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Matts of Crime



Murder, rape and arms smuggling
are a way of life for the sadhus of the
matts in Ayodhya and Bihar.

KANHAIYA BHELARI in Ayodhya and Patna

Tradition binds them to austerity, but opulence is their way. They are sworn to celibacy, but marry they do and have children. Attaining salvation is their ultimate goal, but for property they aim. In politicians they trust and on criminals they rely. They are the mahants (head priests) and sadhus of the thousands of matts in Ayodhya and other parts of eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

The Hanuman Garhi in Ayodhya, where at least four mahants have been killed since 1997

The matts, there are no fewer than 8,000 in Ayodhya and about 7,000 in Bihar, are an industry by themselves, with some like the Gorakhpur Temple in Uttar Pradesh raking in offerings worth Rs 50,000 each day. And the mahants live it up. According to local reports, about 200 mahants in Ayodhya have cars including Maruti 1000 and Ford; 25 have jeeps and around a thousand have two-wheelers. Colour TVs, refrigerators and telephones are passe in mahants' homes. "The mahants of Ayodhya are enjoying a luxurious life, unlike the sadhus we read about in our religious texts," said Raghubar Sharan, a local journalist of the Hindi daily, Dainik Jagaran. And many of them in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh have criminal cases against them. Savour this:

Mahant Srikant Das of Patepur Matt in Vaishali district of Bihar is missing for the last two years. He is accused of rape and murder.
Ram Gopaldas, former mahant of the Hanuman Temple in Patna, was arrested in 1987 on the charge of possessing six rifles; an amount of Rs 6 lakh was also seized from him.
In a raid on a hotel in Bhagalpur two years ago, police arrested mahant Devramdas Vedanti of Janaki Ghat in Ayodhya, along with a girl whom he had allegedly abducted. They also seized a Spanish pistol from his possession, besides ornaments worth Rs 1 lakh and Rs 3.5 lakh in cash.
Mahant Prahalad Das of Hanuman Garhi in Ayodhya was charged under the Goondas Act on October 24 by the Faizabad district administration. There are a number of charges, under several sections of the IPC, against him. He has not been arrested yet.

These are but a few instances of the unholy lives of mahants in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The matts more often than not act as a cover for criminal activities. For instance, Sri Prakash Shukla, who has a reward of Rs 2 lakh on his head, is said to have stayed in a matt in Ayodhya for two weeks after killing BSP leader and former MLA Birendra Pratap Sahi on March 31. He took refuge in the matt once again after allegedly killing a police officer in a Lucknow hotel on August 1. The matt belonged to a mahant from Bihar.

More than 40,000 'holymen' live in the mutts in Ayodhya. Of them more than 60 per cent of the mahants and over 25,000 sadhus are from Bihar. Most of them are Bhumihars or Brahmins, and they fight over matt property. Kishore Kunal, IG of the CISF, even said that the Bhumihar mahants of Ayodhya's matts had hired a number of criminals from the Begusarai belt of Bihar to establish their supremacy among the sadhus in Ayodhya.

The matts are hot property, literally. It would seem that starting a matt is the easiest thing to do. Invite a mahant of one of the big matts to the building one wants made into a matt. He places idols of gods, Ram, Sita, Laxman or any other, and pronounces it a matt! The person who owns the place becomes its mahant, with disciples there for the picking.

These 'readymade' matts have or acquire a lot of farm land whose ownership is difficult to trace in the records. It is said that the land is even in the name of cats, pet dogs and donkeys!Once these mahants have established themselves, they break away from the main matt. And disputes over land are many among family members. On November 8 a member of one 'family matt' of the Shaiv sect in Tehra village of Bihar's Jehanabad district was killed over a property case.

The disputed land belonged to the grandfather of the victim, B.N. Giri. One of his relatives wanted to sell the land to a Gopal Prasad, and Giri, who was an assistant station master at Makhdumpur station near Bodh Gaya, went to court. After prolonged litigation the court ruled in Giri's favour. At this Gopal Prasad and his men fatally attacked Giri inhis house and raped his teenage daughter.

The Bodh Gaya matt, belonging to the Shaiv sect, witnessed a prolonged land dispute and over a dozen murders. Till 1970 it had 20,000 acres. Jairam Giri, manager of the matt, managed to get a power of attorney from the mahant and sold several acres. He went on to become a minister in the Karpoori Thakur cabinet in 1977.

In the Patapur block of Vaishali district 27 of the 31 matts are under litigation. "There is often fierce fighting among the goons hired by the warring mahants," said a police officer in Vaishali. Some of them even contact the mahants in Ayodhya to hire criminals.

