The Jagannath temple has been a part of Sanatana Dharma's core for millennia despite facing attacks on it from multiple fronts.
Shankar is a project management expert who loves working with numbers. With the events in Sabarimala, he has realised the threats Sanatana Dharma and its institutions face and hence wants to contribute in any manner that he can for its upliftment.
In 2019, the Odisha government decided to demolish various mathas and commercial structures within a 75-meter radius of Puri Jagannath temple. The demolition drive was a part of the plan to make Puri a heritage city.
About the Temple
The Puri Jagannath temple is one of the Char Dhams and is amongst the holiest of shrines for Sanatana Dharma followers. There are references to this temple in various Puranas, and the rituals/festivals of the temple are an amalgamation of various forms of worship - Vedic, Tantric to even rituals of ancient tribal communities. This is evident in many things unique about the temple e.g. the deities manifest in the wooden form (also known as Daru) and there are special rituals like Nabakalebara where these wooden manifestations are changed every 12/19 years. Vishnu is worshipped in name and character as Purushottama. Many great acharyas have visited Puri (like Shri Adi Shankaracharya, Shri Ramanujacharya, Shri Madhvacharya and more). Given the importance of the temple, saints/acharyas from different sampradayas have set up mathas in the temple for:
• Imparting religious teaching to Chelas (Disciples).
• Providing services to the pilgrims visiting Puri like providing food and a place to stay.
• Participating in rituals of the temple i.e. take responsibility for certain seva (duties) at Jagannath.
Management of temple before independence
The consensus among the historians is that the present-day Jagannath temple was built in the 12th century by Anant Varman Chodaganga Deva. Kings of Ganga dynasty considered themselves as the subordinates (or Rauta) of Lord Jagannath and their empires to be ‘Purushottama Samrajya’ (empire of Lord Purushottama). After the fall of the Ganga dynasty, Suryavamsi Gajapati kings ruled and they continued to view Jagannath as the supreme ruler of their kingdom. After the end of the Islamic onslaught, Odisha came under the rule of the Marathas and then subsequently under the occupation of the British. The British initially tried to administer the temple, however, due to the criticism from the Church, management of the temple was handed over to a council containing Raja of Khurda and pandits under regulation IV of 1806. Subsequently, many changes were made to the regulation and eventually in 1902 by the passage of a resolution, the Bengal Government was empowered to run the temple administration. The temple administration greatly deteriorated and by the time India achieved independence, the temple administration had almost collapsed.
Present scenario of (Mis)Management
After independence, the Orissa Estate Abolition Act 1951 was implemented and estates of Lord Jagannath (and mathas) were vested with the State. A Record of Rights of different Sevayat communities was prepared. Based on this report and analysis of traditions, a new law was passed in 1955 for:
(i) Administration of the Temple.
(ii) Administration of land and properties endowed to the temple and mathas, which in turn meant that the responsibility of revenue collection and disbursement was with them.
A temple managing committee under the chairmanship of Gajapati was constituted, where Collector Puri was an ex-officio member and vice-chairman. This enactment recorded Gajapati as a bonafide temple servant in the "Record of Rights". Since 1971, Gajapati rajas have been the Chairman of the Sri Mandir statutory committee. When the government took over the administration of the temple, the temple finances were in deficit. Many of the temple properties were already occupied by encroachers and no revenue was being generated. A catalogue of properties within and outside Orissa was prepared and some of the properties were disposed-off in a phased manner at a subsidised rate. In 2005, a revision of the previous enactment was made making a provision for the appointment of a senior IAS cadre officer as Chief Administrator for the overall management of the temple. There is ample evidence in the public domain to indicate that the present management is ineffective and counterproductive to the functioning of the religious institution. Lands endowed to Jagannatha continue to be widely encroached upon, sometimes allegations are made that this encroachment is with the connivance of the politicians and bureaucrats. Govardhan Mathas claimed that even the samadhi peethas of monks have been encroached upon. In many cases, funds required for the proper functioning of the mathas are not provided and consequently, many of them are not able to perform their rituals. Mathas which were once thriving centres for providing religious education are not able to take care of their disciples. Temple administration has failed these religious institutions in letter and spirit.
Current demolition drive
The decision taken to demolish various mathas and buildings within a 75-meter radius of the temple was based on the recommendation of the Justice BP Das Commission report (which has not been made public yet). This decision will impact around 18 mathas and demolition has already been carried out for 3 mathas amid public protest. The ones demolished were – Languli matha, Emar matha and Bada Akada matha. It is pertinent to note that no discussion was held with the mahants of these mathas. The chief minister of Punjab, Captain Amarinder Singh has requested to stop the demolition of the two Punjabi mathas that were slated to be demolished. Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik has assured that these mathas will not be impacted and has even promised to ensure that demolished ones will be relocated to a new area. Organisations such as the Indic Collective Trust had approached the High Court and currently, there is a stay on the demolition drive.
The temple ecosystem is critical for the survival of Sanatan dharma. Prominent heritage conservationist, INTACH Project Coordinator Anil Dhir has indicated that mathas can be restored/renovated for a cost much lower than what it takes to build a new one. The myopic view of looking at mathas as just physical structures, that can be uprooted from their natural environment to be planted somewhere else, is not good. Moreover, some of the suggestions put forth for the modernisation of Puri would be disastrous in preserving the sanctity of the temple rituals. Mismanagement of temple and matha resources have to be questioned and government machinery should be held accountable. To initiate these changes, the first step would be for the devotees to be aware of this problem and then start raising their voice democratically.