He Spent 22 Years Digging Through A Mountain With A Hammer And ChiselStories
We all have mountains in our life. For some of us, they’re our ambitious career goals; for others, the personal mountains are just managing to walk up the stairs to their apartment without feeling short of breath! But no matter what mountainous ambitions we may have, they’re pretty likely to pale in comparison to the story of one middle-aged man who spent 22 years cutting an actual mountain down to size. And, craziest of all, he did it alone. Now how exactly does a person tame a mountain? And why? Well, let's explore the story of the most patient man in the world.
When you hear about a man who single-handedly dug through a mountain, you might assume we’re talking about some kind of superhero – but the hero of this true tale is a perfectly ordinary guy with very humble beginnings. Dashrath Manjhi’s story begins in the village of Gehlaur in the Indian district of Gaya, where the boy who later came to be known as the mountain man grew up. Dashrath was born in 1934 into a social group referred to in India as the Musahars – a name which, when translated, literally means “rat eaters”, and is derived from the community’s historical position as being among India’s poorest of the poor.
Sounds pretty crazy to hear a man capable of moving a mountain labelled the lowest of the low by his own countrymen – but the circumstances of a poverty-stricken life were exactly what gave Dashrath the push toward greatness. As a boy, he watched villagers trudge a narrow and treacherous path around the 300 ft tall mountains surrounding Gehlaur to access water, electricity, school, and a hospital, none of which were readily accessible in the village itself.
With such limited resources, Dashrath chose early on in his life to leave home and travel all the way to the city of Dhanbad to make ends meet, a 120-mile journey that took several days by foot. There, still merely a child, he toiled in the coal mines for close to seven years before returning, homesick, to Gehlaur. Still, with no land of his own, he had little choice but to take on work as a field labourer in and around Gehlaur – but this backbreaking work, which paid little more than a dollar a day, was nothing compared to the task he would soon willingly undertake.
Soon after his return to Gehlaur, Dashrath married the love of his life, a woman named Falguni Devi, and became the father of two kids. Naturally, with a full-time job and a family, you’d think the man already had his work cut out for him, so what could’ve possibly happened to prompt him to choose to cut through a mountain, solo?
Well, as we’ve learnt, the village was very isolated – and this meant accessing vital services like medical care was no easy feat. In fact, the nearest town with a doctor was Wazirganj, which, annoyingly, was more than 40 miles away and meant having to take a daredevil detour around the rocky Gehlaur mountain. So, now we have our mountain in the picture; the one that stubbornly loomed between Dashrath’s family and all the basic facilities they needed. One day in 1960, Dashrath was on the other side of that very mountain for a job cutting wood at a farm. Back home, in the mountain’s shadow, his children entertained themselves inside their simple family abode, while Dashrath’s wife Falguni walked the craggy mountain incline to bring him food and water.
The uphill journey to her husband’s location meant she had to climb – water pot balanced on her head – the insanely narrow, rocky ledges that separated their village from the farm. With no clear path and not a handrail in sight, it was a route upon which countless people had sustained injuries… and worse. But despite the care, Falguni took every time crossing it, tragically, it was as she was nearing the pinnacle of a craggy peak on this particular day, that she slipped on a loose rock and fell. As the sound of her water pot smashing echoed around the secluded ridge, there was scarcely a soul around to hear it – let alone an ambulance crew on standby.
Sure enough, Dashrath soon grew worried by Falguni’s no-show at the farm, and when a villager came to him notifying him that she’d been found, seriously injured, his worst fears were made real. As much as Dashrath rushed to get her help, they were not even a little close to the nearest hospital. To travel to a doctor in Wazirganj in Falguni’s condition, they would have had to limp 40-plus miles around the mountains, a route which was extremely difficult to clammer over even in good health. But even if they’d have set out for the hospital, it would’ve been in vain, as Dashrath watched the love of his life draw her last breath before they even got a chance to try.
