the audience back in time as if being in the “Real Samosaran”. The construction has already begun, A semi-permanent structure has been set up from which Acharyashriji plans to personally supervise the construction work, brainstorming sessions with artisans, and bring to life her concept of the project.
  2. Multipurpose Hall An ultra-modern, air-conditioned multipurpose hall over a 20,000 sq ft area is under construction at Engineering Campus, Haripur with a seating capacity of 750 persons. It will be a boon to Kutch as along with all the activities and events of the school and colleges run under Veerayatan, other intellectual seminars, workshops, and lectures of prominent speakers will also be organized here.
  3. Skill India Program India being the fastest growing economy in the world, job creation and skill development programs are essential to make sure of sustainable growth. Veerayatan group of institutions being a pioneering Education hub in Kutch makes a pitch to play a vital role in providing opportunities to the students to catapult them into skilled employees or as an entrepreneur.

Veerayatan Palitana Under the guidance of Acharyashriji, Sadhvi Shri Sanghmitraji supervises the TMVM school of Palitana that opened in June of 2016. Presently, it has classes up to 8th Standard and student strength is 315. Every year the school expands by adding one more grade. The picturesque school is located just four miles from the foothills of the Palitana mountain near the Shatrunjay river dam on Palitana – Talaja Road.  Already the school is considered as the best school in the region.

Shri Adinath Netralaya – Palitana Eye Hospital brings high-quality Cataract and Retina surgeries and other specialized eye care into the Bhavnagar district, so that the pilgrims, Sadhu- Sadhvijis, and the local populace can avail themselves of the joy of clear eyesight. The state-of-the-art eye hospital built to the NABH standards, has partnered with the renowned L. V. Prasad Eye Institute, Hyderabad to provide specialized eye care. In addition, there is a clinical research tie-up that allows for AI based screening of diabetic/ hypertensive retinopathy and glaucoma with portable screening and non-mydriatic fundus cameras. On an annual basis, there are 12,000 outpatients including about 400 emergency patients. The hospital performed 1529 surgeries in the last year despite the Covid restrictions in place.

The Pragyatirth Takshashila – Foundation has recently been laid for an academic institute of Jain studies for all seekers.

TMVM Schools of Osianji and Sanchore, Rajasthan These are the two newest schools built by Veerayatan. The Osian school is from KG to standard seven with 142 students. The Sanchore School is from KG to standard eight with 300 Students.

Tirthankar Mahavir Vidya Mandir (TMVM) school of Osian.

Tirthankar Mahavir Vidya Mandir (TMVM) school of Sanchore.

In closing, the life of Acharyashriji is a precious gift to all who have the good fortune of meeting her. I am often tempted to think that the nation celebrates her birthday as a Gantantra Diwas! Just look at these pictures and rejoice.

Have you danced like no one is watching?

Teachers, not the building, make a school.

Touching lives. One soul at a time.

264,000 + Eye operations.

About Author

Dilip V. Shah

He is a past JAINA President, recipient of JAINA RATNA award, and the chairman of the JAINA Overseas Relations Committee.


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1 month ago

Your point of view caught my eye and was very interesting. Thanks. I have a question for you.