In Ayodhya itself there are over 50 matts with property disputes, including Bari Chhawani, Hanuman Garhi, Bari Asthan, Maniram Chhawani, Laxmankila, Churbuji Asthan, Janaki Ghat and Haridhampeeth, which have property worth crores. And each of these matts has branches and landed property spread over Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar.

If in the olden days matts were opened to spread the teachings of the different sects and strengthen Hinduism, today it is the property spread and the muscle power to settle disputes that matter. Criminals soon found their way even into such big matts as the Hanuman Garhi in Ayodhya. The two main mahants of the Garhi, Gyan Das (left) and Ramdas (right), accuse each other of entertaining criminals in the matt. Gyan Das is a Brahmin from Uttar Pradesh and belongs to the Sagaria Patti, while Ramdas is a Bhumihar from Bihar and belongs to the Ujjainia Patti. They, along with two other mahants, Muraridas of Haridwari Patti and Ramcharan Das of Basantia Patti, select the Gaddi Nasheen or head.

The Garhi has around 600 Nagas (as the sadhus of Hanuman Garhi are called), who are divided among the four mahants. While the present head is Mathura Das, for all practical purposes it is Gyan Das who is in control.

"It was Tribhuvan Das of Ujjainia Patti who first brought criminals into the Garhi in the 1960s," says Gyan Das. The police and mahants of other matts in Ayodhya agreed that the factions used criminals to assert their supremacy. "The day I came to know of Tribhuvan Das's criminal background I kicked him out," says RamdasTribhuvan Das set up his own ashram, Bahadurpur Matt, in his native Begusarai in Bihar, besides capturing some matts in the state. A Bhumihar, he is said to be wanted in more than half a dozen criminal cases but stays undaunted in his ashram.

"Go and ask Narasimha Rao and Chandra Shekhar about me," he retorted angrily when THE WEEK asked him about the allegations against him. Tribhuvan Das, whose matted hair is said to conceal a revolver, refused to be photographed. He left his stamp on Hanuman Garhi by engraving the name Ashok Samrat on one of the steps leading to the Garhi. Samrat was a hardened criminal involved in over a hundred cases, and was killed in a police encounter two years ago.

Another Bihari who got the boot from the Garhi was Upendra Das. That was two years ago when Gyan Das came to know about the criminal activities of his most favourite disciple. "I tried my best to change him, but his blood has criminal germs," said a disappointed Gyan Das. "Most of the sadhus involved in criminal activities in Ayodhya are from Bihar." Upendra was recently arrested for a car theft at Basti in Uttar Pradesh.

Gyan Das is among the dozen sadhus whom the police have provided security. Over 30 mahants have been provided shadows and men armed with stenguns. "To have a security guard has become a status symbol for mahants of Ayodhya," say the sadhus.

Police records show that in the last 10 years at least 150 mahants or sadhus have been killed in eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar because of ownership disputes. In Ayodhya alone, 20 sadhus have been killed in the last seven years. To prevent violence and dispose of property disputes the Bihar government set up the Bihar State Board of Religious Trust in 1952. "But since then the violent clashes have increased," said an officer of the trust. "This is because successive vice-presidents of the trust happened to be politicians who milked the matts for monetary and political gain." The present vice-president of the trust and RJD MP, Ram Kripal Yadav, admitted that the trust had failed to achieve its goal. "In fact, it is a defunct organisation now," he said.

There is little that even the police can do about the unholy goings-on in the matts. "Criminals from eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar come to Ayodhya and become disciples of different mahants," said Faizabad SSP Vijay Kumar Arya (pic: left). "And at the opportune moment they grab the property of the matt."Raids are usually carried out at night. "Raiding a matt means inviting the wrath of the Hindus," said Arya. And as long as faith rules over reason in the minds of the people the criminals are bound to exploit the situation. Some in the garb of godmen even smuggle arms.

On January 17, the Faizabad police arrested three sadhus, Sudama Das, Laxman Das and Bajarang Das, on the charge of possessing sophisticated arms. The sadhus apparently told the police that they had bought the American revolvers, costing Rs 2 lakh each, in Bangladesh and that they had been smuggling arms for the last six years.

Recently some of the influential matts were identified as being involved in supplying weapons made abroad, said Arya. "Some arms were seized from an influential mahant but the matter was hushed up because he enjoys the support of a political leader of the state," said a police officer.

The politician-mahant nexus has split the sadhus on caste lines. While Mahant Ramdas of Hanuman Garhi is associated with the BJP, his rival, Mahant Gyan Das, a Brahmin, is said to have the support of Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav.

