Vizag Durga temple has a Muslim priest

This is the essence of secular India. Respect and tolerance for all faiths. In a shining example of this, Payakaraopeta, a village in this district has a Muslim pujari at its Durga temple. He, like any other pujari, chants prayers in Sanskrit, helps visitors with their puja and also carries out all the rituals. What sets him apart is his name—Sheikh Mira Sahib.

Payakaraopeta is located close to Tuni, a small town known for its betel leaf production. Every Monday, over a hundred people from several nearby villages climb the unpaved steps of Seethamma hill to pray to the goddess. Mira Sahib guides them all in performing various rites and the worshippers acknowledge him as their pujari.

With a shaven head, barechested and wearing a dhoti, Mira Sahib begins his day at the temple at 7 am in the morning and spends his time till late afternoon in saying prayers and helping the pilgrims. He then returns home and attends to his chores. His earning is the dakshina that is given to him by the devotees.

“I used to herd buffaloes about 25 years ago. I also used to help in weeding the path on this hill for archeologists who were looking for some old relics and hidden caves,’’ Mira reminisces. “One day my gunapam (spear-like tool) hit something irregular. It was an idol of goddess Durga. There were a few idols lying about uncared for, so I tossed this one also downhill. I came home and forgot about what I did. That night in my sleep the goddess appeared before me as my daughter. She demanded that I perform puja to her daily. Then she vanished. I was nonplussed and didn’t know what to do for some time. Then I made up my mind to follow her instructions,’’ says he. The next day Mira went back to the hill and installed the idol at the place he had found it. A few weeks later he began performing the puja to her.

“I learned a few mantras by listening to other worshippers. Later, I learned them properly from my guru Subramanya Sastry. He taught me in spite of opposition from some people,’’ he recollects. A Muslim priest in a Hindu temple, especially in a small community, does raise many eyebrows. But the village folks have rallied around him. They hardly react when asked how they could have a Muslim pujari in a Durga temple. K Babji, a benefactor of the temple, was happy to clarify the situation. He says, “As far as we are concerned, it is Mira who brought the Mother to us. He has been conducting the worship and the vows with utmost sincerity, staying on the hill sometimes for three months at a stretch.’’

While the village has embraced Mira’s mantras, his son, Sheik Khan Sahib, does not approve of his father’s penchant for puja. Though Mira devotedly performs puja, he has not given up on his own religion. Recently he helped in the construction of a mosque.

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