Thulir is supported by a ‘network of friends’ along with Asha for education, Sirumalargal, Ein-Zehntel Stiftung and Medwel-Kinderfonds Stiftung



Where is Thulir?

The Place


Sittilingi  valley nestles between the Kalrayan and the Sitheri hills in Dharmapuri district of Tamil Nadu (South India) and is home to around 15,000 Malayalee adivasi (indigenous)people. This area, which is around 75 km each from Dharmapuri, Salem and Thiruvannamalai, was very poorly connected by road or phone until a decade ago. There are twenty-one Malayalee (adivasi) hamlets, two Lambadi hamlets and one dalit hamlet here.

The Hill slopes are Reserved Forest areas and the valley is green. Agriculture is the predominant occupation of the people here.

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The Beginnings

The Beginnings


When we, Anuradha and Krishna [Read more >> here], moved to Sittilingi in 2003, we found that there was an utter lack of good quality educational opportunities in the valley. So we decided to create a space for learning that would be tailored to the local needs. With the help of the Tribal Health Initiative (THI) – an NGO that had been working in the area for 11 years – we did a survey of the villages, and visited local government schools to understand what was needed. To our surprise we found that unlike many other rural regions, almost all children below 14 were enrolled in schools! The parents were quite keen on schooling and so children were religiously sent to schools even when there were no regular teachers in the schools and no teaching or learning was happening. We also found that most children dropped out of formal schooling at class 8 or 10, often after failing exams. These teenagers consequently had very low self esteem, lacked basic academic skills, were frustrated and usually migrated to nearby towns to work as menial labour. But schooling had succeeded in convincing them that farming or any kind of work with the hands was inferior and something to be ashamed of.

We decided to

  1. try to improve academic skills of school going children.
  2. try to provide a meaningful and useful learning opportunity for teenagers who had stopped schooling.

Thus Thulir started off as a post- school Resource and Learning Centre.

The main programmes of Thulir till 2015 were,
✴ An after-school programme for the government school
going children.
✴ A full time ‘hands-on’ basic technology course for
adolescents who had opted out of school.
✴ On-site training of building artisans to specialise in
sustainable construction.

Over the years the after-school programme provided a mix of academic skills (reading, writing, math) as well as other learning opportunities not available in school — arts and crafts, theatre, interactions with visitors from cities/other countries, field trips, environment studies etc. Classes were held in the evenings after school hours and on weekends and holidays. This was also  a training ground for some of our teenage students to learn to facilitate learning in younger children.

The full time programme for teenage students was exploratory in nature, given the complexities the young adults faced — bad academic skills with an inability to work on exam preparations, high expectations from parents in terms of passing public exams; a natural flair for working with the hands, but a sense of inadequacy/low self esteem in pursuing farming or any vocational skill. So over the years, we tried to teach them a combination of academic skills and working with the hands. When the two were integrated with real life projects, we found that learning happened more easily and self confidence was boosted. In the initial years we started with electrical wiring, plumbing and electronics, as these were seen to be “cool” things to do by most students. Slowly we  added organic farming activities after many discussions and exposure trips . One important aspect of these projects was to learn the basics of academics and business – keeping track of costs and materials, working out estimates and profits – while doing real life projects. The idea was to provide the possibility of combining family farm work with supplementary income through small businesses. Work that needed to be done in the Thulir and THI campuses (involving solar power, lighting, wiring, plumbing, farming ) provided opportunities for doing various projects.The important aspect was that the projects were real-life ones, rooted in specific realities, rather than merely academic/training exercises.

An interesting development was that this kind of project-based learning gave some of our students so much confidence that many went back and wrote the public school examinations as private candidates. Many students completed school and went on to College to pursue further studies. Some have returned to Sittilingi after gaining college degrees and work as teachers, electricians, masons, accountants and small entrepreneurs  here.

From the very beginning the village community has been requesting Thulir to start a school. After a decade of its functioning and a fairly good track record the requests became more persistent.  Finally in 2014, the decision was taken to start a school. Prospective parents, teachers and other members of the village community discussed and debated the culture and values of this new school.

The school was envisaged to be

*A space where importance would be given to tribal
culture & values, agriculture and the environment.
* A place where education would not be an abstract or cerebral
activity but one that integrates our Head, Heart and Hands.
* A sanctuary, where children and
adults could learn and explore in an atmosphere of freedom,
equality, inclusion, co-operation, dignity and joy.

The school was started on June 17th 2015 in a friend’s house.

Subsequently land was bought for the school and buildings built.

Once a few classrooms, office and toilets were ready we shifted to the new campus on January 23rd, 2019.

Read more >> Alumni.

Read more >> Newsletters.


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What Do We Believe?

Meaningful Education as we see it


Meaningful Education, we believe, must comprise of a balanced mix of skills that involve

  • The “hands” : the ability to shape materials, make useful objects, grow crops, cook..
  • The “head” : reading, writing, reasoning ,critical thinking…
  • The “heart” : aesthetic sensibility, music, dance, poetry, ethics and a sensitivity to the environment that should ultimately lead to caring for the community around us.

Further, the purpose of Education should be to increase a learner’s self confidence, help her identify skills that she enjoys learning/practising, and help lead a productive life with dignity.

