Ground Reports

Simmering Anger Against BJD’s ‘Unholy’ Acts Gives BJP A Massive Edge In Temple Town Of Puri — A Ground Report

Jaideep Mazumdar

May 23, 2024, 01:23 PM | Updated 01:11 PM IST

Arup Patnaik of BJD is taking on BJP's Sambit Patra.
Arup Patnaik of BJD is taking on BJP's Sambit Patra.
  • Growing resentment against BJD's actions boosts BJP's chances significantly in Puri's temple town.
  • Anger is the leitmotif of the political climate in Puri as well as its surrounding areas that make for the Lok Sabha constituency. 

    Everybody is angry — from the priests and servitors of the Jagannath Dham to traders and residents of the temple town, the famous pata-chitra painters, farmers and even the pilgrims who flock to this temple town.   

    There are various reasons for their anger, but it’s basically the actions, and inactions, of the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) government that’s widely perceived to be led by the ‘outsider’, V Karthikeyan Pandian, that is driving this discontent. 

    Deep Disquiet In The Dham

    However, it is the deep disquiet among the servitors of the Jagannath Dham that is set to cost the ruling BJD very dear. 

    The BJD government’s interference in temple affairs has triggered a lot of resentment. Pandian, say the servitors, has been attending meetings of the temple management committee and applying pressure to alter age-old rituals. 

    There is deep suspicion that the state government, which controls the affairs of the Dham, has quietly stolen a huge lot of gold and valuables from the ‘ratna bhandar’, or the temple treasury, and that is why it is blocking attempts to carry out a transparent audit of the bhandar

    The keys to the bhandar are said to have been misplaced and that’s the official reason for not carrying out the audit. But senior servitors in the know say it is just an excuse to put off a long overdue exercise that will put to rest all speculations. 

    Sri Jagannath Dham, Puri.
    Sri Jagannath Dham, Puri.

    A major gripe is that the state government takes away the huge lot of money and valuables donated by the lakhs of devotees who throng the Dham every month, but spends little on the mandir

    Pandian’s interference brought matter to such a head that Jagannath Dham’s chief servitor, Janardhan Pattajoshi Mahapatra, had refused to attend meetings if Pandian, who has no locus standi in the management committee, is present.

    “He (Pandian) wants us to cut down and simplify the age-old rituals. He has tried to get us to cancel the mangal aarati and many other practices. His actions have caused a lot of damage to the Dham and its hallowed traditions,” said a senior servitor who did not want to be named out of fear of being targeted by a vengeful state administration. 

    The closure of two dwars (gates) of the temple after the redevelopment of the mandir complex under the Rs 800 crore ‘Srimandir Heritage Corridor (Parikrama) Project’ has made servitors and pilgrims angry. 

    For some inexplicable reason, the state government decreed that entry for devotees will be allowed only through the Singha Dwar of the mandir and people of Puri as well as servitors will be allowed entry through the Bagh Dwar (or the paschim dwar). The other two dwars — the Ghora Dwar (to the south) and the Hasti Dwar (to the north) will be kept shut. 

    This has led to overcrowding and devotees have to wait for hours in a queue braving the scorching sun to gain entry into the Dham. What’s worse is that the entire area surrounding the mandir — the Parikrama — have been paved with stone slabs. Devotees have to walk barefoot on the newly-laid stone slabs that scald their feet during Puri’s blazing summers. 

    Damodar Mahasuar, a former member of the mandir managing committee, told Swarajya that the BJD government has been looting the mandir

    “All donations made by devotees are taken away by the state government. The state government earns hundreds of crores of rupees every year from this Dham, but spends very little of that amount here. Nothing is spent on the welfare of the servitors. That’s why many servitors have to solicit donations from devotees,” an angry Mahasuar, who is known to be outspoken, said. 

    When the state government took over the management of the mandir in 1952, it promised to allow the servitors to run the Dham as per the age-old traditions and practices.

    “Initially, there was no interference. But since 2000, when the (BJD) government came to power, state interference has been increasing and now it has reached unacceptable levels,” he said. 

