The Jagannath Temple in Puri was recently in the news after the Supreme Court took over its management and suggested that non-Hindus should also be allowed to enter the temple.
At the outset it must be said that the word Hindu includes those communities covered by the Hindu Marriage Act – Hindu, Buddhist, Jain and Sikh. Simply put, the temple is open to the followers of Dharma or Indian religions.
According to scholar and author of Attack and Robberies on Jagannath Mandir Dr Surendra Mishra (retired research officer in Sri Jagannath Sanskrit University, Puri), there were never any restrictions in Sanatana Dharma on entry of non-Hindus into Jagannath Temple, Puri. The restrictions were introduced after repeated instances of temple destruction by Muslim invaders.
Dr Mishra said two prominent temples of India that were and continue to be revered across India were repeatedly looted and destroyed, namely Somnath Temple in Gujarat and Jagannath Temple in Puri.
For the record, Somnath Temple was looted and destroyed 17 times, for instance, by Mahmud of Ghazni in 1026, by Alauddin Khilji’s chief Afzal Khan in 1298, and Muzaffar in 1395 who burnt the temple down and damaged the idol.
Likewise, Jagannath Temple was invaded 18 times. The first Muslim invasion on it was waged by Illlias Shah, the Sultan of Bengal, in 1340. Firuz Shah demolished the temple of Jagannath and desecrated the images around 1360. Sultan Husain Shah of Bengal captured Puri in 1509 and destroyed the idols in Jaganath Temple. The fifteenth invasion was waged by Amir Fateh Khan in 1647.
Every such raid resulted in destruction, loot and damage to the deities of Puri. During various attacks, the deities were hidden at distant places or shifted from one place to another.
In his paper titled 'Invasions on the temple of Lord Jagannath, Puri', Abhimanyu Dash, history lecturer at the Surajmahal Saha Mahavidyala Puri, writes, “the most significant feature in the history of invasion on the great temple of Lord Jagannath at Puri that in no case the ‘Brahma’ of the deities were destroyed which continued till today. The servitors played an important role in safeguarding the triad at the time of danger. The kings have taken care of the temple from destruction by surrendering before the invaders. The people of Puri have suffered but kept the temple safe.”
With the introduction of Maratha rule over Orissa (now Odisha) in about 1751, its dewan, Bahadur Khan, wrote to King Birakishore Deva that no attack on the Jagannath Temple would take place under Maratha rule.
The pain caused by repeated instances of destruction and loot, and efforts by the people of Odisha to save the temple of Lord Jagannath have become part of the collective consciousness of the people of India, more so for the people of Puri. At the same time, there is an inherent pride and happiness, such that their ancestors did not allow a mosque to be constructed on the temple site, as is the case at Ayodhya, Kashi, and Mathura.
Entry Barrier To Non-Hindus
Despite repeated destruction of the temple of Jagannath, starting in 1340, Muslims were allowed entry into the temple until 1620, says Dr Mishra. But Muslim invasions and loot did not stop. It was then that entry into the temple was limited to Hindus, meaning Hindus, Buddhist, Jain and Sikh. This closure to Muslims was effective from 1 June 1660, says Dr Mishra.
Entry Restricted To Orthodox Hindus?
According to Dr Mishra, the British, as part of their divide and rule policy, put a board outside Jagannath Temple that read, ‘Only Orthodox Hindus Allowed’. Unfortunately, this board continues to exist. Practically speaking, the temple today allows entry to Hindus of all communities – Buddhist, Jain and Sikh. Note that ISKCON devotees (including foreigners) who are not Hindu by birth are not allowed entry into the temple.
Gurdwara In Puri
Guru Nanak Ji visited Puri twice – once in 1508 and again in 1510, when he met Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. From Puri, Nanak left for Sri Lanka via Rameswaram.
Just to jog your memory, one of the panch pyare or five beloved ones, who were baptised by Guru Govind Singh Ji on 30 March 1699 was from Puri. His name was Himmat Chand Kahar, who was later renamed as Bhai Himat Singh Ji.
Bhai Almast, a notable Udasi preacher of the seventeenth century, built Mangumath Ashram, now called Mangumath Gurudwara. “The great saint of Orissa and lyric poet Bhagat Jaidev finds a place of eminence for his hymns in the Guru Granth Sahib.”
So, can Muslims and Christians offer their respects to the deities of Jagannath Temple?
Yes, they can, but only once a year during the annual Rath Yatra.
Why should the tradition of not allowing Muslims and Christians into Jagannath Temple continue?
Historically, the decision to stop Muslims from entering the temple was due to destruction caused by Muslim invasions.
Has the situation changed today? Not really. More than 50,000 soldiers protect Hindus during the annual Amarnath Yatra. Such arrangements are not required when Muslims visit Ajmer Sharif.
Further, prominent Hindu temples continue to be guarded like fortresses; for example, Somnath, Akshardham, Vaishnodevi and Krishna Janmabhoomi, among others. Not to forget the Muslim community’s refusal to hand over the holy sites of Kashi, Mathura and Ayodhya to Hindus. Until that happens, the wounds caused by the destruction of temples by Muslim invaders shall continue to fester.
This is not to imply that all Muslims who visit Hindu temples will cause destruction. That would be highly mischievous and wrong to say. However, the sentiments of the people of Odisha and the larger Hindu community, and the ground reality of temples being under constant threat make it imperative for the existing tradition to continue.
This New Indian Express report of 8 July says, “Manoj Rath, spokesperson of Gobardhan Pitha, the seat of Puri Shankaracharya Nischalananda Saraswati, said the decision of the seer is final on the issue. Quoting an earlier letter of the seer on the issue, Rath said the Shankaracharya had clearly mentioned that any deviation in the tradition of Jagannath temple in relation to entry of non-Hindus was not acceptable."
Courts are not trained to know and appreciate the importance of religious practices and must stop interfering in Hindu traditions.
Governments and courts must also realise that Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains are allowed entry into Jagannath Temple because culturally and spiritually there is a lot that is common between them and the Hindus.
Like any other organisation, management of the Jagannath Temple has a scope for improvement and reform. Let us leave it to the Hindu community reform it.
In a secular state, it is inappropriate for the government or courts to interfere in the management of places of worship of the majority community. If they insist on so doing, then the courts and the state must be involved in managing the affairs of all communities and ensure that devotee donations made in temples, mosques, churches, gurdwaras and monasteries come to the state treasury, like it is in the case of south Indian temples today.
As you are no doubt aware, Swarajya is a media product that is directly dependent on support from its readers in the form of subscriptions. We do not have the muscle and backing of a large media conglomerate nor are we playing for the large advertisement sweep-stake.
Our business model is you and your subscription. And in challenging times like these, we need your support now more than ever.
We deliver over 10 - 15 high quality articles with expert insights and views. From 7AM in the morning to 10PM late night we operate to ensure you, the reader, get to see what is just right.
Becoming a Patron or a subscriber for as little as Rs 1200/year is the best way you can support our efforts.