From Pathshala to Institute of Eminence: A Tribute…

In the beginning was a dreamer whose dream exceeded the dreamer as dreams often do. And, his dream yearned to manifest itself in real time and space. The dreamer was a curious and restive young Ghanshaym Das Birla who found himself in a little village school in the dreamy, nondescript pastoral environs of remote Pilani far from the din and dust of the frontiers in incredible India’s fabled Land of the Rajas. It was the early 1890s in calendar time that could well have been rooted in the deep recesses of mythical time.

Thanks to my own blissful seclusion from the world beyond, for an ignorant schoolboy in the barely-exposed south Bhutan in the last quarter of the bygone century, Birlas and Tatas were but exotic entities that existed in the universal map of humanity for identification and naming as a way of making sense of the unknown.

As the circuit of my humdrum life slowly began to expand, I knew that Tatas and Birlas were names of globally known business houses in India. Today, I pay my tributes to them as extraordinary human beings dedicated to making our dear Planet Earth a better home for all beings. Humanity owes a great debt of gratitude to the visionary pioneers whose purpose in life went far beyond their path-breaking legacies in the business world.  

This earnest call to Vidhya Vihar set me out on a pilgrimage to discover the world envisioned by the great G D Birla, founder of incredible institutions and builder of astounding systems, to advance the well-being of the human race by engaging the potential of the diverse streams of human thought and inventions. Inspiring symbols of the peerless genius stand witness to the purity of intent and abundance of goodwill reaching near and far. The Birla Institute of Technology and Science (BITS) at Pilani is a true testament to the vision of a rare Padma Vibhushan recipient.

Starting in 1901 as a modest Pathshala with a total population of two students and one teacher on a monthly salary of five rupees, the Birla Institute of Technology and Science has progressed steadily and blossomed into an outstanding Institute of Excellence spread over an area of 328 acres, providing world-class learning opportunities and facilities to some 5000 students and research scholars, guided by over 350 eminent faculty, assisted by a large pool of dedicated support staff.

All students and faculty, including members of the leadership team, live on the beautiful campus that lifts the mind and expands the heart of all who come to serve and to learn in witness to the all-knowing Goddess of Wisdom who keeps vigil from inside her magnificent white marble abode that embraces spiritualists and thought-leaders from all traditions from times immemorial carved on its sky-bound outer walls.   

The soul of the university, the BITS Pilani Library holds a breath-taking collection of books, journals, rare manuscripts and provides online access to a wide range of learning materials from around the world. One of the most sacred treasures housed in an exclusive section of the all-age Library is the 65000-stanza Perfection of the Wisdom Sutra from the Buddhist tradition. 

Equally fascinating is the Birla Science Museum that traces the evolution of our universe and the march of the human mind through the centuries as manifested in the myriad discoveries and inventions in diverse spheres. The beautiful Nature Park and wide open expanse of green are home to birds and animals that share this special planet with the humans. The cheer and chuckle of children in the nearby Birla Trust Schools add a special feel to the BITS universe.

Combining teaching and research, BITS Pilani provides an intellectually stimulating and deeply humanising bouquet of courses including, inter alia, Engineering, Science, Pharmacy, Management, Humanities and Social Sciences all the way up to Doctoral level with the aim of preparing well-rounded individuals who seek to harmonise the need to sharpen their brains and skills with the need to build faith and character as envisioned by the visionary founder.

Unique to BITS and its sister-institutes in Goa, Hyderabad and Dubai is the requirement for all students across the specialisations to do a course of compulsory Humanities to redeem and soften the mechanistic propensities of the technical disciplines.

Pursuit of life-affirming deep learning and wisdom is the defining pre-occupation of BITS Pilani in keeping with the profound motto of the institute: Knowledge is power supreme. Self-directed learning, absence of compulsory in-class attendance, participation in a wide range of academic and non-academic, cultural, sporting activities, community service, knowledge festivals characterise student life in this exceptional seat of learning, enriched by partnerships with renowned institutions abroad, including MIT.

The organic character of this Deemed University was conspicuously manifest in the recently concluded 2nd International Conference on Best Innovative Teaching Strategies organised by the Teaching-Learning Centre, on February 9-11, 2023, calling on the vital stakeholders and participants to innovate, achieve, and lead. It was most heartening to note that there were participants from across the disciplines as professors, students, staff as well as the top leadership of the University made the three-day education-focused event an institute-wide function that is a rarity in many other institutions where territorial mind-sets and specialist-boundaries call the tune.

Blessed by the Mahatma himself, BITS Pilani has been a favoured port of call for most of India’s presidents, prime ministers and national icons right from its inception and through its momentous journey. Its alumni are a pride to the institute and the nation at large.

For a humble teacher from Bhutan to be invited by an institution of the order of the Birlas was as humbling as edifying even as my voice often choked during my Chief Guest’s Keynote Address in the presence of great luminaries who have dedicated their life and work to the making of our world a better place for all beings to bloom and flourish.

I was struck by the breadth and depth of the themes that covered most of the major areas of concern in education today, including but not limited to, cultural and gender studies in higher education, STEM education, environmental education for sustainable social development, technology, society and industry in higher education, innovative pedagogical practices for technology-enhanced learning, and education in Sustainable Development Goals.

The concentrated six tracks covering some 89 themes and sub-themes addressed via 190+ papers, 12 keynote addresses, both online and off-line, were truly a feast of learning opportunities for all participants. The running conversation that I overheard was how powerful and deeply rewarding the sessions were.

A magical evening of enthralling folk music and quintessential multi-cuisine Rajasthani gala dinner, amazing warmth and hospitality, good cheer and goodwill so abundant on the Pilani Campus made ICON-BITS2023 truly memorable and highly uplifting. Being able to meet my old friends from our Sherubtse days added a special feel to my pilgrimage to Pilani. 

A most moving and sacred message from the Professor-In-Charge of the Teaching-Learning Centre and Principal Organiser of ICON-BITS 2023, Professor Shibani Khanra Jha, left me absolutely overwhelmed and deeply humbled: Professor Powdyel Sir, your mesmerising talk moved everyone. I wish all leaders of the world could be learned persons like you to make this world a heaven. Your vibrant in-person presence made this ICON-BITS 2023 iconic and created many benchmarks. I will carry this forever in my life…

As I took leave of my wonderful hosts and friends, this wish took hold of me – to see some of our young Bhutanese scholars benefiting from the amazing opportunities that BITS Pilani offers just as it did to a few of my fellow-citizens in the years gone by.

May the priceless legacy of the extraordinary genius of a rare human being live on forever and continue to lead and light the generations to come…

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Thakur S Powdyel, former Minister of Education.