Slow revolution in Bihar temples

Slow revolution in Bihar temples
Sometime back, Janardan Das, a Musahar (the lowest strata among the dalit community) was installed as a priest of the 300-year-old Ram Janaki temple at Paliganj, some 70 km from Patna. Das was arguably the first Musahar (also called mahadalit) in the country who was coronated as a priest in place of a Brahmin. And this happened much before Bihar saw its first mahadalit Chief Minister in Jitan Ram Manjhi.

The process of social empowerment of weaker sections in Bihar has been part of the silent revolution which has largely gone unnoticed over the years. Das’ coronation coincided with Kabir Jayanti (on June 30) and heralded a new chapter in social engineering, as the Musahars belong to the lowest strata in society, which traditionally, has been engaged in carrying night-soil.

The installation ceremony of Das, who originally was known as Janardan Manjhi, was followed by sangat (community prayer) and pangat (community dining), where around 10,000 people belonging to different sections of society dined together.

With this, Ram Janaki temple became the fourth holy place in Bihar to have a dalit/mahadalit priest, with three others being the Mahavir Mandir (Patna), Vishal Nath Mandir (Hajipur) and Shiv Mandir (Bihta).

The man behind this social churning is Kishore Kunal, a retired IPS officer who is also the chairman of the Bihar State Board of Religious Trust (BSBRT).

Kunal, who belongs to the upper caste Bhumihar, has played a pivotal role in social empowerment of weaker sections. When he was posted in Prime Minister’s office (PMO) in early 90s and was looking after Ayodhya Cell, he came in contact with Phalhari Suryavanshi Das, a dalit scholar, from Ravi Das temple in Ayodhya. Kunal, in his capacity as the Secretary of Mahavir Mandir Trust in Patna, later appointed Das as a priest in Mahavir Mandir.

This was just the beginning. For, a silent social revolution was underway in this caste-ridden state where people from the oppressed class had started performing pujas, without any murmur or protest. In the coming years, more Dalits replaced Brahmins as the chief priests of several prominent temples here.

But the first sign of this transformation was witnessed in May 2006 when Chandeshwar Paswan, a Sanskrit scholar, was appointed Bihar’s first dalit priest of the famous Vishwanath Mahadev Mandir at Hajipur, an hour’s drive from Patna.

The coronnation took place on the auspicious day of Shivaratri, when a sizeable chunk of devotees had thronged the temple to offer their prayers to Lord Shiva.

Emboldened byr this change, the BSBRT appointed another dalit, Jamuna Das, as a priest in Shiva temple at Bihta on January 14, the Makarsankranti Day. “Such steps would certainly go a long way in eliminating caste discrimination and add a new chapter of social harmony,” Kunal told Deccan Herald.

But the Bihar temples have been in the news for wrong reasons too. Before Kunal took over the BSBRT, some of the priests were anything but saint. Take for instance the case of the mahant of renowned Ajgaibinath Mandir at Sultanganj in Bhagalpur, Prem Shankar Bharti. He was caught red-handed with a woman a few years back. After a public uproar, the management of the temple was handed over to the DM of Bhagalpur.

Funds embezzled
In another instance, the secretary of Pataleshwar Mandir at Hajipur, SK Soni, was found to have embezzled temple fund worth lakhs of rupees. When the Income Tax Department sleuths swooped down on Soni recently, unaccounted money worth Rs 50 lakh was recovered from his possession.

Similarly, well-known Sun Temple in Aurangabad (Bihar) management committee secretary Rajendra Gupta was sent to jail for his alleged involvement in a scam. After he was set free, Gupta was asked by the BSRTB to resign from the temple committee.

Besides, there are hundreds of such cases in the 20,000 temples in Bihar, which have made news for the wrong reasons. But the refurbished BSRTB has taken it upon itself to stem the rot prevailing in these places of worship.

When Kunal took over, out of 20,000 temples, only 2,800 mandirs were registered. Kunal, known for his integrity, rued that the authorities of most of the temples were swindling money. “As per the rules, the registered temples were supposed to pay five per cent of their annual income to the Board. But barring a few, none of them was abiding by the law. In order to get a first hand account of the fishy things going on, Kunal one day sent a Board team to assess the daily earnings of Sheetla Mata Mandir at Agamkuan. The mandir, which showed its annual income as Rs 8,000, had actually been earning around Rs 9,000 per day.

It was then that Kunal took it upon himself to clean the Augean Stables. And in doing so he has also heralded a silent revolution by replacing Brahmins with dalit priests, a move widely appreciated.

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