Puri’s Badadanda (Grand Road), the three-kilometre stretch joining the Jagannath Temple and the Mausi Maa (maternal aunt of Lord Jagannath) Temple has taken the centre-stage as the three bedecked chariots of Lord Jagannath, his elder brother Lord Balabhadra and younger sister Devi Subhadra have begun their annual sojourn.
With permission to hold the festival only been granted to Puri this time, Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik on Monday (June 22) urged fellow Odias to strike a balance between age-old tradition and COVID-19 guidelines.
“The whole world will be watching us. By performing the rituals of the Lord with discipline and at the same time adhering to social distancing and COVID-19 guidelines, we can set an example for rest of the people across the globe,” Patnaik said in a video message after the Supreme Court granted permission for the festival.
Elation of devotees
The apex court’s green signal on Monday afternoon cleared the clouds of anxiety and suspense that enveloped the world-famous festival, bringing cheer to the faces of many devotees. With COVID-19 guidelines in place, the festival is going to be a devotee-less Rath Yatra. But, millions, both at home and abroad are expected to stay glued to their TV sets to have a darshan of the deities.
“We are lucky to have a darshan of the deities on this great day,” Sisir Behera, a software professional in Pune, said. “You can’t imagine how happy we are. Lord Jagannath is supreme and so is his will. His will has ultimately prevailed. We are much relieved now,” an elated Jagannath cult researcher, Surya Narayan Rath Sharma, told The Federal.
An equally excited, Aftab Hossen, a final year degree student at the Nayagarh college, who was one of the petitioners who had moved the Apex Court requesting it to reconsider its ban on the festival, said that ‘Mahaprabhu’ (Jagannath) was just taking a test. “It’s a victory for humanity which is the biggest religion,” Hossen said adding, “everything happens as per Mahaprabhu’s directions.”
Curbs in place
To avoid any mass congregation, the Odisha government has imposed ‘curfew-like’ shutdown in the entire Puri district from 9 pm of June 22 till 2 pm on June 24. All entry points to the pilgrim city have been sealed and more than 50 platoons (one platoon has 30 personnel) of police force have been deployed for the security management of the nine-day festival.
With, not more than 500 people, including servitors and security personnel, allowed to pull one chariot, the administration requires 1,500 people to pull the three chariots. “We will have to collect samples from at least 1,500 people and get them examined by 11 am on Tuesday as chariot pulling is scheduled to start from 12 noon,” a health department official said. Earlier, COVID-19 test of 956 persons, including servitors and carpenters, and others engaged in chariot construction, was conducted.
The chief secretary, DG of Police and all senior officials of the state government of different departments had rushed to Puri on Monday night for the preparation of the festival.
Hailing the top court’s decision, Gajapati Maharaj Dibyasingha Deb, the titular king of Puri, who is also the foremost servitor of Lord Jagannath, had commented that the Lord heard the prayers of the devotees.
How the events panned out
While the state government has swung into action to organise the event after the top court’s order, its lack of a stance on the issue till a day before has baffled all. The government position was understandable considering the increasing cases of COVID-19 in the state. As on June 22, Odisha had reported 5,303 cases with 15 deaths while 3,863 persons had been cured.
On June 18, the Supreme Court had stayed the Rath Yatra in the interest of public health and safety of citizens. It had ruled that the festival this year cannot be allowed due to the COVID-19 pandemic with Chief Justice SA Bobde commenting that “Lord Jagannath won’t forgive us if we allow.”
Hours later, the Odisha cabinet in an emergency meeting decided to abide by the apex court’s order. This stunned all, as all pre-Rath Yatra rituals including Akshay Tritiya and Snan Purnima had been observed and the three chariots were built and kept ready.
Things took a turn after the cabinet meeting. While the Puri Govardhan peeth Shankaracharya termed the stalling of the festival a ‘well-orchestrated plan,’ Puri’s Gajapati Maharaja in a letter to the Chief Minister urged him to approach the apex court for partial modification of its June 18 order so as to permit performance of Rath Yatra only at Puri.
The Gajapati, had earlier, after meetings with Chhatisha Nijog (apex body of the confederation of all sections of servitors) and the temple’s managing committee, said that the government had glossed over the May 30 proposal of the temple’s managing committee on Rath Yatra.
The Opposition too joined in the chorus and tried to corner Odisha government. While the state BJP unit said the government should pay heed to the suggestions of Gajapati Maharaja and hold talks with Shankaracharya, the Congress alleged that the present situation has been created as the state government “failed” to take any concrete decision regarding the Rath Yatra well in time.
“Prior intention of the government was hidden. It was searching for ways how to stop Rath Yatra,” senior Congress leader Panchanan Kanungo, told The Federal.
From devotees, servitors to even advocates, everyone was surprised with the government’s intent. “Odisha government didn’t even provide any alternative proposal or degree of preparedness for the event in the top court on June 18,” said senior Supreme Court advocate, Sarthak Nayak.
However, finally, buckling under pressure, the Odisha government took a complete U-turn on June 22 and supported the Centre’s stand in the apex court.
The Centre told the top court that the Rath Yatra in Puri can be allowed to be held this year without public participation in view of the coronavirus pandemic, saying the “tradition of centuries may not be stopped.”
“It is a matter of faith for crores. If Lord Jagannath will not come out tomorrow, he cannot come out for 12 years as per traditions,” solicitor general Tushar Mehta, mentioned.
Soon, Odisha government filed an affidavit, saying “If the Rath Yatra is confined to Puri alone in a limited way without public attendance as proposed by Gajapati Maharaja of Puri, chairman of the Puri Jagannath temple administration, the state government will endeavour to make necessary arrangements to conduct the Rath Yatra accordingly.”
And just a night before the Rath Yatra, the top Court’s decision came as a sigh of relief for the devotees.
“Jagannath is very kind. Rest assured, he will bless all,” claimed a physically challenged, Gaura Das, an ardent devotee of Jagannath.