Visit to Bihar
The Awadhi Maithili and Magahi Connection of the Bhojpuri people of Mauritius
— Sarita Boodhoo
My India trip this year lasted from 4th January to 11th February. As in the past decade, I managed to combine my Bihar trip or precisely visit to the Bhojpuri belt with the Pravasi Bhartiya Divas. Hence, after the Kochi meeting in enchanting verdurous Kerala, I flew to Delhi on 10th of January and then to Benares and Jaunpur in Uttar Pradesh. There, I attended the International Seminar on Bhojpuri organised by the Bhojpuri Vikas Manch of Jaunpur. The very theme of the conference was striking and showed how much Mauritius is held in great esteem by the Indians: ‘’Mauritius Ke Nam Ek Sham’’.
After Jaunpur , I went to several other places such as the Benares Hindu University in Varanasi (UP), to Azamgarh (UP), Patna, Bikram, Rajgir in Nalanda District, Chappra in Saran District of Bihar. Of course, not without immersing myself in the bitingly cold sacred waters of Triveni Sangam, Prayag at the Maha Kumbh Mela.
It is interesting to note that the Bhojpuri belt is a vast socio-linguistic and cultural terroir that spills over from Bhojpur in Bihar to the Eastern part of Uttar Pradesh,, to Chattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh and to Jharkhand south of Bihar (formerly one state). What fascinated me is that how over a period of 90 years (1834-1924), out of some 450,000 indentured immigrants who landed in Mauritius, a good majority came from some 26 diverse regions from the then British Presidency of Oudh, Behar, Bengal and Orissa. One cannot imagine the vast geographical expanse of these regions, by themselves as big as several countries of Europe such as Spain, Italy, Greece or even UK.
The Bhojpuri people of Mauritius came from several small tiny villages out of thousands spread over each of the 26 districts. And then, one can wonder at the resilience of the Bhojpuri language, the Indian culture and ethos, which have resisted over the years the onslaughts of linguistic, cultural and other pressures in tiny Mauritius!
The Bhojpuri Belt in Bihar and UP itself is a diverse terroir where the tone, the case endings and etymologies vary with the crossing of a river or border. There is a saying which goes as follows:
« Kos kos par pani badle
Char kos par bani »
(Dialect changes with every kilometre as does the taste of water)
How then we in Mauritius have been able to maintain contre vents et marées and forge a Mauritian variety of Bhojpuri originating from such a vast and diverse geographical and linguistic landscape is indeed a baffling linguistic phenomenon. To survive, these different forms of Bhojpuris have interiorized and appropriated Creole words and expressions. Hence as I pushed into the vast interiors of Bihar and UP, I marvelled at the similitudes and the commonalities that bind us despite the painful uprooting of 200 years. There is indeed a deep bonding of blood, history, culture and genes.
In Mauritius, we also tend to be under the impression that we all hail only from a monolithic Bhojpuri belt, some of the most well-known basins of immigration being Ara, Chappra and Ballia. Others are under the impression that the whole of Bihar is Bhojpuri-speaking. Still others confuse the Bhojpuri regions of UP with Bihar, such as Azamgarh, Jaunpur, Benares.
Most interesting is the discovery that we have roots in non-Bhojpuri speaking regions as well of these abovenamed States of the Oudh, Bengal, Bihar and Orissa Presidency of the time.
Thus in Jaunpur, I discovered that western Bhojpuri slowly merged with Awadhi (Awadh Empire of Shri Ram)
Awadhi is the language, par excellence, of the Ram Charit Manas of Tulsidas, of Hanuman Chalisa, Hanuman Bahuk daily recited by Mauritians. The people around me in Jaunpur conversed in Awadhi, Bhojpuri and Hindi. We have people in Mauritius who hail from Jaunpur. Bhojpuri being so forceful has absorbed all traces of Awadhi, Maithili, Magahi and even Oria (Orissa) and Bengali to make a Mauritian Bhojpuri.
