Bhubaneswar: After halting the demolition drive around 12th-century Jaganath temple in Puri for three days following protests, the Odisha government is likely to resume the razing process as talks between the district administration and a delegation of saints and prominent local citizens failed to reach an agreement on the issue.
The heritage structure Bada Akhada Matha, a 521-year-old Vaishnavite institution, is slated to be demolished to make way for several new structures. The government plans to enhance the Jagannath temple’s security and turn the seaside town of Puri into a World Heritage City.
Two famous Vaishnavite seminaries associated with the temple – the 700-year-old Emar Matha and the 300-year-old Languli Matha, also called Nanguli Matha – were pulled down last week despite protests by heritage conservationists, historians, saints and politicians.
The Puri administration on Thursday resumed demolition of several shops at Baniapati area, the site where Emar Matha stood, even as more political voices came to the fore against the ongoing drive. Sources said the administration plans to start razing Bada Akhada Matha on Friday.
Bada Akhada Matha, which follows the traditions of the 14th-century Vaisnhavite saint Ramananda and is inhabited mainly by Naga sadhus, has the reputation of protecting Lord Jagannath’s temple from attacks by Afghan armies in the 16th century.
Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) national spokesperson Sambit Patra, who was the party’s candidate from Puri Lok Sabha constituency and lost to his Biju Janata Dal (BJD) rival, met the head of Bada Akhada Matha on Thursday and said the process being followed was “improper and unilateral”. Former Puri MP and Union minister, Braja Kishore Tripathy, dubbed the demolition drive as a “conspiracy to destroy Puri town and its economy”.
Debi Prasad Mishra, vice-president of Odisha’s ruling BJD, said the demolitions were being conducted “within the periphery of the law” and “unnecessary structures posing obstacles from security points” are being demolished.
As the Puri district administration made a futile effort on Tuesday to persuade the head of Bada Akhada Matha, Mahanta Hari Narayan Das, to allow its demolition, hundreds of saints from across the country strongly protested the demolition plans.
After Emar Matha was demolished, the Shankaracharya of Govardhan Peeth at Puri, Swami Shri Nischalananda Saraswati, raised his voice against the demolition of the sanctuaries. “Do not define development in modern terms. The development of pilgrimage spots should be carried out in a manner conducive to religious and spiritual ways…Turning the land of meditation (Tapobhumi) into spots of enjoyment (bhogbhumi) is not a good sign,” he said.
“Easy to destroy, very difficult to create. Puri Emar Matha was built in 1200 AD. Now ruined. Wonder why we Indians do not appreciate our past and blame all our faults on ancestors. I feel we are creating an uglier history now,” wrote Tathagat Satpathy, a newspaper editor and a former BJD MP, in a Tweet. Suresh Routray, a senior Congress legislator, warned of massive protests unless the government stopped the “destruction of buildings of religious heritage” in Puri.
Swami Bhaskar Tirtha, general secretary of Bada Akhada Matha, said, “The government is destroying the centuries-old spiritual traditions of the temple by demolishing the mathas. This has hurt the saints. Will the saints live 10 km away from the temple?”
“In the coming days, thousands of saints from the Mahanirvani Akhada, Ahwan Akhada, Chuna Akhada, Naga saints and Digambar Naga saints will arrive in Puri like they do during the Kumbh Mela. If needed, we will come to the streets with swords in our hands,” warned Tejomay Swarup, organisation secretary of Akhil Bharatiya Santha Samiti.
Puri district magistrate Balwant Singh, who had held talks with a delegation of eminent Puri citizens led by BJP legislator Jayant Kumar Sarangi on Wednesday, said “quite a few good suggestions” had come during his interactions.
“I told them that the ongoing project is primarily regarding the temple’s security zone and the comfort of pilgrims. The main deities of the mathas located within the 75-metre radius of the temple’s security zone would be preserved and beautified, but structures having commercial operations would be removed,” said Singh.
Despite an attractive relief and rehabilitation package announced by Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, Puri residents do not seem impressed. “We are very dissatisfied with these talks as the administration is keen on demolishing all structures except the deities of the mathas. We may hold more talks and if needed, we will meet the chief minister,” said Damodar Pradhani, the convener of Puri Suraksha Samiti.
Accusing the Puri administration of not having a concrete plan to rehabilitate the demolished religious institutions and commercial structures, he said, “People evicted from this area in 2015 are yet to be rehabilitated. Therefore, if the demolition process continues, we will protest it in a peaceful manner. We will prevent the bulldozers from reaching the structures”.