The sound of Ram kirtans emanating from the surrounding temples fills the gap between dormant hours. As the day grows, it gets lost in the noise of traffic snarls and Bollywood numbers blaring away at roadside music marts. While you make your way to Chitrakoot Dham from the railway station at Karvi through a maze of narrow lanes, an amalgamation of the ancient and the modern grabs your attention. Temples and houses exist as entwined parts of each other. Ram’s legacy lives on—through hundreds of Ram temples, idols at the busy rotaries and Ramcharitmanas verses graffitied on walls. Encounters begin here not with a casual hello or namaste, but with ‘Jai Siyaram’.
For a township of about 25,000 people, life’s rather inert. The temples, stones, and the river do the speaking. All these have meticulously registered times Chitrakoot has lived through—from Ram, who spent most of his exile (vanvas) with wife Sita and brother Laxman in the forests of Vindhyas; the birth of 16th century poet-saint Goswami Tulsidas, who penned the epic Ramcharitmanas; to the present-day terror of bandit Dadua and sleaze. Youths practice the tradition of taking a customary holy dip in Mandakini on every auspicious occasion, but they also succumb to an inviting She is the Lady Don or promises of sex-education made by Maja Masti running to packed houses.
Time is not a precious commodity here. It’s in abundance, at the disposal of the inhabitants, one might say. Besides farming, residents have other preoccupations like visiting temples and taking holy dips. And for those who are for neither of these, sessions on the nation and its state at tea-shops is a favourite exercise.
It’s mostly the young who have kept the banner of ‘storm-in-a-tea-cup’ flying high. A job, for them, is priority number two and owning a rifle is more paramount in their scheme of desires. You find them displaying their prized possession as trophies as they zip around the town on motorcycles. It’s for protection from Dadua, they say. For, what is Veerappan to Satyamangalam forests, Dadua is to the forest-belt of Bagdara, stretching across Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, and Chitrakoot lies sandwiched between the two states.
A rifle costs around Rs 70,000, a rather expensive proposition for residents of a pilgrimage town that survives on a low per capita income and without any business activity that most of its counterparts enjoy.
Says 22-year-old Ramkhilavan Singh: Many of us have sold our lands to purchase arms. It is a matter of prestige here. Seeking an arms licence is a tedious process and you can find scores of youths queuing up outside the district magistrate’s office. Admits Kamlesh, who went through a lot of trouble to get a rifle: "Dadua is just an excuse, the rifles are for display and of course for firing in the air during marriages. " Thirteen kilometers from Karvi town is Ramghat in Chitrakoot Dham. Life here is quite different. Its sluggish movement comes to a standstill, almost. Much like the Mandakini which flows past the ancient Ramghat. The river is near stagnant and sewage adds to its volume. It’s here, in this water, that you find people taking holy dips throughout the day. Regular pujas performed in the high-rising temples lined on either side of the river break the usual calm that prevails over the place.
It’s twilight hour. Mahant Narayan Das of Balaji temple readies for the evening aarti. For this 85-year-old head-priest of a temple—believed to be the only one constructed by emperor Aurangzeb in his lifetime—it’s only chance that leads to a devotee making some offering. "Fifty paise, Re 1 or sometimes Rs 10," he says, "That is all we get for our survival." At this age, Narayan Das is busy fighting encroachments on temple premises and struggling against a scarcity of funds. All he has is a preserved royal decree from Aurangzeb’s court that allotted all the tax recoverable from nearby 14 villages in service of the temple. That was over 300 years ago. Frequent fasting and just two meals a day on some sunnier days is the current reality that stares at Narayan Das in all its starkness. The plight of other temples is no better. Even ancient caves and spots, believed to be landmarks of Ram’s exile, are starved for funds. The birth place of Goswami Tulsidas along the banks of Yamuna in Rajapur village had to wait for over four centuries to find an nri construct a temple at the site. The ‘pandas’ prey on pilgrims. They depend on large turnouts on festive occasions like Diwali to make both ends meet. Forty kilometers away from Ramghat, life has a different shade. Ashok and Seema Pandey gave up a comfortable life back home in Bettiah in west Champaran, Bihar, three years ago to be part of an unusual experiment in Chitrakoot. They are among several other couples who have voluntarily joined hands with the Deendayal Research Institute (dri) for its integrated village development project spread over 500 villages in the predominantly tribal region. From ‘suspicious’ outsiders in a backward village two years ago to young leaders today, Pandeys have come a long way. The difference they have made is visible. In the strong casteist society, women of all castes sit together and discuss education. Men share information on agriculture. Not a trace of this existed two years ago. Today the village mood is buoyant. The folks are still rejoicing their achievement of total literacy. Says an emotional Chhatrapal Singh: "They have taught us to how to live a meaningful life. Be it hygiene, education, agriculture or even practising religion. We won’t let them go away ever." Ashok, who is enrolled at Bihar University as a PhD scholar of geomorphology, is also unwilling to return home after their contract-term of five years with the dri expires two years from now. "In case we have to, we will start afresh in some remote village of Bihar," they say. The entire village has come together. It’s 7 pm and time for Ramkatha. The recitation continues late into the night. Ram and villagers share joy in unison.
It’s been three days of exploring and discovering. We have to return. We drive back to the railway station. Life is quiet as usual. The air too is informed by the same melancholy strain—idols of Ram, sadhus heading for temples for the evening aarti, deserted markets, men brandishing rifles and crowds waiting impatiently for the last show of Maja Masti. Chitrakoot swings between extremes. And Ram is just one of these.