Bhubaneswar: Concerns over the safety of the huge quantities of gold, silver and diamonds stored in the Lord Jagannath temple in Odisha's Puri has taken centre stage again as the mystery of the missing keys of the its 'Ratna Bhandara' (room of jewels) continues to linger.
With Leader of Opposition Pradipta Kumar Naik demanding an immediate audit of the ancient treasures in the 12th-century temple by opening its vaults, so far kept under lock and key for over four decades, the Odisha government has been caught off-guard.
While the government is yet to fully respond to Naik's demand, a top Congress leader has warned against opening the treasure troves, saying people engaged in the audit would “eat up the gold in the name of audit”.
The emerging controversy has now put the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) government, which withstood statewide protests last year by both the BJP and the Congress on the issue of the missing keys of the 'Ratna Bhandara', in a spot.
“I request you to conduct an audit immediately and reassure that our lord’s wealth is safe. The 'Ratna Bhandara' should be opened immediately and the list of jewelleries matched with the inventory prepared in 1978. Opening the treasure and preparing a fresh inventory should be the top priority of the state government,” said Naik in a letter to Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik on Monday.
Claiming that the news about the missing keys last year has left "a deep sense of suspicion in the minds of 4.5 crore Odias and crores of Jagannath devotees worldwide", Naik also expressed displeasure about the Sri Jagannath Temple Administration’s (SJTA) failure to trace the missing keys a year and half after their disappearance came to light.
“The state government has not taken any step till now about the safety of the highly valuable ornaments of Lord Jagannath, which is very unfortunate. Since the keys of the 'Ratna Bhandara' are missing, the possibility of stealing of the jewellery kept there is high,” wrote Naik.
In the middle of a raging controversy of the missing keys, Odisha Law Minister Pratap Jena had told the state Assembly in April last year that the 'Ratna Bhandara' contains 128 kg gold jewellery, 221.5 kg silver utensils and puja material, among other valuables. Jena, responding to a question from BJP legislator Dilip Ray, had cited a list of the items prepared in 1978.
Two months later, an embattled state government ordered the setting up of a judicial inquiry commission led by Justice Raghubir Das, a retired judge of the Odisha High Court, to trace the keys and ascertain how they went missing. As protests grew, the government soon replaced the temple’s chief administrator Pradeep Jena, an IAS officer, with Pradipta Kumar Mohapatra, another IAS officer.
Days later, to everyone’s surprise, the then Puri District Collector Aravind Agrawal, who was the deputy chief administrator of SJTA, said that a duplicate key to the 'Ratna Bhandar' was found in the record room of the district collectorate. “It was traced inside a sealed envelope,” he had said.
But no effort since then has been made to see if this key opens the 'Ratna Bhandara' or if it is fake. Although the judicial commission submitted its 324-page report to the government on November 30 last year, it is yet to be made public. Rs 22.27 lakh was spent on the commission’s work.
“The 'Ratna Bhandara' should not be opened at all. Whatever lies inside must stay there as it is. It should not be brought to public attention. There is no need for it… They will eat up the gold and diamonds in the name of audit,” said senior Congress leader Suresh Routray.
Law minister Jena’s response to the controversy was unusually brief. “We had set up an inquiry commission. We would take a decision on the basis of the commission’s report,” he said.
“The state government has been grossly mismanaging the Jagannath temple and institutions integrally associated with it for centuries. The government’s attitude so far on the 'Ratna Bhandara’s' missing keys has failed to inspire confidence in the people,” said Dr Prafulla Rath, a researcher on the Jagannath culture.
The 'Ratna Bhandara', which stands close to the 'Natamandir' or 'Jagamohana', is believed to consist of seven rooms of which three are used for various rituals of the deities. Jewellery and valuables used during the 'Suna Besha' (gold attire) of Jagannath are stored in the three rooms.
“Rare, precious diamonds are known to be stored in these locked coffers, apart from a great deal of gold. The treasures the kings brought home after vanquishing rival kingdoms in battles were stored in these coffers apart from donations from devotees coming from around the world over the centuries,” said Dr Rath, a member of the Jagannath Sanskruti Surakhya Mancha.