    “As per the centuries-old ‘Record of Rights’ which the state government swore to uphold when it assumed control of Srimandir’s management in 1952, servitors used to be paid a portion of the mandir’s earnings for the upkeep of their families and to meet major expenses like weddings of their children or medical treatment.

    The other face of Puri: a massive garbage dump barely 1.5 kilometres away from Jagannath Dham.
    The other face of Puri: a massive garbage dump barely 1.5 kilometres away from Jagannath Dham.

    "Servitors also used to be paid for maintenance of their houses and other household expenses. All that has stopped and the servitors have been left to fend for themselves,” said Mahasuar, who is also the former president of the Suar-Mahasuar Niyog which is in charge of the preparation of all food for the deities. 

    Mahasuar said that Pandian wants the elaborate bhog (food for the deities) to be simplified, as well as the prasad for the devotees.

    “He has been putting pressure on us to cut down on the bhog offered a few times a day to the deities, and wants the mandir to give only ‘laddus’ like what is offered at the mandirs in south India to devotees. Every mandir has its own practices, so why should we follow a practice of some other mandir just because Pandian wants us to?” he asked.

    Another senior servitor who helps in some of the rituals in the garba griha told Swarajya that the state government has looted huge wealth from the mutts around the Srimandir which were forcibly demolished during the Srimandir Heritage Corridor project. 

    “That project was mired in corruption. The state government says it spent Rs 800 crore, but we suspect a lot of that money was looted. All the mutts around the mandir have been demolished and their wealth taken over. No account of the wealth confiscated by the state government from the mutts has been provided,” he said. 

    Mahasuar cited the example of the Emar Mutt — the largest mutt — that was demolished (in February 2016).

    “It used to be said that the wealth of the Emar Mutt used to rival that of the Jagannath Dham. During demolition, it is rumoured that a huge amount of gold, precious stones and jewellery was taken away surreptitiously by the state authorities and only a few tonnes of silver was shown as recovered from the mutt’s vaults,” he said. 

    The state government, he added, promised to use that silver to plate the doors of the Srimandir (Jagannath Dham). But it did not keep its promise and a devotee then donated the silver plates that cover the mandir’s doors. 

    During the heritage corridor project’s construction, the famous Ragunandan Library which housed thousands of ancient manuscripts and boasted of the largest collection of books and documents in the state was demolished. The authorities promised to construct a grand library in its place. But that has not happened, and this is another huge grouse amongst the servitors and people of Puri. 

    The demolition of the mutts, which used to provide food and accommodation to thousands of pilgrims and others everyday, the silent loot of their treasures and the takeover of their lands and properties by the state government under Pandian has caused huge resentment amongst the servitors and people of Puri. 

    Unkept Promises Of Rehabilitation

    Debiprosad (he gives only his first name) used to run a large store selling pata-chitra, conch shells and other hand-crafted items on the main road leading to Jagannath Dham. He was a tenant of a mutt which was slated for demolition. 

    “I was promised that I would be given another shop equal in size at a prominent location after the (heritage corridor) project was completed. I was also told I would be charged the same nominal rent that I used to pay to the mutt. But after the project was completed, I was refused rehabilitation point blank by the authorities.

    “They told me that since I was a tenant of the mutt which was demolished, I would have to take up my case with the mutt authorities. But the mutt authorities have all left Puri because they, too, weren’t provided proper rehabilitation as promised. I was told that I’m not entitled to any rehabilitation,” said Debiprosad who now drives an autorickshaw to feed his family. 

    The shame of driving an autorickshaw is what prevents him from giving out his family name; it is also the reason he refuses to be photographed.

    “I was a respectable trader with a large store. I have been reduced to the status of an autorickshaw driver. I earn a fraction of what I used to earlier. It’s terrible,” he told Swarajya

    Kanu (he also refuses to give out his family name and to be photographed) runs a small shack selling sea shells, conch shells and fake pearls on the crowded Swargadwar beach in Puri. 

    “I had a shop selling sarees, dhotis and dress materials on Jagannath Temple Road. I was a tenant of a mutt and was promised rehabilitation as well as small compensation for loss of earnings. But after my shop, along with the mutt, was demolished, I was refused any rehabilitation. I pleaded with the authorities, but to no avail. 

