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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 33, New Delhi, August 1, 2020

Surrender of Temple of Jagannath, Puri | Atulkrishna Biswas

Friday 31 July 2020

by Dr. Atulkrishna Biswas

“Possession was taken of the town and the Temple of Jagannath by the British on September 18, 1803; the sacred will of the idol having been first ascertained through the medium of the officiating priest.” —J. Melville to Military Secretary to Lord Wellesley, Governor-General, 26 September 1803.

Part-I Jagannath Temple, Puri surrendered to East India Company, 1803!

18th September 1803 marked the black day which saw the launch of a campaign for “occupation of the province of Cuttack” by East India Company in 14 days. The Peshwas, ruling Orissa, were driven out in obedience to directions Lord Wellesley, Governor-General of East India conveyed on August 8, 1803 to Lieutenant Colonel Lionel Campbell, Northern Division of Madras Army. Even barest awareness about the episode about the conquest of Orissa and the events that led to the humiliating submission of Jagannath and His temple to the alien conquerors exhibit a diabolical conspiracy hatched by a clique. Marquise Wellesley’s diplomacy for appeasement of the priests attached to Jagannath Temple as also a Sanskrit scholar Jagannath Tarkapanchan of Triveni, Hooghly in Bengal accomplished the colonial aspiration.

Wellesley’s diplomatic finesse targeted the insatiable rapacity of the priests of Jagannath in conquest of Orissa. The History of Puri: with an Account of Jagannath; also, a Succinct Description of the Southern Division of Zillah Cuttack by Brij Kishore Ghose, Head Clerk of Cuttack, published in 1848, acknowledged, on all hands, as the most authentic source of information documented the course of events accurately. According to him, “The rich Brahman priests of Puri cared only for their own interests. To placate the British, they even utilised the name of Jagannath.” [1] Spiritual vapouring furnished a quintessential camouflage around their financial appetite.

On 15th September, (1803) “a deputation of venerable white-robed Brahmins,” waited on victorious Lieutenant Colonel Harcourt and “begged that the religious key to the province might be placed under the protection of the British. The possession of the god had always given the dominion of Orissa.” On September 18 Company army encamped within “the shadow of temple walls.” [2] The Lord of the Universe, as Jagannath is fondly hailed, chose His own master, alas! a foreigner.

Letter of September 26 Melville, who was Commissioner of affairs of Cuttack to the Governor-General brought the most desirable news that “the Temple and the town of Jagannath are placed under the happy protection of the British army...” [3]  Jagannath’s surrender was preceded by a ritual.

“Possession was taken of the town and the Temple by the British on September 18, 1803; the sacred will of the idol having been first ascertained through the medium of the officiating priest.” [4]

The priests, politically wise and calculating, were too willing to embrace the British masters, thanks to Wellesley’s letter a month before the offensive began. Lord Jagannath was generous about the suzerainty of the British. “We conquered the country with so little a difficulty by conciliating the people, particularly the Brahmins of the Jagannath temple, by a promise to take the place of the late Government.”  [5]

 We take a look herein at the Quislings and collaborators of the mercantile Company for defeat of Orissa and surrender of the temple.

On September 3, 1803, J. Melville communication to N. B. Edmonstone, Secretary, Government of India, unmasked the central characters in sordid episode in effecting the surrender of Puri Jagannath Temple. He wrote,

I am directed by... the Governor-General to transmit to you the enclosed letter from Jagannath Tarkapachanan of Triveni, the oldest and the most eminent of the pundits of Bengal, to Ramchaund and other Brahmins residing at the temple of Jaganath, encouraging those Brahmins to place the Temple and themselves under British protection. [6]

What did the most eminent of the pundits of Bengal write to Ramchaund and other Brahmans who resided in Puri Jagannath Temple? Brij Kishore Ghose helps us understand the matrix of what the pundit wanted to build up or grow between two incompatible as well as antagonistic entities---a temple on one hand and a         mercantile firm on the other. According to the pundit:

From the knowledge which he possesses of the character of the English, he is enabled to assure Ramchaund etc., that they need not be afraid to form a connection with the British Government which is distinguished for its peculiar benevolence to its subjects. Thus, satisfied of this, they must exert all their power of persuasion to inspire the respectable characters in that quarter with the same degree of confidence. It is impossible adequately to express the sense of excellence which characterises the disposition of the English. The English Government not only permits the Hindoos the free exercise of their religion but manifests the greatest degree of benevolence and indulgence known to them to all persons of whatever persuasion, or rank or condition in life.” [7]

The keynote of the advisory issued by Jagannath Tarkapachanan must have gone home for whom it was intended in serving the ends of the Company.

