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Shrines restored, saviour a wreck - Feted by The Telegraph, hounded by neighbours, bogged down by penury

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By NISHA LAHIRI
  • Published 7.03.06
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Md Yeasin Pathan belongs to a rare breed ? a Muslim fighting the odds of ignorance, indifference and intolerance to save 34 crumbling Hindu temples in a West Midnapore village.

The lone crusader has been on a 33-year-old mission in Pathra, a two-hour drive from town. Despite being rewarded by death threats and poverty, the 50-something school peon has remained undeterred.

But now, Pathan is on the edge. He is losing the will to fight on, faced with constant opposition and stiff resistance from his people and the thankless task of keeping at it, through days and decades.

?I can?t do this any more, I have nothing left to fight with,? sighs the man who has been battling to save a slice of national heritage.

It?s not as if he hasn?t achieved much. Pathan?s perseverance has brought the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) to Pathra to join in his cause to restore the old temples.

After The Telegraph Education Foundation acknowledged this braveheart?s efforts in 2002, Pathan came into the spotlight ? he gave away the Courage Awards to children at The School Awards for Excellence. The theme for the function that year was communal harmony.

The ASI had then proposed to take over the restoration of the temples.

Nearly four years later, the before and after images are striking, to say the least. While the work is far from being complete, some of the crumbling monuments have been revived, to a semblance of their former glory.

?The work stops quite frequently ? it was halted around 10 days ago for the financial year-end ? but they have been doing a very good job,? says Pathan. The President?s award-winner, though, has had to pay a heavy price for his dedication. Repeated calls to Delhi have run up a phone bill of around Rs 3,000, which he cannot afford to pay. So, his landline at home has been cut.

Pathan has also put in Rs 42,000, taken on loan, to publish his book Mandirmoy Pathrar Itibritto, detailing the history of the structures. Although the book costs Rs 215, he has distributed most of them, running up huge losses. Being the only earning member of his family ? his son and brother, both MA graduates, are unemployed ? he cannot spend any more on his life?s work.

For this man, even a victory hard won is often turned into defeat. On February 28, Pathra Archaeological Preservation Committee, founded by Pathan in the early 1990s, comprising local residents, received a letter from the ASI. It stated that the areas around some of the temples would be beautified into tourist spots and maintained by ASI.

For Pathan, this would be a dream come true ? his precious temples on the world tourist?s map. But the local residents are peeved at the prospect. Some, like Ashutosh Mazumdar (the only member of the Mazumdar family that built the temples who lives in Pathra) have threatened to take the matter to the high court if they aren?t paid proper compensation for their land.

Some, like Bishakha Doloi, who lives on the banks of the pond in front of Kanchrabari temple, refuse to leave. But the frail, white-haired old lady has earned her right. She has been a guard of sorts, preventing local people from stealing bricks from the temple, including those belonging to the ASI, to build homes.

?Most of the brick homes in the village have been built from bricks that belonged to these temples. There were many more than 34 temples, but they are long gone,? says Pathan, who was beaten up for preventing the sale of the bricks from the Durga Mandap in 1982, which is now being restored.

He is happy that his efforts have borne some fruit. The ASI has taken over 28 of the 34 temples, and 20 bighas of surrounding land on the banks of the Kanshabati river, to turn the area into a tourist spot. A lot remains to be done, but Md Yeasin Pathan may be too fatigued to fight any longer.