Monumental neglect – a national symbol submerged in floodwaters in Bihar

Monumental neglect – a national symbol submerged in floodwaters in Bihar

Monumental neglect – a national symbol submerged in floodwaters in Bihar

The Ashoka Pillar bore the brunt of neglect as floodwaters submerged the historical monument even as officials attempted to salvage the situation while taking steps to revive its famous legacy.

Lauriya, Bihar: The Ashoka Pillar at Lauriya in the West Champaran district of Bihar is a symbol of national pride and a memorial of the golden rule of the Mauryan Emperor, Ashoka. However, in recent times, the monument has received a considerable amount of bad press. In complete disregard for its historical importance, the pillar has become a symbol of superstition and has been worshipped by the masses who believe that it possesses supernatural powers. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has come under severe criticism for failing to publicise and create awareness among people about the history of the pillar. In addition to these woes, for the past five monsoons, the pillar is being submerged in floodwaters, threatening irreparable damage to a national monument.

Abandoned to nature's fury

When 101Reporters visited the site at Lauriya in July (about 246 km north of the state capital of Patna and 26 km from Bettiah, the district headquarters), we found that a vast area of land was completely submerged in water from the Sikarahana river. The river had overflown owing to the regular discharge of water from Valmikinagar barrage (on the Indo-Nepal border area in Bihar's West Champaran district) and rainfall in Nepal and its catchment area.

"More often than not, the pillar remains submerged in floodwaters during the monsoons. The water levels rarely recede during the rains and go below the actual position of the pillar," said Vivek Prasad, a resident of Lauriya. 

The locals said that the pillar has been neglected for about five years now and that no tangible efforts have been taken in its restoration. "For the past five years, the Ashoka Pillar and the entire area around it has remained submerged in water for days together during the rainy season. We are afraid that the height of the water may inflict irreversible damages to the pillar if the necessary steps are not taken. But unfortunately, nothing concrete has been done to save the situation from such a pathetic state as yet," said Sikandar Tiwari, a resident of Lauriya, echoing similar sentiments. 

For the past five monsoons, the area around the Ashoka Pillar becomes submerged under water, say locals, who worry about the damage to the monument (Picture credit - Shilpi V) 

While travelling in the area, this reporter came across high currents of water flowing over the Lauriya - Ramnagar road, barely a stone throw distance from the Ashoka Pillar. As a result, the vehicular movement on this stretch had been suspended.

"The situation has become more chaotic when it rains heavily in the catchment areas, which, sometimes, raises the water level to almost 4 ft in height on the main road," said Gaurishankar Ojha, another resident living nearby. 

Bureaucratic bottlenecks

According to the local community, the situation would have been saved if an under-construction bridge over the road had been completed. "For the past two years, the construction of the bridge is lying in limbo for reasons best known to the authorities concerned," said Ramnath Thakur, a resident of Belwa village in West Champaran, who is a regular visitor here. 

When contacted, Ram Mohan Singh, executive engineer with the Bihar Rajya Pul Nirman Nigam Limited (BRPNNL), said the construction work of a bridge being built at a cost of over INR 8 crore, has come to a halt. "We are waiting for a no-objection certificate (NOC) from the ASI to resume the work as the construction site is very close to the historical monument (Ashoka pillar)," said Singh. “The need for the construction of the bridge was necessitated following the collapse of two culverts during a flood in 2017,” he added. 

HS Naik, the Superintending Archaeologist at ASI (Patna circle), pleaded helplessness. "We are aware of the waterlogging situation and apprised the higher authorities about it. This is a natural calamity. We are looking into the matter to come up with a solution," said Naik.

However, another official attached with the regional office said that he is yet to visit some of the archaeological sites including Lauriya's Ashoka pillar for inspection. "Some of the sites in north Bihar are shallow and low-lying. We will see to it what can be done. Funds are not a deterrent," said the official refusing to be identified.

The bridge that was to come up over the Lauriya-Ramnagar road has been lying incomplete and in limbo for the past two years (Picture credit - Shilpi V)

Superstition versus history

The lack of awareness among villagers about the historical importance of the pillar is relatively conspicuous. A large number of people believe that the structure possesses supernatural powers and deify the pillar. Devotees seek out the pillar for the fulfilment of heartfelt wishes, the cure of ailments and solace for the unhappy soul. Some offer flowers and bow their heads in reverence, while some others offer holy water and kheer- puri, a famous offering here.

"People dwelling around here have immense faith in the Ashoka Pillar which is popularly known as Laur Baba. It is believed that the pillar possesses power," said Sohan Das, a priest of Ram Janki temple, located barely 100 meters away from the pillar. 

Offering more insight into the belief system of people, Sarmatiya, a devotee, said, “Laur Baba rose vertically from the earth in yore. He has fulfilled the wishes of many and we have immense faith in him."

In October, a huge fair, popularly known as Laur Mela, steals the show in the area for two months. No one can recall when or how the fair came to be celebrated.

"I have been seeing this fair being held in the memory of Laur Baba from my childhood. The legend has it that it was during this time that the pillar emerged in ancient days," said octogenarian Bramadev Bihari, a doyen of Bankatwa village near Lauriya.

Elaborating on the historical significance of the pillar, Dr Chandrashekhar Kumar, a guest teacher with the Department of History, MJK College, Bettiah, said, “This pillar has more than one historical significance. Written in Pali language, the pillar carries orders delivered by emperor Ashoka to maintain peace in his nation after he became a follower of the teachings of Lord Buddha. It is also said that the pillar was erected in memory of Lord Buddha who is said to have visited this part of the country."

On the religious rituals being performed at the site of the Ashoka pillar, Superintending Archaeologist, HS Naik said, "This is clearly a non-religious structure. We are also spreading awareness among the people about the historical importance of the site."

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