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Saturday, February 24, 2024

Development or Desecration? : Puri – A live example

The systematic destruction of Hindu religious institutions which has happened under the secular raj – which is nothing but a continuation of the British raj by brown sahibs – is underestimated and understated. One of the prime examples for such denuding of Hindu institutions from a particular geography, as well as people’s minds, can be seen at Jagannath Puri.

Puri, one of the Char Dhams is considered to be the place where Lord Vishnu eats food offered every day by devout Hindus. The Prasad of the temple is celebrated as Mahaprasad and regarded as holy, which can never be impure. This city used to have more than 700 mutts which catered the needs of yatris who throng the city for the darshan of Jagannatha.

Almost every religious order/sampradaya used to have its mutt in Puri to cater to their adherents. After the administration of the temple was taken over by the secular government, mutts of Puri lost the patronage of Jagannath temple. While several mutts had become extinct even under British rule due to unfavourable policies and circumstances, the situation has degraded much further in Swatantra Bharat.

Till the last week of August 2019, less than 50 mutts were present in Puri. Earlier yatris used to stay at the mutts at almost no cost while visiting Puri while nowadays people are forced to stay in various hotels which have mushroomed in and around the city at considerable cost. As a part of an ongoing demolition drive around Shri Jagannath temple, centuries-old mathas are declared as ‘unsafe’ and demolished by the government without even serving due notice to the Mahants of the mathas. The three centuries-old Languli Matha, also called Nanguli Matha, was pulled down on August 27 in heavy police bandobast. Demolition of the 900-year-old Emar Matha, the second most significant religious institution in Puri, after the Shrimandira itself, has shaken the concerned Hindus worldwide. Emar Matha or Embar mutt is as old as the current structure of the Sri Jagannath temple. Famous Raghunandan library of Emar mutt was razed down to the ground after idols and books on its premises were shifted. The demolition drive is part of a plan to empty the area around the temple for widening the streets, building modern facilities to elevate Puri into a world heritage city.

What we see in Puri is a classic example of government’s interference destroying Hindu social institutions and support system along with the commercialization of pilgrim spots in the name of tourism and development. This one fact can gauge the level of callousness shown by the government towards Puri temple – no anna dana (free offering of food to the hungry) within the great temple despite the temple being one of the wealthiest and most famous temples in Bharat. 

However, a large scale development project is being implemented in Puri by demolishing the heritage structures, traditional institutions to make way for ‘modern’ infrastructure. Apparently, the policymakers consider only the temple building as the only heritage structure in the town. The mistreatment and total negligence displayed by the State towards the traditional Mathas of various denominations can only suggest a concerted effort to destroy the traditional sanctity of the town has been playing in force for a while. 

Puri, the holy town, is promoted as a honeymoon spot these days! The beaches of Puri, which are called Svarga dwar (doors of heaven), where Hindus of Odisha do asthi visarjan of their parents and ancestors, is dotted with hotels and resorts catering to honeymoon couples. The government of Odisha has even opened a liquor shop in Svarga dwaar to cater to such tourists. We are treated to an unfortunate spectacle where drunkards are seen near the place where bereaved family members are seen performing ritual rites for their dear departed ones.

The very atmosphere of this spiritual town has been polluted and tarnished by the secular governments which are unable to make a distinction between spiritual yatra and mere material tourism. The entire land of a pilgrimage spot is holy for the Hindus, and we see the religious rights of the Hindu community are being trampled upon by the government agencies with shocking insensitivity.

Even till two decades ago, the grand road where the famous Puri Rath Yatra happens used to be free of non-vegetarian stalls/restaurants. Famous pilgrimage spots are expected to be free of such food – e.g., Vaishno Devi in Jammu. Denial of spaces of spiritual haven to the Hindus by allowing liquor and meat to invade the vicinity of the grand temple shows that secular government machinery is least bothered about maintaining the sanctity of Hindu holy places.