The fights among mahants have divided the people, too, on caste lines. The Kushwahas in the villages near the Dhanauti Matt in Siwan district of Bihar are opposed to Laloo Prasad Yadav because the mahant is a Yadav who enjoys the backing of a minister. Similarly the Nishads of villages around Pranpur Matt in Vaishali district hate Laloo because the mahant of their caste was killed last year, allegedly by Yadavs.

Politicians use the matts and mahants to widen their support base. In January, when Uttar Pradesh was still under President's rule, the Faizabad district administration prepared a list of 86 sadhus living in matts in Ayodhya, who have criminal cases against them. It is said the list was prepared by the then Faizabad SSP Rajkumar Vishwakarma at the behest of Defence Minister Mulayam Singh. Mulayam apparently plans to use it as a 'weapon' to get the support of the sadhus.

According to Arya, a number of matts are under police surveillance because they shelter notorious criminals. Besides Hanuman Garhi, the police are known to be keeping a constant vigil on the activities of the Nishad Temple, Awadh Bihari Kutir, Hanumant Vijay Kunj, Vijayrao Kunj, Swarnkhar Kunj, Ram Janam Mandir, Jaisawal Kunj, Sita Kund, Bari Chhawani and Laxman Kila.

The police seem to have contempt for the mahants and the sadhus. Kishore Kunal even narrates an episode from the Valmiki Ramayan to show that in Hindu mythology the mahants were seen as sinners. The story goes that on his way to the jungle Lord Ram came across a dog which had a strange complaint. It said a man had beaten it without any provocation. "The man rained blows on me though I neither barked at him nor bit him," the dog told Ram. Convinced about the genuineness of the complaint Ram asked the dog to prescribe punishment for the man.

The dog prayed that He make the man a mahant in his next birth. "I am living an ignominious life of a street dog because of the sin I had committed as a mahant in my previous life. I think the mahants are synonymous with sin," the dog said. Many of the mahants have no qualms about living in sin or marrying and having children. "It is an age-old convention that a celibate will be the mahant of a matt and he will nominate his successor among his disciples who should also be celibate," said mahants Vishwanath Prasadacharya of Bari Asthan and Rajendra Das of Sringar Van in Ayodhya.

But gradually piety gave way to passion and mahants began to marry and beget children, whom they named their successor. Their disciples despised them, not so much for marrying, but for depriving them of a chance to become mahant. One mahant who faced a revolt from the ranks over his marriage was Srikant Das of Patepur Matt. The rage that resulted in his subsequent actions finds him facing charges of rape and murder. He is still missing.

According to the police diary, Shiya Devi, now an influential Samata Party leader, deserted her husband Udai Shanker Pandey and married Srikant Das. When his sadhus revolted, Srikant Das put her up at the Ram Janaki Matt at Hajipur. He got a Hari Narain Singh appointed manager by the then mahant of the matt, Jai Mangal Das, who hails from Shiya Devi's village, Madhopur. Srikant Das also managed to get all the property of Ram Janaki Matt in the name of his son Rabi Shankar.

But his honeymoon with Shiya Devi ended when she left him for Hari Narain Singh. Enraged, Srikant, according to the police, organised a dacoity at the Ram Janaki Matt, killed Hari Narain and raped Shiya Devi. Now Rabi Shankar, 16, is studying in Pilani, Rajasthan, and is legally the mahant. Shiya Devi refused to speak on the issue. "The case is over and I have started a new career. Do not take me into the past," she told THE WEEK on the phone.

The past haunts Mahant Devramdas Vedanti of Janaki Ghat, too. He is out on bail after he was arrested by the Kotwali Police of Bhagalpur two years ago on the charge of abducting a girl. They picked him up from a hotel room, along with the girl, a Spanish pistol, Rs 3.7 lakh in cash and jewellery worth Rs 1 lakh.

According to the then police superintendent of Bhagalpur, A.S. Rajan, the police also recovered pictures of several girls besides letters of an "intimate nature". He said Devram Das used to visit Patna frequently, and the girl's mother was his devotee. On one such visit he had threatened to destroy the girl's entire family if she did not accompany him to Bhagalpur.

According to Awadh Kishore Giri, mahant of the famous Hariharnath Temple, not less than 80 per cent of the mahants of different sects in Bihar married to make the matt property their own.

In Mushahari Matt of Jehanabad district in Bihar it is the wife of the mahant who is managing the show since her husband's death ten years ago. The mahants of Chandpur and Imadpur matts of Vaishali, Ram Charan Das and Prafulla Das, have named their sons their successor.

Some sadhus even have paramours. A visit to one cost Ram Sharan Das of Hanuman Garhi his life. Wanted in a dozen criminal cases, he was on his way to the Faizabad district hospital to see his ailing paramour when he suddenly found the police on his tail. He whipped out his revolver and shot at them, but they shot him instead.

