Anthropology students return to Skanda Vale

Although only founded in 1973, Skanda Vale is already firmly established as a site of pilgrimage for over 90,000 people per year. This will be the third year that Dr. Tom Rice and Dr. Sam Hurn (both Lecturers in Anthropology) have organised an anthropological pilgrimage to the site for staff and students, and the trip has quickly become one of the major annual events in the Anthropology department calendar.

From scandavale.org

Skanda Vale is an ashram (or monastery) located deep in rural Wales, surrounded by over 300 acres of valley woodland. Made up of three temples, a hospice, and various residential caravans and chalets, the ashram is not a tourist destination, but an intentional community united by common practice. It is for this reason that visitors are asked to follow a list of rules, including not consuming animal products or illegal drugs at least 3 days before their visit. It’s also why all visitors must follow the same schedule as the ashram’s residents. Hannah Mortimer, a second year anthropology and archaeology student, tells us:

“My time spent at Skanda Vale was physically and emotionally demanding, but rewarding. We attended many pujas, the first of them starting at 5am and the last finishing around 10pm. We also helped around the farm by cleaning and feeding animals. It was definitely hard work, but I really enjoyed helping out, feeling a sense of achievement. I also found the ashram to be incredibly tranquil and calming… This is not surprising considering the warm and generous nature of the people and the beautiful surrounding landscape.”

As Skanda Vale’s webpage describes, “Nobody at Skanda Vale is paid. […] We do not charge anyone for food, accommodation or services; everything is offered completely free of charge. The community is very self-sufficient, and completely independent from any religious or commercial organisations.” Furthermore, Issy Hoole, the President of SocAntSoc, says that whilst she found the week “emotionally and physically challenging, [she] particularly found the way women are treated at Skanda Vale interesting to explore and question. There is plenty of opportunity to carry out field work in the Yoga session, where we give time towards the improvement on the sights/helping out with various tasks, which allowed us to question the way of life of the individuals.” As a moneyless intentional religious community, then, isolated physically and socially from the rest of society, Skanda Vale is therefore of great interest to anthropologists as a social microcosm and alternative community model.

However, Skanda Vale is rarely just an academic trip for those who visit – it is often a spiritual one. Issy goes on to describe the ashram as a “life changing experience.” “Previously, I was quite sceptical about religion, but after living alongside the Monks and Nuns for a week, I began to see how it is a real way of life for some people. Similarly, Owen L. Fagundes, an FCH student, says the ashram was “the most coherent take on religion I’ve witnessed.” Similar reviews are common online, with many saying it has fundamentally changed the way they view belief and religion.

The ashram not only holds religious services, but also has several strong care and conservation initiatives. One of these areas involves non-human animal care. “We have a large number of different animals,” their website says, “including [an elephant], a herd of cows, buffalo, deer, goats, plus many birds, rabbits and dogs – many of whom have been rescued from slaughter or neglect.” Non-human animals play a large social role in the nominally Hindu community, and these sanctuary efforts relate strongly to the ashram’s general ecological lookout. Although rooted in culturally and religiously specific traditions, the community is also echoed by the alternative secular ‘green’ communities emerging out of the climate change crisis, which seek to be self-sustaining and live in a way opposed to human exceptionalism.

The trip is not only a hallmark of the Anthropology calendar, but a genuinely engaging and exciting journey, both academically and spiritually. Open to all years studying Philosophy, Sociology or Anthropology free of charge, held at the end of term two every year, keep an eye out for email updates and more information about this great opportunity. Issy finishes: “I loved my time at Skanda Vale, go and experience it for yourself. I promise you won’t regret it!” 

Ciarán Daly

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