Jagannath Is Aboard His Ratha, Finally

Pratyasha Rath

Jun 23, 2020, 04:00 PM | Updated 04:00 PM IST

The Rathas getting set to roll. 
The Rathas getting set to roll. 
  • The past few days of debate around the conduct of the Ratha Yatra in Puri have been a period of intense turmoil.

    It has once again revealed the shaky secular ideals on which the ‘idea’ of this country is believed to rest.
  • It has been more than 250 years since Puri has seen a sight like this.

    Bada danda (Grand Road) in Puri does not have crowds fighting for that inch of space, standing on their toes to look above the heads of others.

    The ‘Hari Bol’ chants are barely loud this year and there are no Gotipua and Mahari dancers.

    The camera pans to empty roads with only a smattering of police personnel.

    It is eerie, and has never happened in living memory before — very symbolic and reflective of all the changes that the world has been seeing since the beginning of the year.

    But even with all this flux, the Puri of today is different from the Puri of yesterday.

    The feeling of emptiness and eeriness lasts but for just a while, because for a devotee what is permanent and ever-lasting and certain is right in front of her.

    As Pahandi Bije started and the three deities came out of their abode, the weariness of the past few days and the past few months seems lighter.

    As the deities sit on their chariots, ready to make the journey, Bhakta and Bhagwan have to navigate the new reality of physical distancing.

    But neither the distance nor the silence is capable of reducing the sense of jubilation as you experience the familiar succour of unbroken tradition.

    A highly securitised environment defined Puri during the period.  
    A highly securitised environment defined Puri during the period.  

    The Rath Yatra is probably the only festival in the Sanatan Dharma fold, where the primary deities (and not representative deities) leave the temple and come out to be in the midst of devotees.

    Therefore, the uniqueness of the festival and its centrality to the Jagannath Sanskruti cannot be questioned.

    This is a tradition that has remained unbroken for the most part of the past few centuries, with the exception of when the Puri temple itself was under attack.

    Multiple Islamic invasions and attacks on the temple led to the Gajapatis and the Sevayats hiding the deities and even removing them from Puri, which for many years had led to the Rath Yatra being cancelled.

    But the last such instance was nearly two centuries ago.

    Symbolic horses that pull the gods. 
    Symbolic horses that pull the gods. 

    A story of willful silence?

    The past few days have been a period of intense turmoil, which once again revealed the shaky secular ideals on which the ‘idea’ of this country is believed to rest.

    While the Biswakarma Maharanas were putting the final touches to the chariots after weeks of gruelling work, a never-heard-before NGO named Odisha Vikash Parishad moved the Supreme Court seeking a ban on the Rath Yatra.

    While public health was cited as the primary concern, one of the major arguments was that about 10-12 lakh people could congregate for the festival.

    The counsel for the state government added that people will congregate if festivities are allowed and the state government is not prepared to handle the situation.

    The Supreme Court heard the arguments and in a dramatic response, cancelled the festival by saying that Lord Jagannath ‘will not forgive them’ if they allowed the event.

    Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik pays obeisances to the deities through video-conferencing, from his office.  
    Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik pays obeisances to the deities through video-conferencing, from his office.  

    Keeping the judicial activism of the highest court aside, the arguments of the state would have made some sense, had it not gone against everything they had said and done in the past month.

    While the country was in the early phases of lockdown, the state government and the temple administration were both contemplating whether the Rath Yatra should be cancelled.

    The deliberation made sense considering that the whole country was relying on the lockdown to flatten the curve.

    With this understanding, the construction of chariots was also delayed.

    But on 7 May, the government approved the resumption of the construction of the chariots.

    There was no clear go-ahead but the approval signalled the intent of the government to go through with the rituals.

    The Biswakarma Maharana Sevayats, the traditional servitors responsible for the construction of the chariots, were segregated, tested for Covid, and asked to expedite construction of the chariots.

    The Maharanas slogged for days through the unforgiving Odia summer and a raging pandemic to construct the chariots, while other Sevayats went about with the preparation of other rituals including Snana Purnima.