The commercialization of temples and temple towns has been a bane of Swatantra Bharat. It is generally seen that many famous temples run by the government have ‘special tickets’ on the purchase of which one can jump queue/go nearer to the deities compared to others. We can see such discrimination happening within Puri as well. Such economic discrimination imposed upon the pilgrims is a crass violation of spiritual atmosphere in the Hindu temples. Poor Hindus are made to feel that they are outsiders and downtrodden even within the temples – as they see a difference in facilities advanced to the rich and the poor. Such commercialization of temples wherein the presiding deity has been downgraded to the level of some exciting exhibit in a museum, rather than the very image of the Lord himself, will lead to discontent among the minds of the poor masses who visit the temples with great faith for spiritual solace.

The sum total of these various acts of negligence, willful distortion, commercialization, destruction of spiritual space and holy character of a pilgrimage spot by various government departments has led to a situation wherein sacred pilgrimages are becoming less spiritual day by day. Puri district administration has recently begun hosting a Puri beach carnival, modeled on the Goa beach carnival, supposedly showcasing that the town is much more than ‘just a sacred pilgrimage’. These acts form a direct attack on the very soul of a religious city like Puri.

We may see such examples being used to destroy other pilgrimage spots like Vaishno Devi, Badrinath, Kedarnath etc. if left unchecked. Alienation of temple lands has not been escaped by Puri either. The latest case is Vedanta Resources being sold about 500 acres of land owned by Puri temple at a throwaway price of one lac per acre. Supreme Court seems to be ready to allow the same now – no one seems to be bothered that a temple is being stripped of its land at a throwaway price by an MNC giant which shall be able to mint money through its ‘university project’.

Attacks on Hindu temples by liberals have not spared Jagannath Puri either. The Gajapati Maharaja, a descendant of erstwhile rulers of Odisha, has been banned from arriving at the Rath Yatra upon an elephant. Since 2008, no elephants are seen in Rath yatra, and the Gajapati Maharaja is made to visit the rath yatra without a Gaja (elephant). Somehow, animal welfare does not mean banning cruel means of killing an animal for meat (like halal) but stopping animals from being used in temple festivals – stripping the festivals of part of their traditions, grandeur and awe.

None of the mahants of the Mathas, the residents of Puri town, Odisha’s cultural experts, historians and archaeologists were consulted about the makeover plans before sending the Bulldozers. When the JCBs reached the entrance of the mathas with huge platoons of police and commandos, only the endurance of the Mahants could save what is left of the buildings. Mutts of various Sampradayas are denominational institutions which have the fundamental rights ensured by Article 26 of the Constitution. The Mutts are dutybound to perform specific rituals in the Jagannath temple in which the government cannot interfere. The daily routines and practices essential to the denominations are also affected by the action of the government. The current demolition drive is verily against the rights conferred on religious denominations by Article 26 of the Indian Constitution. 

All over the world, city development projects around the heritage structures take place without tampering with the heritage architecture. India is a member of UNESCO – adherence to Venice Charter of UNESCO requires that we protect and preserve our heritage structures. Indian callousness to heritage and culture can only match the destruction of Assyrian sites in Palmyra, Syria. Odisha government later declared that they would focus on conservation of deities and heritage architecture of mathas around Srimandira. However, they already are proceeding with road paving works over the place where Raghunandan library stood. 

That the government machinery can get away with all such ignominy foisted upon the temple shows that Hindus and their Dharma are taken for granted by the secular government. Festivals and temples are seen as mere tourist opportunities to be economically exploited (apart from temple lands and properties which are anyway exploited by governments) with nary a care for customs, traditions and spiritual needs of the Hindus.

Secular government has no business in temples. The so-called division between ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ activities of a Hindu temple is a sham. Anything and everything pertaining to the temple is spiritual and religious for a Hindu. There is nothing ‘secular’ (devoid of the divine) with regards to a temple for a devoted Hindu. Laws and even the Constitution needs to be changed to reflect the true nature of Hindu temples and their pilgrimage spots. 

(Note: This article has been jointly authored by Ravilochanan (@Ravilochanan86) and Anjali George (@IchBinGorg) of the Indic Collective Trust.)

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  1. Great write up. I just came back from a trip to Puri and it strikes a chord with me. Development is fine but the very nature, very character of the place should not be touched. Promoting Puri as “more than just a pilgrim spot” is sacrilegious.


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