As you’d expect, the loss of his precious wife was heart-breaking, but it wasn’t the end of Dashrath’s story. Overcome with grief, he considered begging the government to make a good tarmac road to avoid tragedies like this one from happening again. But they had taken no steps to make one when countless people had made similar requests previously, and he knew that making the state politicians care about the wellbeing of people from his social class was a mountain too hard to climb.
The truth of it was: Falguni’s death was no different from the many other sadly forgotten lives taken in the mountain’s midst. But there’s a famous Bengali song – from the state of West Bengal, which skirts Dashrath’s home state of Bihar – a song known as “Ekla Cholo Re”. The song’s lyrics put forward the idea that, if no one responds to your call, then go your own way alone – and nobody knew this better than Dashrath. Frustrated by the lack of support he got from friends, family, and locals of his village, he made a bold vow: he would win this tale of man vs nature as a tribute to Falguni and move a mountain to claim the future and freedom that had been snatched from her.
You can probably imagine how it would take a god-level amount of elbow grease to poke a hole in even a small hill – particularly using very basic tools – much less a decades-long fight through a mountain in the middle of nowhere. But those are exactly the types of tools – and willpower – Dashrath utilised for the entirety of his venture, which saw the first rock of the mountain broken in 1960. And his opponent was not an easy foe to face with a mere hammer and chisel. For some more context, the village of Gehlaur sits in the lap of a low-but-stubborn spine of mountainous terrain in the South Bihar Plains of eastern India. These 300ft hilly mountains take on a narrow, triangular shape and sit in a bed of tough metamorphic rock called quartzite.
Looking up at the rocky tower each day, Dashrath understood the mountain was the only barrier between his village and the rest of the world. If he could cut a path through it at a relatively low point, he could shave down the then-40-mile journey around the mountains by an enormous margin. So, with all the stoicism of a man on the mission of a lifetime, no matter how impossible his fellows told him it was, he began his work one small rock at a time with a hammer and chisel that he sold three goats to buy.
Every morning, Dashrath got up before sunrise and ploughed his neighbour's fields as his main source of income; it was the only way he could still provide for his now motherless children. No doubt already tired from the intense physical work in the morning, he would then spend hours during the day breaking away at the ridges of Gehlaur mountain up until the evening. He might not have had the best tools, but that didn’t stop him – and he got pretty creative with his approach. In patches where the rock was too tough to chip away by brute force alone, Dashrath burned firewood on it, then sprinkled water on the hot surface, which cracked the rock, making it much easier to hack away at.
But the physical difficulty was only enhanced by the ever-present sense of danger he felt in those early days. As his wife had found out the hard way, climbing the hills alone may not have been impossible, but because of how precarious the footholds up the mountain were, it was a potentially deadly trek. For Dashrath to have spent so long hammering away at rocks that could slip beneath his feet at any time meant that every day was a serious gamble with his life. But despite the fact that his epic journey came with the risk of leaving his children orphaned, he had absolutely no intention of letting anything, nor anyone, faze him.
As you’d expect, news of Dashrath’s committed task, and gradual progress, spread quickly in the small village - but even still, with it came absolutely no help. As the days passed into months and then years of tireless work, battling against notorious summer heat and bitter winter chills, people started calling Dashrath a madman. Everywhere he went in his home locale, he encountered folks telling him he couldn’t do it; that he was just a poor man whose labour of love was better spent earning more money to keep his family’s bellies fuller than his current meagre means could facilitate. Villagers even predicted he would surely die.
But while people’s suggestions that, if he spent his daytime hours working for money instead, he might be able to better feed his family may have had some truth to them, Dashrath saw the bigger picture. His sights weren’t simply on the temporary comfort of his family: his sights were on the greater good of the future of his community – and of making sure no one had to lose a loved one again in the same way he had done. So, he kept going, day-in, day-out, breaking down the colossal barrier to easy access to doctors, schools and work. As years passed, people began to notice a cleft on the hills and were finally inspired to donate food and replacement tools for the job.
