COVID-19 clouds over Jagannath’s Rath Yatra

The Puri Rath Yatra is attended by lakhs of people from across the world and is scheduled from June 23. Photo: PTI (file)

With less than a week left before Lord Jagannath’s Rath Yatra (chariot festival), the construction work of the three chariots, Nandighosha (Jagannath), Taladhwaja (Balabhadra) and Debadalana (Subhadra) is going on in full swing in Puri. Jagannath’s Ratha Yatra in Puri is India’s biggest chariot festival; the nine day festival begins from June 23.

However, it’s not yet clear, whether or not the popular event is going to be held this year. And, if it’s held, who is going to pull the chariots-elephants, or machines or some others?

“Rath Yatra is the most important religious festival in Odisha. The deities come out of the temple to bless devotees from all religions. Only a few days after is Rath Yatra, yet it’s surprising Odisha government hasn’t made its stance clear on it. They must take a call at least in a day or two,” senior Odisha Congress leader, Suresh Kumar Routray appealed.

Claiming that he’s a regular at the festival in Puri every year, Routray felt that there shouldn’t be any problem in organizing the event with adequate precaution-social distancing measures. “Servitors and police should be engaged in the job.” However, since the devotees are not going to attend the annual fair, Routray said, the VVIPS, also, should not visit Puri that day.

On the other hand, stating that the matter’s sub judice, BJP’s Puri MLA, Jayanta Kumar Sarangi said he’s waiting Odisha government’s decision after the Supreme Court order. “Only then I can say anything on this issue,” Sarangi viewed.

However, the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) maintained that, all preparations have been made and the wait is for the apex court’s judgement. “The opposition shouldn’t at least drag lord Jagannath or his Rath Yatra into politics,” senior BJD leader Amar Prasad Satpathy countered.

The devotees, though, are not convinced. According to well known Jagannath cult historian Surya Narayan Rath Sharma, Jagannath is part and parcel of Odisha’s culture and the Odia’s consider him as a family member, guardian of the family. Therefore, it’s an emotive issue and the state administration should not keep the people in darkness. “Only a simple message conveying ‘don’t worry, the event will be held’ would be more than enough,” Rath Sharma said, adding, “Unfortunately, even that hasn’t come yet.”

Advocating that the Trinity’s Rath Yatra should be held, eminent sculptor, Rajya Sabha MP & member of the Puri Temple Managing Committee, Raghunath Mohapatra, argued that as all rituals of the deities including Snan Purnima are being performed, the chariot festival should go on, as usual. He suggested that, considering the Covid threat, the administration could impose shut down in and around the 3km long Bada Danda (grand road) on which the chariots move from the Shri Mandir (Jagannath temple) to Mausi Maa temple. “Devotees can watch the entire proceedings live on TV,” Mohapatra opined.

It is pertinent to mention here that Orissa High Court had recently thrown the ball in Odisha government’s court asking the latter to take a decision regarding the conduct of Rath Yatra. The Court had also asked the state government to consider deploying heavy machinery or elephants to pull the chariots during Rath Yatra to prevent the gathering of large number of people during the Covid-19 pandemic.

However, Odisha Vikas Parishad, an NGO has moved the Supreme Court seeking direction to stay the holding of the Rath Yatra. “If allowed (the Rath Yatra), it will lead to catastrophic results and it will be very difficult on the part of the authorities to control the spread of the virus thereafter,” contended the plea.

Meanwhile, it’s being debated in the state as to who is going to pull the chariots. Not many think that it’s feasible to engage either elephants, or heavy machinery for the task.

Mohapatra said in his 78 years of life, he had never seen elephants pulling the chariots. “During my childhood, Puri Gajapati (king)Ramachandra Dev had two elephants. When the chariots were to move directions, elephants pushed them from behind,” Mohapatra who hails from Puri, recalled. “I don’t think elephants can do the job,” felt Mohapatra.

“It’s not a practical option,” Rath Sharma said, adding, “Even in the worst case, if you engage elephants, you will have to train them for months. The fact is that you don’t have even seven days at disposal.”

On the other hand, the servitors are against the idea of heavy machinery pulling the chariots. “That is unacceptable, we will object to such a stunt,” cautioned, a servitor, requesting anonymity.

Incidentally, last month, Ministry of Home Affairs, in its letter to Odisha government had made it clear that the decision of holding the annual Rath Yatra would be taken by the state government, keeping in view the conditions prevailing at that point of time.

As confusion grips the entire environment, all eyes are on the Naveen Patnaik government’s decision.

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