President joins PMs in journey of rediscovery to Bihar

For Mauritius President Rajkeswur Puryag, who wept like a child on Sunday after he reached his ancestral village of Bajeetpur in Bihar, the arrival had been made possible by genealogists whom he had contacted to help trace his roots.

Puryag had tried himself 25 years ago, but failed. His hopes revived when the process of tracing one's roots started to become a coordinated effort in Bihar. The genealogists whom Puryag had contacted spoke to the eldest living person in Bajeetpur, 25 km from Patna, who confirmed that a member of the family of Ganesh Nonia had gone missing. It turned out that the missing person was Laxman Mahto Nonia, great-grandfather of Puryag. The president takes the surname Puryag from the first name of his grandfather.

More and more people, descendants of Indians who had settled abroad decades or centuries ago, have been rediscovering their Bihar roots over the past few years. In February 2008, Mauritius Prime Minister Navin Chandra Ramgoolam visited his ancestral village, Harigaon in Bhojpur. In January 2012, Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Kamla Prasad Bissessar visited hers, Bhelpur in Buxar.

Apart from these high-profile visitors, some 100 people from Mauritius, Trinidad & Tobago and Surinam have been trying to find or have found their roots in Bihar, thanks to "genealogical tourism" being promoted by the state government. The efforts of the Bihar Foundation, which works in coordination with the state culture department, have resulted in over a dozen people from Mauritius alone visiting their villages in Buxar, Bhojpur and Patna in the last four years.

During a visit to Mauritius in 2007, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar had come across several people who knew their roots were in Bihar but little else. Some remembered only the name of their villages; a few could name their forefathers who had migrated to Mauritius. Among those wishing to find out more was Prime Minister Ramgoolam.

"In our efforts to trace Ramgoolam's roots, we found twzo villages with the same name in two districts," a government official said. "But we had some family information and narrowed down our search to Harigaon in Bhojpur. The subdivision's revenue records also listed the name of Moheeth, an ancestor of Ramgoolam. Village elders, who usually have stories of the great escapes of people's ancestors, were a great help."

"The Mauritius prime minister was the first to express a desire to meet his people in Bihar," Nitish said at the function to mark the president's homecoming. "His welcome at his village was an emotional one. As a mark for respect to the prime minister's father, Sir Seewsagar Ramgoolam, also called the father of Mauritius, we have put up his statue near Gandhi Maidan and named the chowk after him." Ramgoolam's ancestors had gone to Mauritius in 1871. Harigaon today boasts a hospital, a school and new roads.

In the president's village, his nephews Ganesh and Mahesh are living in poverty and hold BPL cards. Between his tears during a speech in broken Hindi, the president described the hard work of his great-grandfather, who he said had been lured away to Mauritius 150 years ago with the promise of earning "gold for removing stones". He kept thanking Nitish for helping make it possible for him to finally trace his roots.

In Mauritius, the Mahatma Gandhi Institute keeps records of indentured workers who have travelled there. It has been working with the Bihar culture department to help people locate their ancestral villages. Indians were taken to Mauritius to work on the sugar plantations during the 1830s and the 1890s.

Bhawani Swaroop, great-grandfather of the Trinidad & Tobago prime minister, had sailed off there from Kolkata in 1889. When Prime Minister Bissessar arrived in Bhelupur village last January, she told villagers how her forefathers had left Bihar carrying the Ramayana and the Gita and how they have returned a PM to Bihar.

Genealogist Shamsuddin scanned archives from Trinidad & Tobago and land records in India and concluded that Bissessar was closely related to Patna temple priest Jagdish Mishra and agriculturists Ramsimhasan Mishra and Vaidyanath Mishra.

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