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Puri Ratha Yatra (Chariot Festival): To Touch or not to touch Lord Jagannath! - I
A landmark judgment by the Odisha High Court has put to rest the controversy around the issue of the devotees climbing the chariot of Lord Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhadra during the Odisha's world famous Ratha Yatra (chariot festival) in Puri.

The government of Odisha had stirred a hornet's nest by declaring its ambiguous decision to not to allow the devotees to climb the chariot during the Ratha Yatra festive seasons, (by that allowing the devotees to climb the chariot on other days and after the sunset while the deities are on the chariot) on this aspect. Odisha High Court (HC) heard public interest litigation on the issue on 18th June. As the matter was urgent it sought affidavits from the state government.

The issue that raised its head during the Ratha Yatra of 2012 when a foreigner mounted the chariot and was thrashed by the Daitapatis, the servitors on the chariot, had snowballed into a major controversy in the state of Odisha. The recent ambiguous decision of the government was seen as disrespect to Shankaracharya of Puri Gobardhan Pitha Swami Nischalanandaji Saraswati and the religious King of Odisha Gajapati Dibyasingha Deba as the state had not carried forward the decision of the Sri Sankaracharya and the opinion of Gajapati top not to allow climbing on the chariot and touching the deities.

The decision of the Government had raised a lot of questions and concerns and had enraged the Jagannath devotees in the state. The government decision had put the autonomy of Sri Jagannath Temple at stake. Odisha was about to see a lot of unrest in the coming weeks as the Rath Yatra is just two weeks away.

Till the year 1960, the Ratha Yatra was controlled and ruled directly by the Gajapati, the God King, at that time to touch the deities on the chariot was strictly prohibited. After the administration was handed over to the State government, there were changes in this front. Being on the chariot was a confirmation that some one is a VIP. This suited the politicians and the bureaucrats well.

Later on more and more people started climbing the chariot; albeit with the support from the Daitapatis for the consideration of 'daskhyina' (devotees pay the money to the priests). Such was the rush to get on the deities that by the year 2006 arrangement of iron ladder had to be made by the temple administration. But the crowd of devotees on the chariot increased so much and the incidents of violence on the devotees increased so much that it warranted an intervention.

The whole issue stated during the Rath Yatra of 2012 when a foreigner was manhandled and thrashed by the daitapatis on the Chariot of Lord Jagannath. An FIR was filed and State Human rights Commission also was appealed. While it has been mentioned in the Record of Rights of Sri Jagannath Temple, Puri that entry of non-Hindus into the temple is not allowed. But whether the non-Hindus can be allowed on the chariot or not, has not found any mention in the RoR.

As all the rituals of the deities are carried out on the chariots only, and the Chariots are worshipped as deities, how can non-Hindus be allowed was the general argument! As per the RoR of Puri Temple, whenever there is any doubt or conflict regarding the religious aspects of the temple affairs, the opinion of Shankaracharya of Gobardhanapitha will be sought and accordingly acted upon.

The Temple Administration Committee decided to seek the opinion of Sri Shankaracharya. So the management committee requested the Shankarachary on 17th August 2012, "Is their any religious restriction on the non-Hindus climbing the chariots during the Rath Yatra? Rather than responding to this query on his own, Shankaracharya sought the opinion of the learned people in the religious affairs in a gathering. This gathering opined that rather than posing the question whether the non-Hindus can climb the chariots or not a proper query should be 'who are authorized to mount the chariots or touch the deities during the rath yatra and who are not?' Accordingly the Temple Administration rephrased the question put to Sri Shankaracharya. Sri Shankaracharya had a thorough consultation with various religious pundits, saints, legal experts, researchers on Jagannath cult and different servitors groups of Sri Jagannath temple. After this he intimated his view to the Temple Administration Committee during November 2013. Sri Shankaracharya had opined that other than the designated servitors no other person can climb the chariot nor can touch the deities."

The Temple Administration unanimously accepted this opinion of Shankaracharya of Puri Gobardhan Pitha Swami Nischalanandji Saraswati and decided to upload the same in the website of Jagannath Temple. The temple administration committee also recommended the same to the State Government for approval. Even a high level administrative committee was formed with the chairmanship of the Chief Administrator of Jagannath Temple Aurobindo Padhi to implement it.

The story so far was straight and simple. But, the state government did not take a decision on the recommendations of the temple administration to accept the view of Sri Shankaracharya for more than seven months for the reasons best known to them. In the mean time there were sporadic statements by the daitapatis that lord Jagannath undertakes Rath Yatra for the emancipation of the 'dalits'. So the devotees wait for the whole year to get a glimpse of the lord and touch the deities etc. This tradition is continuing since long etc.

On 11th June, 2014 the Law Minister Arun Sahu called a meeting and after discussions declared the position of the government. In a very meticulously worded statement he said, "No one can climb the chariots on the Ratha Yatra fesitve seasons." This ambiguity suits those who want to violate it. The daitapatis, the body protectors of the deities, who have the responsibility of the rituals on the Chariots welcomed it.

Even the representative of the Daitapati Nijoga clarified it to the electronic media that after the sunset and on the days (other than the three mentioned) while the deities are on the chariots, the devotees can climb the chariot and touch the deities. The deities are not on the chariots for only these three days only. After the chariots reach the aunt's temple, on most of the occasions the deities could not be taken to the temple. And the same thing happens during the return journey too. So the 'daitapatis' have lapped up this ambiguous decision of the government.

"It is obvious that the 'daitapatis' will welcome it as they are the beneficiaries of the rush of the devotees to climb the chariots and get to touch the deities. The devotees handsome reward these daitapatis who facilitate this. Even gold ornaments change hand for this purpose," rues Ramachandra Dalua, who has a regular attendance at the Rath Yatra since last so many years, but has not been able afford a close encounter with Kalia (a fond name of Lord Jagannath).

By taking an ambiguous decision to partially allow the devotees to mount the chariots and touching the Lords during the Rath Yatra, Government of Odisha's had wrought damage on many fronts. Firstly it had crossed its limits by interfering in religious matters, which the honorable High Courts and Supreme Courts have ruled against on various occasions. Even the Sri Jagannath Temple record of rights (RoR) also says that the State only has an administrative role in the affairs of the temple.

Secondly, the state government had disrespected the Shankaracharya of Gobardhana Pitha Swami Nischalanandaji Saraswati who is revered by millions of Hindus as the final authority on the Hindu religious matters. It is the Temple Administration that is an extension of the government that had requested the Shankaracharya to opine. It is not that he had given an unsolicited opinion. Simultaneously, the state government also had disrespected the Gajapati of Odisha, whom four crore Odias respect as the religious king, as he had said that mounting the Chariots and touching the deities on it is a sin.

Editorial NOTE: This article is categorized under Opinion Section. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of merinews.com. In case you have a opposing view, please click here to share the same in the comments section.
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