The mystery over Lord Jagannath’s Ratna Bhandar has deepened as the Odisha government has “no plan” to reopen the inner chamber of the treasury of the 12th-century shrine in Puri and refused to share information about the temple’s assets with an RTI activist, devotees claimed on Monday (August 29).
Shree Jagannath Temple Administration (SJTA) under the state law department, did not respond to the queries of Balangir-based RTI activist Hemant Panda.
The State Information Commission has recently imposed a fine on the SJTA’s officer S K Chatterjee for not sharing information in the public interest.
Asserting that the SJTA cannot decide to open the inner chamber of the Ratna Bhandar, temple administrator (development) Ajay Kumar Jena said the issue will be placed before the Sri Jagannath Temple Managing Committee in its next meeting.
The SJTA will inform the managing committee’s decision to the government and only then can the treasury can be opened, he said. It seemed that water seeps through cracks in the wall of the store, temple’s Ratna Bhandar in-charge and servitor Niranjan Mekap said, adding that the treasury “must be opened immediately and repaired”.
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Leader of Opposition in the state assembly Jaynarayan Mishra alleged that the state government has “never made any attempt to open the inner chamber of the treasury even though it has gold, diamond jewellery, precious stones and other ornaments.
It remained closed for 44 years even as the Sri Jagannath Temple Act, 1955 has a provision of undertaking inspection of the Ratna Bhandar every three years, the BJP leader said. The ruling BJD leaders remain tight-lipped over the issue.
Law Minister Jagannath Saraka had told the Assembly on July 16 that if any proposal is received to open the Ratna Bhandar, the state government will take necessary steps after examining different aspects.
Congress and BJP legislators in the House had demanded an immediate inventory of items stored in the treasury.
Gajapati Maharaja Dibyasingha Deb, the titular king of Puri, who is also the chairman of the Temple Managing Committee, has sought to open the treasury to clear doubts of devotees over the presence of assets.
The Archaeological Survey of India, which looks after the maintenance of Odisha’s most popular religious site, had recently urged the state government to open the Ratna Bhandar for the physical inspection of the structure.
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The Ratna Bhandar is located in the basement of the temple, which should be inspected physically. The walls of the treasury may be damaged due to the climatic impact on the structure. It must be repaired immediately, a senior ASI official said.
The temple has at least two chambers of its treasury. The Bahar Bhandar (outer chamber) stores ornaments used by the deities on a daily basis, while many pieces of jewellery are kept in the inner chamber of the treasury, according to temple sources.
An attempt was made to open the inner chamber of Ratna Bhandar in April 2018 following a directive of the Orissa High Court, but it was not successful as keys were not found at that time. A team, comprising ASI officials, priests and others, then carried out an inspection from outside.
In the wake of a statewide hue and cry, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik had constituted a judicial commission headed by retired Justice Raghubir Das to probe into the missing key issue.
Though the commission has submitted its report to the state government, we are unable to understand why the findings of the panel were not tabled in the assembly so far, senior Congress legislator Santosh Singh Saluja said. The commission had in November 2018 submitted its 324-page report to the Odisha government.
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The opposition MLA said the “missing of the Ratna Bhandar keys, and not revealing the judicial panel report by the government becomes a mystique”.
Former temple administrator Rabindra Narayan Mishra, who was part of the team that inspected the inner chamber of the treasury in 1978, said, the Ratna Bhandar is divided into two parts. While the outer chamber stores the ornaments and valuables for regular use of the deities, most precious jewellery items are kept in the inner chamber.
I had seen huge quantities of gold, diamond and ornaments wrapped in clothes and kept in wooden boxes, he said.
Earlier, the Ratna Bhandar was opened in 1803 and 1926, Mishra said. All the precious items have been listed and weighed properly during the last inspection, he said, adding that the valuation of the asset could not be ascertained as goldsmiths from Tamil Nadu and Gujarat were not able to calculate the actual value of the ornaments at that time.
I think it is high time to do an inventory of the ornaments stored in the Ratna Bhandar and allow the ASI to inspect the physical structure of the temple, he said.
In 2021, then law minister Pratap Jena informed the House that according to the 1978 inventory, the Ratna Bhandar had 12,831 bhari of gold and 22,153 bhari of silver (one bhari is equal to 11.66 grams).
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The treasury also had 12,831 gram of gold ornaments with precious stones and other valuables in store, he had said.
As much as 22,153 gram of silver with expensive stones, silver utensils and other valuables were found there, Jena mentioned, adding that due to various reasons, 14 gold and silver items could not be weighed during the inventory process.
(With inputs from agencies)