As priests contract Covid-19, uncertainty looms over opening of Jagannath temple
Hopes of Jagannath temple opening in October have been squashed away with several servitors or priests of the temple getting infected by Covid-19.Updated: Sep 11, 2020, 20:24 IST
With 167 of the 2,000 sevayats or priests of the 12th century Jagannath temple in Puri infected by Covid-19, the opening of the temple to public now seems to be shrouded in uncertainty.
On August 31, the state government had decided that none of the religious places in the state will be opened till September 30. However, any hopes of the Jagannath temple, the most famous religious shrine in Odisha, opening in October have been squashed away with several servitors or priests of the temple getting infected.
Though the infection in Puri and among the servitors of Jagannath temple was under control during the lockdown, it has been on a steady rise since mid-July after the relaxation of lockdown norms. Though the daily average of Covid-19 cases in Puri did not exceed 20, the district has been recording an average of 200 cases a day. On Friday, the district reported case positivity rate of 20 which is almost 3 times of Odisha’s daily positivity rate.
However, it is the rising infection among the temple servitors that has become a cause of concern for the district administration. “The servitors live close to each other and that’s one reason for the rise in infection. Many of them have co-morbidity conditions like diabetes and hypertension and that is a matter of concern to us,” said Puri district collector Balwant Singh.
Officials in the Puri CDMO office said of the 1,371 servitors who have been tested for Covid-19, 167 have tested positive. Of the 167 who have tested positive, 5 have succumbed to death. “The disease is quickly spreading among servitors as they are frequently coming in contact with each other. The rituals of the temple can’t stop and even if a servitor is infected, he has to come if there is no substitute for him available at the temple,” said Siddheswar Mohapatra, a senior servitor and member of the temple managing committee.
Nearly 75 servitors perform about 90 different kinds of rituals daily at the temple and are entitled to get a portion of the total offerings. The temple has 119 categories of servitors who perform different duties as per the ‘Record of Rights’ of the temple.
Janardhan Pattajoshi Mahapatra, who heads the Chhatisa Nijog, the most powerful body of servitors in the temple, said as Covid-19 infections rise among servitors, it may not be possible to open the temple before January.
“We all are feeling scared. Many of our servitor brothers have co-morbidity conditions. Unless the infection is completely gone, we can’t take a risk. Once the temple opens and devotees start swarming the infection may just jump exponentially,” said Mohapatra.
Binayak Dasmohapatra, another senior servitor, said if the temple remains shut for a couple of more months it would be difficult for many servitors to run their family. “We are getting monthly assistance of Rs 2,000 from the temple administration. But it is not enough to run large families of ours. We are also feeling disspirited whenever we go to the temple as there are no devotees. For the Lord, the devotees come first. It’s a testing time for all servitors,” said Dasmohapatra.
During the Rath Yatra and Bahuda Yatra of Lord Jagannath in June, around half a dozen of the servitors tested positive after the SC allowed the festival to happen with strict Covid-19 guidelines. However, the Rath Yatra could be conducted successfully by isolating the infected servitors.
Two days ago, a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) was filed in the Orissa High Court seeking cancellation of the state government order issued restricting/closing religious places/places of worship for the public. Calling the order as illegal, arbitrary, unreasonable and unfair, the petitioner said if malls, fitness centres, gyms, yoga centres, liquor shops can be opened to the public, then there was no reason in stopping the devotees of Lord Jagannath from entering his temple.