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Gangs of Odisha priests literally fleece religious tourists

 

Puri Jagannath Temple

Bhubaneswar,

Last updated 06 Jul 2016 01:02 IST

  Odisha, Temple, Puri, Priests, Tourist
Temples of Odisha are supposed to be run by the State Government and they have Executive Officers appointed everywhere. They can regulate the flow of pilgrims into temples and have officially certified guides at a fee. The Pandas, if they wish, can be officially recruited and sent out with batches of devotees. Let there be a price tag and a proper receipt for everything that one does in the temple. The devotees can even get tax exemptions since the payments go to the endowments department.
 

Swarms of Pandas surround you as you enter any big temple premises in Odisha.

Known for its historic temples, which also have their own mythological significance, Odisha houses a series of places of worship, attracting millions of devotees. But do all of them return with soul satisfying experience? That’s a million dollar question.

I have had a terrible experience all across as I visited temples, accompanied by my devout wife.

First the Puri Jagannath Temple. The chariot that was built for the car festival was being dismantled and it provided with a great photo opportunity. The Pandas around us could immediately make out that we were from outside Odisha. They jostled and competed with each other to “guide” us through the temple, arrange for darshan.

We had a pre-arranged Panda through a friend’s contact. As he led us in, after depositing footwear and mobile phones at a shop outside, many Pandas kept following and harassing us.

The security check was farce to say the least. Policemen and women, who are supposed to examine the bags being carried by visitors, were told by the Panda that he has already checked and we were let in without even a whimper. We couldn’t see any bag scanners at the entrance nor was there any frisking done – a must at such crowded places in view of terrorist threats.

 

One must admit that the police in Puri, which is always crowded, are doing an excellent job by regulating traffic and not allowing any private vehicles within one KM of the temple. But the parking lot is woefully inadequate and the entrance and exit are very narrow.

 

We were rushed through the Lord Jagannath temple like cattle. Our own Panda came and asked us for donation for Anna Daan (feeding the poor) but we insisted on depositing the money with the temple office and taking proper receipt. But many other visitors who were unaware of such official arrangement were seen paying off the Pandas.

In the complex, one could see Pandas making devotees sit in various corners and perform rituals with basic hymns like “Shantakaram, Bhujaga Sayanam” that one learnt, being a Brahmin, in the childhood!

For but the gullible devotees it was something different. Then we had to visit a sacred tree where devotees wish for something from God and then tie a thread on the branches. One is also supposed to give up a fruit or eatable till the wish if fulfilled. The devotee is supposed to untie the thread after the wish is fulfilled and the Panda prays for “freeing” you from that vow. So goes the legend.

To my (and my devout wife’s) astonishment I found that this is a big racket. We saw a young man in trousers and shirt sitting at the tree, along with a priest. Our Panda murmured something to them and then we were made to sit and chant some mantras. “Take this flower, hold some money, close your eyes and pray,” ordered the Panda. “What are you offering for freeing yourself from your vow?” he asked and we offered Rs.101 which we thought was decent enough.

The Panda loudly laughed at us and asked us in a taunting tone: “How can you expect the God to free you from your vow with just 101 rupees?

People offer Rs 5,000 onward and see these offerings,” he said showing us some seemingly silver-lined pieces of cloth tied to the tree. After much bargaining he agreed to Rs 500 and made us say in Hindi: “Hey Bhagwan, Humein Mukt Karo” – that is something that we could have done ourselves.

It was drizzling throughout and the entire temple area was sticky and slippery. “That’s because of the pure ghee that pours into the making of Bhog for the god,” our Panda explained.

We wanted to offer Uttareeyams to gods and we handed them over to our Panda. He asked for Dakshina to do the ritual and he wouldn’t agree for Rs 50. “How can you satisfy the Thakur (meaning Lord Krishna) with just Rs. 50. You need to pay more,” he told us and settled for Rs 100!

The Panda who earlier told us that he would not like to commercialise our pilgrimage would not relent until we paid Rs 500 as his own fees!

Day two – Visit to Jajpur Birijadevi temple. This place is supposed to be one of the 18 Shaktipeeths of goddess Parvati. Here again, the Pandas pounced on us and despite we saying that we don’t need any help, one of them took the initiative and led us in. Officially, the fee for puja/archan was just Rs 20 but the Panda demanded money for feeding the Brahmins in the temple complex.

We then moved on to Lingraj temple at Bhubaneshwar and faced similar experience. Couple of Pandas volunteered to guide us saying “pay us whatever you like” and led us in. While we could see an official priest performing pujas inside, the Panda who was with us performed his own ritual for us uttering some sentences in Hindi. Then came the anti-climax as tried to make us commit a large amount for Bhog and Anna Daan for Brahmins around. We bargained and wife settled for Rs. 600! The Panda quietly took away the money and said he will get back with the Prasad. He then asked his junior to get a box of made with palm leaves that contained some sweet items. “You should have paid at least 3,000 rupees,” the Panda told us as we marched out.

Our taxi driver jokingly told me that I should have gone wearing a Dhoti and with a Gamcha on my shoulders and bargained further!

One must admit that the police in Puri, which is always crowded, are doing an excellent job by regulating traffic and not allowing any private vehicles within one KM of the temple. But the parking lot is woefully inadequate and the entrance and exit are very narrow.

Puri is not a clean city. You see herds of stray cattle around with none cleaning the dung on the roads. The filth gets compounded during rains. As Indians, we lack basic civic sense as we litter the roads, spit after chewing beetle leaves (and tobacco). The situation is no different at Puri and near the Lingraj temple.

Isn’t there a solution to the problems that can ensure the pilgrims freedom for Pandas?

The temples are supposed to be run by the State Government and they have Executive Officers appointed everywhere. They can regulate the flow of pilgrims into temples and have officially certified guides at a fee. The Pandas, if they wish, can be officially recruited and sent out with batches of devotees. Let there be a price tag and a proper receipt for everything that one does in the temple. The devotees can even get tax exemptions since the payments go to the endowments department.

The infrastructure too needs to be upgraded. The Government that earns from the temples must concretise the roads, build proper pavements and storm water drainage system so that water doesn’t accumulate on the roads.

For hawkers and those selling the temple merchandise, the government could have a dedicated zone.

Puri and other temple towns need to have proper public toilets. The government might as well as the private sector to build and maintain the facilities and they will be happy to do the job as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) activity.

One could perhaps learn from Tirupati where agents of god have been eliminated and all payments in the temple town are official, with receipts. TTD (Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams) trust has also built a shopping zone with Lord Balaji merchandise.

Cleanliness is next to godliness and we tend to forget to maintain cleanliness in all matters that we do at holy places.

[Author is a veteran media professional, based out of Mumbai, is a frequent traveler to Odisha.]

Disclaimer: This article intends to end exploitation of the pilgrims who come to Odisha from all over the world. It does not intend, even remotely, to hurt any religious sentiments.

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