August 06, 2020
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Temple Trustee

A Muslim schoolteacher fights to preserve a crumbling heritage

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Temple Trustee

IT looks like any other nondescript village in interior India, with dirt tracks and trees as dry as timber in high summer. But a closer look at Midnapore, in the Hatihalka cluster of villages, about seven km from the district capital, reveals the soul within the drab landscape.

 Dotted around are ruins of medieval terr-acotta temples, relics of a vanished civilisa-tion. In some, trees have taken root, in others discarded machines and junk are piled high. Hamstrung by their constricting present, the locals seem unable to protect their glorious past. "If the temples are standing today, it is because of the labours of our Pathan," locals say. The reference is to Mohammad Yasin, a Muslim protecting Hindu temples, an unusual phenomenon particularly in the light of the Babri Masjid demolition. Clearly, there’s more to Hatihalka than meets the eye.

Yasin, a frail local schoolteacher, is possessed by the passion to preserve the temples. "I was always haunted by the ruins—what kind of people lived on the same soil we now tread, what was their life style?" According to Yasin, there are 32 temples—including Sheetala, Navaratna and Das Mahavidya temples, with the majority being Siva temples—estimated to be between 250 and 300 years old, spread over 3 sq km. " The temples are enriched with terracotta art and marked by artistic curves. Structures are generally brick, but some are also of laterite. Also discovered here is a stone image, built in the 9th century, of Vishnu Lokeswar, a combination of the images of Vishnu and Buddha. A similiar image had earlier been found in Bangladesh. Experts say the Jain temples and images indicate that once Buddhism and Jainism had flourished in the area. The carvings on the walls show the battle for Sri Lanka, episodes from the life of Krishna, social customs of the times and hunting scenes.

 Yasin began working towards his dream in 1971, when he started meeting local political leaders, wrote to the Central government about the plight of the decaying heritage, travelled to Delhi to meet reputed archeologists, and spent over Rs 50,000 of his own money to instigate action towards preservation of the forgotten ruins.

However, the mission to save an ancient heritage is running into its share of obstacles. "Muslims call me a kafir, the Hindus do not trust me. The other day, the old priest even took his sandal to me in anger, asking me what my motive was in meddling in this business," says Yasin. 

The philistinism of the local administration is apparent. The impressive Navaratna temple had many of its marble fittings stolen. "Once we stopped a criminal from spiriting away a stone image for Rs 8,000 to a foreigner," local villagers said. "Last year our district MP, Indrajit Gupta, (now home minister) announced a grant of Rs 500,000 for the protection of the temples. The money arrived but the local panchayat diverted most of it, leaving only Rs 1,50,000 for the temples," said an indignant teacher. 

However, there is a silver lining to the Hatihalka story. Thanks to the Pathra Archaeological Preservation Committee, of which Yasin is a member, steps are afoot to save the temples, some of which are also threatened by subsidence as the Kansabati river threatens to change course. In addition to the financial help sent by Pranab Mukherjee and others, Rs 20,00,000 from Central aid is allocated for the temples. For preservation, a sum of Rs 400,000 has been earmarked, another Rs 150,000 for putting up walls around the temples, Rs 150,000 for link roads, with provisions for a tourist lodge.  

So where does all this leave Yasin—the man who started it all? Apart from being a prolific writer on the subject of his beloved temples, he won a national award for maintaining communal harmony from the President of India. His own view is prosaic: "I have been nearly excommunicated from my community, while the Hindus do not exactly love me." Apparently, if his dream is realised and the Hatih-alka temples do survive, posterity may not give Yasin the credit he deserves. 

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