Who Are the Servitors Serving?

By Sambit Dash 

Breach in traditions, some of them hundreds of years old and carrying deep religious importance, seems to be the order of the day in major temples of Odisha. The writ of these ‘men of God’ – sadly, religion and women do not go well together – runs large in these gross diversions from the normal. Whether during the Nabakalebara of Lord Jagannath last year or the Lingaraj Chandan Jatra on Monday night, servitors have ganged up to derail normal proceedings, causing both shame and deep hurt to the religious sentiments of thousands of devotees.

The details of such fracas are a matter of another debate. What is important in these incidents is the sheer audacity, the brazen wielding of power, the lack of inhibition and the implication and lessons for an Odia society. Let us discuss them very briefly.

In deviating from centuries-old tradition – and in these cases, they are merely procedural and nothing social – the servitors (some of them history-sheeters at Sri Mandir, Puri) have shown that it is their writ that will prevail at the end of the day. Such an attitude obviously does not augur well for the very nature of the responsibility on their shoulders, which is crucial for the smooth functioning of temple rituals.

Be it allegations of using mobile phones to record what are supposed to be ultra secret proceedings of the Nabakalebara (What is happening to that inquiry anyway?), taking a selfie atop Lingaraj temple during Mahashivaratri, or not having Lord Kapileshwara in Chandan Jatra, these incidences are testimony to the power these servitors wield in temple management. Having servitors in a unique position of power where their refusal to conduct proceedings (which has increased of late) creates a logjam does not help the power equation in a temple.

While there are temple administrations (often themselves accused of wrongdoings), an Odisha Endowment Commission and of course the Courts to solve such disputes, their combined might has failed to rein in the servitors, who regularly harass devotees, amass wealth, are involved in illegal activities and function as de facto bosses of temples. Perhaps it does not suit the political leadership to come down hard on the holy men, who still influence a large number of voters.

That brings us to the issue of what these departures in major rituals in major temples mean for an Odia society, which can be safely labelled as highly religious.

During the scores of times that I have visited Jagannath Temple, Puri, I have never used the services of a servitor. I must confess I am not a very religious person. I feel my connection with Him is a personal affair and a quiet moment (an oxymoron most of the times) is all that I need. But most people do not think so.

The importance that people have placed on the servitors, and the feeling that it is only through them that one can attain God, receive special blessings and the prasad one obtains becomes a blessed one, is at the root of this huge tree of a problem.

The recent incidents should not end up in the standard cliché – ‘the Lord shall punish these wrongdoers’. It should rather be a strong message that says ‘We, the people, can influence these errant servitors.’ Religious preferences are purely personal but that cannot be a pretext to indulge these elements, who disregard the sentiments of millions time and again.

sambit dash (1)

The author teaches Biochemistry at the Melaka Manipal Medical College (Manipal Campus) and can be reached at sambit.dash.cool@gmail.com