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Chariot Ascending Row: scriptural references clash with business interests


Posted on 22 Jun 2014

Last updated 28 Jun 2014 00:00:00 +0530

  Rath Yatra, Puri, Chariot Festival, Odisha
Uncertainty about management of Rath Yatra, the chariot festival, prevails as the controversy over climbing on the chariots, when idols are seated on it, still prevails and with servitors of SriJagannath Temple of Puri threaten to create trouble.

Basudev Mahapatra


As the day of Rath Yatra, the chariot festival of Puri, getting closer, the controversy over climbing on the chariots when idols of Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhadra are seated on them still remains unresolved. The uncertainty that prevails over the issue pertinently raises the question, whose views should guide the cult and rituals of SriJagannath Temple in Puri?

Even though the Shri Jagannath Temple Administration (SJTA) has decided to prohibit the devotees from climb on the chariots, the particular class of temple servitors called daitapati, who play a major role in the festival, demands that the devotees be allowed to ascend the chariots and touch the idols

SJTA decision is based on the opinion of Swami Nischalanand Saraswati, the Shankaracharya of Puri Gobardhan Pith who is believed to be one of the mentors of Hindu religion.

Shankaracharya, after discussing the issue with all stakeholders of temple management and analysing scriptural references, opined that the particular act is neither a mandatory part of the ritual nor approved by the scriptures and urged that none other than the servitors, the Gajapati Maharaj of Puri and the Shankaracharya, all who have specific roles in the rituals of Rathyatra, should be allowed to climb on the chariots.

The Shankaracharya gave his opinion as the Shri Jagannath temple managing committee requested him for the same to take a decision whether to allow devotees climb on the chariots and touch the seated idols.

The head of temple rituals and Chairman of Temple Administration, the Gajapati Maharaj Shri Divyasingha Deb has supported the views of Shankaracharya and urged the temple administration and the government to abide by it while performing their duties for proper management of the festival.

“The decision of Param Pujyapad Shankaracharya, besides upholding scriptural injunctions and established customs of Srimandira (the temple), is also in the interest of all devotees because if devotees are allowed to ascend the Rathas (chariots) then the large congregation of devotees on grand Road who are not able to ascend the Rathas as well as countless devotees around the world watching the Yatra (festival) on television will be deprived of darshan (a view) of the lords. From security view point too, having regard to threats from terrorist groups, it will be advisable to protect the Rathas by security cordon and not allow any unauthorised person to ascend the Rathas,” said the Gajapati Maharaj in a release issued to media.

Hearing a public interest litigation (PIL) case filed in the Odisha High Court challenging the decision to prohibit the devotees from climbing on the chariots, the division bench of Chief Justice A K Goel and Justice A K Rath too upheld the decision of temple managing committee based on the opinions of Shankaracharya. The judgment in the case, passed on 20 June 2014, noted that “The stand of the learned Advocate General is that the concern of the State Government is only to maintain law and order and not to interfere with the religious rituals. Once it is so, the stand of the Managing Committee to go by the opinion of the HH Shankaracharya, Puri has to prevail as far as rituals during the car festival are concerned.”

The judgment has also restricted the role of the Odisha government in reversing the decision or taking a fresh one while noting, “Any contrary opinion of the State Government will obviously be in-operative. The State Government may however perform its duty of maintaining law and order and providing all necessary assistance for smooth conduct of the Car festival in accordance with the decision of the Managing Committee on the issue of rituals which is based on opinion of HH Shankaracharya, Puri and correctness of which is neither subject matter for consideration of State Government nor before this Court.”

So, now, the all party committee instituted by the Speaker of Odisha Legislative Assembly may not be of much help for the government as any decision taken afresh would just not stand.

To throw some light on the background of such a decision, it’s worth mentioning here that there have been clashes between on-duty servitors and the police in the previous years on reasons related to climbing on chariots. Several undesired incidents like assault on devotees by the servitors have also been reported in the last years. The fresh among several controversial incidents was the assault on Italian classical dancer, honoured by the Indian government with the title of Padmashree, on the chariot over the same issue.

In most of the cases of assault, the primary reasons are unaccounted money demanded by the servitors to allow climbing on the chariot, to see the idol from a close distance and to touch the idol. The servitors take money for everything, which is not fixed or formal. The business is not limited to the on-duty servitors. A chain, starting from agents deputed by servitors, tour operators, hoteliers local facilitators to the servitors on chariot duty, is involved in it. It is believed that the view of idols on the chariot makes a business of three to five crores of rupees, in a rough calculation, on the chariots which is completely unaccounted.

Apart from the business on the chariots, most other business activities in the city, primarily service related, are linked with it. Enabling a devotee visitor to climb on chariot, see the idols closely and touching them brings good amount of money for everyone in the chain.

If climbing on the chariot is banned, the whole business is going to be hampered. This is what bothers the particular servitors who are in charge of the idols till they are on the chariots. So, even after the High Court went in favour of the decision to prohibit the devotees from ascending the chariots the daitapati servitors plan to go to the Supreme Court of India against it hoping that they may get a stay on the decision at least for this year’s festival. They have even threatened saying that the Gajapati shall be held responsible for any disturbance during the festival which indirectly suggest that they would create troubles in the festival if their demand is not accepted.

Keeping in view the recent High Court judgment, the issue didn’t even feature in the agenda of discussion in the June 22, 2014, meeting of the Rath Yatra coordination committee, chaired by Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik. There was hope in public that the meeting could take the lead in deriving a way for end of the controversy.

It’s now to be seen which one of the two views finally prevails and whether the scriptural references or the business interests rule over the rituals. The result will certainly become the guiding principle for resolution of any future dispute related to the cult and the temple rituals.

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