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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 42 New Delhi October 5, 2019

On the Lines of Mahatma Gandhi’s Model Temple

Naveen Patnaik’s Effort to turn Puri’s Jagannath Temple into a World Heritage Site

Saturday 5 October 2019

by Satya Narayana Sahu

With all humility and with a prayerful disposition to Lord Jagannath of Puri temple, the Odisha Government, headed by Shri Naveen Patnaik, has taken measures to clear commercial buildings and centuries-old dilapidated struc-tures around 75 meters of the sacred shrine. The bold measures of the government, implemented with all modesty, have the approval of the Supreme Court which gave the go-ahead signal to clear the constructions within the demarcated area of 75 meters. In displaying rare sensitivities to the religious and spiritual sanctities of the deities being worshipped in the dilapidated monasteries, the government has kept intact the shrines of these deities.

Removal of Structures and Constructions used for Commercial Purposes done with a Winsome Approach 

Never in the past was such action taken by any regime, be it the mighty Maratha and British regimes, which wielded enormous power and ruthlessly ruled Odisha by employing unprece-dented force and coercive measures. What was done by the Naveen Patnaik Government with regard to the Jagannath temple deserves to be understood in terms of an approach which encompasses in its scope not only the mandate of law but also the spirit of piety and humble service to Lord Jagannath. It was done for celebrating the spirituality associated with the enduring legacy of Lord Jagannath and His sacred abode, the temple, which affirms fraternity, interfaith harmony and unity of humanity. It has been done with a spirit of reconciliation and understanding so that all those, associated with those old and rickety structures and earning a living from many unauthorised buildings, would be rehabilitated in Puri and duly compensated and the package in this respect is by far the best and attractive. Every step in this direction is informed by accommodation and adjustment devoid of any trace of bitterness and acrimony. It is not based on a zero-sum game, one losing and the other winning, rather on a winsome approach accommodating all and giving them a feeling that they are as much on board as the government in achieving the common goal of further elevating the sacred temple and its surroundings to an exalted spiritual realm. The noble vision guiding such action is to make the much venerated temple and its internal and external premises a world heritage site by removing the dangerously weak structures without in any way tampering with the places where deities are worshipped.

In removing those structures the much-needed open space is restored to the millions of devotees visiting the abode of Lord Jagannath which is consecrated as one of the four Dhams in Hinduism and respected by millions from across the world. The constricted surrounding within 75 meters caused by too many constructions resulted in lack of open space and blocked the view of the Jagannath Temple, Puri, and the pilgrims visiting the shrine always used to be disappointed for not having been able to see the majestic temple in totality from a distance.

The dilapidated monasteries dating back to a few centuries and numerous other illegal constructions put to use for commercial activities posed health and security hazards endangering life. There was a lurking fear that such old edifices, completely worn out and brittle would collapse at any moment and cause massive loss of life. There was a frightening possibility that a manmade disaster would overwhelm the area with the fall of the structures suffering erosion over centuries. Above all, the threat perception to the sacred temple and countless pilgrims visiting the shrine round the year was mounting in geometric proportions because of the congestion caused by the dilapidated structures and illegal constructions which made it vulne-rable to all kinds of assaults including terrorist strike. To a great extent security was compromised by those structures and the temple could have been an easy target of those elements with a diabolical intent to cause sectarian violence and bloodshed.

General Public supports Removal of Old Rickety Structures 

It is not that the modest measures of the Naveen Patnaik Government did not face opposition from some quarters. While common people welcomed such measures, some individuals and organisations voiced their protest which did not gain much traction. Such ostensible opposition was more postural than substantial and aimed at scoring some brownie points for publicity purposes.

Misplaced Anxieties Caused by Rumours 

In fact grave anxieties were expressed by Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh over the so-called demolition of the Mangu monastery which is associated with the Sikhs as a holy institution and established a few centuries back by a Sikh preacher near the Jagannath temple. The monastery used to be the dwelling place of the followers of Nanak, the venerated Sikh Guru. A team from Punjab visited Puri to ascertain the facts and allay the anxieties. They found that the sacred shrine in the Mangu monastery has been kept intact and only the structures constructed for commercial purposes have been demolished. They were relieved and asserted that vested interests were spreading rumours and lies that the Mangu monastery had been razed to the ground.

Both Maratha and British Rulers imposed Pilgrim Tax 

It is worthwhile to put the measures taken by the Odisha Government in the context of history and understand their significance at a time when so much of discord and disharmony is spread in the name of temple construction in twentyfirst century India. It is lesser known that during the Maratha rule in Odisha, which preceded British rule, a pilgrim tax was imposed by the Maratha rulers on the devotees visiting the temple of Lord Jagannath. It became one the most important factors behind the rising disaffection among Odias against the mighty Maratha regime.

When the Britishers commenced their rule over Odisha in 1803 after defeating the Marathas, people of Odisha thought that the obnoxious pilgrim tax would be abolished by the British authorities. But they were disappointed. The Britishers continued with the pilgrim tax and remained indifferent to the problems connected with the running of the Jagannath temple.