I also discovered that some of our people have roots in Gaya and Patna as well as Monghyr. These fall in the Magadh region of Bihar. Interestingly, the President of Mauritius, Mr Kailash Purryag went to his native village in early January, which is found in the southern part of Patna District. He belongs to the Magahi belt where people speak Magahi, a sister language to Bhojpuri. The famous Magadh Empire of yore was the pride of India, under Ashoka the Great. We have also had such great Emperors as Chandragupta Maurya and so many others hailing from this belt.
It was this quest to know more of our multiple linguistic roots that took me this time to Darbhanga, Madhubani and Sitamarhi Districts of Bihar.
Of the 26 districts from which hail most of the indentured immigrants of Mauritius, one should include the ancient Tirhut which adjoins Nepal border, later known as Muzzafarpur under the Mughal and now broken into several small districts of Bihar (Darbhanga, Madhubani and Sitamarhi) for administrative purpose. The language spoken here is Maithili, a very rich component of Hindi and a sister language to Bhojpuri with the literary composition of the great poet Vidhyapati who is from the region. Therefore one can understand how proud are the Maithili people about their culture.
On 29th January my friend Mr Vinay Kumar, District Magistrate of Saran District (Chappra) arranged for my tour of the Maithili region. The long road journey to Darbhanga took almost five hours through sometimes rough roads and sometimes smooth ones and long stretches of farmlands which merged with the horizon. Small stretches of yellow mustard fields giving way now to small plots of sugar cane ready for harvest, or wheat (gehu) or arhar (pulses-embrevade). As we passed by the villages full of life, my mind went back to 1834 or onward. I would tell myself that some of our people back home must have originated from such and such a village whose nameplates were neatly written on boards by the roadside in Hindi and English. As I saw men, women and children in colourful dresses, all family members probably, cutting and loading the sugar cane (thin and not as robust and red as our variety) I told myself this is what they came to Mauritius for. My driver Shahu who had accompanied me on previous visits, by now was familiar with my research, and would point out interesting pieces of information as he drove me along. He was part of the adventure of discovery of roots. Shahu Reotinandan is a Bhojpuri from Muzzafarpur. And quite some immigrants have come to Mauritius from Muzzafarpur. The bonding could be felt intensely.
I broke journey at Muzzafarpur to have lunch at 3 pm with the Assistant Director General of Police, Mr Gupteshwar Pandey who had killed more than 80 criminals in police encounters and whom all affectionately call GP. The road from Muzzafarpur to Darbhanga was a newly constructed highway. It was a four-lane one and could equal any highway whether in Mauritius or Europe!
We finally reached Lahariya Sarai in Darbhanga where Mr Kumar Ravi, DM had made all arrangements for my overnight stay at the Circuit House.
I had a meeting with Mr Kumar Ravi, who had made arrangements for me to meet some intellectuals and academics of Darbhanga,such as Dr Pushpam Narain a renowned musician, Dr Birendra Narayan Singh, Dr Ved Prakash, Dr Vidianath Jha among others. The meeting lasted from 8.15 to 10.15 p.m. after which I had dinner. They were very proud to unfold to me the rich cultural, literary and metaphysical background of Mithila (Tirhut,Darbhanga and Madhubani, etc).They conversed in Hindi, Maithili and Madhesia a Bhojpuri spoken in that part. I was told about plants such as “Karmi” the Karmi Bhajjee that we eat in Mauritius, and others such as ‘Tethar’ from which originates the Bhojpuri word thethar meaning stubborn.
The DM had given me an officer, Mr Ram Bujhawan Yadav to co-ordinate my tours in Darbhanga, which he did with efficacy. I told Ram Bujhawan that his name was a common one in Mauritius and he could pass for a Mauritian too! We started early the next morning at 8 am. The fog engulfed the whole place. Shahu could hardly see ahead. It was very cold. The Maharaja of Darbhanga, Lakshmeswar Singh had donated his beautiful princely and imposing palaces of 300 years old to the Government of Bihar. These housed two universities and a medical college, where some Mauritian doctors studied and are still remembered by some classmates (now senior citizens).
