In 1632, the Mughal Emperor, Shah Jahan, commissioned to build the Taj Mahal, in memory of his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal. The ivory-white mausoleum on the south bank of the river Yamuna in Agra, Uttar Pradesh, has since become an icon for love around the world. Today, it is also listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is one amongst the Seven Wonders of the World (New Seven Wonders of the World).
More than three centuries later, another man in a neighboring state, grieved by the loss of his beloved wife, did another Wonder. Like the Mughal emperor, he too was a man in love who was grieved by the loss of his wife. Love resides in our hearts not in treasuries. It does not differentiate between a King and a pauper. However, unlike the delicate, angelic white mausoleum in Agra, his Taj Mahal was a path through the treacherous rocky Gehlaur hills. He did not have the luxury of employing 20,000 workers for 20 years like the Emperor, so he worked alone with a hammer and chisel.
This “Mountain man” was Dashrath Manjhi, a poor landless laborer, who did not want others to go through the same tragedy as him. Quality of a true King- to think about His people. He did not want to make a difference, he just made the difference.
Manjhi was born in 1934 in Gehlaur, near Gaya, a remote and backward village of Bihar, struggling under the perils of caste system and gender discrimination. Landless laborers or the Musahars like him, were regarded as the lowest of the low caste-ridden society and even denied basic amenities such as water and medical care. At an early age, he ran away from home to become a coal mine worker Dhanbad, Bihar. Later, he returned to his village and fell in love with a girl named Falguni Devi. Coincidentally, she was also his childhood bride. But, the father of the bride refused to send his daughter off with a jobless groom, which led to the elopement of the couple. Falguni and Dashrath married and soon were blessed with a baby boy.
Like all Musahar men, Manjhi lived in the rocky terrain of Atri, with a 300-feet mountain separating them from civilization in Wazirganj. He trekked across the mountains everyday to till land for a landlord on the other side This was his livelihood.
Everyday at noon, Falguni would also travel across the mountains to bring home cooked lunch for her husband. One unfortunate day, while on a similar errand, Falguni tripped on a loose rock and fell several feet down the mountain, injuring herself fatally. She was then pregnant with their second child. On learning about his wife’s accident, Manjhi tried to rush her to the nearest hospital. But the nearest medical help was about 70kms away! Unable to reach the hospital in time, Falguni died, although fortunately atleast their child (a baby girl) was saved.
Manjhi was unable to accept the grief that he had lost his beloved to the treacherous mountain ways. He was unable to accept that he was unable to get medical help for her in time. “That mountain had shattered so many pots and claimed so many lives. I could not bear that it had hurt my wife. If it took all my life now, I would carve us a road through the mountain” said Manjhi. Heart-broken, he decided that he was going to bring an end to this problem. He sold his goats and with just a hammer, chisel and crowbar, he set out, all alone to carve a road through the mountain. He would start chipping the mountain early in the morning, then go to work in the fields. Later on his way back, he would again continue chipping. He did that everyday for 22 long years.
Initially, everyone in the village, including his own father, discouraged and ridiculed him. Everyone thought he was mental. But Manjhi was not deterred. He remained firm, determined and dedicated to his work. Even when his village was evacuated due to severe drought, Dashrath Manjhi continued on his mission, sometimes drinking dirty water and eating leaves. He refused to move to the cities in search of employment like the others.
“When I started hammering the hill, people called me a lunatic but that steeled my resolve”, said Manjhi.
Carving a road through a mountain has never been easy, and for a single man, it was a herculean task. But if there is a will, there is always a way. After 10 years of hard work and sacrifice, Dashrath Manjhi was able to make only a cleft in the mountains. But he was not discouraged. On the contrary, he was encouraged by the few helping hands that now joined him.
Those who had initially taunted him, now supported him with food and tools.
After 22 years (1960 to 1983) of unimaginable hardwork, Manjhi was finally successful in carving a path through the mountains. The poor landless laborer had created a marvel, a 360-feet long, 25 to 30-feet deep road through the rocks in Gehlour hills, using his rudimentary tools of hammer and chisel. He had reduced the distance between Atri and Wazirganj from 55 to 15km. 40kms! What might seem to be a mere 40km reduction, was gigantic leap for the people of Atri. They were now closer to civilization, to life. They now had easier and safer access to doctors, jobs and schools. And all because of a man who had resolved to help others, a man who did not give up his dream, a man who turned his life’s tragedy into a boon for others.
Indebted and as a mark of respect and gratitude, villagers now addressed him as “Baba.”
But Dashrath Manjhi did not rest here. He approached the government requesting for a tarred road that would connect to the main road. He walked along the railway line, all the way to New Delhi, to submit a petition for road, hospital, school and water. In July 2006, we went to meet the then Chief Minister of Bihar, Mr. Nitish Kumar, at his Junta Durbar. As a mark of respect and overwhelmed by his achievement, Mr. Kumar, offered the Man who moved the mountains, his minister’s chair, a rare honor to be bestowed on anyone, especially to one of his social stature. But in reality, He was bigger than any chair. He was also rewarded with a plot of land, which Manjhi donated to the hospital.
That same year, the Bihar government also proposed his name for the prestigious Padma Shree awards for social service. However, the forest ministry opposed his nomination, terming his work to be illegal, because he had mined a protected mountain; an offence under the wildlife protection act. But that did not perturb Baba. He said, “I do not care for these awards, this fame, the money. All I want is a road, a school and a hospital for our people. They toil so hard. It will help their women and children.” So, was his dedication to humanity.
A year later, on Aug 17, 2007, at the age of 73, the man who conquered the mountains finally succumbed to gall bladder cancer and breathed his last at the All India institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi. He was honored by a state funeral by the Bihar government. The road that he built is now paved, marked by an arch with a memorial in his honor.
Dashrath Manjhi, has become a legend. His love for his wife and determination to improve the lives of others, despite his limited resources, has helped him achieve what everyone else thought to be impossible. He overcame all hurdles with his will power. His life has inspired many documentaries and movies. Films Division released a documentary, The man who moved the mountain, in 2011, directed by Kumud Ranjan. In 2015, the Ketan Mehta movie, Manjhi- the mountain man, was released with Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Radhika Apte, playing the lead roles. Other movies in regional languages, such as the Kannada movies, Olave Mandara, and Bhoomi Thayiya Chochchala Maga, have also been inspired by this modern day Shah Jahan. The first episode in season 2 of the popular Star Network TV show, Satyamev Jayate, hosted by celebrated Bollywood actor Aamir Khan, was also dedicated to the legend.
Life always moves through a sine curve with its own ups and downs. Tragedies happen in each of our lives. They break us, they shatter us. However, it is how we come out of these tragedies that define us. In most cases, we are able to regain normalcy, with time healing us and we go on with our lives. But then there are some, like Suhasini Mistry (Karma Kurry: for the Mind, Body, Heart and Soul) and Dashrath Manjhi, who resolve to serve mankind. They sacrifice their lives and toil for decades, to save others the agony and pain that they have experienced. Suhasini Mistry, a poor vegetable vendor in Kolkata, builds a hospital in her village, so that no one dies without medical care as her husband. Dashrath Manjhi, a poor landless laborer carves a road through of a mountain so that, unlike him, others in his village will be successful in getting medical care for their loved ones in time. They are the true heroes, bigger than any silver screen heroes. They are heroes of life. They are the true Shah Jahans, who have build the most appropriate Taj Mahals for their loved ones. They are a Wonder to the World.