Over the course of two decades, the cleft grew more and more noticeable, and support continued to slowly grow. People realised Dashrath actually meant business, and that there were very real fruits to his relentless labours of starting the day early with fieldwork and spending the rest of it with his two best friends: those being, of course, his hammer and chisel!
Finally, in 1982, after 22 tireless years, Dashrath broke through the last piece of rock. He had just achieved something almost miraculous with grit and rock-hard resolve: the establishment of a road wide enough for emergency vehicles to travel. The crazy 43-mile death walk that had previously been locals’ only option became a 360 ft long short-cut with sides 25 ft high and 30 ft wide. All of which had been hewn down by one man.
For some perspective, it is believed that it took about 20 years for the Great Pyramid of Giza’s 2.3 million stone blocks to be assembled in Egypt, and it’s safe to say there were a lot of hands on site. Modern historians have come up with a figure of between 20,000 and 30,000 workers. Now, that’s incredibly impressive, but considering one man managed to cut through a mountain range all on his own in just 22 years, you can’t help wondering how impressive the pyramids built by an army of Dashrath Manjhis might’ve been!
What doesn’t require speculation, however, is the fact that Dashrath’s work had an astoundingly positive effect. A place where it had once – in many instances – been a death sentence to get injured, was now less than 2hrs by foot from the nearest town with a hospital. Access to ample work, facilities, supplies, and education would now be possible for generations to come. So, what was everyone’s reaction? Thankfully, it was total, unrestrained gratitude. People all around immediately lavished respect upon this man who had made a path that even those from the countless small villages in the surrounding dozen miles or so and beyond could easily use.
As this recognition spread, the story of how one man was able to move a mountain began to hit the local press and then the national media. People far and wide started calling Dashrath the ‘mountain man’, as well as referring to him as ‘father’ or “Baba” - a Hindi title of respect. Before, he was an outcast, “rat-eater”, and madman. Now, he was the hero of not just the village, but of anyone who heard his tale, in need of encouragement that they could achieve whatever they set their mind to. In fact, people grew so fond of Dashrath’s story, that they began to worship their newly-named “Baba” as a figure of almost mythological standing. And, really, who can blame them – there aren’t many people who live a life that truly sounds like something of a legend, after all.
But while the mountain man’s path had been carved by 1982, his drive to make things better for his village didn’t stop. While his carved roadway was great, it was pretty uneven at points, and totally unpaved, leaving it vulnerable to the elements. Now that his story had touched the nation, Dashrath realised that if he could win the government’s ear and secure some funding, an official road could be put in place between Atri, his village and Wazirganj. The foundational dirt path he’d built could be replaced with a permanent, paved, reinforced alternative extending out for miles to connect it directly to travel links.
The journey to the government’s door wasn’t an easy one, but Dashrath had already proven himself to be a man of action. There are reports of multiple occasions where Dashrath attempted to get this government funding, but despite word of his good deeds spreading ever wider, not everyone was as accommodating as you might expect. The tale of one journey in particular – which likely occurred in the early 80s – soon caught on to the public consciousness, after it became apparent that Dashrath had set out to New Delhi, India’s capital, where he’d hoped to speak to then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi directly.
The nearest railway point from Dashrath’s home in Gehlaur was Jethian station, 6 miles away, and he’d planned to set out from here to the capital. But despite his growing reputation, money was still extremely short for Dashrath, and being unable to pay for anything outside of providing for his family, he got seated on a train without a ticket. When his lack of ticket was discovered, he was forced out of the carriage, and then – with nothing but an unkillable sense of duty – reportedly marched over 600 miles along the railway track to the nation’s capital!
For Dashrath to do so would mean taking time off his paid labour in the fields, his single source of income. He had sacrificed at least a week’s wages in a high-risk bid to ease the worries of his people. But, devastatingly, the story ended in failure, and he was unable to even meet with the prime minister. Instead, he was laughed out of the city by guards who were clearly unaware of the greatness of the man they mocked. The scarce records of Dashrath’s life in the decades leading up to the 2000s tell of various other attempts to secure funding for a better road, but none ended in success. That was until Dashrath met Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar at a media event in 2006.
