Mission Delhi – Santosh Bhardwaj, Ghata Village
One of the one percent in 13 million.
[By Mayank Austen Soofi]
The Hanuman Mandir in Connaught Place is closed. So is the St James Church in Kashmere Gate. Ditto with Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya’s Sufi Shrine in Nizamuddin Basti.
Who could have imagined this would happen?
Sounding astonished on phone, temple priest Santosh Bhardwaj insists that this is a most extraordinary time. “I had never thought that a day would come when houses of gods would shut their doors to devotees.”
Indeed, the world has turned upside down. The coronavirus pandemic has upset everybody’s routines. But the virus hasn’t dented the daily schedule of Mr Bhardwaj, the in-house priest at Radha Krishna Temple in Ghata village in Gurgaon’s Sector 55 in the Greater Delhi Region, very close to the swish Golf Course Road.
“I live in the mandir, my life is simple, and has so far remained unaffected,” says the priest this evening on WhatsApp. The photos are taken through the screen that connects him to The Delhi Walla.
In his 40s, Mr Bhardwaj has been living in the temple for many years. His wife and three children live in their native town of Rewari. “They know I’m alone and they worry about me. They call me often,” he says in the contented tone of a man who is certain of the affection of his family.
Wearing an orange scarf around his head, the cheery-natured priest with a beatific smile clarifies that the temple has been closed to visitors since the lockdown began, more than one month ago. “Earlier, villagers would come to me all the time to ask me to help them with their personal problems, but now they call me on WhatsApp.” He says that most of his yajman (followers) in the village are former farmers, who now thrive by renting out their lands for residential use to migrants who decided to settle here.
Despite the absence of regular devotees inside the temple, Mr Bhardwaj still wakes up at 4 am sharp every morning. After undertaking his snan (bath), he begins the thorough cleaning of the temple floor. Back in the BC (before corona) era, the task was performed by a woman “but she went back to her village in MP with her sons, who were working as labourers in Delhi,” says Mr Bhardwaj. The priest reveals that the aforementioned lady and her family covered most of the way to their village by walking on the highway, like many other migrants returning home. “She called me on mobile after reaching home…. she is fine.”
These days Mr Bhardwaj gets help in the cleaning from Yash, a young man living nearby, who used to work in a salon until the lockdown began.
Later, the priest performs the ritual of jyoti batti, in which he lights up 14 diyas. The next few hours are exhausted in a series of devotional engagements including aarti, jaap, kirtan, satsang, and the reading of Bhagwad Puran.
One of Mr Bhardwaj’s most cherished activities in the morning is to clean the idol of Laddu Gopalji, a name used affectionately for baby lord Krishna. “I give Laddu Gopalji a shower, put new clothes on him, mark his forehead with sandalwood paste, comb his hair and finally tuck in the peacock feather on his head.”
Only after executing his morning duties does the priest help himself to chai. But currently he is observing a month-long fast “to pray that our country and the world get out of this mahamari (pandemic).” Consequently Mr Bhardwaj consumes only one simple meal daily, around 3 pm, consisting of meethi roti and meethi lassi.
The daily life in the temple winds down with the evening aarti at 7 pm. The curtains are drawn to all the shrines by 9. Only then the priest settles down on a string cot by the temple entrance, and indulges himself in looking at the world outside through the grills of the barred gate. He goes to sleep by 11 pm and is again up at 4 am.
“This is how my life in the mandir goes on, come what may,” says Mr Bhardwaj modesty as he conducts a WhatsApp tour of the temple, starting from the sanctum sanctorum to the yard outside. There, he turns his phone screen towards the temple’s tall shikhar (tower), rising defiantly high into the sky—as if setting a straight connection with the higher powers above.
[This is the 308th portrait of Mission Delhi project]