TWENTY-SIX-YEAR-OLD Nityanand Jha, from Madhubani in Bihar, is among the thousands who have gathered for a glimpse of Shambhu Baba. Four years ago, the young man met with an accident that left him paralysed on the right side. He could barely walk even with the help of a stick. Today, as Shambhu Baba notices him in the sea of people and asks him to come closer, Nityanand beams with newfound hope and confidence. Baba gives him some dust from beneath his feet and tells him to apply it on his right leg and to drink water afterwards. “I will follow his advice once I reach home, but I feel better already,” Nityanand says. “I can’t afford physiotherapy sessions. I believe Baba can cure my leg.” There are others like him who have travelled long distances to seek the blessings of a godman who was all but unknown to them until recently.
A shopkeeper-turned-village priest, Shambhu Baba is well on his way to becoming a cult. He could soon join the ranks of other spiritual intercessors from Mithilanchal like Dhirendra Brahmachari, Ashutosh Maharaj and Mauni Baba. The Mithilanchal region, comprising 12 districts of North Bihar, is largely known as the kingdom of Janaka, the father of Lord Sita. The area has a large population of Maithil Brahmins who are known for their knowledge of the Shastra and Vedas. Because of income constraints back home, many Brahmin families or youngsters migrate to different parts of the country. Those with a spiritual learning become priests at temples in various states. Some even become saints with vast followings, like Ashutosh Maharaj who established Divya Jyoti Jagrati Sansthan in Nurmahal, Punjab.
The locus of Baba’s life is Kasraur, a village 50 km from Darbhanga reached via a single road passing through Benipur and Shivnagar Ghat. Kasraur is known in the area for having the Bhagwati Jwalamukhi temple, believed to be in existence for more than 300 years. The story is that one saint came all the way from Kangra, Himachal Pradesh and established a Bhagwati Peeth here. On a normal day, the journey would have taken an hour, but it takes us two. For the past month, things have been anything but normal here. A saint has been born overnight. His legend is being scripted in miracles and imbibed in the endless plates of food he serves day after day. As we approach the village, it looks as though it is hosting a fair, with hundreds of vehicles parked on either side of the road. There are autos, tractors, trucks, sedans and SUVs, each one of them loaded to maximum capacity. A few young boys clad in dhoti and baniyan direct the vehicles to an open ground near Kasraur High School that is already full. The next 2 km will have to be covered on foot. We jostle our way through the swarm of humanity. No one knows exactly what to expect, but they have heard stories of the saint with the akshaya patra.
After Shambhu Baba’s mother died on 9 February, he invited one and all to eat at his village as part of the shraadh karma, a ritual performed 10 days after death for the peaceful departure of the soul. But the langar didn’t stop with the last rites. Just how the baba can afford to feed thousands of people every day for more than a month now is a mystery within the mystery of his rise to sainthood. He does not step foot outside the village, nor is he known to have a source of income. But there is no stopping the langar, which goes on from 8 am till midnight. There are theories, of course, a particularly creative one featuring a box under the concrete floor of his hut filled with Rs 1,000 currency notes that never runs empty.
Baba hosts daily langar for nearly 100,000 villagers. The menu is altered occasionally to include poori and dahi-chuda, a local delicacy
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Vishnu Mohan Jha, the pradhan of Karsaur village, was pleasantly surprised when the baba approached him with a request to invite everyone from nine neighbouring villages for a grand bhoj. Around 50,000 people came in the first four days, from 19 to 22 February. They were treated to rice, dal, three types of vegetables, curd and rasgulla. Jha estimates that the baba spent more than Rs 50 lakh in four days. “The 70 cooks who worked day and night were all paid Rs 2 lakh collectively,” he says. Jha assumed the grand ceremony would end with the fourth day, as is customary. But the next morning, he found the baba at his doorstep, asking him to extend the invitation. “We were shocked and even politely asked him how he would bear the cost,” says Narayan Jha, a farmer from the village. “But he told us that it is Goddess Bhagwati’s order and she will organise everything.” The langar that started on 19 February goes on till date. The number of people filing in has swelled dramatically from 10,000 a day to about 100,000. The menu is altered occasionally to include poori and dahi-chuda, a local delicacy. Every morning, trucks come loaded with provisions for the day. The vendors are duly paid by the baba. “We waited for him to demand something from us, but he never did,” says Vishnu Mohan Jha. We visited on 27 March and in the five hours of our stay, witnessed a crowd of 20,000-30,000. Many of them voluntarily made small donations in a box outside the Bhagwati temple. “In the last four days, the total donation was a little over Rs 2 lakh,” says Vishnu Mohan Jha. “We count it every time it gets full.”
