Where faith unites

Nestling in the Nilgiri hills is a place where religious unity, love and compassion rule
the heart of people. Usha Rai visits Abu Vishwa Complex near Ooty and shares
 the vision behind this unique effort

Abu Roti where many get their only
Abu Roti where many get their only
meal of the day

The mazar of Abu Baba
The mazar of Abu Baba where four columns
on the top carry symbols of different religious faiths
Photos courtesy: Abu Baba Religious and Festival Mission Trust

AT a time when communal conflicts across the country have led to paroxysms of violence and sullied the name of India, in a serene corner of Ooty (Udhagamandalam), the Abu Baba Religious and Festival Mission Trust has been inculcating respect for all religions. Since poverty seems to be a major cause of conversions, which are leading to conflict, the trust focuses on providing food, education and shelter to the poor and the needy regardless of their caste or religion.

In 2004, on the 100th birth anniversary of Sufi saint Abu Baba, who started the movement for secularism, schoolchildren were invited by the trust to write an essay on the ‘Oneness of religion.’ More than 240 entries were received and the best 13 were given scholarships of Rs 10,000 each a year to study for as many years as they wanted. Some of these children are now completing their graduate and postgraduate degrees. Under the leadership of the organisation and its current spiritual head — Ramu Baba — they are growing up with an abiding faith in secularism and respect for all religions.

A helping hand

When Abu Baba had established the Sri Abu Babaji Charitable Mission Trust in 1980, scholarships are being given every year to the poor and the academically inclined. Now the number of those receiving scholarships has swelled to 2,500. The number of applicants has been increasing every year. No one is turned away but there is a careful scrutiny of forms to ensure that the deserving are not left out. Some of the earliest scholarship recipients have gone abroad for further studies and a couple of them have become priests.

While practicing in the community what it so ardently preaches, for those seeking spiritual solace it has a getaway — a unique and beautiful peace complex — the Abu Vishwa Temple Complex — spread over five acres in Udhagamandalam. Here people can come to spend some serene moments in communion with their Creator. Hindu gods and goddesses co-exist with Jesus Christ, Christian saints, Jain and Muslim religious symbols. The statue of the Jain spiritual leader Lord Mahavira in the complex is imposing. As many as 800 Jains had taken part in the installation ceremony of the statue. A replica of the Kabah Sharif and the Zoroastrian fire symbol, too, find representation in the pantheon of religions at this spiritual complex. There are several exquisitely crafted tableaux depicting the crucifixion of Christ and the story of Lord Krishna’s birth, fight with the demons and his romance with the gopis of Vrindavan. Even the placing of these tableaux depicts the similarity of the trials and tribulations that the various manifestations of the Creator had to undergo. A giant statue of Hanuman seems to guard this abode of gods.

Religious harmony

The temple complex overlooks the mazar of Abu Baba, who had died in 1988. The mazar has exquisite marble carvings. In keeping with his secular philosophy, four columns on top of the mazar are decorated with a Cross (symbolising Christianity), an Om (symbol of Hinduism), a crescent moon with a star in the centre (symbol of Islam) and the Zoroastrian symbol of fire.

Whatever the initial hesitancy there may have been in worshipping together has dissipated over the years. Prayers are performed daily by followers of all faiths. In fact, people can be seen lighting candles at the Lady of Lourdes, at the lower end of the temple complex, then climbing up to offer namaaz at the mazar of Abu Baba before ringing the bells of the temple, housing idols of several deities. The morning air is permeated with the mellifluous notes of recorded religious songs, played through the music system all over the complex.

The maulana, who looks after the mazar of Abu Baba, was initially reluctant to even open the temple and church for worship at 5 a.m. Now he can chant mantras from the Hindu scriptures. On Fridays and Sundays, the Bishop or one of the priests of Ooty conducts a Mass. Aarti is performed twice in a day by a Hindu priest and a Jain priest, too, comes everyday for prayers. The maulana lights dhoop at Baba’s dargah and reads from the Koran.

All religious festivals are observed at the temple complex whether it is the Eid, Diwali or the Christmas. Looking at the congregation one cannot make out their religious moorings. There is bonhomie all around. In fact, there is a peace committee of all religious heads. What better testimony of the secular credentials of this little ‘abode of gods’ in the hills of the Nilgiris than the fact that the organisation was started by a Muslim, Abu Baba Rahemtullah Allah. He was born in a wealthy family of shipping merchants, but by the age of 21 he gave up all comforts to travel on a soul-searching journey. On getting enlightenment, he spread the message of "Have trust in God and respect all religions."

The Guru

He started working in this area in the Nilgiris and nine years after his death one of his closest disciples Ramesh Zaveri took over the mantle of spiritual leadership. Zaveri, who also belonged to an affluent family of Mumbai jewellers, was ordained to carry forward the spiritual activities as Ramu Baba. Rev Anandrayar, the Bishop of Udhagamandalm, and other religious leaders participated in the installation ceremony of the current head of the trust.

It was to verify an entry in the Limca Book of Records that the writer visited the Abu Vishwa Temple Complex. It was Ramu Baba’s birthday and there was hectic activity of cleaning up and organising a Mass, followed by lunch the next day. All his well-wishers and benefactors of the organisation’s charity were present. But what was astonishing was a Christian Mass being performed with a huge image of Lord Ganesha in the backdrop.

Christian as well Hindu couples, whose weddings had been solemnised by the trust in February this year, were also present.

The organisation had solemnised the marriages of 61 couples. The mass wedding ceremony was organised to commemorate the 50th wedding anniversary of Ramu Baba and his wife, Vasanthi. The trust has also agreed to provide for the education and care of children, born to these couples before March 1, 2009. The children will be called balaratnas (child gems) and the organisation will provide for their education till the age of 18.

A small kitchen, where food is steam-cooked in large cauldrons, provides free meals to the poor and needy. The unit is called Abu Roti. As many as 200 persons eat at Abu Roti everyday. For most of them it is their only meal of the day.

Care and cure

A small medical centre is also operational in the complex where simple ailments are treated. In addition, since 2002, a mobile medical van of the trust travels to nearly 20 villages around Ooty providing healthcare at the designated panchayat ghars or community centres. With a doctor, nurse, a pharmacist and a clerk, the medical van conducts its rounds five days a week. Medicines are sold at subsidised rates depending on the financial status of the family.

It was on a cold, wet morning that the medical team arrived at Meekeri village, 17 km from Ooty. The 140 families of the village had been given advance information about the arrival of the medical team. The community centre had been opened and cleaned. Even as the clerk set up his clinic and pulled out the medical records of the patients from the village, a flask of steaming Nilgiri coffee arrived in the small stainless steel tumblers for the medical team. New patients were registered for Rs 5.

An old woman arrived and collected medicines for her 30-year-old son, suffering from mental illness. Though a missionary health unit also visits the village, the villagers seem to have more confidence in the medicines distributed by the Abu Baba medical unit. By the end of the morning, the medical team had attended to 24 patients.

Crib contest

For the past three years around Christmas a crib competition is organised by the Trust. With a sizeable population of Christians in Ooty, the competition attracts a lot of entries. Last year, 200 homes in the Nilgiris had participated in the competition.

The hillsides resound with the festivity of Christmas and carol singing. Outside homes and hotels the Nativity scene is re-enacted and the cribs are getting bigger and more modern. Hindus and Muslims show their secular credential and put up tableaux on the birth of Jesus. Last year, the first prize was won by a Muslim.

Ramu Baba has been contributing to the setting up of temples, churches and mosques in villages. He plans to construct small residential units for the poor and the needy.