The ongoing demolition drive of mutts and other commercial structures around the 75 metre perimetre of Jagannath temple in Puri has taken a political turn.(HT file photo)
The ongoing demolition drive of mutts and other commercial structures around the 75 metre perimetre of Jagannath temple in Puri has taken a political turn.(HT file photo)

Discontent grows against demolition spree near Odisha’s Jagannath temple

Since August 27, the Puri district administration is on a demolition spree of old structures within 75 metres radius of the 12th century temple.
By Debabrata Mohanty | Hindustan Times, Bhubaneswar
UPDATED ON SEP 01, 2019 06:36 PM IST

The ongoing demolition drive of mutts and other commercial structures around the 75 metre perimetre of Jagannath temple in Puri has taken a political turn with the Shankaracharya of Govardhan Peeth Swami Nischalananda Saraswati and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party lashing out at the BJD government over the drive.

Since August 27, the Puri district administration is on a demolition spree of old structures within 75 metres radius of the 12th century temple after a committee headed by retired judge of Orissa High Court BP Das recommended the removal of such structures early this year.

The district administration began by demolishing the Languli Mutt, a 14th century Hindu monastery of Dasanami cult, and on Friday it followed up with demolition of 12th century Emar Math belonging to the Ramanujacharya sect and one of the oldest Hindu monasteries of Puri that provided food during the time of Odisha famine in 1866.

According to officials familiar with the demolition drive, a dozen such Hindu monasteries around the temple are set to be demolished in the coming days.

About a week ago, chief minister Naveen Patnaik had approved the demolition drive urging people to cooperate to ensure security of the Jagannath temple.

“Odias made tremendous sacrifice for the safety of Jagannath temple and the presiding deities. Our tradition is centred around Jagannath culture. But global terrorism is a big challenge. Terror groups are targeting religious institutions. So, it is imperative to implement various security related suggestions in the temple,” said Patnaik, defending the demolition while announcing a Rs 500-crore mega plan to turn the holy town of Puri into a World Heritage City.

While the demolition of commercial establishments that were illegally built around such monasteries have been hailed, there seems to be growing discontent around the demolition of the heritage structures.

On Saturday, Shankaracharya of Puri Govardhan Peeth, Nischalananda Saraswati alleged that a “conspiracy was on” to demolish the mutts.

“According to the special power vested on the Shankaracharya, I declare the recommendation of the Das committee illegal,” said the seer referring to the recommendation of demolition around the temple by the justice BP Das committee.

“Why did not the committee not consult me before recommending demolition of all structures within 75 metre radial distance of the Jagannath temple. Who stopped him? The matter should be thoroughly inquired,” he said.

The Shankacharya said that he did not approve functioning of the Supreme Court-appointed amicus curiae on the reforms in the 12th-century shrine.

Saraswati said the Jagannath temple and the mutts should be run by religious processes. “Even under British rule, the mutts were not under anyone. Can the chief minister and law minister decide on spiritual matters,” he asked.

Saraswati’s outbursts came even as the chief of Emar Mutt, Rajgopal Ramanuj Das refused to vacate the half-demolished premises protesting the demolition of the 900-year-old structure, the demolition of which began on Thursday.

Despite Puri district collector Balwant Singh’s persuasion, Das did not budge and refused to move into a 35-foot-long and 10-feet-wide iron container that was brought for his temporary rehabilitation. The Emar Mutt chief said under no circumstances he would leave the mutt premises. “The Raghunandan library was renovated a few months ago. Its demolition was not necessary,” he said.

On Friday, officials conducting the demolition drive had stumbled upon uan underground chamber under the Emar Mutt monastery that was about 12-15 feet deep and 50 feet wide. While locals speculated about hidden treasure in the chamber, a member of Snake Helpline NGO was called to see if there were any snakes inside, but instead a large number of rats and bats were found in the chamber.

Chief of Emar Mutt, Mahanta Rajgopal Ramanuj Das, said the chambers served as granaries during times of distress. The chamber helped meet foodgrain demands during the Odisha famine of 1866, he said.

Echoing the seer and the chief of the mutt, former Rajya Sabha MP and senior BJP leader Tarun Vijay tweeted that the government could have strengthened the ancient centuries old structure instead of demolishing it.

“Mutts are essential to Jagannath temple tradition. Listen to priests. They could have, instead, I wonder if the old, ancient monuments can ever be demolished by any agency. Its illegal. But then colonial mindset make govt to demolish Hindu mutts,” tweeted Vijay.

The Odisha chapter of Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (Intach) too expressed its reservation on the demolition and suggested that many of the old structures can be restored with proper conservation.

“These old religious places bear sacred significance and are an integral part of the Jagannath culture. The mutts of Puri, unlike those in the rest of the country, have a symbiotic relationship with the temple and the deities, and have important roles to play in the daily ceremonies and yearly rituals, including the world famous Rath Yatra,” said Intach convenor Amiya Bhushan Tripathy.

Puri district collector Balwant Singh, however, defended the demolition saying the Emar Mutt did not have a proper foundation and that, gradually, new structures were added on without caring for the building’s safety.

“Small plants had started growing of crevices of its walls and a tragedy could have happened at anytime. For safety, we had to demolish it,” he said.

Officials said the state government on Wednesday is likely to announce a package for the traders who had lost their shops to the demolition drive. Similar rehabilitation measures are in the offing for the monasteries and their monks.

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