Two years later, in 1993, Ram Prakash Das of Hanuman Garhi was chased by the police and shot in an encounter at Barahata Majha area of Ayodhya. According to the police records, Ram Prakash, 19, belonged to Bihar and was fleeing after spraying bullets on Ladoo Das of the matt. When he opened fire on the police they retaliated.

There have been several clashes inside Hanuman Garhi. In 1976, the Gadhi Nasheen, Dinabandhu Das survived an attempt on his life, when another mahant, Ram Kripal Das, opened fire at him when he was seated on the Gadhi. The next year two groups of Nagas clashed inside the matt using spears, country pistols and bombs. The same year a Naga, Bajrangdas, was killed. More killings followed: Dinabandhu Das in 1987, Harbhajan Das in 1990 and Ramaygya Das in 1995.

Leaders like Ashok Singhal of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Nritya Gopal Das, vice-president of the Ram Janmabhoomi Trust, are emphatic that there are no criminal activities in the matts owned by any Hindu sadhus, but the fact is that to be a mahant in the matts of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar is fraught with danger.

The matts are identified with different Hindu cults such as Ramanand, Ramanuj, Kabir, Aghore and Shaiv. And violence seems to be the credo of most of them.Of the thousands of matts of the Ramanand cult, the richest and the most violent ones are those of Churaut, Patepur, Matihani, Badalpura, Vishole, Pacharhi and Jonki. Till four decades ago these matts were under the direct control of the matts in Ayodhya, but they severed ties with the Ayodhya matts.

The Kabir cult, whose headquarters is the Sadguru Kabir Temple in Varanasi, has about 1,000 matts and those in Dhanauti in Siwan district, Bidupur in Vaishali and Fatuha of Patna have seen violent clashes claiming at least 10 lives. And these days to be a weak mahant is virtually to invite death. Five successive mahants of Dhanauti Matt, Sriram Goshwami, Baleshwar Goshwami, Chandrika Goshwami, Sukhram Goshwami and Dharmanand Goshwami, were killed in power struggles. Garbhu Goshwami, the present mahant of the matt, is said to enjoy the support of RJD MP Sahabuddin and Rabri Devi's cabinet colleague Awadh Bihari Chaudhari. The mahants of Rasulpur and Fatuha matts, Bidhananddas and Ram Lakhan Das, too, met untimely ends because of power struggles.

For those who have the strength in terms of numbers and political clout it is the road to riches. An example of this is the Gorakhpur Temple in Uttar Pradesh, over which Avaidyanath presides as the mahant. He holds his durbar in a sprawling hall of his multi-storey building, seated on a luxurious sofa. As mahant he enjoys control over the offerings of devotees, which according to conservative estimates is about Rs 50,000 a day. Besides, the temple is said to possess about 1,000 acres and has more than 400 milch cows at its disposal.

Needless to say, the BJP MP is virtually the king of Gorakhpur. Avaidyanath has a number of criminal cases against him and gun-toting security guards, provided by the government, protect him round the clock.

Most of the big and even medium-sized matts in Ayodhya have a fleet of cars, splendid buildings and landed property. Same goes for Bihar except that the Naxalites have made the matts the target of their attacks if only for the sheer wealth they possess. The Bodh Gaya Matt, the Deora Matt and the Bakulahar Matt, besides several matts in central Bihar, are locked in a protracted battle with the Naxalites. In addition, several matts are fighting among themselves over property.

In an attempt to cleanse Ayodhya's matts of crime and criminals some sadhus formed the 'Ayodhya Vikas Manch' two years ago. Among the office-bearers were Ram Manoj Sharan, mahant of the Janaki Raman Kunj and Saket Sharan Mishra, who were associated with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal. Then Mishra was abducted. The manch's success in enforcing a check on the criminal activities apparently spread panic among the criminal sadhus who exerted pressure on their political masters.

The manch leaders said they finally wound it up on the request of the then ASP of Ayodhya, B.K. Singh, who feared that the police would not be able to provide them sufficient protection.

Sage advice considering that the police, albeit in Patna, were unable to protect one of their own men during a raid on the Fatuha Matt. The constable, Manoj Kumar, of Pirbahore police station, was shot by the mahant of the matt, Shyam Sundar Das (pic; left), when the police went there after a tip-off that a criminal was hiding there. Shyam Sundar Das was arrested and jailed, but managed to get bail.

 The Week Magazine - Cover Story- Nov 23, 1997


Osho Ashram, Poona.

Bhagwan Rajneesh was so taken in by Ullal's passion for getting a story that he allowed him to shoot at his Poona ashram for two full days. From the next day onwards, photography was banned once again.



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Last updated: February 26, 2000.