A Bitter Twist to a Rather Lovely Tale

This is a story about  Hatihalka, a cluster of villages in the Midnapore district of West Bengal. When you visit there, apart from the villagers and their homes, what is unusual about Hatihalka are the enchanting ruins of terracota temples, 32 of them, which we are told are 250 and 300 years old. These temples stretch over a three square kilometre area, they are the Sheetala, Navaratna and Das Mahavidya temples. Amongst them is also a stone image, built in the ninth century of Vishnu Lokeswar, a combination of the images of Vishnu and Buddha. Experts say that Buddhism once flourished in this area. On the walls of these temples, we can see depiction’s of the battle for Sri Lanka, episodes from the life of Lord Krishna and many hunting scenes.

Mohammad Yasin, a Muslim resident of this cluster of villages ruins. Through his childhood, he was haunted by them “What kind of people lived on the same soil that we tread? What were their thoughts? Their dreams? How did they live?”

Twenty-five years ago, when the frail Yasin became a school teacher in the same village, consumed with his passion to prevent the further decay of these temples, he began a one-man crusade. He started meeting local political leaders, he wrote to the Indian government alerting  them about the plight of this decaying heritage. Receiving no immediate answers, he travelled to Delhi himself to meet with archaeologists and even spent Rs. 50,000 of his own money to instigate action towards preservation of the forgotten ruins.

Even as he fought hard for his dream, he faced difficulties. because thought he passionately loved these temples, he had a Muslim name.
Often , in the midst of his crusade, he despaired. part of a precious heritage of the medieval past, the impressive Navartna temple had many of its marble fittings stolen. And once, thanks to the vigilance of Yasin who had set up a committee of local villagers, a criminal spotted attempting to sell a stone image for Rs. 8,000 to a foreigner, was stopped.

Thanks to the singleminded efforts of Yasin, some grants were sanctioned by the government for the protection of the temples but much of it got diverted by the local panchayat away from the temple-restoration work. Still Yasin devotes his time and effort. writing on the subject of his temples, sometimes dispairing but never giving up the cause of his beloved temples. through the Pathra Archaeological Preservation Committee of which Yasin is a member fresh steps are afoot to save the temples that are also threatened by submergence if the Kansabati river changes its course.

But today , despite these efforts, Yasin is a lonely man. Not wanting to divulge their names locals say, “If the temples are standing today, it is because of the labours of our Pathan.” But that is in private. In public, the Muslims call him a kafir and only the other day, the old temple priest took his sandle out and shook it at Yasin in anger asking, “What is your motive in meddling in the temple business?"