Bhubaneswar: "Only Orthodox Hindus are allowed," a signboard hanging from the Lion's Gate of Sri Jagannath Temple in Puri has triggered many a controversy in the past and it continues to draw myriad reactions even today.
The latest such incident took place when an American national attempted to climb 'Nandighosh', the chariot of Lord Jagannath during the world famous "Rath Yatra", the annual car festival of the deity, in June this year in the seaside town.
The American, identified as Noel Magee Hayden, was allegedly beaten up by temple security personnel and driven out of the chariot as he was not a born Hindu. "This is injustice. When Sri Jagannath is considered as the Lord of the universe, how can anyone deny permission to my husband to climb the chariot like others?" his wife Silpi Boral, who hails from Odisha, expressed surprise.
While the police registred a case in this connection, the Shaknaracharya of Govardhan Peeth in Puri, Swami Nischalananda Saraswati also denounced the manner in which the foreigner was treated by security personnel.
"The foreigner could have been requested not to climb the chariot or enter the temple as he is not an orthodox Hindu. There is no justification in physically assaulting him," the Shankaracharya observed.
The assault of the American had reminded people of tales about how a number of dignitaries, including former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, had not been allowed to enter the 12th century shrine.
"In 1984, Indira Gandhi was not allowed to enter the temple of Lord Jagannath at Puri because she had married a Persian, Firoze Gandhi," pointed out a priest defending the ban on entry. Similarly, in 2005 Queen of Thailand Mahachakri Siridharan had come to Odisha but as she was the follower of Buddhism, she was not allowed into the temple, said another temple priest.
In 2006, the shrine, whose ancestry goes back to 12th century, also did not allow a citizen of Switzerland named Elizabeth Jigler, who had donated Rs 1.78 crore to the temple because she was a Christian.
In 1977, Bhakti Vedanta Swami Pravupada, the founder of ISKCON movement, had visited Puri. His devotees were not
allowed to enter the temple and he was warned of making an attempt to step into the temple. "There is no doubt that Jagannath culture gives emphasis on religious tolerance and communal harmony and does not permit any distinction with regard to caste, creed and colour," historians said.
"Still, while framing the rules and regulations for the administration of the temple, the management might have taken into account the ravages of the Muslim attacks on the temple several times in the past," according to historians.
"That might have induced the Sevayatas to impose restriction on the entry of non-Hindus into the temple," say Dr Rekharani Khuntia and Dr Brajabandhu Bhatta in a study.
Sri Jagannath Temple at Puri was attacked and looted several times during the Moghul period, they said. According to 'Madala Panji', the temple records, the first attack was made by Raktabahu, the Muslim Sabedar (319-323 A.D) during the period of Sobhana Dev’s rule.
Subsequently, the temple was attacked at least 20 times. As for the practice of allowing only orthodox Hindus into the temple, only the Sankaracharya of Puri, the Gajapati Maharaja and the Chhatisha Niyoga (priests' body) can decide on any modification or change in the rules of the temple, says Prof Himansu S. Patnaik, a former Professor of History, in Utkal University, Bhubaneswar.
Without elaborating, the Gajapati King of Puri, Divya Singha Deb, however, says: "We should respect sentiments of all people. Jagannath Temple is known for its tradition and practice."