Hathia Baba Mandir in Chouparan. Picture by Vishvendu Jaipuriar
(Chouparan) Hazaribagh, Aug. 5: If a Dalit priest is a rarity, a temple that worships a Dalit is well-nigh impossible in caste-ridden India. But at Hathia Baba Mandir, a snug little temple off Grand Trunk Road in Chouparan, you will find both.
Commuters from Dhanbad, Giridih and Hazaribagh — the three districts in Jharkhand that GT Road passes through — and other parts of the state as well as neighbouring Bengal often stop by the temple to seek blessings from the idols of two elephants and a former priest for a safe journey.
The temple falls in Mahanetand village of Chouparan, 69km from the district headquarters, and is 10km from the state’s border with Bihar.
According to Manoj Burnwal, a lone shopkeeper who sells flowers and snacks to visitors, the forest stretching up to Gaya and Nawada in Bihar is home to several wild animals, including elephants.
Local lore has it that an elephant was killed on the spot by a speeding truck in 1973. Soon, accidents started to occur frequently on the stretch, with many people getting killed and those injured claiming to have sighted an elephant crossing the road.
“The then officer in charge of Chouparan thana consulted a Dalit fortune-teller, Mahru Bhagat, who confirmed that the spirit of the elephant that was killed in the accident was causing the trouble. A decision was taken to set up a temple, with the statue of an elephant placed in its sanctum sanctorum. Mahru was made the priest of the temple,” Burnwal said.
Birju Bhuiyan, the son of Mahru, said his father served the temple until his death in 2007. “Larsen & Tourbro, which was widening Grand Trunk Road in 2004, pulled down the old temple and built a new one in its place. Two statues of elephants were brought in. After the death of my father, the company also erected his statue,” he pointed out.
At the back of the temple, two hand pumps were also installed by utilising government funds and six benches placed for seating arrangements.
Birju, who has taken over from his father as the priest, said, “This is the only temple in India where people worship elephants and a man belonging to a scheduled caste.”
“Truck drivers never forget to take the blessings of the elephant statue, which they call Hathia baba. They also bow to the feet of my father’s statue before leaving for their destination,” he added.
As the temple is situated amid dense forest, families travelling in cars also dropped in to offer prayers and enjoy views of the scenic Lohra hills nearby, Birju said.
The fact that the forests are also known to shelter Maoists does not deter visitors.
“People belonging to various castes and religions come here, often in wonder of a temple dedicated to elephants. Everyone wants to listen to the story behind it and pray before leaving,” Birju added.
Mahendra Yadav (71), a resident of Mahenatand, said the village took pride in the temple, adding it was unique considering people fought over caste and religion everywhere.
“I have not heard about people worshipping a Dalit in a temple elsewhere. While the media often reports about Dalits being denied entry at temples, we have a mandir with a Dalit as god,” said the farmer.
He added that after the temple was set up decades ago, people no longer heard stories of wild animals creating problems for humans.