Ever since the demolition of centuries-old mutts and monuments around the Puri Jagannath Temple in 2019, development of the world famous shrine has been in the news. With Purushottam Kshetra and Jagannath finding mention in scriptures as ancient as the Rig Veda, historians are uncertain about when exactly the original temple was established. Numerous inscriptions record - construction of the present temple was started by Anantavarman Chodaganga Deva in the 11th century CE and completed by his grandson Anangibhima Deva.
With frayed tempers and accusations and counter accusations rife, understanding what the Parikrama project is all about is essential. Amidst growing security concerns and increasing public demand for better amenities for pilgrims, the Odisha government embarked on a redevelopment plan for Puri in 2019.
Special focus was placed on redevelopment of the areas surrounding the Jagannath temple. The administration swiftly proceeded on a demolition spree around the Jagannath temple in 2019 despite questions raised by historians and devotees on the demolition of ancient monasteries and buildings.
Emaar Mutt dating back to the times of Ramanujacharya has given way to a cement-paved open space. The bada akhada mutt built to protect the Jagannath temple from invasion has given way to pilgrim amenities. Whether the historical monuments could have been documented and preserved is a question that remains unanswered. No scientific impact study of the use of heavy machinery to demolish all the structures in the periphery of the Jagannath temple, on the structure of Srimandir itself, has been made public.
Fast forward to 24th November 2021 when the Chief Minister and the Puri Gajapati laid the foundation or the shilanyas of the Jagannath heritage corridor project. After the initial enthusiasm, people across all spectrums started raising doubts and questions over the project. Locals were alarmed by 20 feet deep excavation being done very near the Meghanad Pacheri or the outer boundary wall of the Jagannath temple. Amidst growing outrage over the excavation, a report in a national daily on 9th April 2022, mentioned that the district administration filled up the excavation with sand. Questions over the necessity for such excavation and the possible implications of filling it with loose sand which is likely to sink in the rainy season remain unanswered.
Worried about the possible threat the heritage project might pose to the safety of the Jagannath temple, concerned citizens filed public interest litigations with the Orissa High Court. The High Court directed the Archaeological Survey of India and the state government to submit their reports on the Heritage corridor project.
And when both the BJP and the Congress raised serious apprehensions about the threat to the structure of the Jagannath temple from the heritage corridor project, the Speaker of the Odisha Legislative Assembly agreed to constitute a panel of members to study the project on 2nd April 2022. While the house panel visited the Jagannath temple on April 22, in view of the matter being subjudice in Orissa High Court, the members refused to comment on their findings.
While the state government claimed to have all necessary permission for the project from the Archaeological Survey of India and the National Monument Authority, unsettling questions have been raised here too. RTI queries revealed that the Archaeological Survey of India has not given permission to the project, rather it had written to the government raising doubts about the risk the heritage project poses to the Jagannath temple. The Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act (AMASR Act) of 1958 restricts construction and excavation in a 100 meter radius of a protected monument. This leads us to the next unanswered question, if indeed the national monument authority gave permission for excavation and construction within the 100 meter radius of the Jagannath temple, it did so on the basis of which rule?
Did the national monument authority ensure the necessary restrictions and precautions to be followed to protect the Jagannath temple? With this new information coming to light, the Orissa High Court agreed to prepone the next hearing on this matter to May 9.
Among all the controversies and all the doubts, the Jagannath temple heritage corridor project seems most confusing to the common man. Parikrama or circumambulation of the Jagannath temple outer wall is considered a matter of great significance to the Jagannath devotee. Yet the Jagannath temple heritage corridor named after this very sacred Parikrama seems to have made Parikrama of the Jagannath temple difficult.
While the administration is eager on new construction, the same interest is lacking in conservation and restoration of the cracks and damage in the Jagannath temple and its complex. No impact report of the Heritage project with respect to the safety of the Jagannath temple has been made public so far.
Prefabricated and light weight construction on shallow foundations are safe options for constructing public amenities. In fact it is standard practice to use such light weight construction techniques while building public amenities near heritage monuments. Is it at all necessary to dig so deep for building civic amenities around the Jagannath temple?
Excavations on historic places are known to yield priceless artifacts that add to our knowledge of history. It is common practice around the world for excavations and digging around historic monuments to be supervised by archaeologists to document and protect historic relics and artifacts. What precautions has the Odisha government taken to preserve, protect and document any historic artifacts found during the excavation work for the Heritage corridor project? In the quest of development, is it still not important to preserve Odia history for generations to come?
(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 firstname.lastname@example.org)
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