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In salvation, unity of cultures
- Gaya turns mini-India as pilgrims from all over the country turn up to take part in 17-day Pitrapaksha Mela

(From top) Devotees on their way to perform pinddaan rituals, a crowd on the banks of the Falgu at Dev Ghat and pilgrims, who have not found any accommodation, cook dinner by the road in Gaya. Pictures by Suman

For 17 days every year, the neighbourhood of the Vishnupad Temple in Gaya becomes a “mini-India”. Lakhs of pilgrims from different communities, diverse economic background and speaking a veritable Babel of languages turn up to take part in the Pitrapaksha Mela.

Around 2.5 lakh people turned up to perform the pinddaan rituals this year. Battling inclement weather, inhospitable accommodation and lack of facilities, all of them arrived motivated mostly by faith. They came to seek escape from the cycle of rebirth for their ancestors. Legend has it that performing the rituals on the banks of the Falgu is essential for salvation of souls.

But to free the dead, the living have to bear hardships in this south Bihar town.

To begin with, accommodation for the pilgrims is scarce. The lucky ones got rooms in hotels or homes of Gayapal pandas, who perform the pinddaan rituals. Others have been put up in schools and colleges by the district administration.

Swami Raghavacharyaji, a senior priest of Ramanuj Math (located around 200m from the Vishnupad Temple), said pilgrims planning to visit Gaya to perform pinddaan call up to inquire about facilities. “They ask if our homes and dharamsalas have western style toilets. If not, they prefer to put up in hotels,” he said.

The priest, who also runs an ayurveda college near Karjara railway station on the Gaya-Kiul section, added: “Most people coming to perform pinddaan are above 60 and suffer from orthopaedic problems. Increased usage of urea as fertilisers in agriculture causes these ailments. As a result, pilgrims prefer comforts.”

Devotees perform pinddaan rituals in the Falgu near Gaya during Pitrapaksha Mela. (AP)

Old-timers claim that things have changed considerably over the past few decades. New hotels have opened, old houses have been refurbished and new facilities installed. Rajasthan Bhavan, Odisha Bhavan, Bengali Ashram, Assam Bhavan, Jharkhand Bhavan and Lucknow Bhavan have been renovated. Toilets have been fitted with tiles and mosaic.

Hukumchand Agarwal, a businessman of Jaipur who has been coming to Gaya since 1973, claimed that the town has undergone a metamorphosis since the early 1990s. “The facilities have improved. But the rates have also increased,” he said. “Earlier, the per day room rent was Rs 10 at Ashok Atithi Niwas, where I always lodge. Now it has increased to Rs 500.”

He has a small problem though: the staff at Ashok Athithi Niwas did not give a room on the ground floor though his wife Geeta Devi suffers from rheumatism.

Agarwal has got a room on the first-floor of the dharamsala but not everyone is so lucky. Many devotees are spending the night under the starry sky and cooking their meals by the roadside.

Ram Bahadur, a resident of Gonda, Uttar Pradesh, is one of the devotees who arrived in Gaya a little too late this year to get a roof above his head. He and his family members have settled down near Gandhi Maidan. “I have nothing to complain for not getting accommodation. I have heard that shradh (final rites) of a person is complete only when his or her descendents perform pinddaan at Gaya,” he said, while cooking a meal for his family on an open stove.

Like him, many are lodged at Gaya railway station, bus stands and on the riverside. Sleep and rest are rare for them: stolen in snatches in the hot and humid weather, under the constant attack of mosquitoes.

Gaya panchayati raj officer and in-charge of accommodation affairs for the Pitrapaksha Mela, Dinesh Kumar, denied that there were any problems. He told The Telegraph: “Around 20,000 pilgrims have been lodged in as many as 31 schools and colleges. There is no shortage of accommodation facility for pilgrims. We have got no complaints so far. We shall look into the matter if there is a problem.”

But even one as devoted as Bahadur cannot help complain about sheer apathy of the administration to provide a modicum of sanitation to the pilgrims. “It is sad to see the Falgu — a holy river for the Hindus — polluted and dirty,” he said.

Uncomfortable accommodation apart, the pilgrims also have to contend with the lack of sanitation in and around the Vishnupad Temple and the ghats of the Falgu.

Hyderabad resident Kamal Kishore Gupta echoed Bahadur’s complaint. “The pilgrims are also responsible for the litter strewn all around,” said the well-to-do businessman who has accepted the hospitality of a Gayapal panda instead of lodging at a hotel.

He also had a few suggestions about improving the hygiene condition near the Vishnupad Temple. “A building should be constructed near the temple to ensure that pilgrims offer the pinddaan rituals there instead of strewing the litter all around.” For him, devotion is supreme but he, too, believes that the devotee needs to rest after performing the strenuous rituals.

“To perform pinddaan, a devotee must sleep on the floor, stick to a diet of fruit and remain brahmachari (celibate). But I am sleeping on a bed with a pillow because if I sleep on the floor, I might fall sick and I would not be able to perform the rituals,” he said.

Mahesh Guput, the panda at whose house Gupta is lodging, said: “Performing the rituals gives pilgrims satisfactions. But there are quite a few drawbacks to the arrangements in Gaya. The flow of pilgrims increases during the Pitrapaksha Mela. But pilgrims come all round the year. The administration, though, does not make any effort to clean the Falgu or its ghats at other times of the year.”

Changes are observable in the attitude of pilgrims towards the rituals as well, claim the priests.

Shivanand Tiwari, a panda who helps pilgrims perform the rituals, said devotees these days prefer to get over with all the paraphernalia in a single day. “Earlier, there were 365 vedis (platforms) in Gaya, Bodhgaya and Punpun (in Patna district) where pilgrims had to perform pinddaan. Now, there are only 45 left. Even then, pilgrims always seem to be in a hurry.”


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