At least 403 people – 351 servitors and 53 employees – of the Shree Jagannath Temple in Puri have tested positive for COVID-19 since August, an official said.
Ajay Jena, administrator of Shree Jagannath Temple Administration (SJTA), said that the daily rituals of the holy triads, however, continue as usual despite the absence of such a huge number of servitors.
The temple has remained closed for visitors since March after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Jena said there was a shortage of knowledgeable people to perform the rituals as most of the servitors have been put in home isolation after testing positive for the disease.
At least a group of 13 priests each are required to perform rituals for the sibling deities – Lord Balabhadra, Devi Subhadra and Lord Jagannath. Therefore, the presence of 39 priests apart from other servitors are essential to perform daily rituals of Lord Jagannath, the presiding deity of the temple.
The uniqueness of the Puri temple is that rituals are interconnected with each other. They start from early hours till late in the night. If one ritual is not performed, the next one could not be performed as per the temple tradition, said Bhaskar Mishra, a researcher in Jagannath culture.
If more number of servitors test positive for the virus in the coming days, there might be a problem. The administration is considering a proposal to engage junior servitors, he said. So far, a total of 9,704 COVID-19 cases have been detected in Puri district of which 1,255 cases are reported from Puri Municipality area alone.
Of the 52 deaths reported in the district, nine hail from the Puri Municipality area. At least three of the nine fatalities in Puri town are servitors engaged in the temple rituals, the district health officials said.
Although the temple is closed for visitors, the annual festival of Rath Yatra was held in the coastal town on June 23 as per tradition, following the nod of the Supreme Court. The entire town was sealed off to avoid the congregation of any visitors, and strict protocols were laid down for servitors during conduct of the festival including mandatory COVID test before the Rath Yatra day.
Then only two servitors had tested positive for COVID-19. However, the infection struck Puri about a month after the festival, an official said, adding that the SJTA used to provide homoeopathy preventive medicines to servitors families to keep them safe.
Meanwhile, the state government in an affidavit informed the Orissa High Court that it is not possible to reopen the temples including the Jagannath Temple for devotees under the prevailing COVID pandemic.
(With inputs from agencies)