    “This (BJD) government is evil and adharmic and needs to be removed. No one will vote for the BJD this time,” said an angry Kanu. 

    He has a family of five — his wife, two school-going children and a widowed mother — to support.

    “My earnings have fallen drastically. I earn about one-tenth of what I used to earn earlier. My wife has opened a tailoring shop to supplement my meagre earnings. My daughter is in Class X and she wants to become a doctor. But I cannot afford to fund her expensive education,” he said. 

    “The curse of a lot of people like me in Puri, and of the devotees of Jagannath, will fall on the BJD and Pandian. He will suffer a lot for his sins,” said Kanu. 

    Fishermen’s Woes

    The Puri Lok Sabha constituency has a sizable population of fishermen. Almost all of them are Telugu-speaking people who had migrated many decades ago from neighbouring Andhra Pradesh. 

    Boats idling on the seashore because of the cyclone alert.
    Boats idling on the seashore because of the cyclone alert.

    Like many sections of society in BJD-ruled Odisha, the fisherfolk are also a highly distressed lot. Not only do they not get any benefits from the state government, their earnings have also dwindled.

    Most of the fishermen in Puri live in Penthakata in the eastern outskirts of the temple town. They live in small dwellings, most of them just one-roomed concrete structures lining narrow lanes with overflowing drains. 

    I find the menfolk whiling away their time playing cards or gossipping idly. That’s because they haven’t been able to take their boats out to sea. 

    “There’s a cyclone alert and we cannot venture out,” said Jambeshwar Pradhan, 30. “The cyclone alerts and rough weather keeps them away from the sea for an average of four months a year. 

     Jambeshwar Pradhan.
    Jambeshwar Pradhan.

    “We earn only for about eight months, but get nothing from the government for the time we are forced to sit idle,” he told Swarajya

    The fishermen usually go out to the sea before dawn at about 4 am and return with their catch around 1 pm. If the catch is very good, each person in a boat (usually there are five to six fishermen in one boat) makes about Rs 1,000 to Rs 1,500. 

    “But quite often, the catch is poor and we end up earning just a couple of hundred rupees,” he said. 

    The catch, says B Ram Babu, is dwindling because big trawlers with fine nets catch all the fish.

    B Ram Babu.
    B Ram Babu.

    “We have requested the authorities to regulate these trawlers who enter many areas near the coastline illegally. They use fine nets which are prohibited. The small fish, including fishlings, get caught in the trawlers’ nets and so the population of fish is also falling very sharply. There is absolutely no attempt to check the illegal activities of the trawlers,” said Ram Babu. 

    P Jagga, 42, says that the trawlers are all owned by “big businessmen” from Gopalpur and Paradip. “These big businessmen give a lot of money to the BJD and that’s why they are allowed to operate illegally,” he told Swarajya

    Jagga can barely support his family of four — he, his wife and two schoolkids — with income from fishing. “Even 10 to 15 years ago, we used to earn decent amounts. But over the last five to eight years, our earnings have fallen drastically,” he said. 

    Jambeshwar said that unlike neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, the Odisha government does not provide help to fishermen to repair their boats or fishing nets, and does not pay them any compensation for loss of earnings due to bad weather. 

    “We are aware of the schemes for fishermen initiated by the Union Government. But access to those schemes is blocked. The state government’s own schemes are useless,” he said, citing the example of the ‘Biju Swasthya Kalyan’, a health insurance scheme. 

    That’s why, say the residents of Penthakata, they avail of the benefits by the Andhra Pradesh government. “We have voter ID cards from here (Odisha), but our Aadhaar cards are all from Andhra Pradesh  because Andhra offers much more benefits to its citizens than Odisha,” said Jambeshwar. 

    “Andhra Pradesh is very prompt in payment of compensation for loss of earnings or damages to dwellings, boats and fishing nets due to natural disasters. The Odisha government is yet to give us any compensation for the damage we suffered during cyclone Fani (April 2019),” said Ram Babu. 

    Jagga says that asking the local MP or the MLA doesn’t help. “The MP belongs to the BJD and the MLA belongs to the BJP. Both plead helplessness. The MLA says that the state government is run by the BJD and the MP says that the responsibility of providing help to us lies with the Union Government that is headed by the BJP. So we are left running from pillar to post,” he said.

