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Column: Living Off The Lord

By Sandeep Sahu

It may sound blasphemous. But the unpalatable truth, shorn of any sugar-coating, is that Lord Jagannath, the presiding deity of Odisha, has become nothing more than a money-spinning venture for our powers that be. The Lord is the biggest brand the state has to offer and our rulers certainly know how to cash in on Him! An unholy nexus of servitors, temple officials and politicians has kept a vice-like grip on the affairs of the temple and its presiding deity – and has enriched itself in the process – even as crores of devotees have looked askance helplessly. But having ‘tasted blood’, they are not willing to loosen their grip at any cost. They have drawn a thick veil of secrecy around the goings-on and have gone about tightening their grip blissfully oblivious of the religious sentiments of Jagannath devotees and widespread outrage across the state.

Anyone who has kept track of the happenings related to the Lord Jagannath temple in Puri since the much-awaited Nabakalebara in July 2015, if not earlier, knows that the temple administration – and by extension, the state government – has made a complete hash of the management of the 12th-century shrine. The Nabakalebara, easily the biggest event in the temple calendar, was happening after a full 19 years this time, the first such occasion during the present regime’s time. And appropriately enough, over Rs. 2, 000 crores was spent in the lead up to the big event to give the surroundings of the temple and the holy town itself a complete makeover. Had every rupee been spent for the purpose it was intended, the town would have indeed undergone a makeover. But as anyone can see, much of it has literally gone down the drain. Had the money been well spent, the drains would not be overflowing and the Grand Road would not have been flooding after a brief shower and the state of sanitation in the town would have been much better. In fact, it would not exactly be an exaggeration to say there would have been no need for the Heritage City project launched by the state government last year! (Cleaning up the temple surroundings was part of the Nabakalebara plan).

Even before the Nabakalebara, thousands of crores had been pumped in over the years to give Puri a much-needed facelift. But all that we have to show by way of lasting achievement today is the new Nabakalebara highway, which has made travel between Bhubaneswar and Puri much faster, easier and comfortable. The Malatipatpur bus stand, built far away from the town for reasons no one really knows, stands as mute testimony to the monumental wastefulness of the work related to the marquee event.

Living by and spreading the message of universal brotherhood that is at the centre of the Jagannath cult is not on the table anymore. He is now just an icon to be commercially exploited in hoardings and tourism department brochures. A whole network of ancillary ‘industries’ has grown around the Lord with the unholy nexus having a finger in every pie. He is no more the Lord of the Land that we always knew Him to be. Instead, he has been reduced to the status of a subject by the new ‘lords’ who preside over our collective destiny! His money is something to be played around with and the Yes Bank fiasco is only the latest example of it. His elaborate and intricate set of rituals can be fiddled around at will with the monumental fiasco of the Nabakalebara the biggest of them all. And the Lord can do no more than look on helplessly – and the devotees no more than keep wringing their hands!

Curiously, however, even as the new ‘trinity’ of servitors, officials and politicians keep fleecing the Lord, there is an incredible, inexplicable lack of interest to find out how much is He really worth. Thousands of acres of the Lord’s land continues to be encroached upon – and even sold off – by the unholy nexus, but there is no visible desire to make an exhaustive inventory of the Lord’s landed property. The doors and the chests of the veritable treasure trove of gold, silver and other jewelry belonging to the Lord has remained firmly shut and thus away from public gaze – for decades. The government appears to be determined to resist all calls for making an inventory of the treasure trove of the temple, an exercise required to be undertaken every three years under the temple rules! To put things in perspective, the last such exercise was undertaken way back in 1985! Even the widespread outrage after the keys to the Ratna Bhandar were first reported lost and then mysteriously resurfaced at the wrong place, the government has been in no hurry to open the locks and do a thorough stock taking. It is not rocket science to know why. There is no way of finding out if the amount recorded as collections from the hundi is actually the amount donated by pilgrims either.

A major reason this living on and off the Lord has gone on unabated is that it involves no collateral damage. There is no price to be paid, either by way of the law taking its course or a political cost. The outrage is genuine for sure. But it doesn’t spill on to the streets with the kind of intensity needed for our rulers to realize that they will have a price to pay for it. The same set of familiar faces organize the same old perfunctory, made-for-TV protests; the same set of experts pontificate on TV debates about how the affairs of the temple are in a mess and the same old politicians and officials promise a ‘thorough inquiry’ and assure the public of ‘stringent action’ after every outrage. But far from being loosened, the stranglehold of the nexus continues to strengthen with each passing day.

I, for one, find it rather strange that while we Odias love our Jagannath, we are not outraged enough when He is treated shabbily by the new ‘lords’. There would be no end to the emasculation of the Lord till the people remain indifferent. It is time to wake up and take notice!

(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)

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