The Hindus who look after the mosque at Mari

A village in Bihar's Nalanda district has no Muslim residents, but its centuries-old mosque and mausoleum are cared for by local Hindus

The mosque at Mari (all photos: Shreya Katyayini)
The mosque at Mari (all photos: Shreya Katyayini)

Umesh Kumar Ray

Three young men were returning home to Mari after working at a construction site. “It was 15 years ago,” Ajay Paswan, one of them, recalls. “We were passing the deserted mosque in our village, and we decided to see it from inside. We were curious.”

Moss covered the floor and bushes had overtaken the structure. “Andar gaye toh hum logon ka mann badal gaya (when we entered, our feelings changed),” the 33-year-old daily-wage worker says. “Maybe Allah wanted us to go in.”

The three — Paswan, Bakhori Bind and Gautam Prasad — decided to clean it up. “We cut the wild growth and painted the mosque. We constructed a big platform in front of the mosque,” says Ajay. They also started lighting the evening lamp.

The trio installed a sound system and hung a loudspeaker horn on the dome of the mosque. “We decided to play azaan (call to prayer) through a sound system,” adds Ajay, and soon, the azaan rang out five times a day in Mari, a village in Bihar’s Nalanda district.

There are no Muslims in Mari village. The care and upkeep of the masjid and mazaar (mausoleum) here are in the hands of Ajay, Bakhori and Gautam — all Hindus.

“Our faith is attached to this masjid and the mazaar and we protect it,” says Janaki Pandit. “When I was married 65 years ago, I too first bowed my head at the mosque and then worshipped our [Hindu] deities,” adds the 82-year-old resident.

The white-and-green-painted mosque is visible from the main road; its paint fades with every monsoon. A four-feet-high boundary wall surrounds the compound of the mosque and the mausoleum.

The mazaar next to the masjid
The mazaar next to the masjid

Passing through the large, old wooden door, one enters the courtyard of the mosque. A copy of the Quran in Hindi translation and a book titled Sachchi Namaz, which details how to offer namaz, are placed inside the mosque.

“A groom from the village must first bow his head at the masjid and mazaar and only then pay obeisance to our Hindu deities,” adds Pandit, a retired government school teacher.

Even when the wedding procession comes from outside the village, “the groom is first taken to the masjid. After paying obeisance there, we take him to the temples. It is a mandatory ritual”. Locals offer prayers at the mausoleum, and if a wish is fulfilled, lay a chadar on it.

Fifty years ago, Mari had a small Muslim population. They hurriedly left the village after the infamous 1981 communal violence in Bihar Sharif. The riots in April of that year started with a dispute between Hindus and Muslims at a taadi (toddy) shop and 80 people lost their lives.

Although Mari was not touched, the charged atmosphere in the region left Muslims here shaken and unsure. Slowly, they moved away, choosing to live in nearby Muslim-populated towns and villages.

In 1981, Ajay was a teenager. He doesn’t recall much about the riots, he says. “People say the Muslims left the village then. They didn’t tell me why they left the village and if anything happened here. But whatever had happened was not good,” he admits, referring to their complete exodus.

Ajay Paswan
Ajay Paswan

Shahabuddin Ansari, who once lived in the village, agrees: “Wo ek andhad tha, jisne hamesha ke liye sabkuch badal diya (It was a storm that changed everything forever).”

The Ansaris were among the roughly 20 Muslim families that fled Mari in 1981. “My father, Muslim Ansari, was a beedi maker at that time. The day the riots broke out, he had gone to Bihar Sharif to bring beedi material. When he returned, he informed the Muslim families of Mari about the violence,” says Shahabuddin.

Then in his 20s, Shahabuddin was the postman of the village. Once his family moved out, he switched to running a grocery store in Bihar Sharif town. He says that despite their sudden departure, “there was no discrimination in the village. We all were living together in harmony for so long. No one had any problem with anyone”.

He reiterates that there was and is no enmity between Hindus and Muslims in Mari. “When I visit Mari, many Hindu families insist on my having food at their houses. There is not a single home that does not ask me to a meal,” says the 62-year-old, who is delighted that the mosque and mazaar are being cared for.

Mari village in Ben block has a population of about 3,307 (Census 2011), mostly from the backward classes and Dalit community. Of the three young men taking care of the mosque, Ajay is Dalit, Bakhori Bind belongs to an EBC (Extremely Backward Class) and Gautam Prasad to an OBC (Other Backward Class).

The Quran in Hindi inside the mosque
The Quran in Hindi inside the mosque

“This is the best example of Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb (composite culture of the area around the Ganga-Yamuna confluence),” says Mohammad Khalid Alam Bhutto. A former resident of the village, the 60-year-old was among those who moved to the nearby Bihar Sharif town. “The mosque is more than 200 years old and the mausoleum attached to it would be even older,” he points out.

“The mausoleum is of Hazrat Ismail, a Sufi saint who is said to have come to Mari village from Arabia. It is believed that before his arrival, the village had been destroyed many times due to natural disasters like floods and fires. But once he started living here, disaster never returned. After his death, his mausoleum was built and the Hindus of the village started worshipping,” he says. “That tradition continues even today.”

After the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns three years ago, Ajay, Bakhori and Gautam found it difficult to find work in Mari, so they moved to different places. Gautam runs a coaching centre in Islampur (35 km away) and Bakhori is a mason in Chennai; Ajay moved to Bihar Sharif town.

The trio’s departure affected the maintenance of the mosque. By February 2024, Ajay says azaan had stopped in the mosque and so he hired a muezzin to say azaan. “The job of the muezzin is to perform azaan five times a day. We [three] pay him Rs 8,000 as monthly salary and have given him a room to stay in the village,” he adds.

Ajay has decided to keep protecting the mosque and mausoleum as long as he is alive. “Marla ke baade koi kuchh kar sakta hai. Jab tak hum zinda hain, masjid ko kisi ko kuchh karne nahi denge (as long as I am alive, no one can do any harm to this mosque),” he says resolutely.

Courtesy: People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI)

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Published: 21 Apr 2024, 12:07 PM