Jagannath temple row: Odisha govt says demolition of dilapidated mutts to continue; seers claim conspiracy, Opposition cries foul
As part of the plan to make Puri a world heritage city, Naveen Patnaik announced a package of Rs 500 crore to undertake infrastructure and beautification programmes in the holy town
Controversy was sparked less than two weeks after the demolition of dilapidated mutts and other structures around 75 metres of the Jagannath temple
The drive came to a halt after several seers opposed the razing of the 521-year-old Vaishnavite institution, Bada Akhada Mutt.
Demolition around the temple commenced on 19 August following a proposal being approved by Naveen Patnaik
Odisha government’s mega plan to transform Puri into a world class heritage city may have been welcomed by all, however, less than two weeks after the demolition of dilapidated mutts and other structures around 75 metres of the Jagannath temple began, it has spiralled into a major controversy.
“People of Puri may not be expressing their feelings, but the majority is unhappy at the way the ancient monasteries, which have an umbilical link with the rituals of the Jagannath temple, its culture and heritage, are being pulled down. The breakneck speed at which the government is trying to carry out the job raises doubts in the minds of the people and devotees,” said renowned Jagannath culture researcher Surya Narayan Rath Sharma.
Referring to the already razed, Puri’s oldest, Raghunandan library that existed in the Emar Mutt, he said, “A repository of invaluable scriptures about the temple and the deities, this library attracted scholars and researchers from around the world. Luminaries including Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Jayaprakash Narayan etc. had visited it. It’s unfortunate the library has been turned into a heap of rubble.”
Though the administration demolished Languli Mutt and much of the Emar Mutt without much protest, the drive came to a halt after several seers opposed the razing of the 521-year-old Vaishnavite institution, Bada Akhada Mutt. Its seer, Harinarayan Das, claimed that the mutt was never a danger zone and neither had endowment commissioner nor Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) mentioned anything about this.
“Government must tell us what it has done for the mutts,” said Das. The Bada Akhada Mutt was established by members of Naga sect to protect the temple against attacks of foreigners.
While Puri Sankaracharya Swami Nischalananda Saraswati termed the ongoing demolition a conspiracy, critics claimed the plan to clear 75 metres from the Meghanada Pacheri (wall of the 12th Century Jagannath temple, one of the holiest places for practising Hindus), is being executed without consulting public.
“We welcome new infrastructure projects in the city,” said Puri BJP MLA Jayant Kumar Sarangi. “Government should have made it clear what it intends to do for the city, seers and the shop owners before initiating the demolition of structures. Officially, we haven't been told anything.”
BJP national spokesperson Sambit Patra said that ‘the BJP favours vikaas and the central government is ready to provide all financial support for Puri’s development into a world class heritage city.”
He added, “The state government should keep the interests of the Mahanta’s (seers), and all other stakeholders in mind and take them into confidence. The blueprint should be ready before further eviction.”
Incidentally, days after pulling down major parts of the 12th Century Emar mutt, a major Vaishnavite monastery and the 300-year-old Languli Mutt, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik announced a comprehensive relief and rehabilitation package for the affected persons and institutions. Many, including some seers, seemed satisfied.
Subsequently, on 5 September, the Odisha chief minister approved three more development projects for the pilgrim town. The government also intends to spend 5 crore on modernisation of the Raghunandan library and digitize the palm leaf manuscripts and books housed in the library.
Last month, as part of the plan to make Puri a world heritage city, Patnaik announced a package of Rs 500 crore to undertake infrastructure and beautification programmes in the holy town. Modernisation plans such as multi-lane roads, flyovers, multi-level parking systems, amenities for devotees, rehabilitation of affected families in the security zone, renovation of existing lakes and creation of a new ones and renovation of mutts were included in the package. Prior to that, he approved 265 crore for various projects in the city.
Incidentally, in 2015, Odisha government spent hundreds of crores for the development of Puri on the eve of the Nabakalebara (change of body of the deities) festival in 2015. However, Puri continues to grapple with civic issues, particularly during the monsoon.
An hour’s rain causes flood-like situation and forces commuters to wade through knee deep waters on the Bada Danda (grand road) joining the Shrimandir with the Gundicha temple. Also, drains continue to overflow.
However, many hail the government’s move to clear the unsafe mutts and other illegal buildings around the temple. “It’s a welcome decision and I believe government will preserve the heritage of the Mutts to the best possible extent,” said social activist and former Right to Information (RTI) commissioner Jagadanand. “Many of the mutts are in a worn out, unsafe condition. Government has taken the right step,” a retired headmaster in Puri stated.
On the face of it, apart from the mutts, given the number of structures located within the specified area, the task looks daunting. “We don’t oppose demolition of the structures, but 75 meters is a bit too much,” a Puri-based intellectual averred.
According to some, if the ASI can be entrusted with the preservation and repair of the Jagannath temple, the same could have been tried in case of the ancient mutts as well. Senior Odisha Congress leader Suresh Kumar Routray, termed the demolition drive a blunder and demanded it cease. “A couple of days back, I visited Puri, met the Mahantas, they are very scared. All demolitions must stop,” maintained Routray.
Even former BJD MP Tathagata Satpathy criticised the government’s move. “Heritage sites are to be preserved for future generations. All civilized countries are preserving their heritage, we should do that, as well,” said Satpathy, who edits a leading Odia daily, Dharitri and Orissa Post (English). “I am not against demolition of recently built illegal structures not only in Puri, but in other cities of Odisha including Bhubaneswar. But, edifices (ancient mutts) shouldn’t be touched.”
However, Amar Prasad Satpathy, senior leader of the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD), dismissed the allegations. “The government is committed to the safety and security of the temple and development Puri and would go ahead with the demolition of the structures within the specified distance as recommended by the Justice BP Das commission. The process for Puri’s development started long ago and discussions had been held with all concerned stakeholders. Consultations are also still going on,” Satpathy said.
The Supreme Court dismissed a petition seeking a stay on the eviction drive in the surroundings of the world famous temple at Puri. The Court fixed 17 September as the next date of hearing. The apex court also asked amicus curiae Ranjit Kumar and Solicitor General Tushar Mehta to visit Jagannath temple.
The amicus curiae has also virtually given a clean chit to the Odisha government’s eviction drive and said it was being carried out with consent of the stakeholders and would benefit the people. Meanwhile, monks and mutt heads have sought the intervention of Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi.
Demolition around the temple commenced on 19 August following a proposal being approved by Patnaik at a 16 August cabinet meeting. As many as 18 mutts — including Emar and Languli — have been identified for demolition. Initially, there were 300 mutts in the city and the number has come down to 78.
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