Pandas of Gaya – need for data based approach to India’s ancestry

When Varun Gandhi came down to Gaya (a remote place in Bihar, India) and offered pinda (a traditional Hindu ritual, paying homage) for salvation of ancestral souls,  besides the customary rites, he could also locate his great-grandfather Motilal Nehru (father of more famous Jawaharlal Nehru) as the last of his clan who visited Gaya for the same purpose. And from then on, he was able to connect his genealogical links to a fair extent.

All these were from the registers of the Gayawal pandas (who oversee the religious performance), being maintained for time immemorial. For hundreds of years they were the unerring custodian of Indian genealogy.  “There can hardly be a failure in attempting to track ones ancestors; if only he or any of his forefathers had ever been to Gaya to offer pinda,”  Damodar lal Mowar, prominent Gayawal Panda exudes confidence, as he explains the niceties of the process of record keeping.

It is indeed a data based approach to ones ancestry. A genealogists’ delight! Besides the customary process of satiating the curious pilgrims’ eternal desire to locate their familial roots, panda’s handbook is potent to solve many a dispute of wider dimension. In the recent period Thackerey’s Bihar-baiting was questioned with his own Bihari link, courtesy the panda register.

The process is archaic, but accurate. Person visiting Gaya for pindadaan would unfailingly be recorded into specific registers of the pandas with references to their original places of descent. The link thereafter would be handed down to subsequent generations, in the same panda family.

Its a round the year phenomenon. Though, the fortnight long pitripaksah – considered the most auspicious of the planetary moments – draws Hindus from all over, to perform the ritual aimed at salvation of their ancestral souls – moksha.

The basic ritual takes places alongside Phalgu, a river that mostly flows underneath! There is a mythological narrative on exchange of one gayasura and Lord Vishnu connected with the place. A temple on the stated footprint of Lord Vishnu was built by Maharani Ahilyabai of Holkar much later, in the 18th century.

Allegations of extortion from the innocent pilgrims, as prevalent elsewhere in Hindu Shrines, are also a common refrain for the Gayawal pandas. Incidentally however, much of the ritual connected with pindadaan and the roles taken by the pandas in that process are not very defined. They do not perform the pujas, achaar and customary services during the occasion. These are done by priests meant for the purpose. Yet, every pilgrim has to approach the pandas on completing the rites and seeks their acquiescence – suphal – a kind of approval that signifies that the process was in order and may yield the desired moksah.

“The Gayawaal pandas are considered as jagirs (owner) of the places where pindadaan is offered. Without their permission, none can perform the rituals” – declares Munnu Mowar, a young entrant in the clan; reasoning out also the curious inclusivity of Indian lineage in their account.

But the clan is dwindling fast. From about 1484 families engaged in the calling only a few decades ago, it has shrunk close to 125 presently. Each such family offer 2 to 4 male members in the pursuit, that too, young members are increasingly looking it as part time, as, with education they are more inclined to get into modern day avocations. Endogamy is commonplace. This is encouraged to entrench the profession.

Yet the remarkable value multiplier linked with the presence of Gayawal panda is the genealogy tracker! Any visit to Gaya for pindadaan is recorded in Bhojpuri dialect, on yellow pages of their register in chronological sequence, being folded neatly thereafter and covered with red cloth on the above. These registers handed down to subsequent generations in their own household, hold immaculately on to that family descent and thus contain the link to the roots of Indian lineage.

Pandas, too, have their jurisdictional control. Any Indian descent is precisely segregated into respective Panda domains, leaving little scope for overlapping. The older records are periodically copied in newer registers to pre-empt withering.

Each Panda, thus, look after certain regions and even cater to the specificities of the region. As Bholalal explains that pilgrims from Central India touch upon more number of sacred spots (which are around 45 in total) beyond the customary places like Vishnupada, Phalgu river and Akshyay Bat, mainly covered by devotees from Eastern part including Bengal.

Pandas keep a close tab on historical events happening to the pilgrim of their respective terrain. Indian partition and the colossal human exodus in the aftermath, as fallout, thus find distinct, unerring chronicling in their registers. There can hardly be any disconnect for such huge populace even after shifting of place. Amit Bardhan, one such progeny of partition victim, to his extreme wonder, could find his ancestors visiting the place almost 105 years back. “All one needs is to call up his original place of descent – down to tehsil or village level,” he clarifies.

Conceding to its tourist potential, Government these days put a lot of emphasis on devotee services; but least of all is to upgrade the record keeping procedure of the devotees’ ancestry. No wonder, the procedure to survive the test of time, needs upgrading. Computer based record maintenance approach is the most suitable answer to carry the inimitable concept ahead. But none of Munnu or Bholalal, a relatively newer entrant to the vocation, is aware of the prospect of such natural use of technology to what they do manually. And there is hardly any taker of such idea in their clan, either!

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