Jaisalmer’s underground library   

The Bhadriya temple, set in a sacred grove in western Rajasthan, is the unusual location for a collection of two lakh books

The temple attracts lakhs of devotees through the year, some of whom also visit the library (Photo: Urja & Priti)
The temple attracts lakhs of devotees through the year, some of whom also visit the library (Photo: Urja & Priti)

Urja & Priti David

The voices of musicians singing at the entrance of the Shri Bhadriya Mata temple begin to fade as we descend a flight of stairs in this almost 200-year-old structure. Suddenly all sounds die out completely—we are now 20 feet below the ground. A labyrinthine library spread across 15,000 sq ft opens up ahead.

Narrow corridors lined with 562 cupboards, holding over two lakh books, are placed at intervals. Leatherbound texts, an old manuscript on bark, old editions and paperbacks on subjects ranging from Hinduism, Islam, Christianity and other religions, to brand new titles on law and medicine, philosophy, geography, history and more.

The fiction section too is well-endowed with classics and recent novels. A majority of the books are in Hindi, with a few in English and Sanskrit. It was Harvansh Singh Nirmal, a religious scholar from Punjab, whose idea it was to set up the library.

He is said to have lived in solitude in a cave on the temple’s premises for 25 years, and decided to build the library underneath it. Nirmal passed away in 2010, but not before drumming up funds for his two pet causes—education and animal welfare.

“He was a humanitarian. All religions have the same message: that man’s skin may be different, hair may be different, inside we are all the same,” says Jugal Kishore, secretary of the Shri Jagdamba Seva Samiti, a trust that runs the temple and the library, who also manages the trust’s shelter for over 40,000 cows. Work on the library started in 1983 and the structure was ready by 1998. After that began the search for books.

“[Nirmal] wanted this to be a centre of knowledge, a university,” says Kishore, “Maharajji wanted people to seek out this place, and see that those in search of knowledge should find it here.” The underground location was chosen, say the library’s administrators, to minimise damage and dust—the Indian Army’s firing range, Pokhran, is 10 km away, and when the wind stirs up in Rajasthan’s grasslands, dust is everywhere.

Ashok Kumar Devpal works on the library maintenance team. He says it is kept dry with six large exhaust fans; camphor is routinely burnt to prevent damp. To keep out the mould, he says, “We open the books and allow them to air. Seven to eight of us do this work over two months.”

The temple’s trust owns 1.25 lakh bighas (roughly 20,000 acres) of land which is the Bhadriya oran (sacred grove) where tradition decrees that “even a branch cannot be cut”, says Kishore, who is in his 70s. In a year, approximately 2–3 lakh people visit—Rajputs, Bishnois and Jains are among the communities that come during the four annual festivals.

At the moment, until the library is inaugurated, they make up the only visitors who descend to have a look. Besides the library, there is the sprawling gaushala (cow shelter) manned by 150 members of staff.

Thousands of cows and bulls of different breeds—Gir, Tharparkar, Rathi and Nagori—reside here. “The oran is for the birds and animals,” says Ashok Sodani, administrator of the trust. The animals are brought here when they are no longer productive and 90 per cent are male.

“We have 14 tubewells for the gaushala, and the trust spends around Rs 25 crore annually on fodder,” says Sodani, of which “3–4 truckloads come in every day from as far as Haryana, Punjab and Madhya Pradesh”. He says the money for this upkeep comes from donations.

As we emerge into the sunlight, Prem Chauhan and Lakshman Chauhan from the Dholi community are still playing the harmonium, singing about the deity Shri Bhadriya Mata, who reigns over the temple and everything below, above and around it.

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

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