Gaya, Oct 9 (IANS) Children as young as six, rather than mastering their alphabets, are chanting vedic hymns at the famous Vishnupad temple here - thanks to the acute shortage of traditional Hindu priests in this ancient Bihar city that is also known for its close links to Buddhism and Jainism.
Kunal Gurda (6) and Satyam Kumar Gupt (8), students of Class 1 and 3 respectively, are among dozens of children conducting 'pind daan', or the religious rites seeking salvation for the dead from the cycle of rebirth, at the temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu.
Both Satyam and Kunal are sons of Hindu priests at Vishnupad, known as Gaywal Pandas, who perform the traditional pind daan ritual at the temple. The ritual is performed during the 15-day "Pitrapaksh" period which is currently under way.
"There are nearly a dozen minors, not well-versed in Vedic rituals, who have been performing pind daan due to shortage of qualified priests," said Bablu Lal Gurda, a priest, whose son Abhay, a kindergartener, also performs the religious rite.
Clad in cotton kurta-pajamas with chandan smeared on their forehead, the children are excited about their new 'duties'. "It is a matter of pride for me that I got this opportunity early on. It is our birthright to conduct pind daan for devotees," Satyam told IANS.
"These children are born in the families of priests and deserve to conduct pind daan," said Munna Lal, a priest.
Another priest, Mahesh Lal Gupt, said it is the first time that Gaywal Pandas have been forced to take help of their young children.
"The younger generation is least interested in learning Sanskrit and conducting religious rites that we have been doing for generations. Besides, they prefer other professions for a good life and leave Gaya in search of jobs," Gupt said.
According to Manohar Singh, a retired government official, the number of qualified priests has dwindled here over the years.
Ganesh Lal Hall, another priest, agreed. "With more than 300,000 devotees coming here to perform pind daan, our numbers have not grown up with time. It is a serious situation for us," he said.
The pind daan ritual is performed on the banks of the sacred Falgu river.
According to Hindu belief, the soul wanders after death until pind daan is performed.
"The soul keeps wandering till this ritual is performed by male descendants of the dead," priest Murari Lal explained.
(Imran Khan can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)