Gaya (Bihar): Suresh Narayan is no ordinary man. In his early 60s, this resident of Gaya has quietly gone about performing the 'pindadan' ritual for people he has never met - known and unknown— all in the belief that he can soothe restless souls.
On Wednesday, it was the turn of the soul of US astronaut Neil Armstrong. The astronaut, who made a "giant leap for mankind" when he landed on the moon in 1969, had 'pindadan' offered for him in Gaya, about 100 km from the state capital Patna, by Narayan.
'Pindadan' is a Hindu ritual that seeks to release a soul from the cycle of birth and death. It is believed that a soul wanders listlessly until 'pindadan' is offered.
Armstrong died Aug 25 aged 82. He was laid to rest in the Atlantic Sea in a burial-at-sea service aboard the USS Philippine.
"I offered 'pindadan' for Neil Armstrong to ensure peace to his soul. I know he was a Christian and I have no blood relationship with him. I have never even met him. But this was my small gesture for him," Narayan said.
The astronaut was just one more soul to receive the tenderness of Narayan, who has performed the rituals for a host of others - for persons well known and unknown, and for people of all nationalities and creeds.
Mahesh Lal Gupt, a priest at a local temple, said Hindus usually offer 'pindadan' for blood relatives.
Thousands of Hindus from across India and abroad throng Gaya at this time of the year, during the 'pitrapaksh' period, the fortnight-long period that coincides with the waning of the moon in the month of Ashwin in the Hindu calendar, considered auspicious for the performance of the 'pindadan'.
Among those for whom Narayan has done 'pindadan' are former Bihar minister Shakeel Ahmad Khan, Bollywood actors Rajesh Khanna, Dara Singh and A.K. Hangal and former presidential candidate Captain Lakshmi Sehgal.
Narayan has also quietly offered prayers for unknown people killed in bomb blasts, rail and air accidents.
"I have been conducting these rituals for the last 11 years for the salvation of people I may not have met," he explains.
The ritual is conducted on the banks of the river Falgu in Gaya, at the famous Vishnupad temple.
The ceremony is usually undertaken by descendants of the dead and conducted by priests known as Gaywal-pandas.
Among those for whom Narayan performed the rituals recently were victims of the bomb blasts in New Delhi and the 77 killed at the hands of Anders Breivik in Norway's capital Oslo in July 2011.
Victims of the Kalka mail accident near Kanpur, the March 2011 tsunami in Japan and floods in other parts of the world have also had their "souls put to rest" by Narayan.
Narayan has also offered the 'pindadan' for US-based astronaut Kalpana Chawla, who died when space shuttle Columbia crashed in 2003, for shehnai maestro Bismillah Khan, who died in 2006, Mother Teresa who died in 1997 and pop star Michael Jackson, who died in 2009.
"I have offered "pindadan" for painter MF Husain, Hindustani classical singer Bhimsen Joshi and Pakistani TV reporter Syed Salim Sajjad, who died last year," says Narayan, who, when he is not tending to souls, is a small-time businessman-turned-social activist.
Narayan pays for the rituals out of his own pocket, and expects nothing in return.
He is happy, he says, to serve the dead; he just does his bit to ease wandering souls.