At a half-constructed temple in the village of Bisrakh is a statue of Ravana standing between bags of cement. A car parked outside wears the owner’s identity on its rear windscreen, with stickers of ‘Ravana’ and ‘Gujjar’.
In this Uttar Pradesh village that’s believed to be the birthplace of the ten-headed king, Ravana is not the ‘villain’ of mainstream Hinduism mythology, but a scholar, a kind brother and a devout follower of Shiva.
Locals take pride in flaunting his name behind cars, and occasionally on sports jerseys when there’s a cricket match. A Shiva temple in the village, where his father Vishrava — Bisrakh is said to be named after him — is believed to have prayed, is colloquially called Ravana temple.
“People here don’t celebrate Ramlila, we don’t burn Ravana’s effigy on Dussehra,” says village head Ajay Pradhan. “About 30-32 years ago, we celebrated Ramlila twice, but both times, a village youth died soon afterwards.”
Bisrakh falls in Gautam Buddha Nagar, Union Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma’s constituency, and Pradhan says he has already spoken to him to push for a dedicated Ravana temple.
Though barely 30 km from the capital, the people of Bisrakh appear unaware of the Mahishasur debate that played out after the HRD Minister’s speech in Parliament last month. Pradhan dismisses the political row surrounding the myth of Mahishasur as “politics” and sticks to the village’s Ravana connection.
At the Shiva temple, people trickle in through the day. Yogindra Pal, who has a dairy shop in the village, says the hustle and bustle starts at 4 in the morning, when hundreds gather for the daily puja. “We grew up learning Ravana was born here, so, in a way, he gives the village its identity. If you notice, no other village in the country is called Bisrakh,” he says.
An hour later, six youths — all of them college-goers — arrive at the temple, music blaring from their car. They take out paper plates and buckets from the boot, round up people around the temple and start serving food to them.
“We learnt from our elders that Ravana was not a bad person… we are only following what they taught us,” says Deepak Bhati, who studies in Noida. Others chime in, talking about how he was the biggest “vidwan (learned man)” and the “most ardent Shiva bhakt”. All of them say they will visit the Ravana temple when it comes up.
Before they leave, Bhati, a cricket enthusiast, whips out his phone and zooms in on a sports jersey that says “Ravana”.
The burden of living in a village whose identity revolves around Ravana weighs heavier on some than others. Facing the Shiva temple is one dedicated to Parvati, where 66-year-old Shyamlal is supervising the construction of the second floor. He says that as the village gained attention, some lies and half-truths started spreading. “There’s a haveli in the village; one day people started calling it Ravana haveli, though it has no link to him. I and a few men my age have a bushy moustache, so people started saying we are from Ravana’s clan. All lies,” he says.
The line between fact and fiction is thin in Bisrakh. Many locals say the Shivling where Ravana’s father prayed “goes so deep into the ground that no one really knows where it ends”. And almost all of them warn of great misfortune if anyone tries to celebrate Dussehra.
That a temple dedicated to the Ramayana’s primary antagonist could rile some people does not bother the village. “Not even one person from Bisrakh will oppose the idea of a Ravana temple. But yes, there is a possibility that outsiders might find it objectionable. For that, there needs be a change in mindset to better understand Ravana,” Pradhan says. “Perhaps schoolbooks can be changed to include a chapter on him.”
Harish Sharma, who sells samosas and tea at the main market, says people should have a right to choose who they worship: “Even if you have a hundred faults, you can have one redeeming quality. Ravana was a scholar, not an asura.”