For 28-year-old Bhola Prasad from Bihar, these are extraordinary times. As he waits outside the Jagannath Temple in Jamalpur of Ahmedabad, decked up in painted motifs on his forehead, he finds no children in queues to offer him jaggery or devotees thrusting Rs 10 notes in his trunk as ‘offerings’. Instead there is a TV reporter and men in khaki keeping vigil.
Bhola Prasad, the only male elephant at the Jagannath Temple, has been part of the yearly Rath Yatra for the past 22 years. His Mahaut Vijay Ramdas (28) claims that he was bought in a Sonpur livestock fair in Bihar back in the 90’s and then brought to Ahmedabad.
For the first time in 143 years, a stay order by the Gujarat High Court was put on the Jagannath Rath Yatra of Ahmedabad, said to be the biggest after Puri in Odisha, amid Coronavirus pandemic. The yatra on a route of 18 kilometres, covering various areas of old city Ahmedabad, is attended by 4-5 lakh devotees every year, making it the biggest festival of Gujarat in terms of footfall and man management.
“Every year, a fortnight before the Rath Yatra, we place our elephants outside the temple where people worship them and offer food and goodies. However, this year, the elephants have had no activity and they were resting in our compound. It is only today that we have brought them out as part of a ceremony. We have sufficient food supply, thanks to temple trust but the festive season meant sweets in surplus for the elephants which they will miss this year,” said Mahant Jagdish Das, head of Hathi Akhada, who is entrusted with welfare of 18 elephants of Jagannath Yatra.
Like elephants and their mahouts, the flower and fruit sellers as well as shopkeepers near the temple have had a dry run this year.
On Monday, the police barricaded the area extending to 500 metres around the temple and stopped the movement of traffic.
“Last year, I did business of Rs 1,500 per day for a week selling bananas and flowers to devotees. This year, police did not even allow me to set my stall in Jamalpur,” said Raghubhai Kanaji, a fruit seller.
The route along the yatra has nearly 1,600 active Covid-19 cases, and Jamalpur, home to Jagannath Temple, was a hot spot till June 20 when containment was lifted from the area.
Ahmedabad district has reported 18,837 positive cases till Sunday and 1,332 deaths.
“During the Rath Yatra season, we sell items meant for puja. This year, we have only sold tobacco and water bottles,” said Nayanbhai Rajput, who runs a pan parlour opposite the temple.
Hardly 100 metres from the temple is the iconic Jamalpur Darwaza which is the entry point for Jamalpur – a pre-dominantly Muslim area. Every year, the Rath Yatra procession goes through Muslim majority areas with over 20,000 police and paramilitary personnel keeping a strict vigil. The days leading to the yatra are usually dedicated to mock drills by police. Lanes remain deserted and locals keep an eye on the movement of people in the area.
Seen as a high-tension law and order event, police reinforcements are pooled in from across the states to give cover to the yatra and preparations begin over a month before. Even during the 2002 riots, though there was a consideration to suspend the Rath Yatra, it was conducted.
“I rent out my horse for weddings and ceremonies, however, since February I have not earned a single rupee. I had hoped that I would be able to make some money in the festive season before Rath Yatra as I also offer horse rides to devotees. We will now have to wait till Diwali,” says 56-year-old Saif Nizamuddin in Jamalpur.
“We also had to observe Eid in our homes after our locality was termed as a containment zone. So we understand the pain of devotees when they cannot celebrate the Rath Yatra festival with the same fanfare. Hopefully by next year, we will celebrate both the festivals,” said Ali Ahmad Pathan, a bakery owner in Jamalpur.
With the police barricading the entire zone, it is only the VIPs such as Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani and Gujarat Congress President Amit Chavda among others who have been able to pay a visit to the temple on Monday.
“Since the Gujarat High Court had put a stay on the Rath Yatra, we had barricaded the area outside the temple. However, for the movement of people of Jamalpur we have allowed a route from Jamalpur Fire Service station area, and for VIP movement, we have kept the Hathikhana route open. We have only done barricading as per police security,” said Makrand Chauhan, Deputy Commissioner of Police, Zone-3, Ahmedabad.
“Since June 8, after restrictions were lifted from temple visits, we have set up a sanitising tunnel and compulsory thermal screening of devotees. We have followed all the necessary guidelines ,” said Mahant Jairam Das ji, one of the members of the temple management.
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