We believe that mainstream education makes a divide between the “Head” and the “Hands”, classifying learning into Academic and Vocational skills. Further, Education has come to mean excessive emphasis on the “academics” and hardly any on the “vocational”. Matters related to “Heart”, are either “extra-curricular” activities that are viewed as unimportant, or are “inconvenient issues” like ethics and values that are best left out of education altogether! This has lead to a severe crisis in Education today.



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What Happens Here?

Our Attempts


As you approach the brand new school campus, you are greeted by the joyful shouts of 4 to 10 year olds running excitedly around the campus!

You see some 5 year olds running to their teacher to show an exotic looking insect they found, and an impromptu science class begins!

Nearby, some 6 year olds are busily digging and watering their vegetable beds, while some of their classmates are busy climbing the fruit trees and stuffing their mouth and pockets with fruits.

Walking in further, you see students and teachers working together, sweeping and cleaning the classrooms while other students are busy creating kolams in front of the buildings.

Soon they are finished with their tasks, and everyone assembles to start of the day singing and dancing together, making up for any lack in skill with enthusiasm and energy!

Shouts of excitement ring in the air as the 4 year olds rush to start on their daily nature walk in the nearby forest!

Meanwhile, classes have begun for the other children in the brand new classrooms or in the open spaces under the trees.

Teachers’ classes are also taking place where the teachers themselves become eager learners.

Students gather in the large craft room, weaving small baskets out of palmyra fronds, while others are making coir mats, handmade soap, paper puppets, clay models, paper jewellery, embroidery and bamboo keychains.

You hear sounds of hammering and the whine of the welding machine and you go out to see a group of youths, all Thulir alumni, engaged in constructing new buildings for the school.

A little further on, Perumal and Kumar, two ex-Thulir students turned electricians, are fixing some problem in the solar electric system.

The two can also usually be seen traveling around the villages repairing the electricity and water supply systems in the panchayat.

After a busy morning, the entire team sits down in the shade of the trees outside the kitchen to enjoy a healthy and tasty millet lunch!

Yes, the primary school is growing and flourishing. The Thulir team has grown too! It now consists of Rajammal, Sasikala, Lakshmi, Sinthamani, Chitra, Ravi, Jeevila and Suresh Kumar from the Valley and Ram and Archana, who have moved here from Bengaluru. There are around 50 tribal, Lambadi, Dalit and non tribal children studying here. Their parents play an active role in school. Many young architects, engineers and teachers intern here from time to time.

The training of building artisans goes on both in the school and outside.

The buildings are being built using mostly local or recycled materials with local artisans to boost the local economy. We have tried to make the buildings as environment and child friendly and aesthetically pleasing as possible. The buildings themselves serve as learning aids while conforming to government regulations.

It is a matter of great pride to us that the school is being built almost entirely by Thulir alumni who are now trained building artisans specializing in sustainable  building technologies.




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How Are Things Changing?

An Adivasi Community in Transition


In the past 17 years, the Valley has been undergoing rapid changes. Whereas earlier farming activity was mainly for the family’s own food consumption and therefore was mostly rain-fed food crops comprising of a lot of millets, of late there is a lot of cash crop cultivation (sugar cane, turmeric, tapioca, paddy etc..).

There are other changes too …. increasing mechanisation in the farms, more shops servicing local needs, improved running of schools, so more children pursuing high school, proliferation of cable TV, cell phones, increasing consumerism etc.

Nowadays, there are locally available opportunities to increase income levels with cash crops/service sector/organic farming etc. But most also continue with pursuing higher education outside the valley.

Since Health care and Education opportunities has increased (due to availability of Ambulances, easy connection to the city etc.), there is now increased need for cash.

While Basic health and hygiene has improved, there has been changes in diet (from eating millets to eating polished rice) and less physical effort in Farming (due to mechanisation). Consequently there is an increase in lifestyle diseases such as hyper tension and diabetes, which were previously all but unheard of in the valley.

Alcohol abuse is on the increase and so is domestic violence. There are an alarming number of suicide attempts, especially among the youth.

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Where do we go from here?

The Future



Thulir has become a dynamic place… ever changing and evolving. We began with the idea that we should be able to provide each individual student an opportunity to learn and to explore. This dynamism, we believe, is a result of the fact that individuals change and grow with experience and exposure acquired through the learning process. These changes have not only come about in our students but also in us as facilitators and co-learners. Further, the community around us is itself undergoing changes, resulting in changing aspirations for parents and students.

We hope to become a Learning Community that is creative, socially useful and productive throwing up new opportunities for the children and youth of the Sittilingi Valley. We hope to set up more learning centres in other villages in the valley.  Apart from helping students get a foothold in the mainstream education if and when they so desire, we hope to show the possibility of creating meaningful livelihoods locally.

Due to our personal interest in Alternative Technologies and lifestyles, we have been exploring such possibilities at Thulir. Read More >> Alternatives.

We can see that there are many niche skills and services in the alternative technology sector that we can use to build sustainable livelihoods. Organic food production/processing and marketing; Solar PV based lighting systems; design, manufacture and installation of community micro hydro power plants; organising marathons/cycling events; nature/rural camps for urban school children etc. are just a few of these areas.

The Larger challenge that faces us is this — ” Can we turn ourselves into a socially active group that can bring the community together to reflect upon and act on the issues that currently face us? “

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