Children in Potomac, Washington D.C. and Hillsborough, North Carolina have been in for a treat this summer with an Indian Arts Summer Camp that absorbs them in Vaishnava culture and is lots of fun at the same time.
Second generation ISKCON devotee Gaurangi-Priya, 34, started the camp six years ago, and runs it with her mother, Kamalini Dasi. At first, it was a way for students of her Bharatanatyam dance school in Hillsborough, Prema Natya Vidyalaya, to retain a connection with the traditional dance form during the summer.
“But from the very first year, it took on a life of its own,” Gaurangi-Priya says. “My students wanted to bring friends that didn’t dance, and I said okay, we’ll try it. It still has the dance appeal, but over the years it has turned into more of an Indian arts camp.”
Starting out as just one week long, the summer camp has expanded to four weeks this year. The first week, June 17th to 21st, was offered at its usual base in Hillsborough. For the second week, from June 24th to 28th, the camp was held at the ISKCON temple in Potomac, Washington D.C., for the first time ever. From July 8th to 12th, it was back in Hillsborough. And from July 15th to 19th, it will be offered at the private Emerson Waldorf School in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Attendance has also grown, from ten children in the first year, to 18 this year in Hillsborough, and 25 in Potomac. And while the camp was originally just for girls, it has begun to cater to some boys, too.
Most interestingly, only half of the participants in the Hillsborough camps are children of ISKCON devotees; the other half are local children from outside the Hare Krishna community.
When the camp is in Hillsborough, the children, aged between 4 and 12 years old, gather at Gaurangi-Priya’s home every morning. Set in the countryside with a big yard, nearby forest, a creek, swings and a tree house, it also has her large dance studio for activities.
The children start their day at 9:00am sitting in a circle. They begin by going around the circle and singing a welcome song that includes each person’s name, such as: “Haribol, mother Gaurangi-Priya, Hari Hari Bol.”
They then chant the Sanskrit prayer invoking God, “Om Namo Bhagavate Vasudevaya,” and follow with a prayer in English, which they act out with Bharatanatyam mudras (hand guestures).
“My favorite one we did this year was a prayer that Vishnujana Swami [a late ISKCON missionary] used to say,” recalls Gaurangi Priya. “It goes, ‘My dear Lord Krishna, although I have forgotten you for so many long years in this material world, today I am surrendering unto you. I am your sincere and serious servant. Please engage me in your service. From this day on, I am yours.’”
Finally, the group ends the circle with ten minutes of mantra meditation on japa beads.
Next, they do half an hour of yoga with Kamalini.
“They do different asanas,” Gaurangi-Priya says. “We try to focus on fun ones, like animal or tree poses.”
A forty-five minute Bharatanatyam dance class follows, during which the children focus on learning the same dance every day, which they perform at the end of the week.
After the dance class, Gaurangi-Priya prepares a snack for the children at 11:00am. They take turns washing everyone’s dishes and cleaning the floor. Then it’s time for some outside free play time, often with a sprinkler or other water activity set up to counteract the summer heat.
“Then at 12:30pm, we do crafts,” Gaurangi-Priya says. “One of my favorite ones is the collages. Over the year we collect old Bhaktivedanta Book Trust calendars or Back to Godhead magazines. Then the kids make amazing collages based on pictures of Krishna. And they take them home when they’re done! We also do tie-dyeing, beading, and jewelry-making.”
At 1:15pm, the children have lunch, during which Kamalini tells them a story from the ancient Vedic scriptures, such as the Ramayana or Mahabharata, or the story of Prince Dhruva or of Princess Rukmini. Often the stories tie into the current dance they are working on. All the children love the stories, and sit quietly listening to them.
Finally, at 2:00pm, the children’s parents pick them up, then return them the next day at 9:00am—the camp is currently not an overnight affair.
On Friday, at the end of the week-long camp, the children all dress in gopi skirts with gopi dots and jewelry they made themselves. They then get to share what they’ve done with their parents—including some japa meditation, yoga poses, dance mudras, and of course a performance of the dance they’ve learned throughout the week.
All of this is a joy to Gaurangi-Priya.
“I really enjoy sharing Krishna with children,” she says. “I like to see them learning the stories, chanting, putting on tilak. It’s really special for me to be able to share those experiences with the new generation of kids and see them learning dances about Krishna. It’s always a very moving experience for me.”
Particularly enriching for Gaurangi-Priya is the response from children outside the Hare Krishna community, who enjoy the camp so much that they return every year.
“I explain to them in the mornings when we chant that this is our meditation, and it starts our day so that we are calmer and more focused on what we’re doing,” she says. “And they’re just so naturally attracted to chanting. It’s also really sweet to see them learning a dance all about Krishna’s pastimes. They talk about Krishna, and some of them ask questions.”
In addition, Gaurangi-Priya requests that all children’s packed lunches are vegetarian, so that they can truly experience the culture of India.
“Everybody respects that, and I’ve just had really great feedback from parents,” she says. “One mother said her daughter has gone to camp three summers in a row, but has never raved about one as much as this camp. Another mother said, ‘All year long, Caroline tells me, ‘I want any extra money I have to go to my dance camp with Priya.’ She can’t wait for it.’”
Devotee parents, of course, are also very appreciative. In Potomac, for instance, parents begged Gaurangi-Priya to return next year and do not just one, but two weeks of camp.
Gaurangi herself is also very grateful to her hosts in Potomac.
“The temple was very welcoming and really facilitated us being there,” she says. “It was really nice to see a temple put so much effort into doing something for the local kids.”
Gaurangi-Priya does intend to return to Potomac next year, and also hopes to have other temples around the U.S. host her summer camp in the future.
“It would be the summer camp that comes to you,” she says. “I think that could definitely be something to look forward to in the future.”[ camp ] [ north carolina ] [ children's ] [ washington dc ]