By this time, Dashrath’s name was much more widely known, especially in Bihar, and - overwhelmed and full of respect - Kumar urged him to tell the journalists about his one-person, earth-shattering feat on the mountain. In light of this very well-publicised appearance by the now-elderly Dashrath, the government agreed to take on his request for a proper road to be built and also offered him five acres of land. Obviously, this would’ve been a real godsend to a Musahar man who had lived a life of poverty with no land to his name.
But Dashrath’s response to the gift of land was as easy for him to decide on as it might seem surprising to us when he chose to donate the plot of land to be used for a hospital. He also demanded and received brick houses for his village. With these changes serving as his final big victory, he could finally say his mission was complete. He had started this mountain climb to victory out of love for his wife but continued for the love of his people, and he could be satisfied at last.
On July 23, 2007, before Dashrath could see the renovated road on his dirt path in Gehlaur take shape, Bihar Chief Minister Kumar paid to send him to the All-India Institute of Medical Science in New Delhi for emergency treatment. The now 73-year-old man who had dug through a mountain like it was a sandpit was fighting a losing battle with gallbladder cancer. Two days later, his condition worsened, and he was moved to the Intensive Care Unit. On the evening of August 17th, 2007, Dashrath sadly passed away, leaving behind the continuation of the final pieces of his dream project - the official, interconnected road.
Dashrath’s body was received at Gehlaur for a state funeral, and around 4 years after his death, the fully-developed road was completely finished. Neatly gravelled, it was named after Dashrath; but that wasn’t the only way he was commemorated. Bihar Chief Minister Kumar inaugurated an annual festival in Dashrath’s name in Gelhaur, as well as unveiling a statue commemorating him. There were even official stamps made around this time sporting Dashrath’s likeness, alongside the rock he was known for overcoming, and other statues of the hero began springing up around India.
Unsurprisingly, with his life story being one perfectly-suited for the silver screen, Dashrath’s life work also inspired a documentary titled, “The Man Who Moved the Mountain”, in 2011, and in 2015, a Hindi movie “Manjhi - The Mountain Man” was released, directed by filmmaker Ketan Mehta. In the 2015 movie, Dashrath is described as the poor man's ‘Shah Jahān’, referring to the Mughal emperor who built the Taj Mahal to immortalise the love of his life, Mumtaz Mahal, who died in childbirth in 1631. It’s arguably a pretty flattering comparison… for Shah Jahān, that is! The difference, of course, is that Shah Jahan merely commissioned the Taj Mahal, while Dashrath built his mountainous life’s work himself, rock by rock.
While the people of Gehlaur – including Dashrath’s immediate family – to this day, remain very poor, the town has still reaped a lot from Dashrath’s legacy. Gehlaur now has a school, electricity, water pumps and a hospital, to name a few of his efforts’ greatest gifts. And those things are all Dashrath could’ve ever really wished for. Dashrath and his family lived a life dwarfed in the shadow of a mountain, but he never abandoned his seemingly-impossible project. He may have had only his own two hands and a trusty hammer and chisel, but after those 22 years, there was light to be found beyond the mountaintop for the most patient man in the world.
And the lesson it can teach us all is pretty simple: you don't need big muscles, or even book smarts, to rip a mountain open. With some serious determination and resilience, however impossible the odds may seem, we can make the changes we dream about come into being.
What Dashrath never lived to find out was that by moving a mountain, he had etched his own name onto the passthrough, and not just in terms of the story he left behind. In his honour, the mountain gap he forged now has the officially-named ‘Dashrath Manjhi road’ parting it. And who knows – maybe one day, your ambitions will see your name left somewhere special, commemorating you after you’re gone? I know you’ve got it in you!