Achnera: A Hindu temple in this small, bustling town on the outskirts of Agra is making a record of sorts with the continuous recital of the Indian epic Ramayana for the past 18 years.
The Ram Hanuman temple opposite the Achnera railway station, about 25 km from Agra, has become a major centre of attraction for locals and those visiting the town. The recital of the holy book since 1994 is a feat every resident of this town is proud of.
The 'akhand paath' or continuous recital started Oct 21, 1994, and since then the Ramayana has been recited more than 3,440 times, the temple priest claims. The temple is located on the Uttar Pradesh-Rajasthan border.
He says there has never been a shortage of 'pathaks' or readers. 'They consider it a privilege to volunteer their services...there is some invisible force that sustains the enthusiasm of people.'
What surprises the devotees is how without a system or an institutional arrangement, the uninterrupted recital of the Hindu epic has been going on.
A tea shop owner outside the temple said, 'The Akhand Paath programme started way back in 1980 when the metre guage railway station at Achnera was a centre of hectic activity. But there were several breaks after the railways decided to change the guage from metre to broad. The railway staff moved over to Jaipur.
'But now with the opening of the Divisional Railway Manager's (DRM) office in Agra, and the Agra-Jaipur route becoming alive with more trains running, the flavour of the past has returned and the number of devouts has increased.'
The temple is small, without resources and pomp. People walk in, drop a few coins, pay their obeisance and return. Like temples in the small towns of India, this too has idols of Ram, Sita, Hanuman and a Shivling. Outside the temple hangs a wall clock and a small board which records the number of times the Ramayana has been read.
The lone priest on the wooden platform recites couplets from the holy book. Since there are no set rules, anyone can take turns over the mike and relieve the other. The loudspeaker, when there is electricity, breaks the monotony of the area.
Vishnu Dayal Sharma, a retired postmaster with a flowing beard, who has read the Ramayana here, said, 'How long this will continue only Ramji knows. My children are studying, and I am spending my retired life in the service of Ramayana. After two hours, another person will come, then another and so on. The process will continue.'