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Pandas of Gaya - custodians of our ancestry

Custodians of a time before modern technology made records button clicks away, the Pandas of Gaya endure as a way to remember one’s heritage, tied by a line of rituals that make them symbols of age-old Indian ingenuity that must not be forgotten

When Varun Gandhi came down to Gaya (a 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 tracings were made possible 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 custodians of Indian genealogy. "There can hardly be a failure in attempting to track one's ancestors; if only he or any of his forefathers had ever made the journey to Gaya in order to offer pinda," said Damodar Lal Mowar, prominent Gayawal Panda, exuding 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 pilgrims' eternal desire to locate their familial roots, Panda's handbook is potent in solving many a disputes of even wider dimensions. In the recent past, for instance, Thackerey's routine Bihar-bashing was questioned in the light of his own Bihari link, courtesy, the Panda register.

The process of making these records is archaic to be certain but also accurate. A person visiting Gaya for pindadaan would unfailingly be recorded into specific registers of the Pandas with references to their original place of descent. The information, thereafter, would be handed down to subsequent generations, through the same Panda family, keeping such knowledge intact through the passing of generations.

The work of the Pandas happens all year long. That said, the fortnight-long pitripaksah — considered the most auspicious of the planetary moments — draws Hindus from all over, to perform the ritual aimed at moksha, the salvation of their ancestral souls.

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

Allegations of extortion from a drove of innocent pilgrims, as prevalent elsewhere in Hindu Shrines, are also a common refrain used against 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 clearly defined and put down. They do not perform any puja, achaar or customary services during the occasion. These ritualised services are essentially carried out by the priests meant for such specific purposes.

Yet, every pilgrim has to approach the Pandas on completing the rituals and seek their acquiescence or suphal. This is a kind of approval that signifies that the process was in order and may yield the desired moksah for one's beloved ancestors.

"Actually, the Gayawaal Pandas are considered as jagirs (owners) of the site where the pindadaan is generally offered. Without their permission, none can perform the rituals," declares Munnu Mowar, a young entrant in the clan. He then goes on to describe the fascinating connection of Indian lineages in the Pandas' account.

But for all their influence, the clan is dwindling fast. From about 1484 families engaged in the calling only a few decades ago, the number has shrunk down to 125 presently. Each such family offers up 2 to 4 male members in this pursuit. That too, young members are increasingly taking it up as a part-time, as with education, they are more inclined to get into modern-day vocations. Again, endogamy is commonplace and helps members in keeping to the profession.

Yet, the remarkable value multiplier linked with the continuing presence of Gayawal Pandas is the genealogy tracker! It's a literal wonder. Any pilgrim, visiting Gaya for pindadaan, is certain to come and access their own ancestry with the Pandas. Such information is then entered in Bhojpuri dialect, on the yellow pages of the Panda's register. It is then folded neatly and covered with red cloth and maintained in a chronological sequence. In the end, these registers are handed down to subsequent generations in the panda's own household. In effect, such account would hold immaculately on to that family's descent and thus, contain the link to the roots of specific Indian lineages.

Pandas, too, have their own 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 away of these ancient registers.

Pandas, thus, look after certain regions and even cater to the specificities of the region. They keep a close tab on historical events happening to the pilgrims of their respective terrain. Indian partition and the colossal human exodus in the aftermath, thus, find distinct, unerring chronicling in their registers. There can hardly be any decoupling for such huge citizenry even after shifting of place. Amit Bardhan, one such progeny of victims of partition, 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, the government these days has put a lot of emphasis on devotee services but least of all, is to upgrade the record-keeping procedure of the devotees' ancestry, a proclaimed hallmark of Gaya. The practice has hardly any parallel in any other known sects. No wonder, the procedure to survive the test of time, needs upgrading, too. Increased use of computer and data-based approach in maintaining such ancestral records is the most suitable answer to carry this inimitable concept forward.

But none of the newer entrants to this vocation are aware of the prospect of such convenient use of technology to do what they do manually. And there are hardly any takers for such ideas in their clan as well!

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