I was shown the various temples of the Maharaja’s palace such as the Shyama and Tara Mandir, and Annapuma Mandir. I also visited the famous Chandradhari Museum, again former Maharaja Palace, the Darbhanga Royal Fort, the Mithila Sanskrit Shodh Sansthan situated near the Bagmati River, fed by Himalayan glaciers and one of the tributaries of Ganga in Bihar. This Research Centre is well known for its Sanskrit and Pali Manuscripts which are among the five research centres and institutes set up by the Government of Bihar in the 1950s.
The immensity, the quietness and serenity of the land marvelled me. The Bagmati River though often changed courses in the monsoon rains which caused havoc. This place is also subject to frequent earthquakes along with Nepal which fall on the main fault line.
After a good meal at 2.51 pm. we left for Madhubani District. On the way, there were many bridal cars nicely decorated and barat parties. Women were singing marriage songs. It could have been in Mauritius. Here the songs were in Maithili or Madhesia (mixed Bhojpuri and Maithili).
There were some places which I came to learn that I needed to visit because of their ancient association with mythology or history. In any case such places have a great magnetic pull on me. Hence, I was told about a temple in Uchaith, some 25 kms south west of Madhubani city, which I should visit. Uchaith was famous for having graced Kalia, the idiot village youth who was married to a princess in Ujjain and later sent back. But he was blessed by the great Devi Bhagwati (epithet of Durga) who resides in the ancient temple and he got illumination. Thus overnight, Kalia was transformed into kalidas, the great Sanskrit writer and poet known for exquisite creative work, such as “Abhigyan Shakuntalam” and others. Even the great king Raja Janak, father of Sita, the sage Yagyavalkya author of Brihadaranya Upanishad, his two learned wives Maitri and Gargi, many rishis and munis such as Astavakra, Kapil Muni, Jaimini, Kanad, Gautam Muni and the famous Maithili Kokil (Nightingale of Mithila) Vidyapati had paid their obeisance to Bhagwati Devi and obtained her Grace.
How then could I not go to Uchaith, though I was told it was late, almost 6 pm and the temple would be closed. Time was pressing for me, the next day I had to visit schools of Madhubani paintings and proceed to Sitamarhi to visit the birthplace of Sita on the Indo-Nepal border. So I insisted to visit Bhagwati Devi’s temple in Uchaith. To my great joy when we reached Uchaith – in the misty cold and rainy atmosphere shrouded in darkness, as if by the Grace of the Devi, Pandit Dev Kumar Giri accompanied me to the ancient shrine and chanted a resounding and profoundly soulful prayer and mantras. To me, it was as if Bhagwati Devi was waiting to receive me in her arms, such were the elated and sublime emotions I felt. Many places in this region are known as Dih. Such as Kalidas Dih, Vidyapati Dih. Dih is a common word in the religious jargon of Mauritius.
The next day I visited the beautiful Madhubani paintings of some 200 village women and girls trained by the Gram Vikas Parishad at Basuara. I also visited the birthplace of Vidyapati. Everywhere, arrangements were made for press coverage and I was widely covered by the main Hindi dailies such as Prabhat Khabar, Dainik Jagran, Ratriya Sahara, Aaj and Hindustan etc.
As time was indeed seriously pressing as I had to reach Patna to catch a train at 4 am the next day to go to Calcutta to visit my close friend Leela Gujadhur Sarup, I decided to leave for Sitamarhi and spend the night at the Circuit House there and visit the birth place of Sita and Sita Kund (where she had come out in a kalash from the Earth) and also Haleswar where Raja Janak had ploughed a large sketch of land for rain to come and save his farmers and animals of his kingdom from a sure death. It was a good two-hour journey.
By the time we reached Sitamarhi at 6.30 pm on the Indo-Nepal border, it was dark and one could hardly see anything in the dense fog that enveloped everything. Despite the heater, I still felt terribly cold at night. It must have been two degree Celsius or below! We were at the foothills of the Himalayas. Early morning we moved to see Sita Janmasthal and Sita kund, 4 kms from the Circuit House in Sitamarhi, the capital city at Punawra and Haleshwar Mandir , six kms away.
Mauritius is the land of Ramayana which our ancestors brought in their memories. And where everyday, verses of the Ramayana in Awadhi are chanted by ‘’ mahila mandalis’’ or other Ramayana Mandalis. I could not have left Bihar without visiting the birth place of Sita.