Three of Wellesley’s commandments, reproduced hereunder, to the Lieutenant Colonel Campbell, prior to the launch of offensive against the Peshwas were not only music to the ears but also honey-coated pills to the ravenous addressees. He wrote: -

You will understand that no property, treasure, valuable articles of any kind, contained in the pagoda of Jagannath or in any religious edifice or possessed by any of the priests or Brahmans, or persons of any description attached temples or religious institutions is to be considered as a prize to the army. All such property must be respected as being consecrated to religious use, by the custom or prejudice of the Hindus. No account is to be taken of any such property, or is any person to not be allowed to enter the pagoda or sacred buildings without the express desire of Brahmans.  [8]

The Brahmans are supposed to derive considerable profits from the duties levied on pilgrims, it will not, therefore, be advisable, at the present moment, to interrupt the system which prevails for the collection of those duties. Any measures calculated to relieve the exactions to which pilgrims are subjected by the rapacity of the Brahmans, would necessarily tend to exasperate the persons whom it must be our object to conciliate. You will, therefore, signify to the Brahmans that it is not your intention to disturb the actual system of collections at the Pagoda. [9]

You will assure the Brahmans at the Pagoda of Jagannath, that they will not be required to pay any other revenue or tribute to the British Government than that which they may have been in the habit of paying to the Mahratta Government, and that they will be protected in the exercise of their religious duties. [10]

The diplomacy of wholesale appeasement of Lord Wellesley coupled with the certificate of good character of the British issued by Jagannath Tarkapachanan drove the avaricious target group unsuspectingly straight into the seductive traps. 

Having conquered Orissa, the Company authorities turned their attention towards reform of the Jagannath Temple. Regulation IV was enacted on April 3, 1806, with  avowed objective and purpose “for the superintendence and management of the      temple.” [11] The Regulation aimed at “protection of the pilgrims from undue exactions “by the officers of the government, or of the temple.”

For the purpose of taxation, the pilgrims resorting to Puri were classified in four categories. Tax leviable from them varied at rates from @ Rs. 10 per head to Rs 2    and the result was rewarding for both parties. The Empire’s acclaimed chronicler  William Hunter documented in 1872 that the shrine of Jagannath “formed an important item in our revenue from Orissa.” During the 21 years ending 1831 taxation of the pilgrims yielded a “balance of £1,39,000 or £6,619 per annum after deducting £5,955 a year from the gross returns for the temple expenses and charges.” [12] Annual tax collection grossed at £12,574 of which £5,955 was defrayed for temple rituals, maintenance etc. A net sum of £6,619 went annually into Company coffers. “The whole of India” wrote Ghose “is the patrimony of the priests,”. [13]

Without exhausting or badly injuring pecuniarily him/herself, no pilgrim felt fully satisfied. Hunter furnished the thread of such psychology and the resultant consequences.

No one comes empty-handed. The richer pilgrims heap gold and silver and jewels at the feet of the god, or spread before him charters and title deeds, conveying lands in distant provinces. Everyone from the richest to the poorest gives beyond his ability, and many cripples their fortunes for the rest of their lives in a frenzy of liberality.  [14]

Hunter left for posterity delicious data about the beneficiaries of pilgrim tax. He stated that “not less than 20,000 men, women and children live, directly or indirectly, by the service of lord Jagannath.” [15] In 1870s, could any company or employer, or establishment either on the east or west of the Atlantic, boast of sustaining as large a population as Lord Jagannath did. The beneficiaries, mostly, if not entirely, were the temple priests, cooks, guards, musicians, bakers, elephant-keepers, torchbearers, grooms, artisans, including devadasis, in the main. The Brahmans lived on the public charity received as gifts and donations.

Part-II Caste-based discrimination in Jagannath Temple

The Regulation IV of 1806 amended in 1809, banned entry of sixteen castes and one group into Jaganath Temple. They were: --- (1) Lolee and Kusbee; (2) kalal or  Sunri; (3) Machua; (4) Namasudra or Chandal; (5) Ghooskee; (6) Gazur; (7) Bagdi; (8) Jugi; (9) Kahar Bauri and Dulia; (10) Rajbanshi; (11) Pirali; (12) Chamar; (13) Dom; (14) Pan; (15) Tior; (16) Bhuimali; and (17) Hari. [16]

The Brahmans---not the East India Company---needed and so demanded ban on temple entry. Entry without ban would have ensured larger number of visitors and thereby yielding higher tax revenue to the delight of the mercantile authorities. But they acquiesced with the brahminical eccentricity in discriminatory social issues. Ban on larger number of Bengali untouchable castes suggests unambiguously the hands of Bengali elements at the game in advising their British masters in this behalf. Next year (1810), incidentally, by an amendment of Regulation IV, Pirali was exempted from the humiliating provision of ban. By the way, the Pirali denoted a group of families, not any caste. Even the Noble Prize for Literature (1913) did failed to wash off Rabindra Nath Tagore’s social taint and stigma. Behind his back, the poet was despised as a degraded Pirali Brahman by his conceited superiors.

In the sunset of his life, Tagore expressed excruciating anguish in a letter that if he were ever to be reborn, he would not like to take birth as a Bengali. Two Events in Tagore’s Life

What a compliment to narcissistic Bengali upper castes from the facile pen of Asia’s first-ever Nobel Prize winner!

