On a still summer afternoon in Haridwar, under the platform that was the gaddi (office) of Gangaram, Dhagdu, from Bihar, who uses just one name, crouched with his family. They waited for their turn, the moment when they would be noticed and the record keeper would write their names into the book. “We want our descendants to know that someone in their family had been here to Haridwar and attended a Mahakumbh,” said Dhagdu, rasping through betel nut stained teeth.
Minutes later, Ravindra Bharadwaj, an important-looking man with a walrus moustache, who sat surrounded by bahis—scrolls that house records of visiting families— summoned them.
Back to the roots: A panda looks at the bahi of his patron. Over the last decade, these records have been granted legal status and are accepted as evidence in modern Indian courtrooms to resolve land disputes. Ravindra Singh/Mint
Without looking at the family, Bharadwaj shot off questions—“What village? What caste? Your father’s name? Grandfather’s name?”—that left Dhagdu confused. Hasty consultations commenced as Bharadwaj tapped an impatient pen on thick, handmade paper: he was not idle, he had things to do.
When the answers were found, Bharadwaj began writing in Devnagari, slowly and deliberately—“Dhagdu, son of Ghela, grandson of Chuniya, hailing from Banka district of Bihar, visited Haridwar in April 2010, with his wife and two sons—Rohit and Ram. He was here to attend the Mahakumbh.” Asked to sign, Dhagdu pressed an ink-stained thumb on the paper.
Watching the indigo ink dry, he said: “Now someone will know I was there. They can touch it and know that I was here.” His eyes crinkled in delirious joy, not knowing that his children may never see his thumbprint—it might become an impersonal blink on a computer screen, distant and untouchable.
If the community ever reaches a consensus, that is. At the moment, the traditional community is facing a question that could fracture it from within: Should the bahis be digitized?
“Should we protect our livelihood (and hold onto the bahis as they are) or should we preserve them (and risk losing our livelihood)—this is the question that we ask ourselves. We sit together and think and think. We keep going round in circles, no one has answers yet. Even pandas (priests who maintain records and perform last rites) who tell you that they are sure about what they want, even they are secretly wondering,” said Satish Shukla, a panda from Nashik.
Elsewhere, drawn by a desire to remain etched in history, more and more Indians are arriving at the homes of these pandas, to leave behind details —names of parents, grandparents, children; records of property, homes and ancestral land—that have created sociological records stretching back to medieval India.
Others, drawn by a desire to connect with their ancestors, come to read the fading records. “Every day, in my office, someone or the other is crying. They suddenly see the handwriting of their great grandfather and are so overwhelmed that they start crying, some do pranam to the signature,” said Anand Prakash Sharma, a panda in Haridwar. “Some photocopy records to frame it in their homes. Others trace family genealogy, they want to know their origins.”
For Dhwani Shah, 19, wandering with three friends in Haridwar, looking for her panda, the whole “bahi thing” was “too cool”. Residents of Ahmedabad, Shah and her friends planned to go rafting on the Ganga, but stopped by to see their bahis. Stepping into the office of a panda to make enquiries, Shah examined a bahi on his table—the long, rolled scroll, battered with use, its cloth cover wrinkled at the folds and its stories, written in special ink made at home in natural dyes that seemed faded on the handmade paper. “We heard about it from another friend who had come here. He read his great grandfather’s story in a bahi. I want to know, too.”
These bahis also bear signatures of historical figures who have shaped the country— kings such as Maharana Rana Pratap and Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, to modern leaders such as Motilal Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi and Indira Gandhi. “The oldest (bahi) is around 700 years old,” said Prakash Mishra, president of the Akhil Bhartiya Tirth Purohit Mahasabha, a national organization that runs the affairs of 30,000 panda families. “Every year, more and more people come and the records just keep growing.”
Over the last decade, these records have been granted legal status and are accepted as evidence in modern Indian courtrooms to resolve inheritance disputes, and conservationists claim they are a gold mine of information about Indian social structures, about life in medieval India and modern India.
And yet, these bahis languish in dusty corners of homes and offices that are ill-equipped to protect them from rats and termites, rain and heat, and are vulnerable to the ravages of time.
Ashutosh Sharma, public relations minister of the Ganga Sabha in Haridwar that runs the affairs of 2,500 panda families, explaining how they are maintained right now: “If a bahi is damaged, we rewrite it into a new one to protect the data. We air them in winters and do the best we can. We have preserved them for centuries.”
Yet, with so much data at stake in a country where record keeping has been notoriously poor, it seems natural that the government, affiliated organizations, historians and conservationists are eager to consign them to a computer’s memory. Before any accident can destroy any part of them.
But the question remains: Can the pandas resolve their differences?
To reach a consensus, the pandas will have to resolve an internal conflict—the practice of poaching patrons—that plagues the community and directly influences how they feel about making their records public.
“Every day, poaching is happening. Sometimes, it’s a conspiracy against us. Like 10 years ago, a team of people came to us, claiming to be researchers. They photocopied some records for ‘preservation’ and transferred them to a local organization to take away our yajman (a patron),” said Gopal Patuwar, a panda in Haridwar.
Instances such as this one have eroded the community’s confidence in technology. Mishra, who is trying to set up a website to help visitors locate their panda online, says pandas just need education. “It (the website) is great advertising and promotion. We can digitize records and say they are the property of so and so. It is only a question of helping them understand the change.”
But change comes slowly to this community, if it comes at all, said Sharma. “It will not be easy to convince them.”
They might have some time to think it over. Professor Dipti Tripathi, director of the National Mission for Manuscripts, says that while they plan to digitize these bahis, “we are still working with repositories of manuscripts right now and we have not come to the bahis yet. We still have to cover some ground before we get there”.
Mishra believes the best strategy would be for the pandas to digitize their own records immediately, before the government can come asking for it. “We can make this a secure process. It’s better we do it ourselves… We will think about this at our national convention.”
But as the conversation for computerization gains currency, most pandas, undereducated and insecure, are bracing for a fight. When argument fails, they argue that a computer cannot replace a handwritten signature of someone.
Santosh Goel, a businessman from Bihar, who makes a bahi entry every time he goes for a pilgrimage agreed: “There is something about seeing the handwriting of your ancestors that is so emotional. It makes you feel sure about where you come from.”