By Asit Srivastava, Lucknow, Nov 28 :
Carrying a bowl in his hands, he wanders around barefoot, seeking alms from people - not for his own survival, but for solemnising the weddings of impoverished women!
Shankar, a caretaker of a small Shiva temple in Ramgarh, has been conducting mass weddings every year since 2005 through the alms he collects along with his 20-odd disciples.
"I really don't mind when some people say 'Dekho bhikari aa raha hai (look the beggar is coming)' and leave the place as they see me approaching them. My conscience is clear...I am not begging for myself but for the happiness of poor girls," 57-year-old Shankar told IANS on telephone from Sonbhadra, some 350 km from Lucknow.
"It really feels great when you see a smile on the faces of poor, helpless girls who thank you for performing their marriages. I just pray to god that I should continue to get alms so long as I am alive for holding the mass marriage functions," added Shankar, who refuses to talk about his personal life.
Every month, Shankar and his disciples go around in parts of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh for nearly 15 days, seeking money. Even as the exercise continues throughout the year, Shankar fixes an auspicious date for holding the mass-marriage function in his native town.
"While we have to directly approach some people for getting alms, there are many people who generously give money when they come to know about our mission of helping poor girls," Shankar said.
"There are several businessmen, government officials and even politicians who regularly make huge financial contributions," added Shankar, who preferred not to name the donors.
Shankar embarked on this noble journey in 2005 after encountering a tragic incident.
"While I was sitting outside a temple, I saw a youth resting under the shade of a tree. It appeared he was having some difficulty breathing. As I approached him for help, he told me he was quite worried about the marriage of his younger sister. Before I could ask anything more, he died," said Shankar.
"Later, I came to know his name was Santosh Kumar. He had lost his parents and was in stress after a man refused to marry his sister because of dowry issues. It was then that I decided to devote my remaining life to this cause," he added.
After the incident, Shankar organised a simple function in which 21 poor girls, including Kumar's sister, were married.
All kinds of people approach Shankar to get their girls married; the only condition is they should be from a deprived background. The ceremony is organised mostly during winters.
"A grand feast is organised on the occasion. Moreover, the newly-wed couples are gifted daily use items like utensils, watches and cupboards in order to help them start a new life," said Harikesh Kishore, a native of Ramgarh, who works as a helper at a dairy.
Kishore's daughter Sukanya was married off to a mechanic at a mass-marriage function organised by Shankar two years ago.
According to locals, Shankar also helps in finding suitable match for the girls. "He commands great respect in most regions in Sonbhadra and adjoining districts. The families of prospective grooms do not say no if Baba makes a request about a marriage proposal," said Hemant Kashi, a daily wage labourer in Ramgarh.
"Baba has promised me that my daughter would get her life partner in the upcoming marriage ceremony. All of us will really remain indebted to Baba for his noble mission," he said.
(Asit Srivastava can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org