August 18, 2003
Mohammad Yeasin Pathan has paid a high price for his devotion to history. Muslims have shunned him, Hindus have kicked and punched him and anonymous callers have threatened to kill him.
But none of this has dimmed the Muslim school clerk’s determination to work to preserve a collection of 18th-century Hindu temples in eastern India. ‘‘I passionately respect history. Everyone should, and it does not matter whether one is a Hindu or a Muslim,’’ said Pathan, speaking amid the terracotta-and-brick temples in the Hindu-dominated village of Pathra West of Kolkata.
Pathan’s volunteer efforts over the last two decades to preserve the 34 temples at Pathra are rare in a country where tensions between Hindus and the 12 per cent Muslim minority have led to thousands of deaths over the past 14 years.
‘‘I remember a number of years ago, I was kicked, punched and slapped by some Hindus when I stopped them from taking away bricks of temples to build houses. They told me to keep out of the affairs of temples,’’ the 50-year-old practising Muslim said. ‘‘Some Muslims still call me kafir (non-believer).’’
‘‘I hated it when the Babri Masjid was destroyed and wanted to stop looking after temples, but I realised Muslims and Hindus have to live together,’’ said Pathan. The bespectacled father-of-four said that after the mosque’s demolition, some Muslim clerics near Pathra urged Muslims not to socialise with him because he looked after temples. ‘‘Luckily, the boycott call did not really catch on as people felt it could cause tension.’’
The atmosphere worsened again in 2002 after the Godhra riots. ‘‘Some people, I don’t know which religion, called me after the Gujarat riots and said they would kill me if I continued my work with Hindu temples. But I will not stop,’’ Pathan said.
Many credit Pathan with preventing Pathra’s temples from disappearing over the years due to the theft of bricks and the corrosive impact of time and nature. He spends most of his spare time checking on the temples or campaigning tirelessly to get official government help to protect and restore them, travelling even to New Delhi and Kolkata to lobby for support.
At Pathra, dotted with temples mostly dedicated to Shiva and Vishnu, most Hindus welcome Pathan. ‘‘Some Hindus don’t like him but most of us respect him for he is a good human being and has done selfless work for our temples,’’ said Prabhas Bhattacharya, a cloth salesman, sitting outside a temple. Bhattacharya belongs to a panel set up by Pathan to help restore the temples, some of which rise 70 feet high.
Due to the committee’s efforts, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has agreed to consider declaring Pathra’s temples — built by landlords between 250 and 300 years ago — as monuments of national importance and taking over their upkeep.
The ASI has already restored five temples, filling in cracks and putting in bricks in gaps created by stolen ones. But a number are covered with vegetation, with figurines of Hindu gods and goddesses crumbling on their tan-coloured facades.
‘‘Pathan’s efforts in protecting the temples are all the more commendable as he is a Muslim,’’ said Bimal Bandopadhyay, a senior ASI archaeologist.
For Pathan, history is also about learning. ‘‘It is great to learn from history. You can learn from its glory and its mistakes. One lesson is the need to live in peace.’’ —Reuters
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