With the coronavirus pandemic having turned the age-old tradition of the annual Rath Yatra at the Jagannath Temple in Odisha’s Puri into a legal tangle and a political controversy, millions of devotees in the state and outside are finding themselves at a loss.
Despite the dangers posed by the possibility of a large number of visitors congregating at the 12th-century seaside temple for the world-famous festival, few in Odisha want the age-old religious extravaganza to be stopped completely this year. And the scheduled date is just a day away, on June 23.
A day after the Supreme Court took up the matter on June 18 and disallowed the procession this year owing to the pandemic, stating that “Lord Jagannath will not forgive us if we allowed the rath yatra,” the Odisha government decided to abide by the judgment.
However, voices of protest against the Naveen Patnaik-led Biju Janata Dal (BJD) government emerged soon after from opposition parties and the Puri temple officials.
Now, with two top figures linked to this preeminent Hindu temple – Gajapati King Dibyasingha Deb and Jagadguru Shankaracharya – having made their displeasure with the state government public, the government is in a dilemma.
As many as 16 intervention petitions have been filed in the Supreme Court, including one by a Muslim student from Odisha, praying for the Rath Yatra be allowed to be held with strident precautions and without any devotees. The petitions are scheduled to be heard by the top court on Monday.
“The (state) government’s handling of the (Rath Yatra) matter has not been satisfactory. The Supreme Court, if it had desired, could have taken up the petitions on June 20 and paved the way (for a restricted Rath Yatra without devotees congregating)… All this makes it feel like there is an organised conspiracy to stop the Rath Yatra,” said the Shankaracharya Swami Shri Nischalananda Saraswati of Govardhan Peeth, one of the three cardinal Hindu monasteries in the country.
Puri’s titular Gajapati King Dibyasingha Deb, who is required by tradition to perform certain mandatory rituals at Rath Yatra every year, has written a three-page letter to Naveen Patnaik urging him to move the top court and get the three chariots rolling at Puri.
“The state government did not put the matter properly before the Supreme Court (on June 18). Why did not the government’s counsel tell the top court that there will not be 10 lakh devotees assembling this time? Why did not the counsel apprise the Supreme Court of the plans being made by the temple administration to hold a restricted Rath Yatra with all precautions? The (state) government should now approach the court to allow the Rath Yatra,” said Dibyasingha Deb.
Several high-ranking priests of Srimandir (Lord Jagannath’s temple at Puri) on Sunday urged the Patnaik government to issue an ordinance paving the path for the Rath Yatra in which only ‘sevayats’ (temple functionaries) will pull the chariots. The sevayats have been periodically tested for coronavirus in recent weeks and have been keeping fit, they said.
But the BJD government, walking a tightrope, is yet to make up its mind even as it is facing flak from the Opposition BJP and Congress on the issue.
On virus front, the state registered 304 new cases, the largest single-day spike so far, and two deaths were reported, taking the total infected number to 5,160 and the death toll to 14.
There are 1,421 infected people being treated in the state currently while 3,720 have recovered so far.