Buddha’s Magadh Avatars

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Kenar, a town close to Wazirganj market of Gaya district in Bihar, was once known across the country for its bronze artisans and traders. Reduced to labourers now, these artisans are penniless. What initially begins as a story on the plight of these craftsmen later transforms into a different narrative altogether.

I am at the house of Virendra Narayan Singh, fondly called Bacha Babu, in Kansa Bazaar in Kenar. Babu, who passed away many years ago, had won the Bihar Assembly elections in 1937 and was a Congress MLA for years. As I wait to meet his son Bhola Singh, the sight of some beautifully carved ancient idols of Buddha captures my attention. “They have been lying here for a long time. There were many, only a few are left now. I don’t know where they came from and when,” he tells me. These sculptures are priceless antiques, perhaps it would have made sense to keep them in a museum or make necessary arrangements for their preservation. Bhola doesn’t quite agree. “They’re alright. You’ll find more Buddha idols in worse conditions.”

Unfortunately, Bhola is right. At the other end of the Kenar market is Devi Sthan (place of the goddess). Here several ancient idols of Buddha are lined up next to an overflowing drain. As the photojournalist accompanying me prepares to take pictures, a crowd gathers around us. They are sceptical of our “intentions”, because idols often go missing when “visitors” arrive.

As the villagers begin to open up, I notice an idol of Buddha daubed with vermilion, an unfamiliar sight by any stretch of imagination. As it turns out, it is not Buddha, but the village goddess. “Don’t be surprised to see Buddha as a goddess,” says Prabhat Shandilya, a sociologist and social worker accompanying us. “There are many villages where he is even worshipped as gram devta (village god) and offered sacrifices. At other places, people have chained the idols fearing thefts. Sometimes the idol’s head goes missing, and yet people continue to offer prayers.”

At a time when preserving Buddhist artefacts has become a global phenomenon, villages in the Magadh district of Bihar tell a different story of Buddha. Most idols have not only been reduced to furniture and embellishments, they are also being increasingly Hinduised.

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In the Dubba village in Gaya, Buddha idols are fettered in iron chains. The locals believe that it helps prevent the smuggling of Buddha antiques. “I check on the idol every morning when I come to worship because a dozen idols have already been stolen from the village,” says Satya Narayan Pandey, the priest of the temple of Dubba goddess, “Smugglers had managed to dig out the life-size idol of Buddha, but couldn’t lift it because it was too heavy. When the villagers came to know, they chained all the Buddha idols to the wall to avoid thefts.”

In the temple itself, the heads of two Buddha idols have been distorted. In the premises of a few schools, the remains of the stupas from the Buddhist era are subjected to bizarre treatment. Some women grind spices over the ceramic structures, while some sit on them. One of the locals, Lakhan Pandey, had installed several symbolic Buddhist stupas to embellish his house. Today, his son and some young villagers use them as stools. Another villager, Abbas Mian, is using a Buddha idol to divert the drain from flowing into his house. While a Buddhist era semi-ceramic structure serves as a stool at the doorstep of Mohammed Mustafa. Another local Ramchandra Sharma has ground priceless ancient Buddhist era stones to make a 20-kilo dumbbell. Everyone, it seems, has found a new purpose for these idols.

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My next stop is Bhurha Sthan, 200 metres away from Dubba. Here several headless idols of Buddha lying prostrate are installed under a peepal tree. There is a variety of antique idols and a heap of relics. In a nearby Shiva temple, Buddha idols have been fixed on all the walls. If social workers Naresh Prasad and Sumant are to be believed, Buddhist artefacts are subjected to similar treatment in other villages as well.

Historically, Bhurha and Dubba are significant spots for Buddhism, as both had been stopovers for Gautam Buddha during his journey from Bodh Gaya to Sarnath. Today, as a makeover of Buddhist temples is proposed in Bihar, villagers are demanding that Bhurha and Dubba be given facelifts too. They even organised a Bhurha Mahotsav, but the Archeological Survey of India and other government officials did not pay heed.

Are the patrons of Buddhism even aware of the situation? I reach Bodh Gaya to find out. There are more than a dozen monasteries here that aim at spreading the message of Buddhism. Surprisingly, those at the helm of affairs have little knowledge of the Buddhist sites and temples in remote villages. Nandji Dorji, the secretary of Bodh Gaya Temple Management Committee, says that the body only takes care of the temple in Bodh Gaya. On one hand, the secretary of International Buddhist Council says that it is responsible only for indigenous and foreign Buddhist temples and organisations located in Bodh Gaya and that the council collects taxes and takes care of funding and other facilities only. On the other hand, Bhante Anand, Maha Bodhi Mandir Mukti Andolan Samiti’s national general secretary, offers, “The treatment meted out to Buddha idols in the villages — chaining them, sitting on them, replacing broken idol-heads with distorted shapes or even worshipping the idols as Hindu gods and goddesses — is an insult to Buddha and his followers across the world.” These responses have one thing in common — an unwillingness to take ownership of the problem.

Many Buddhists accuse Chief Minister Nitish Kumar of commercialising Buddha. Though the State has spent crores to set up a Buddha Memorial Park in Patna, there has been no effort to preserve the relics spread across the state. Anand suggests that the monasteries in Bodh Gaya are to be blamed as well. “They are not concerned with religion. They are only making money out of it. A probe must be carried out into their activities.”

At every village, Buddha has assumed different names and identities. At Mahadev Sthan and Goraiya Sthan in Nairani village of Gaya there are several Buddha stupas. On any auspicious occasion, it is customary to offer chicken or goats as sacrifice here. Liquor is also part of the traditional offering. The priest of the temple, Raj Kishore Manjhi, is unaware of the origin of this custom. In Guneri, he is worshipped as Bhairon. In Naser, the villagers worship Brahma Baba, even though they are aware that it is, in fact, Buddha. On the outskirts of Dubba, he is seen as a goddess. At Kurkihar in Gaya, Buddha idols are present at every nook and corner, but has a different identity.

At Sri Talaiya Bhandar temple in Badgaon in Nalanda district, there is a gigantic statue of the Buddha lying prostrate. Here, he is the god of magic and sorcery. One of the prayers of the devotees is for their children to become as healthy as the statue. They offer foodgrain and oil seeking good health for their children. There is a list of such villages where Buddha has been moulded to suit the need of the devotees. “Within the premises of Maha Bodhi temple, Buddha is being worshiped as one of the Pandavas. Do the people of Bodh Gaya need to be told who it is? When the influence of Buddhism reduced, people started worshipping Buddha in their own way which led to the present scenario,” says Shandilya.

Buddhism was premised on the idea that a progressive society had to rid itself of ritualism. In Magadh, that very idea has been subverted. And for worse.

Translated from Tehelka Hindi by Naushin Rehman

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