On June 8, hearing a petition on “the harassment faced by visitors” at Puri’s Jagannath Temple, the Supreme Court asked the temple’s board to ensure that its sevaks or pandas don’t accept any offering directly, and suggested use of CCTVs to implement the order. Khuntia, a sevak for three decades, says they never force devotees:
1. What does work as a sevak involve?
I have been working at the temple since the age of 13. I was trained for five years at the temple school before taking up the job of a sevak. I make arrangements for the water used for service at the sanctum sanctorum. It’s a 24-hour job and I go home only to bathe, change and eat. There are 12,147 sevaks at the temple and each one has a different role — fetching water, bringing flowers, dressing up the Lord etc. These tasks have been assigned to our respective families for generations.
2. How many devotees do you attend to in a day?
On a general day, I attend to 10-15 local devotees who come to the temple regularly. On festival days, the numbers can double or even treble.
3. How much do you earn in a day?
I earn about Rs 30,000 a month. But after the Supreme Court’s order, my income has fallen by 30-35 per cent. While the court has said that the offerings made at the temple should not be shared with the pandas, we are unclear if the order referred to daan (donations to the temple) or dakshina (voluntary fees paid to sevaks). I have loyal devotees who continue to give me dakshina out of respect, but for several other pandas, who largely depend on one-time visitors, it has been a struggle. Already, some visitors are telling us that the court has banned dakshina. It will be tough for us to survive and provide for our families. I have a wife and two daughters, aged 17 and seven, who are
4. What are challenges of the job?
Well, I don’t know about the challenges — there is no risk to our lives — but we have to be on our feet all day. We deal with thousands of people of different dispositions.
5. The Supreme Court petition also alleged harassment of devotees.
Don’t defame us. We have never forced anyone to pay us. We are not terrorists who attack people and need to be monitored by CCTV cameras.