A Congress-sponsored dawn-to-dusk shutdown on Friday brought normal life to a standstill in Odisha as people rallied behind the opposition party’s demand for action over alleged irregularities in rituals at the iconic Jagannath Temple in Puri.
The Congress called the bandh demanding the resignation of chief minister Naveen Patnaik, institution of a judicial probe and action against servitors and officials responsible for the alleged irregularities in the rituals performed during Nabakalebara, a periodical renewal of the wooden idols in the temple.
The temple, visited by lakhs of Hindu faithful every year, houses the idols of Lord Jagannath (Krishna), Lord Balabhadra and Devi Subhadra (their sister) in the temple.
Police arrested more than a hundred Congress workers including state Congress chief Prasad Harichandan (in the photograph) and former Union minister Bhakta Charan Das. (Arabinda Mahapatra/ HT Photo)
The Nabakalebara rituals are among the most important festivals at the Jagannath Temple and performed once in 12 years or 19 years whenever there are two ‘ashadhas’ (double rainy seasons) preceding the Ratha Yatra.
The rituals require searching for new sacred neem wood for carving out new idols and transferring their souls to the new images from the old in a ritual called ‘Brahma Parivartan’ (soul transfer).
However, there are allegations that this year’s rituals – completed on June 16 – were marked by gross irregularities with several servitors not officially assigned for the job barging into the forbidden area to witness the rare event. Many allegedly even clicked photos on mobile phones.
It has snowballed into a major controversy with the government facing flak from civil society and political parties.
The Congress shutdown evoked overwhelming response as roads wore a deserted look with vehicular traffic coming to a grinding halt. Educational and commercial establishments remained closed across the state, while there was thin attendance in government offices, police said.
The shutdown was largely peaceful, though there were reports of damage to vehicles and shops by Congress workers in some parts of the state.
In places including Bhubaneswar, Cuttack, Sambalpur, Berhampur, Bhadrak and Rayagada several trains were stranded at railway stations for hours due to picketing by Congress activities, railway officials said.
Essential services like hospitals and medicine shops were exempted from the shutdown.
In Bhubaneswar, youth Congress members clashed with police while trying to force their ways into the state Secretariat. Police arrested more than a hundred Congress workers including state Congress chief Prasad Harichandan and former Union minister Bhakta Charan Das.
"The complete shutdown across Odisha shows how deeply the religious sentiments of the people have been hurt due to mismanagement in the Jagannath Temple affairs by the state government," Odisha Congress chief Harichandan said.
Gajapati Dibyasingha Deb, Puri’s erstwhile ruler, described the alleged irregularities as "very unfortunate" and blamed the state government for failing to maintain the sanctity of the temple since it took over the shrine’s management from erstwhile royals of Puri.
"The delay in soul transfer is not the single case of mismanagement in temple affairs. The temple has been dogged by controversies since the past several years due to indifference of the government," Deb said, urging the temple administrator to expedite the inquiry and strongly come down on servitors responsible for the mess.
On Wednesday, in the wake of a separate shutdown of Puri district called by the district bar association, the chief administrator of the temple suspended two servitors.
On the other hand, the Orissa high court has issued notice to the state government over the alleged bungling in the rituals.
The controversy took political colours after the main opposition parties – the Congress and BJP -- attacking the state government for its failure to manage the temple affairs.
The BJP too has announced a week-long agitation from June 30 demanding action against government officials and ministers.