Part-III Surrender of Jagannath by His priests to British exploded many myths

The capture and surrender of Puri Jagannath Temple facilitated by complicity, nay, conspiracy of the His priests collaborated by the most eminent of the pundits,        Jagannath Tarkapanchanan blasted the myth crafted and propagated solemnly in the Geeta. The shrine, Hindus are told, is the sacred abode of Lord Krishna, his elder brother Balabhadra and sister Subhadra. The same was placed at the disposal of the Englishmen for superintendence and management. A dark landmark for the Hindus though, strangely none seemed to consider that their religion was ever thrown in danger by Jagannath’s priests. The takeover of their shrine by alien power was the result of monstrous outrage by the active collaboration of the shrine’s priests and Brahmans. They were Quislings, traitors. The Hindus often are found to raise war-cry complaining hurting of religious sentiment, belief and faith over even trivial issues. The period of Company occupation of Puri temple is rarely focused in history. The countrymen at large---even the pilgrims are not told or allowed to learn the shameful chapter Jagannath’s honeymoon with the British choreographed by few mean priests and Brahmans. This ensured the culprits did not come in the line of blazing fury of the cheated and defrauded devotees.

In about four decades, the East India Company, in the teeth of criticism at home and abroad for “State sanction to idolatry” abolished pilgrim tax by Act X of 1840.      Pilgrims, hitherto taxed at Gaya, Allahabad, Tirupati, besides Puri, were freed from the obligation.  [17]

Part IV Lord Krishna’s vapourings in the Geeta exposed

Let us recall one of Lord Krishna’s pledges with due seriousness in the holy Geeta:

For the protection of the holy men,

The chastisement for the wicked and enthroning

Of dharma I am born from age to age.” Gita 4.7-8  [18]

The priests for pure personal gain had little regard even for Krishna who along with siblings lives in the shrine. The traitors threw their abode under the British boots without any qualms of conscience. The Hindudom did not feel their ‘dharma’ was endangered this vicious act at all. This was the moment for Lord Krishna to chastise all those Quislings to redeem the pledge made in the Geeta. The failure only exhibited that Geeta was a work of pure fiction, if not a cock and bull story. Between 1817-18 to 1821-22, the pilgrims resorting to Puri Jagannath temple aggregated at 3,34,232. [19] Automobiles, trains or airplanes were still unknown to India, nonetheless, some 66,847 pilgrims---men and women annually on foot mostly made it to Puri. Belief and faith of so vast number of pilgrims was not injured or shocked by alien superintendence and management of the temple of Lord Jagannath. Their elastic docility fitted into belief and faith admirably even in the changed circumstances! It’s signal to the broader Hindudom was much greater than meets the eye. All the gods and goddesses in their universe were safe to submit to the suzerainty of the British mercantile company without an iota of hesitation.

Nirad C. Chaudhuri, we may admit, was faultless when he made his point by citing a French scholar that “Intense selfishness is...a common characteristic of a Brahmin [....] He would unhesitatingly sacrifice the public good, or his country itself, if it promoted his own welfare.” [20] Nobody seems to have challenged the perfidy of the fifth columnists of Puri temple. Distortion of history to protect the image of the privileged collaborators was far easier an option instead.

A retired IAS officer and former Vice-Chancellor, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, Bihar University, Muzaffarpur.

[1History of Jagannath Temple, by Brij Kishore Ghose, 1848, p. 35 Editors Sir Hans Singer, R. B. Publishing Corporation, New Delhi.


[3Brij Kishore Ghose, op. cit. 1848, p. 36.

[4Bengal Secret and Political Consultations: 1 March 1804, No. 13 quoted by Ghose, op. cit. 34.

[5Ghose, op. cit, p. 32.

[6Ibid., p. 31. Triveni belongs to district of Hooghly in present West Bengal.

[7Ghose, History of Jagannath Temple, p. 33.

[8Col. Laurie, Puri and The Temple of Jagannath, Calcutta Review, Vol. X, September, 1848, pp. 238-23.

[9Col. Laurie, Ibid.

[10Col. Laurie, Ibid.

[11A. K. Biswas, Bihar, Vol. 56, No. 03, March 2005.

[12Orissa, Vol. I, by W. W. Hunter, 1872, London, pp. 124-125.

[13Ibid. p. 126.

[14Orissa, Vol. I, by W. W. Hunter, 1872, London, p. 126.

[15Orissa by W. W. Hunter, Vol. I, Smith, Elder & Co., 1872, p. 128.

[16A. K. Biswas, op. cit.

[17Hunter, Orissa, Vol. I, 1872, London, p. 125.

[18Raj, Jagannath and Pilgrim-Tax by Dilip Roy, The Bhagwat Gita quoted by Dr. A. K. Biswas, Bihar, Vol. 56, No. 03, March 2005.

[19 Puri and The Temple of Calcutta, Jagannath, Calcutta Review, Vol. X, 1848, p. 353.

[20bbe Dubois, quoted by Nirad C. Chaudhuri, Hinduism, A religion to Live By, New York, Oxford University Press, 1979, p. 170.

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