Already into the sixth month of its fifth successive term after a thumping win in the 2019 elections, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) government in Odisha finds itself cornered courtesy a letter to Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik from Leader of Opposition Pradipta Kumar Naik.
“I request you to conduct an audit immediately and reassure that our Lord’s wealth is safe. The Ratna Bhandar should be opened immediately and the list of jewelleries should be matched with the inventory prepared in 1978,” said Naik, a senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader in the state.
“Though the missing of Ratna Bhandar keys came to notice in June 2018, the state government has not taken any step till now for the safety of the highly valuable ornaments of Lord Jagannath, which is very unfortunate. Since the keys of the Ratna Bhandar are missing, the possibility of stealing of jewellery kept there is high,” Naik wrote in his 28 October letter.
“Opening the treasure trove and preparing a fresh inventory should be the top priority of the state government. If there will be any discrepancy between the inventory done and the inventory of 1978, the necessary step may be taken to unearth the mystery,” he said.
The Shri Jagannath Temple Rules, 1960, state that the audit of the ornaments inside the Ratna Bhandar should be conducted every six months.
The Ratna Bhandar located close to the Natamandir or Jagamohana, is believed to consist of seven rooms. The outer chamber — three rooms — has jewellery that the Lord uses daily and during his annual rituals such as Suna Besha. As per the practice of the 12th-century shrine as well as the rule book, the ornaments that are not being used are kept in the inner chamber of the Ratna Bhandar.
As per the disclosure made by Law Minister Pratap Jena in the Odisha Assembly in 2018, the Lord has 12,831 bhari (nearly 128.31 kg of gold) and 22,153 bhari (221.53kg) of silver. However, 14 items of gold and silver were not accounted for during the assessment process. Besides jewellery, Lord Jagannath has nearly 60,000 acres of land spread across the country. Most of the land, however, lies encroached.
Incidentally, post-cyclone Fani, the members representing from servitors’ community had sought thorough check-up of ornaments and jewelleries of deities stored in the Ratna Bhandar.
Given the sensitivity of the issue, in a guarded response, Jena said, “The state government is not seating idle over Ratna Bhandar issue. When the key missing incident was reported, the government had immediately set up a judicial commission headed by Justice Raghubir Das. As per the recommendations of the commission the government will take action.”
However, not many are convinced with Jena’s words, though. “Last year, the Jagannath devotees were shocked to hear the disappearance of the Ratna Bhandar’s keys. Antique and priceless jewelleries of gold, diamonds and precious gems of the Mahaprabhu (Jagannath) have been kept in the Ratna Bhandar. They have a rich historical and cultural value as well,” said Jagannath cult researcher, Surya Narayan Rath Sharma.
Rath Sharma is not alone.
Veteran journalist Rajaram Satpathy said that the state government should ‘definitely’ conduct an audit and ‘wipe out the suspicions in the minds of the people'.
“A commission of inquiry was set up and it has submitted its report. But, so far, no one knows the truth about the original keys,” Satpathy said.
The incident of the ‘missing keys’ came to light when a 16-member team on 4 April, 2018 entered the Ratna Bhandar after 34 years to inspect its physical conditions following an order of the Orissa High Court. However, they could not enter the inner chambers as they did not have the keys. They returned after completing the inspection of the outer chambers.
Under fire from the opposition, the state government had also replaced the chief administrator of the Shri Jagannath Temple Administration (SJTA). Generally, senior IAS officers are appointed as the chief administrators of the SJTA.
Soon, there was another twist in the tale. On 13 June, the then Puri collector announced the discovery of the ‘duplicate keys’ sealed in a red-coloured envelope, with a sticker on it that read ‘duplicate key of inner Ratna Bhandar'. Experts say the temple records don’t mention about the presence of duplicate copies of the Ratna Bhandar’s keys.
However, it’s yet to be unravelled how the keys changed position from the district treasury — where they were meant to be stored — to the record room. Surprisingly, the government has blissfully forgotten to provide any satisfactory reply on the issue. Even close to a year after the commission of enquiry submitted its report on 30 November, 2018, the mystery continues to shroud around the missing keys.
“Where are the original keys? How did it go missing? Who was responsible for it and what action has been taken against the erring person/officer?" asked Rath Sharma.
Senior Congress leader Suresh Chandra Routray opposed the opening of the treasury.
“Srimandir's Ratna Bhandar shouldn't be opened for audit as officials will loot all the ornaments in the treasure trove. Last year, the government had lost the Ratna Bhandar’s keys, no one knows how much of the precious ornaments have been stolen. However, if the government opened the Ratna Bhandar again, whatever is left there will vanish,” said Routray.
“The government has been very callous in its approach towards the administration and management of the Jagannath temple. It’s only making tall but false claims that it’s committed to the safety and security of the Jagannath temple,” the Congress leader said.
However, another senior leader of the Congress, Panchanan Kanungo differed with Routray.
Rooting for an audit of the jewellery, Kanungo said, “Lord Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhadra are declared as minors. It’s the responsibility of the government to protect the deities and their properties. In the absence of the original keys, how can the government claim that the ones found are the duplicate keys? Why the government is avoiding transparency? It should stop playing the game of hide and seek with the emotions of crores of Jagannath’s devotees.
Caught off guard, the BJD is maintaining a stoic silence but the Ratna Bhandar issue has the potential to spiral once again into a major controversy.
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Updated Date: Nov 01, 2019 13:36:29 IST