Dr Siddhartha Sahu

News Highlights

  • The traditional system considered the King of Puri, as the head of the temple.

  • For all disputes that could not be resolved, the ultimate court of appeal was that of Jagadguru Shankaracharya of Puri.

  • With the traditional system and modern administration running side by side, the system can seem confusing to the common man.

Since 2018, the now-famous Mrinalini Padhi versus Union of India case is being heard in the Supreme Court of India. A public interest litigation filed to improve the rights of pilgrims, the case has aroused interest and curiosity on the running of the Puri Jagannath temple. The Jagannath temple administration may appear complicated to the uninitiated. To understand the present-day situation, one needs to understand how the temple administration was originally designed. The recorded history of Srimandir is a long and interesting one. The temple chronicle known as the Madala Panji records the evolution of the temple. The present temple was rebuilt by King Ananta Varman Choda Ganga in the 11th century. His grandson Anangi Bhima Deva first codified temple administration.  

Anangi Bhima Deva offered his kingdom to Jagannath Mahaprabhu. Since then rulers of Odisha administered the state in Jagannath’s name. The Kings called themselves Rauta or servitor of the Lord. The convention of Jagannath being the head of state has continued in spirit to modern day. Every chief minister of independent Odisha has affirmed their devotion to Jagannath. His name continues to be invoked on all important occasions. As head of state, Jagannath had an administrative setup designed on the lines of an emperor. Anangi Bhima Deva first constituted the Chattisa Nijog, or the assembly of all temple servitors. 

The traditional system considered the King of Puri, as the head of the temple. The Rajguru was the chief advisor on all religious matters. The Pattajoshi Mahapatra was the chief administrator of the temple. The Bhitarcha Mahapatra was the ritual administrator. The Deula Karana was the head of accounts and records. Servitors were grouped into various Nijog based on the role they played in the temple. The Mukti Mandap served as the court of appeal for all disputes in the temple with the Deulapurohit as its adviser. For all disputes that could not be resolved, the ultimate court of appeal was that of Jagadguru Shankaracharya of Puri.  

Each of the traditional mutts was given various responsibilities in the supervision and running of the temple. The Shankarananda Mutt for example was in charge of supervising the quality of Mahaprasad. The traditional system of checks and balances worked for a thousand years. In the 1950s  due to difficulties faced by the then King of Puri, the Government took over the administration of the temple by enacting the Shri Jagannath Temple Act.

The then government compiled an extensive record of rights or swatalipi of all servitors as in force at that time. It is considered the one most important document to determine the rights and responsibilities of all servitors of the temple. The document has been questioned as inadequate by many scholars. They feel that it has not always provided an accurate description of the often complicated responsibilities of many servitors and Nijogs.

With the modern act in place, the temple is now administered by bureaucrats. The temple is headed by a chief administrator, who is a senior IAS officer. He is assisted by the deputy chief administrator who is generally the Collector of Puri district. Both the chief administrator and his deputy are in charge of extremely busy government departments. Kept busy with government work, it is a constant challenge for them to devote time to the temple. The Supreme Court, over a year ago had suggested the government appoint a full-time chief administrator for the temple. Government action on this advice of the court is still awaited.

While the present act has rendered the traditional checks and balances maintained by the Mukti Mandap and the Shankaracharya ineffective, no effective system has replaced them. This has prompted stakeholders with grievances to frequently petition courts of law. The ritual administrator who is an administrative officer of Odisha state service, changes every few years. Rituals of the Jagannath temple are among the most complicated in the world. With no special training in rituals or any continuity in service, these administrators ultimately depend on the advice of senior departmental employees on vital matters of worship rituals. Many Mutts associated with the temple lack the resources to continue the rituals they were entrusted with. While the properties of these mutts are vested with the Government through the temple administration, a proper system of revenue generation to maintain Jagannath’s rituals is elusive. 

Some Mutts have remained without a spiritual head or mahant for rituals. In the absence of a spiritual head, the spiritual responsibilities of these mutts toward the Jagannath temple suffer. An example is the Shankaranand Mutt which plays an important role in the Lokanath temple, but has lacked a mahant for many years. The Endowment Commission vested with the responsibility of their administration, should consider appointment of mahants based on religious principles and rules of all such mutts a priority. This would enable the Mutts to perform their role in the temple more effectively. 

With the traditional system and the modern administration running side by side, the system can seem confusing to the common man. There is often overlap in the role of various stakeholders. For example, if both the Bhitarchamahapatra and the ritual administrator look into temple rituals, who is actually in charge? While rights of stakeholders are clear, there is no clarity in responsibilities of various stakeholders. Accountability is unclear. For example, if there is an issue with Mahaprasad, who is accountable? Is it the endowment commission administered Shankaranand Math, the Suara Mahasuara Nijog or the temple administrator? In the midst of all this confusion, it is probably Jagannath’s blessings keeping the system working.

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same. The author is an Orthopedic Surgeon and can be reached at sidusahu@gmail.com)

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