Muslim Pujari

This Pujari, the keeper of a temple in Gulmarg, prays five times every day in the local mosque. He is a Muslim but has been performing all the rituals and pooja at the temple for 23 years as a display of his respect for the Hindu faith. Nazir Ahmad Rather reports.

Visit Gulmarg, the world-famous tourist resort and you won’t skip the sight of the Shiv temple located in the middle of the green bowl. Visitors are greeted by a 46-year-old chaplain (pujari) who has been rendering his services there for the last 23 years. Ghulam Mohammad Sheikh is called panditji by the visitors. However, locals have a different name for him – Mohammad Mandar.

Sheikh, hailing from Dandahmuh in the Baramulla district, took the responsibility of this temple as a caretaker in the year 1989 after turmoil gripped the Kashmir valley. Initially, Sheikh was asked to work as a chowkidar but in the absence of a regular pujari, after Kashmiri pandits left the valley, he became Panditji for the occasional visitor.

“I am here since the beginning of the turmoil in the valley,” says Shiekh.“People sometimes call me Mohammad Mandara but most of the regular temple attendants like the army men and other regular tourists also know me as panditji.”

Sheikh, like a seasoned man of Hindu priest, has learned all the rituals that are expected from a traditional pujari. He has gained a lot of experience in conducting the pujapath and havan in the temple.

“People come and ask me to do puja in the temple. I recite all the mantras that are practised during puja archana. I even hold pujas on a large scale such as on Shivratri, when the rush is huge,” says Shiekh.

He says that most people do not know that he is a Muslim and when they do, they are utterly shocked.
Sheikh’s day starts at six in the morning. First, he offers the morning prayers in the mosque. Then goes to the temple preparing the thali for aarti. He then waters the shivlingam showering flowers at it and lights the incense sticks inside the temple. This is his routine for the last 23 years.

Sheikh says that he is a Muslim first and offers prayers five times a day.

“Whatever I do in the temple is just a moral obligation,” he says.

The locals and the nearby shopkeepers in the Gulmarg area say that they see Sheikh offering prayers five times a day in the mosque.

He usually puts on a white kurta-pyjama on a routine basis to look like a pujri. Besides the dress, Sheikh believes that he has adopted some changes in food habits as well. He claims that in order to observe a certain sanctity inside the temple it is necessary to stay away from some of the things that are prohibited in Hinduism.

“I specifically avoid taking things like beef, eggs and onion because puja is usually not done after taking these things,” says Sheikh.

The Hindu visitors seem very happy with the Muslim pujari.

“We are satisfied with the treatment given to us in the temple by the panditji,” says Neeta Bhat, a visitor from Gujarat. She says that she was highly impressed by the manner Sheikh conducts puja inside the temple.

“It is unbelievable to see a pandit from the Muslim community here in Kashmir. Another visitor from Delhi finds it very strange and equally very interesting to have a Muslim pandit in the temple. “I have never seen such a thing before,” says Lalit Matto, a pilgrim from Delhi.

Apart from receiving a regular monthly remuneration, Sheikh, for his long and uninterrupted services in the temple has been awarded a certificate of appreciation in the year 2007 by Dharmarth Trust.

“I have received an award from the Trust and they also pay me a salary of 4000 rupees every month. The trust is headed by the former Sader-e-Reyasat,  Karan Singh.”

Sheikh wants to pass on this job to his eldest son. “I will hand over the responsibility of the temple to my eldest son after my retirement because I think it not merely a profession but a nice way of showing our love for Hindu brethren.”

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