Servitors of Puri’s Jagannath Temple, upset over Supreme Court directions on the administration of the temple, have warned of “disruptions” in the Lord’s Rath Yatra next month. On June 8, the court passed interim directions on a petition filed by social activist Mrinalini Padhi on harassment and exploitation faced by visitors due to the commercialisation of rituals, and on issues of hygiene, encroachments and management of the temple.
What the court said
The Bench directed the Shree Jagannath Temple Administration (SJTA) “to ensure that no direct collection of the offerings is made by any Sevaks and all the offerings either in hundi or are deposited and accounted for and properly utilized. They should not be individual pockets by the Sevaks/attendants who may be given their due remuneration as per rules. To ensure this, the help of CCTV cameras and its footage or other steps may be explored”.
According to SJTA officials, non-festival-day collections in the hundi — the donation receptacle placed in front of the temple’s sanctum sanctorum — do not exceed Rs 3 lakh; receipts usually double on festival days. Immediately after the court’s directive, however, the hundi collection increased significantly, SJTA sources said.
Servitors say they’re largely dependent on the temple for their livelihood, and the SC’s directive may force them into penury. They argue that the order does not distinguish between dakshina, which is a fee paid voluntarily by devotees to servitors for performing their desired rituals, and daan, which is the donation to the temple. Following the June 8 order, many devotees are under the impression that the SC has banned dakshina, the servitors say.
SJTA officials say the Shri Jagannath Temple Act, 1954, provides for the welfare of servitors. Under the Act, the Shri Jagannath Temple Foundation Fund receives all donations exceeding Rs 500, and collections are invested in long-term fixed deposits in banks. The interest returns to the Fund. Some of the money is used to run a sebayat (servitors’) hospital, give scholarships to their children, and for old age and widow pensions. Given this support system, servitors should not expect any part of the temple’s offerings, SJTA officials argue.
What happens now
The court has directed the Puri District Judge to file a report by June 30 on “exploitative practices” targeting the devotees, which an SJTA official said may mean the “coercive collection of large amounts in the form of dakshina”. In May, a devotee from Maharashtra alleged he was beaten by servitors — who also snatched his gold pendant — after he refused to pay a large sum for darshan. An FIR was filed and two servitors removed.
The court has asked SJTA to review the arrangement of CCTV cameras and install more. An independent panel must view the footage at suitable intervals and submit a report to the District Judge.
The missing key
Servitors have blamed the temple administration for the alleged disappearance of the keys to the inner chambers of the Ratna Bhandara, or Room of Jewels. The petition sought directions for a court-monitored investigation into the lost keys — which were apparently last seen in 1978 — but the SC said the Odisha High Court, which has dealt with the Ratna Bhandara earlier, should deal with this matter.
On June 5, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik’s office announced “a judicial inquiry into circumstances leading to the non-availability of the keys of Ratnabhandar”, and Law Minister Pratap Jena said, “We will find out who is responsible”. The probe, by retired Odisha HC judge Raghubir Das, will submit its report in three months.
The Ratna Bhandara, an addition to the Natamandir or Jagamohana, one of the original twin structures of the temple, is believed to have four rooms. One of them is used regularly, and a second contains the deity’s jewellery used in his Suna Besa (golden attire). The other two rooms are sealed — and are believed to contain treasures brought back from conquests of other kingdoms.