It is a passion that has landed Mohammed Yeasin Pathan, a village high school peon in West Midnapore district of West Bengal, the prestigious Kabir Award for Communal Harmony from former President Shankar Dayal Sharma in 1994. But it has also roused the ire of Muslims who have branded him a 'Kafir' (non-believer) while Hindus have menacingly asked him to ''keep away from their affairs.'' Undeterred by the formidable odds stacked up against him, Yeasin has been waging a relentless campaign to save a group of 34 old, crumbling terracotta-and-brick temples in the predominantly Hindu village of Pathra, nearly 200 km west of Kolkata.
The efforts have now started yielding results. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI)'s Kolkata Circle has acquired these 18th century temples along with 22 bighas of land to make the temple village a tourist place.
''During the last four years, the ASI has renovated few of these temples, but nothing has been done to compensate the farmers whose lands were acquired for developing the temple complex as a tourist spot,'' Yeasin told UNI.
The bespectacled father of four, who was in the capital to plead his case with External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee, Culture Minister Ambika Soni and top ASI officials, said the delay in paying compensation to the affected villagers had caused tremendous hardships to them.
''Mr Mukherjee assured me that he would take up the case with the Culture Minister. Ms Soni told me that she would clear the proposal within a month's time and send it across to ASI Director General Anshu Vaish for necessary action,'' he said.
Impressed by the unflinching zeal of Yeasin, Mr Mukherjee, while he was Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, had sanctioned Rs 20 lakh in 1998, which spurred the ASI to undertake conservation work on five of the temples.
Yeasin's efforts have resulted in not only restoration of several temples, but also in forging a bonding between Hindus and Muslims in this poverty-ridden area.
''As a child I was mesmerised by the sheer grandeur of the temples at Pathra and the remains of the landlord's mansion. All these heritage structures were in a state of decadence and neglect for more than a century. The Kansabati river had swallowed few temples while the local Hindu populace was plundering the rest for bricks,'' he recalled.
It was in 1971 that Yeasin decided to give a concrete shape to his plans to preserve the temples. ''I was ridiculed and snubbed by some from my own community who said my plan was un-Islamic as fighting for structures where idols were worshipped went against the tenets of Islam,'' he recalled.
The protests from the Hindus of Pathra were more mundane in nature. They were mighty peeved that a Muslim was preventing them for plundering the temples for bricks which they had planned to use for constructing their own houses.
''It was appalling that the surviving descendants of the landlords who had built the temples some 250-3000 years ago were themselves destroying the structures,'' he bemoaned. ''I was beaten up by some Hindu people. An anonymous caller even threatened to bump me off if I continued with my work.'' Instead of succumbing to the threats and pressures, he decided to go ahead with his plans. He began holding meetings with the local people, both Hindus and Muslims, in an effort to convince them that restoration would turn Pathra into a tourist spot and bring in its wake an array of facilities --- metalled roads, power, water supply, bus service --- and economic prosperity.
In 1990, he set up an NGO, the Pathra Archaeological Preservation Committee, with elements drawn from both Hindu and Muslim communities of the area. The forum paved the way for removing mistrust between the two communities and provided a platform for friendship and understanding.
Initially, he was greeted with scepticism by the locals, but later they veered round him, convinced that he was serious and meant business. Rallies and demonstrations were held at Midnapore to appeal to the authorities to sanction funds for restoration.
''We also roped in eminent people to visit Pathra in support of our cause. It brought the village into focus while money started flowing in. Police were also helpful as they ensured that the temples were not plundered anymore,'' said Yeasin.
His dedication, devotion, determination, patience and selflessness have now become a source of inspiration for many in his area. There are some Hindus who are wary of him but they are far outnumbered by those who hold this messiah of communal amity in high esteem.
The ASI has recently declared Pathra's temples, built by landlords between 250 and 300 years ago -- as monuments of national importance and taken over their upkeep.
Students of the IIT, Kharagpur have chipped in by drawing up plans for turning Pathra into a tourist spot. The plan includes linking the village with the tourism network of the area and generating revenues for making it a self-sustaining unit.
New facilities for attracting local people and tourists have to be provided and these would include gardens, parks, picnic spots, food joints, shops and riverfront development.
''My countless trips to Delhi and Kolkata have eaten into my meagre resources. I also spent money on organising rallies, distributing leaflets and publishing a hardbound book on Pathra. The fact is that I am debt-ridden,'' he said, adding that it was imperative to compensate the distraught farmers whose lands had been taken by the ASI for developing Pathra as a tourist spot.
But there was a glint in his eyes too. ''Once the area develops into a full-fledged tourist spot, many of the woes of the local people will disappear. I am waiting for that day and have resolved to push my case strongly before the ASI and the Central and State governments,'' he said.
In the maddening world of sectarian beliefs, individual interests and crass commercialism, Pathra has emerged as a symbol of hope and an enclave of sanity, thanks to the lonely crusade of an individual called Yeasin Pathan.