Fellow Muslims found him Un-Islamic, Hindus thought he wanted to steal the structures.
Mohammed Yeasin Pathan is not just the name of an individual, it exemplifies communal harmony and universal brotherhood that is a rarity today. The sixty-five-year-old resides in Hathihalka village of West Midnapore district in West Bengal, around 160 kilometers from Kolkata. Tucked in the remotest corner of the district, Pathra is a non-descript hamlet where nature seems to reside in her full glory.
Despite being a pious Muslim and a regular namazi, Yeasin has spent over 40 years of his life working relentlessly for the restoration of Hindu temples in his village that were neglected and forgotten by the Hindu families. The poverty-struck Yeasin has used every penny of his earnings to restore the temples of the village. Though he has managed to save around 16 of the 34 temples from crumbling to dust in the nearby village of Pathra, several of them have already been swallowed by the river Kansabati, thanks to the utter neglect of the administration and apathy of the villagers.
Courtyard in ruins at Pathra
The history of Pathra goes back to the Gupta age when the place was the hinterland of Tamralipta port, a gateway to Southeast Asia. From the 8th Century to the 12th Century, it was an important hub for Hindus, Jains and Buddhists. A majestic Vishnu Lokeshwar statue was dug out in the village in October 1961. It revealed both Hindu and Buddhist influences, indicating that practitioners of both religions frequented Pathra.
Yeasin outside a temple in Pathra
Yeasin says, that his affair with the temples began when he was a teenager. “I instantly fell in love with the architecture. During those days, a youth magazine run by my friends used to come out. I was assigned the responsibility to write about the temples. I readily accepted it,” he says.
His attraction towards the temples grew and slowly he began to spend hours wandering the abandoned temple premises. “None of the villagers ever came here as they hardly knew about the great history present in the backyard of their houses. The temples lay desolate and served as a shelter for anti-social elements.”
Yeasin was stunned when he decided to dig out the history of the temples. He found that they owed their existence to the era of Alivardi Khan who was the Nawab of Bengal and grandfather of Siraj-ud-Daula in the 18th century.
Nawab Alivardi appointed Bidyananda Ghoshal, a Brahmin, as the revenue collector of Ratnachawk pargana. Bidyananda established temple after temple in the village, making it a major draw for Hindu pilgrims. The Nawab however, was not too pleased with Bidyananda’s work because he had spent the entire revenue generated on building temples. He was thrown into prison and sentenced to death. Legend has it that the elephant that was to crush Bidyananda’s head refused to do so.
Abandoned and in ruins
The Ghoshal family changed its surname to Majumdar and continued building temples till the end of the 18th Century. Another branch of the family, Bandopadhyay, also started constructing temples. With indigo cultivation and silk trade boosting the family’s fortunes, funds were not difficult to come by.
The terracotta temples were mostly dedicated to Lord Krishna, Vishnu and Shiva. The Navaratna temple on the western bank of the river being the grandest. The 250 year old, 40-ft high structure has nine towers and many terracotta panels on its walls. The small Aatchala temple established in 1816 stands in the same compound.
The second biggest temple of Pathra is a 40ft high Sitala temple formerly known as Burimar. The other important temples are Sarba Mangal, Kalachand, Das Mahavidya and Hansa. There’s also a simple yet attractive Rasmancha, built in 1832. It has nine small towers and a courtyard where cases were dealt with.
Kalachand Dalan after renovation
The decline of these temples started as rich families shifted base from the village and ignorant local residents started vandalizing and stealing from the temples. Many of the structures were reduced to rubble. There was neither any initiative from the government nor from the academic circle to preserve the structures.
Yeasin was moved to see the ruins of the temples and wanted to do something for their restoration. But it was easier said than done. “When I revealed my plans to the members of both the communities, they suspected my motive. My fellow Muslims thought it was un-Islamic to work for temples, while Hindus suspected that I was there to steal bricks and construct my own house from it. It was very difficult to change the mindset of the villagers,” he adds.
Unfazed by the humiliation and taunts, he decided to leave no stone unturned to restore the temples to their old glory.
Art has no religion
His fight began in 1991 when he founded Pathra Archeological Preservation Committee comprising local residents, both Hindus and Muslims. The committee helped in forging friendships between the two communities.
The retired peon of a government school says that he ran from pillar to post to attract the attention of the authorities for their preservation. He began to make regular visits to Delhi and met many officials of Archeological Survey of India (ASI).
On August 13 1994, Pathan received the ‘Kabir’ award from the then President Shankar Dayal Sharma for preserving Hindu temples despite being a Muslim.
Pancharatan Shiv Temple
A major achievement came in 1998 when the Planning Commission Chairman and former President Pranab Mukherjee sanctioned Rs 20 lakhs for the restoration of these temples. More help arrived in September 2003 when ASI took over the work of restoring the temples and also decided to build a tourist hub at around 9.3 acres of land in Pathra, “It was a great moment for us as we thought that finally our village would get noticed in tourist maps and the hard work put in over a decade finally paid dividends. But I was wrong.”
Their happiness was short lived as the fight had just begun. The state government refused to intervene to acquire the land and handover it to ASI for the tourist hub even though the farmers were willing to part with the infertile land. Work was stopped by the villagers because of non payment.
Rashmanch after renovation
Today the battle continues. Despite suffering from kidney and heart blockages, Yeasin has been knocking on every door and making trips to Delhi to start renovation work. He’s also got a Rs.42,000 loan to publish his book Mandirmoy Pathrar Itibritto, detailing the history of the structures. Although the book costs only Rs. 215, he has distributed most of them running up huge losses. Even his paltry pension of Rs. 8,000 is spent in creating awareness about the temples. But it’s taken a toll on the retired school teacher and he’s slowly becoming disheartened.
“I have dedicated my life for the temples but have never demanded anything in return. My failing health doesn’t guarantee a long life. I would go unhappily to my grave if I fail to add life to these structures that have been my soulmates throughout life,” he signs off.
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By Gurvinder Singh
Photographs by Gurvinder Singh