    Not just the Sevayats, but the temple police had quarantined and isolated themselves for a month so that they would be certified healthy to conduct and participate in the Snana Purnima and Rath Yatra rituals.

    Meanwhile, the temple administration also prepared an action plan for conducting the Rath Yatra without any devotees and many other suggestions, including a curfew in Puri town, restricting the number of Sevayats taking part in the Yatra and using earth movers to pull the chariots, were considered.

    The action plan along with the restriction of trains to Puri and restrictions on hotel bookings made it quite clear that there was no intention to allow any form of congregation of devotees.

    This plan was shared with the state on 30 May but more than two weeks down the line, none of the alternative plans were shared with the SC and purposeful obfuscations of the expected turnout were presented.

    Till five days ago, the state government had not placed a single objection to any activity and suddenly, took a completely different direction in front of the court without consulting the key stakeholders — the temple management committee.

    Between Yesterday and Today

    While the state government had probably anticipated that the Supreme Court would take all the flak for the decision, the smokescreen set up by it, and the purposeful ambiguity was not lost on most.

    The large-scale public outrage in the state was not because the criticality of public health concerns was being dismissed, but because the state government had led thousands of people into a sense of security and had arbitrarily dismissed it at the last minute.

    Times have changed, centuries have gone by, but the events of the past few days revealed the continuity and the relevance of the ecosystem in Puri, which is sustained by the deities and dedicated to their service.

    The challenges may have been very different and the fight, against a different kind of adversary, but it was not a surprise to see the ones who led the counter-attack to get the controversial SC decision reversed.

    Like the yesteryears, the Gajapati Maharaj, Dibyasingha Deva, the titular ruler of Puri and the first Sevayat or Servitor of the deities, took on the cudgels to ensure that the SC order was strongly challenged.

    And the first line of defence standing for the deities were the Sevayats of the temple who are considered to be the family of the deities.

    What started as a group of 36 Nijogas or groups of Sevayats conducting different activities in service of the deities, has now become about 250-odd Nijogas.

    The leader of the Chhatisa Nijoga also moved the Supreme Court and in his petition called out the incomplete information provided by both the state government and the petitioner.

    Many individual petitioners also joined the cause and highlighted the plans put in place by the temple administration to continue with the unbroken tradition while minimising health risks.

    In a not-so-surprising turn of events, the state government changed its stand in front of the court yesterday and agreed that it was possible to conduct the Yatra with the necessary precautions.

    The court, on obtaining the full picture (which ideally should have been presented on 18 May), reversed the order.

    And today, we see the chariots rolling on the streets of Bada Danda.

    Lest we forget

    While the outrage and the activism have worked this time around, and the state and the courts have had to listen in, the bigger malaise remains hidden to emerge another day.

    This is just one small, exceedingly painful battle won.

    The fact that courts of a secular state get to decide how Hindus in the country conduct their rituals and grant permission for that is an affront that has become way too common.

    State control of temples and the kind of sneakiness displayed this time to avoid a political fallout is also something that should not be easily forgotten.

    This was a lack of intent without the courage to bear the consequences of it.

    A ratha in all its splendour. 
    A ratha in all its splendour. 

    As we see the visuals from Puri play out in front of us

    The state government, without being upfront about their intentions and their level of preparedness, lost out precious time in strengthening the preventive measures to be put in place.

    As we see the visuals in front of us, it is clear that more could have been done to ensure physical distancing and mask usage among the Sevayats.

    While all the Sevayats involved in the ritual have been tested and only one among 1,100 has been found Covid-positive, it is still one too many.

    Had the 30 May resolutions of the temple management committee been immediately put to plan and the process been kickstarted, the last-minute hustle could have been avoided and the risk could have been further minimised.

    Critics are probably waiting to use the same points to make this a debate on secularism in the coming days. But the fact is that the country is now in the unlock phase and we are prepared to live with the virus. So, the difficult part would be to continue with life as usual with the maximum precautions possible.

    The fact that no devotees except Sevayats attended the Rath Yatra itself is proof of people being vigilant.

    Pratyasha Rath is a consultant working in the social development and political sector.

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