Unholy row: Why non-Hindus won't be allowed on Lord Jagannath's chariot
The question got a fresh lease of life this year when eminent Italian born Oidissi dancer Ileana Citaristi was allegedly assaulted by two servitors.
By Sandeep Sahu
Bhubaneshwar: Should they or should they not? The question of whether to allow 'foreigners' (read non-Hindus) to mount the chariot of Lord Jagannath while he is on his annual, nine-day sojourn to his aunt's place - known to the world as the Rath Yatra (Car festival) - has dogged holy men, temple servitors and scholars alike.
The question got a fresh lease of life this year when eminent Italian born Odissi dancer Ileana Citaristi was allegedly assaulted by two daitapatis (servitors) atop Lord Jagannath's chariot last Sunday. The Bhubaneswar-based danseuse promptly faxed a complaint to both the Sri Jagannath Temple Administration (SJTA) and the police. SJTA, in turn, issued a notice to the two priests while the police lodged a case against them.
Last year, in a similar incident, an American citizen married to a Hindu woman was allegedly manhandled by a daitapati and thrown off the chariot. The furore over the issue led the temple administration to refer the issue to Jagadguru Nisachalananda Saraswati, the Shankaracharya of Gobardhan Peeth in Puri for a final decision. The decision is yet to come.
"Nobody wants to bell the cat. The temple administration chose to refer the matter to the Shankaracharya since it did not want to take a call on the highly contentious issue. On his part, the Shankaracharya too is not willing to stick his neck out," says Shrikumar Shukla, a senior Puri journalist well conversant with temple rituals.
Even as the SJTA and the Shankaracharya remain non-committal on the issue, a fierce debate is on over whether or not foreigners should be allowed on to the chariots. And there are strong arguments on both sides. Jagannath Swain Das Mohapatra, the badagrahi (chief servitor) of Lord Jagannath, has called for a complete ban on foreigners climbing the rath.
"They don't know or understand the elaborate rituals associated with the Rath Yatra and still insist on climbing the rath. Ileana, for instance, insisted on climbing the rath at a time when the abakasha ritual of the Lord was on," he said.
Flatly denying the Odissi dancer's allegation of physical assault, he said; "All that the servitors did was to prevent her from going on to the rath at a time when an important ritual was on."
But Ileana maintains that she was beaten up after she refused to pay the Rs 1,000 demanded by the servitor. Reacting to the servitor's threat to ban foreigners, Ileana says it would be most unfortunate if the ban is enforced.
"After all, this is the only time of the year when those who love Lord Jagannath, irrespective of their religion, get to see him. The gates of the temple, as you know, are closed to non-Hindus for the rest of the year," she says.
Since assimilation of caste, class and religion is at the very heart of the Lord Jagannath (the name roughly translates into 'Lord of the Universe') cult, Ileana certainly has a strong case and equally strong backers.
Interestingly, the Daitapati Nijog, the apex body of temple servitors, has dissociated itself from the badagrahi's threat. "It is entirely his own opinion and no such decision has been taken by the Nijog," a spokesperson for the Nijog told Firstpost.
Those in the know say the question that should be asked is not whether foreigners should be allowed on to the rath. "The real question is whether any devotee should be allowed to climb the rath at all," says Shukla.
Apparently, the phenomenon of devotees climbing the chariots is not more than 7/8 years' old. While devotees did mount the rath — obviously with a little help extended by the servitors for monetary consideration — during the Lord's stay at his aunt's place earlier too, stairs were never provided to make climbing easy for them.
Residents of the pilgrim town say it all started during senior IAS officer Suresh Mohapatra's stint as the Chief Temple Administrator. Pointing out that devotees were never meant to climb the chariots and were always expected to pay their obeisance from the ground below, researchers in Jagannath Cult call for an end to the practice.
But both sides — the servitors and the devotees — are dreading the prospect of a complete ban on climbing the rath. While the servitors are wary of losing the hefty sum they make during the Rath Yatra, devotees don't want to be deprived of the opportunity of being Up Close with the Lord on the chariots, even if they are poorer by a few hundred rupees in the process!
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