Op-Ed: Can The Pandas Of Puri Ever Be Reined In?

Why are the pandas of Jagannath temple in Puri a law into themselves? Why is the state government, which took over the administration of the temple way back in the 1950s, so utterly helpless in reining in the unruly sevaks (erroneously called ‘servitors’ as this columnist found out) despite countless incidents of misbehaviour of – and even attacks on – devotees and wanton defiance of all legal and constitutional authorities? Where do they draw their strength from?

After talking to a cross section of people who have followed the affairs of the 12th century shrine, this columnist is of the view that the single biggest reason for the wilful defiance of authority by the priestly class is their firm belief that no government can summon the courage to act against them since they hold all the aces. Given the unique place that the Jagannath temple and its rituals hold in every Odia’s life, they know that any disruption or even delay in the rituals will lead to outrage among the people, as it happened recently when the Lord was kept ‘hungry’ for a day and half due to the absence of a particular priest. And this is precisely what the pandas use as an instrument to browbeat the government and the temple administration. This is also why all parties think they will have a huge political price to pay if they try to put fetters on the shenanigans of the sevaks. Even the opposition parties, otherwise very vocal on various issues, find themselves tongue-tied when it comes to commenting on the pandas. With all parties keen to stay out of harm’s way and the pandas not amenable to accepting any authority, including the Shankaracharya and the Gajapati Maharaja, there is no way anyone can punish them for their misdemeanour and restore a semblance of order in the temple. As Jnanpith award winning author Pratibha Ray aptly puts it, the Jagannath temple is the ‘biggest vote bank’ for all political parties in Odisha! This is the reason the government and the temple administration haven’t been able to muster the courage to act against the people responsible for making a mockery of something as important as the Nabakalebara in 2015, an event that comes only once every 12 or 19 years.

The second most important reason for the nonchalance of the priests is the hereditary system whereby a sevak’s son automatically becomes the sevaks irrespective of whether he has acquired the required knowledge and expertise to carry out his job.  The hereditary system also ensures that all male members of a sevak’s family consider the temple as their fiefdom and go on fleecing devotees whether their services are actually needed on that particular day or not. As a result, there are more sevaks milling around the temple premises at any given time than there is requirement for. That’s why experts have called for putting in place a system whereby the hereditary practice is replaced with a merit-based system – as prevalent in other major temples in the country like the Tirupathi temple – in which the priests are appointed with fixed salary and perks after an interview to test their education level and their knowledge of the shastras and rituals. This will ensure that they have no claim on offerings by devotees.

Experts on the Jagannath cult say another reason the priests defy all authority is the unique and varied nature of rituals of the temple where there are ’13 festivals in 12 months‘. There are no less than 120 different sevas in the temple, each of them assigned to a specific section of sevaks, they point out. If the sevak is unable or unwilling to do the seva assigned to him for the day, no one else, not even from his own fraternity, can replace him – as it happened recently when the Lord was kept ‘hungry’ and devotees were deprived of mahaprasad for more than a day while mahaprasad worth Rs 50 lakh had to be buried in the Koili Baikuntha due to a death in the family of the sevak who had been assigned the job for day. This tradition makes their job indispensable and places the temple administration completely at their mercy. And the priestly class exploits this to the hilt to do what they want and get what they crave for.

The fact that many sevaks have strayed into other occupations like real estate, hotel and even dabble in politics has also played a role. The President of the Daitapati Nijog, for example, is a leader of the ruling party and the Chairman of a corporation to boot. The killing of Guna Singhari, a sevak, a few years ago and the retaliatory murder of his killer over a real estate dispute a couple of years after it are symptomatic of the rot that has set in.

The Supreme Court ruling of June 8 that the sevaks have no claim on offerings made by devotees has generated some hope. But given their wilful defiance of any move to shackle them, one doubts whether even the Supreme Court order can be really implemented. The temple administration made a big song and dance about the fact that collections in the temple ‘hundi’ registered a four-fold jump the day two days after the SC ruling. But not many people know that SC was only reiterating what is supposed to be the practice since the ‘hundi’ was put in place back in 1987. When the sevaks threatened to disrupt rituals, the then JB Patnaik government came up with a compromise solution as per which they would be given an equivalent amount of the collections in the ‘hundi’ by the temple administration. And the practice continues even to this day, a member of the temple management committee confided in this columnist on condition of anonymity. No wonder they have assumed that they have sole and exclusive claim on collections in the ‘hundi’. A case in point is the recent incident on May 20 when a pilgrim from Maharashtra was pounced upon and injured by sevaks for his ‘sin’ of dropping his offering in the ‘hundi’ instead of the thaali kept near it. And the Daitapati sevaks, the most powerful of the 36 nijogs, would not brook parting with even a tiny share of the collections from the Ashadha Shukla Trayodashi (the 13the day of the first fortnight of the month of Ashadha) to Niladri Bije (the day after the Rath Jatra), normally the highest in the year. Reliable sources confirm that huge sums of money, running into crores, are ‘unofficially’ paid by the state government to the Daitapatis every year to ensure that the high point of the temple calendar passes off smoothly.

It would be a brave government indeed that would try to implement the SC ruling in letter and spirit. Long used to having their way, the priestly class can be trusted to fight the move to deny them the offerings made by devotees. It remains to be seen if and how the temple administration finds a way to circumvent the SC order as it has done in the past.

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are 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).