The Jagannath temple at Puri rolled out the red carpet for a unique visitor after 41 years on Sunday evening. The Queen of Puri, Maharani Lilavati Pattamahadei stepped into the Jagannath temple for the first time to worship the Lord accompanied by her husband Gajapati Dibyasingha Dev and thirty-five erstwhile Rajas and Maharajas who descended at the temple town from different parts of the state and country.
The visit of the Queen is known in temple parlance as Gahan Bije (collective visit) and it is traditionally undertaken once in a lifetime. To facilitate the visit of Maharani Lilavati, the temple remained out of bounds for all the visitors and pilgrims from 3pm till she came out in the night except for the royal entourage accompanying the Queen.
The Queen was carried in a red palanquin from the palace to the temple's doorsteps amid the blowing of conches, trumpets and beating of traditional drums and cymbals with colourful flags fluttering all around. The royal friends and relatives followed the palanquin in their vehicles.
The entire Grand Road was chock-a-block with hundreds of curious onlookers including many foreign tourists. Hours before the Queen arrived at the temple, the Shodh (purification) ritual commenced, during which all visitors inside the temple were asked to move out. At the doorsteps, the Puri King was handed over the keys of all temple chambers since he is considered as the first sevayat of Lord Jagannath.
Suresh Mohapatra, chief administrative officer of the Jagannth temple told Hindustan Times, "The closure of the temple to all outsiders during Gahan Bije is in accordance with the temple Act. As per the Jagannath Temple Act, the government has accepted the Record of Rights concerning the temple rituals and customs. The rituals relating to the Queen's visit are elaborated in the Record of Rights which prescribe that no outsider should remain present during Gahan Bije inside the temple".
Elaborate security arrangements had also been done for the visit of the Queen along with her royal entourage. Puri superintendent of police Sanjeev Panda told HT, "Twenty platoons of force were deployed in the vicinity of the temple with nearly hundred officers keeping close watch on the entire ceremony. The last Gahan Bije was held in 1966 and before that in 1933".
A lone 12-year-old sevayat accompanied the Queen to facilitate her perform the temple rituals. All other sevayats were barred from entering the temple. The people who perform the ritual services at the Jagannath temple are called sevayats or servitors. Only the Anand Bazar (prasad market) remained open during the Gahan Bije.
KV Singhdeo, Maharaja of Patna (Balangir) who was one of the royal invitees to enter the temple with the Queen told HT, "It's an age-old custom and tradition which is being followed from time immemorial".
There were some voices of dissent as well against the Queen's visit for which the gates of the temple were closed for the ordinary pilgrims. B Ramachandra, secretary of a rationalist organization called AMOFOI said, "We are not protesting against the visit of the Queen to the temple. But we abhor the practice of the Queen being carried by human beings in a palanquin and the engagement of a 12-year-old to perform the temple rituals".