    That is why, say the fishermen, it is better to have the MLA and MP from the same party. And this time, they say, they will vote for the BJP because the BJD government has failed them all these years. 

    There are about 2,000 fishermen’s families in Penthakata.

    Painting A Dark Picture

    Puri is also known for its pata-chitra artists who paint figures and images of deities on palm leaves, canvas and other articles. Pata-chitra has made Odisha famous and one village of artists — Raghurajpur — has been given the ‘heritage’ tag as a village of traditional artists. 

    Here, too, I meet disgruntled folks. Their grouse — despite all the accolades they receive, their earnings are low. They blame the state government for that. 

    “We don’t get a fair price for our creations. I put in about eight hours a day in painting. My eldest son and his wife, as well as my wife, also do this work. But together, we earn just about Rs 20,000 a month. That’s about Rs 5,000 a head and its not enough to run the family,” Sudarshan Sahu, 64, told Swarajya

    Raghurajpur, located about five kilometres northeast of Puri town, has 160 families of pata-chitrakars (artists). 

    “We are totally dependent on tourists who come here. The state government does not help us in any manner. During the lean tourist season, our earnings fall drastically,” he added. 

    Sudarshan Sahu in Raghurajpur.
    Sudarshan Sahu in Raghurajpur.

    Sahu said that a minimum earning of Rs 40,000 a month would allow a basic level of comfort. “My two younger sons work in private companies in Bhubaneshwar and their contributions supplement our earnings,” he said.

    Jogendra Swain, 58, who paints along with his wife and two adult sons, says that if the state government holds regular exhibitions where the artists of Raghurajpur can display their creations, it will be very helpful.

    Jogendra Swain with his wife Janki at Rahurajpur.
    Jogendra Swain with his wife Janki at Rahurajpur.

    “We have made this suggestion many times, but it has fallen on deaf ears. The state government is simply not interested,” he told Swarajya

    His younger son, Surendranath, loves to paint and learnt the skill from his father at a very young age. “I love this work, but it doesn’t pay enough. I wish I did some other work. Pata-chitra does not pay. The praise we earn makes us happy, but our pockets remain empty,” he lamented. 

    Jogendra said that with all the hard work that he and the three members of his family put in, they (the entire family) earns barely Rs 30,000 a month. “That’s about Rs 250 a day, which is below the stipulated minimum wage of a labourer. We artists earn less than a manual labourer,” he added. 

    During the lean months when footfalls of tourists come down drastically, the earnings of the artists also decline. “We have to live off our savings then,” said Sudarshan. 

    The artists of Raghunathpur are, thus, a disgruntled lot. Their only succour is the ‘Artisan Photo ID Card’ issued by the Union Ministry of Textiles that entitles them to benefits extended by the Union Government. 

    “We want traditional artists to be included in the new ‘Pradhan Mantri Vishwakarma Yojana’ so that we can get loans and many other benefits. We conveyed this to Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman when she came here recently. We hope our request is accepted,” said Jogendra. 

    It is with this hope that many of the artists of Raghunathpur have resolved to vote for the BJP this time. 

    Sambit Patra’s Campaign

    The BJP’s candidate for the Puri Lok Sabha seat — Sambit Patra — needs no introduction. He lost to BJD’s Pinaki Misra by just 11,714 votes in 2019. 

    But Patra, despite the setback, has been working assiduously for Puri and has kept in close touch with the people here. He is well loved and respected, and the voters here are impressed with his promise of ushering in fast-paced development of the constituency. 

    What has also provided strong tail winds to Patra’s campaign is the anger against the BJD, especially against Pandian, among the servitors of Jagannath Dham as well as large sections of the people here. 

    That’s why Patra’s campaign managers say that it is not a question of victory, but of the victory margin of the BJP’s well-known candidate, this time.

    This report is part of Swarajya's 50 Ground Stories Project - an attempt to throw light on themes and topics that are often overlooked or looked down. You can support this initiative by sponsoring as little as Rs 2,999/-. Click here for more details.

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