SHAMBHU KUMAR JHA once ran a stationery shop in Kasraur village. His elder brother died of stomach cancer in the early 90s, leaving Shambhu, who was then in his teens, to fend for his mother, sister-in-law and nephew. But in 1999, Shambhu took ill and was diagnosed with throat cancer. He had no money for treatment. Sure that he was looking death in the eye, he took sanctuary in the village temple. This is where the story takes a turn towards the magical.
Villagers claim that in a few months, Shambhu started looking better and was eventually completely cured. He now lives in a two-room house in the temple compound and prays to Goddess Bhagwati, of whom he is an ardent devotee. Villagers claim that the baba does not eat or sleep. To them, he is both a recipient and a performer of miracles.
Village Pradhan Vishnu Mohan Jha recalls how the baba predicted the delivery date of his daughter-in-law last year. “Baba came to me early in the morning and requested that we take her to the hospital as soon as possible,” he says. “I was surprised as my daughter-in-law was not in pain. It turned out he was right: she needed urgent surgery. The mother and child were saved, thanks to him.”
Baba has but one solution for every problem: a pinch of soil from the temple compound that must be kept at the troubled person’s house, followed by a drink of water afterwards
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News like this travels fast. And an emerging godman is a magnet for politicians eager to share in the making of his myth. Former BJP leader and Darbhanga MP Kirti Azad is among those who visit him often. “Shambhu Baba is not like other babas who seek donations and thousands of followers,” Azad says, “He is simple and doesn’t demand anything. He just gives you his blessings.” Azad says he is not a follower but has great respect for him. “I visited him recently post his mother’s death. He was just wearing a baniyan on that cold evening,” he says. Azad visited again on 27 March.
Sanjay Jha, a senior leader of the Janata Dal-United (JD-U) from Bihar, is a great believer in Shambhu Baba. He has been following him since 2008. “Look at the number of people eating here,” he says, “If he didn’t have spiritual power, where is all this coming from?” He, too, has visited the baba twice in the past month.
Shambhu Baba has but one solution for every problem: a pinch of soil from the temple compound that must be kept at the troubled person’s house, followed by a drink of water afterwards. “It works,” says Narayan Jha, claiming that Baba cured his granddaughter of her sleeplessness.
Shambhu Baba does not have a formal retinue of disciples at his beck and call. His villagers are his army, supporting him, guarding him against journalists, among other things. We approach him, making our way through thousands of people crammed into the narrow village road. Baba stands with folded hands in front of a small hut with a wooden roof, a huge pile of packets with wheat flour next to him. A short, lean man in his early forties, he does not seem to exude the charisma we have heard so much about.
We are instructed by a group of intransigent villagers not to ask any questions or take pictures; the baba, they say, does not want publicity. “Many journalists came earlier, but we did not allow them to enter our village. You are the first one to make it here,” says Dipak Jha, who claims to be a volunteer, with a hint of menace in his voice. Shambhu Baba looks at me and smiles. I cannot resist asking him: how long are you going to run this and where is the money coming from? He looks at the crowd behind me and then points at the sky. “It is all by Her order. Who am I to take a call? Please have food and leave.” This is enough to anger the villagers, who push me away from him and warn that I will be cursed for challenging his divine power. We are asked to sit at the pandal, as per his orders, and to watch the proceedings. “I am here for three days with a team of 10 cooks,” says Ramanand Mandal, the head cook from the nearby Bitholi area. “There are six such teams working here in shifts. The team changes every three days; this is exhausting work,” he says, looking at the horde of people vying for a place in the batch of around 600 that will be served next.
The villagers play a key role in magnifying the mystery around Shambhu Baba. They are the impenetrable shield surrounding his expanding aura of divinity. For many of them, his popularity has brought a business proposition or two. Forty-five-year-old Garib Poddar was unemployed until few weeks ago. Now, he has a small makeshift shop selling puja materials, and he makes around Rs 2,000 per day. “I run the shop for more than 12 hours a day and the business is only growing,” he says. Surendra Choudhary, 28, has a Tata Magic that he uses to ferry people from nearby places to Kasraur. “Earlier I would go to Darbhanga every day to get some business, but not now,” he says. “Business is thriving here and I hope it continues.”
A gathering of around 100,000 people every day in a small village is a recipe for complete chaos. There are voices of dissent, but no one wants to face the wrath of the baba. “From afternoon till late in the night, we can’t step out because of traffic. With all due respect to Shambhu Baba, this should come to an end,” says a villager from Shivnagar Ghat. AK Satyarthi, the SSP of Darbhanga, is blissfully unaware of the development in Kasraur. “Now that you have told me, I will see what is going on there,” he says.
It is six in the evening and the crowd is growing. The baba stands outside his hut with folded hands, never taking a break. Sainthood is hard work. And with a rise as meteoric as his, one is tempted to say he has earned it.