Karl Marx on Jagannath Temple 

In fact Karl Marx in his essay “The future Results of British Rule in India”, written on July 22, 1853, observed that the “British rulers in order to make money out of the pilgrims streaming into the temples of Orissa ....take up the trade in the murder and prostitution perpetrated in the temple of Juggernaut. These are the men of property, order, family and religion.” He also observed elsewhere that the British authorities used to draw revenues from the Juggernaut festivals protecting and assisting the bloody rites which involved suicide by devotees by throwing themselves under the wheels of the chariots carrying the idol of Jagannath during the Rathyatra festival at Puri.

It is quite evident that the British rulers were making money out of the pilgrims visiting Puri temple and protecting bloody rites. This was stated by none other than Karl Marx as early as 1853. The might of the British Government was of no significance in bringing about slightest reforms in the temple affairs. Such was the sordid affairs and conditions of Jagannath temple in the nineteenth century.

Mahatma Gandhi on Temple Reforms 

In 1938 Mahatma Gandhi disapproved of the irreligious practice of Pandas of the Puri Jagannath temple fleecing money from the pilgrims and stated with anguish that “for the Panda of the Puri temple silver coin is God”. More than that he, during the freedom struggle, relentlessly struggled for temple reforms which included entry of Dalits to temples and keeping the temples and temple surroundings clean, spacious and expansive.

This was best exemplified in his speech which he delivered on February 6, 1916 in Benaras Hindu University. He reflected on the conditions prevailing in the Kashi Viswanath temple in Benaras. What he said in that speech in 1916 assumes significance in the context of the Puri temple and the cluttering of its surroundings with numerous structures ready to fall on account of their old and worn-out conditions. He said, “If a stranger dropped from above on to this great temple (Kashi Viswanath temple) and he had to consider what we as Hindus were, would he not be justified in condemning us? Is not this great temple a reflection of our own character? I speak feelingly as a Hindu. Is it right that the lanes of our sacred temple should be as dirty as they are? The houses round about are built anyhow. The lanes are tortuous and narrow. If even our temples are not models of roominess and cleanliness, what can our self-government be? Shall our temples be abodes of holiness, cleanliness and peace as soon as the English have retired from India, either of their own pleasure or by compulsion, bag and baggage?”

His indicting observations that houses around the temple of Kashi Viswanath were built anyhow and there was no roominess and cleanliness are applicable to several other famous temples including the temple of Lord Jagannath. In removing the old and dilapidated structures and many other constructions which came up within 75 meters of the temple premises and used for commercial purposes, the Naveen Patnaik Government is restoring what Mahatma Gandhi said about “roominess and cleanliness” which are central to creating an ambience rich with spiritual vibrations.

Later on March 11, 1933 Mahatma Gandhi acknowledged in an article “Are Temples Necessary?” that “...temples and temple worship are in need of radical reforms must be admitted”. In another illuminating article “What does a Hindu temple mean?”, written in Harijan Bandhu on March 19, 1933, Gandhiji insightfully observed, “Temples are veritable museums of the cultures of different religions. In old times God dwelt in the temples and Godliness too; it (the temple) housed a school, a dharamsala, it was the place where the leading people of the locality met together.”

In fact the Jagannath temple in Puri is a “veritable museum of the culture of different religions”. It is a confluence of diverse faiths and streams within faiths. The Government of Odisha, through its manifold measures for clearing the structures, causing hindrances in surroundings of the sacred temple, has dedicated itself to uphold its purity, sanctity and its pluralistic heritage. In fact the assurances of the Government of Odisha that the Raghunath library which was there in the Emar monastery would be housed in the new complex being built after clearing the old structures within 75 meters from the Puri temple are consistent with the vision of Mahatma Gandhi who envisioned a temple complex equipped with such facilities.

Mahatma Gandhi’s Model Temple 

On April 29, 1933 Gandhiji wrote an article “Model Temple” and observed that it should have devout and selfless priests and “Round this will come into being a school, a dispensary, a library, secular and religious. The school may serve also as a meeting or debating hall. I should have a dharmsala or guest house connected with the temple. Each one of these will be a separate institution and yet subordinate to the temple and may be built simultaneously or one after another as circumstances and funds may permit. The buildings may or may not be substantial.”

Reforms undertaken in Puri Temple fulfil the Vision of Gandhi 

What is being done in the Puri Jagannath temple by the Naveen Patnaik Government is in conformity with the vision of Mahatma Gandhi and the measures taken in this regard assume significance in the context of the 150th birth anniversary celebrations of the Father of our Nation. The sacred Jagannath temple is radiating with spirituality and its elevation to a world heritage site would go a long way in heralding a new era for humanity to underline the point that our spiritual legacy constituting our soft power would guide the destiny of the planet. This is the larger context in which the humble initiative of the Naveen Patnaik Government with regard to the Jagannath temple in Puri should be understood.

The author served as the Press Secretary to the President of India; he had a tenure as the Director in the Prime Minister’s office and thereafter was a Joint Secretary in the Rajya Sabha Secretariat.

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