The immediate surroundings of Puri’s Sri Jagannath Temple have undergone drastic change in a few weeks. Once a busy thoroughfare, thronged by fruit and flower vendors, temporary tarpaulin markets selling traditional sweets and fruits, and monks of the neighbouring math (monasteries), the sights, sounds and smells have vanished into Puri town’s balmy seaside air.
Radially around the temple, up to a distance of 75m, construction cranes are hard at work bringing down structures that have been part of the area for centuries. As plumes of dust rise up, temple devotees stop by to enquire. Some say, “Development of Puri”, while others express disgust that “structures as old as time are being unceremoniously torn down”. The official reason given by the Chief Minister’s Office, however, is different: “Terrorists have no religion, but they target religious places. It is important that recommendations for the security of Sri Mandir be implemented. Some families will be affected. However, a sacrifice is necessary for Sri Mandir’s security. This is in service of Mahaprabhu (Jagannath)”.
The mahanta (chief) of Emar Mutt — one of the firsts to be razed — sat inside the premises in protest. He found support from scholars, historians and journalists, and a tweet by former Biju Janata Dal MP and journalist Tathagata Satpathy. As clamour around “wanton destruction of heritage” grew around the demolition of 18 maths within the 75m radius, a debate arose on what exactly was this heritage.
Today, the maths in Odisha have “identities of exigency”, says the mahanta of a well-known math in Puri, on condition of anonymity, adding, “Whenever their existence is threatened, such as the current demolition drive (on since late August), the math’s oral historians make them out to be older, grander, and more important.” In the lack of written historical evidence, the provenance of these centuries-old maths remains contentious.
According to historians and scholars, maths came up around the Sri Jagannath Temple to propagate Hinduism, providing shelter to priests and pilgrims, and rest houses for the poor, among other reasons. Researcher Bhaskar Mishra writes in his book Purira Matha Sanskruti (Puri’s Mutt Culture, 1998), that maths came up around all the four temple corners since the time of Raja Anangabhimadeva (1211-1238 AD) of the Ganga dynasty.
Math researchers assert that the famous Gobardhan Peetha in Puri was established by Acharya Shankara in 9 AD. But in the absence of written records, coinciding narratives on a particular math’s history serves as proof of its authenticity. For example, temple scholar Harihar Kanungo says, the Emar Math was established in 1150 AD by Tamil saint Sri Rajgopalacharya. The then Gajapati king granted farmlands to the math, which helped during the 1866 famine as the math opened its famed granary for the needy and the suffering. Mishra writes, in the 12th century, Acharya Ramanuj came to Srikhetra (what is now Puri) and established the Ramanuj Kota math. His chelas eventually established other maths among the 150-plus seen in Puri today.
Mishra further mentions the martial maths, called akhadas, date to the 14th century when invasions of Srikhetra (Puri) by the marauding Mughals were anticipated. Echoing the origin story, Hari Narayan Das, mahanta of the Bada Akhada Mutt, established in 1388, says, “In the Mughal era, the Puri king was unable to defend attacks on the temple. Therefore, the guru of Vaishnav Nagas, Balanandaji Maharaj, established this akhada, realising that dharma could not be protected by sastras (rules) and sachetana (awareness) alone; security was also important.”
In the 17th and 18th centuries, during the Bhoi dynasty, the maths turned into centres of learning, serving as residential schools for young men, who were taught Sanskrit, grammar, philosophy and the Vedas.
According to Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage member Anil Dhir, Puri maths “were not only centres of scholasticism but also for the study of painting, sculpture, music, dance, chant and ritual”. A number of famous saints also built maths, like Madhavacharya (Balabhadra Chata), Mira Bai (Nandini Math), Kabir (Kabir Choura Math), and Guru Nanak (Mangu and Bauli maths).
The Jagannath culture allowed different religions to seed their philosophy in the pilgrim site of Puri through maths, historians say. It welcomed different schools of thought. Prabhat Mukherjee, in his book The History of Medieval Vaishnavism in Orissa (1940) writes, “Every religious movement, which flooded Orissa, established its sway in the temple precincts of Jagannath. Traces of Buddhist, Shaivite and Tantric forms of worship are to be discerned in the worship of Jagannath.”
Once at the command of social and economic life of their area, these days maths have “adjusted” traditional responsibilities for their monks and inmates. Das, of Bada Akhada Math, says, “Now the math has moved from imparting shikshya (teaching) to bidyadaan (subsidising learning). The boys who come here — about 25 Odia Brahmins this year — are interested in staying in the math for free food and lodging as they study in Puri’s coaching centres and colleges, while preparing for engineering and medicine.”
The math also encourages them to study “pauranik prathas” and imparts a basic knowledge of puja (worship) and sanskar (culture). “As maths go down in importance in the eyes of the modern population, we must compromise,” says Das.
This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘Matter of Faith’