Agra: This city seems to be running short of priests during `pitrapaksh`, the fortnight when many Hindus offer prayers to ancestors. Pandits from other parts of Uttar Pradesh as well as Bihar are helping meet the demand for trained hands to conduct rituals.
Migrant priests are gradually filling the vacuum created by local priests who, along with the younger generations, have switched to other lucrative vocations.
In the past few years, there has been a marked gap in the demand and supply of pandits well versed in Hindu rituals. It has even forced devotees to assemble on the banks of the Yamuna river and offer the annual prayers collectively.
In Agra, the exercise is conducted at Lal Ghat and Hathi Ghat, while others flock to Balkeshwar Ghat where a single pandit conducts the annual pitrapaksh ritual in accordance with Vedic texts.
Pitrapaksh began Sep 23. During the fortnight, Hindus offer worship and alms and feed pandits to appease their ancestors and seek their blessings, said Pandit Mahesh Chandra Sharma.
"Some bigger purohits (priests) have brought in juniors from outside the state to help them carry out the annual exercise," he added.
Bookings are heavy, said Mahesh Shukla, a pandit here. "With a few days left for `pitrapaksh` rituals to end, the pressure on pandits has increased," he said.
"On some occasions, we have to eat at three different places within a gap of one hour," said Shukla whose family specialises in performing the rituals.
With the number of `karamkandi pandits` - priests specialising in conducting rituals to appease ancestors - going down steeply in Agra and the neighbouring areas of Mathura and Vrindavan, several senior local pandits are facing additional work pressure.
Their next generation is no longer attracted to this profession. "Many in our family have left for greener pastures, including the IT sector," said Sharma.
"While many devotees want to conduct rituals, there are not enough trained hands around to help them do so," Surendra Sharma, president of the Braj Mandal Heritage Conservation Society, told reporters.
"Of late, I have seen some members of priestly families who work for government agencies taking a fortnight`s leave to make some extra money by performing pitrapaksh rituals!" Sharma said.
Pandit Anurag Shukla, a former legislator and now president of the Agra Panditya Sabha, does not agree that there is a dearth of priests.
"I don`t think there is any shortage of trained priests. We have more than 2,300 members. It is a profession that gives you status, respect and a lot of self-satisfaction, provided we follow the norms, the restraints and the moral code," he said.
"A large number of young people are now going to enter the profession, a large number of gurukuls are engaged in training them and there is a good market abroad too. It`s a job- oriented profession," he said.
But pilgrims are complaining.
At Vrindavan and Mathura in neighbouring Agra district, pilgrims on the banks of the Yamuna have to put in a lot of effort to find a priest to conduct the rituals for the well-being of ancestors, said a priest from Mathura.
"Due to the shortage of priests, many devotees skip the prayers and just feed beggars and cows instead," he said.
"In the good old days, it used to be an elaborate feast when family members and friends used to be invited along with pandits, but now people for health reasons or otherwise avoid eating fatty, fried food like imerti, malpuas, kheer, puri and kachoris," says Vijay Nagar colony resident Sudhir Gupta.
Some devotees go to an orphanage to give food to children or to the Mankameshwar temple in Rawat Para to feed beggars, Gupta added.
"The brahmins (priests) are not finding it lucrative enough fo pursue this profession. Some have become professional katha vachaks (story tellers), Bhagwat readers and singers in Vrindavan," said Vrindavan`s Acharya Jaimini, a well-known musician.
"The gap between demand and supply of priests is now being filled by a mass influx of pandits from Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh," he said.
Gauri Shankar, a pandit of Belanganj, said in the busy life of modern cities offering prayers to ancestors was going out of fashion.
"Most people choose to pay the pandit a lump sum amount, expecting him to feed himself and bless the client. The sentiment behind it is clearly missing," he lamented.