‘God’s will’: How the 12-day-long Rath Yatra was held without devotees
As Lord Jagannath, Lord Balabhadra and Goddess Subhadra were ushered back into the 12th-century Jagannath Temple in Puri from the elaborately-decorated chariots on Saturday afternoon, Binayaka Das Mohapatra broke into a smile despite sweating profusely on a humid day.
The Daitapatis, one among the 120 categories of servitors of the temple, are the ones who take out the three deities from the main temple to the chariots on the day of annual Rath Yatra and then again take them back to the sanctum sanctorum in a ceremony called Niladri Bije, that marks the end of the 12-day long festival.
“It was Lord Jagannath’s miracle that the Rath Yatra could finally happen despite all the roadblocks. It was the Lord who facilitated his own Yatra during such a pandemic,” Das Mohapatra, a 70-something Daitapati of the temple, said.
“Had the Yatra not happened it would have been catastrophic. That the entire festival happened without the participation of the single devotee is an example of the miracle,” he added.
He was referring to the Supreme Court’s June 18 order and its subsequent reversal by the top court on June 22 about holding the festival.
On June 18, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court headed by chief justice SA Bobde had stalled the festival viewing that the possible congregation of 10-12 lakh people in Puri on Rath Yatra day may not be appropriate in the interests of public health and safety of citizens.
However, the same bench on June 22 allowed the festival to go on following the filing of more than 20 intervention petitions on the condition that no devotees be allowed.
Considered as part and parcel of the social, religious and cultural ethos of the people of Odisha, the annual sojourn of Lord Jagannath and his siblings to the Gundicha Temple in their chariots is inconceivable without devotees.
Eminent Jagannath scholar Surendra Mishra said the Rath Yatra is perhaps the only festival where the deity himself comes out on the road to meet his devotees.
“In popular literature, Jagannath is revered as the first ruler and he was considered as king even Odisha has not become a separate state. What makes Jagannath so appealing to the poor and rich Odias is despite being a God, he is like an ordinary mortal who takes birth and dies,” Mishra said.
“So to think of the Rath Yatra without devotees is unimaginable. But that’s what happened this year and it’s nothing short of a miracle,” he said.
Several women devotees broke down after getting to know that they would have to watch it on television.
But at least three months before that there was a cloud of uncertainty over the festival as the doors of the temple were shut to devotees on March 20 as part of Odisha government’s plans to shut down all religious places to contain the spread of the coronavirus disease.
Though the construction of the three rathas or chariots for the annual Rath Yatra was supposed to start on April 26 on the day of Akshaya Tritiya festival, it could not begin till May 9 due to the lockdown restrictions over religious activities.
It was finally allowed by the Union ministry of home affairs (MHA) on the grounds that it was a construction activity but with several preconditions that only Covid-19 negative Maharanas or carpenters who make the chariots would be allowed.
“By the time the construction activity started, we were at least 10 days late and had a little over 40 days to finish the construction. Moreover, there were social distancing conditions to be followed during a physical activity like chariot construction when it is difficult to adhere to it,” said an official of the temple administration.
“After ensuring that the 200-odd carpenters who would do the construction, tested negative, we ensured that they remained in isolation till the very end. As work was delayed, chariot construction continued till 10pm in the night,” the official added.
Incidentally, the temple managing committee had decided that if the Rath Yatra is not held even after the construction of the chariots over fears of the spread of the coronavirus disease, the Rathas will be dismantled and the timber used as firewood in the temple kitchen.
The first challenge, however, came on June 5 during Snana Purnima, the festival preceding the Rath Yatra when the deities had their ritualistic bath.
Apprehending a turnout of thousands of devotees, 38 platoons of police cordoned the area around the temple to prevent the entry of anyone except the 800 servitors and few temple officials.
The 800 servitors, who poured water on the deities, had undergone Covid-19 test to rule out any chances of spreading the infection.
“This must be the first time in the history of the temple that the Snana Purnima was held without the presence of devotees,” said Rama Chandra Das Mohapatra, a senior servitor and member of the temple managing committee.
But the successful conduct of the Snana Purnima notwithstanding, there was still uncertainty over the festival.
A little-known outfit, the Bharatiya Bikash Parishad, first approached the Orissa High Court which said heavy-duty machines or elephants can be used to pull the chariots instead of hundreds of devotees.
It then knocked the doors of the Supreme Court seeking direction to the Odisha government for cancelling or deferring the Rath Yatra arguing that the festival will grossly violate guidelines.
On June 18, a three-judge bench of the top court headed by chief justice Bobde stalled the festival saying the Lord would not forgive them if Rath Yatra was held.
Incidentally, senior advocate Harish Salve, who represented the Odisha government, supported the Bharatiya Vikash Parishad and argued that the moment there is a festivity, people will gather.
Adding to the uncertainty was the state cabinet’s cryptic resolution on the evening of June 18 to abide by the top court’s order while calling it a “leela of Lord Jagannath”.
Puri’s king Gajapati Dibya Singh Dev who was in favour of holding the Rath Yatra without the presence of any devotee said he initially felt dismayed but had no other way than to follow the Supreme Court order.
“There was hardly any time as the SC was going on vacation after June 19 and any reversal of the order of the three-judge bench had to be done by the same bench. I thought it was not possible in such a limited time,” said the Gajapati, who wrote to chief minister Naveen Patnaik arguing that the coronavirus pandemic was not a situation which rendered it impossible to conduct Ratha Yatra in Puri.
“If the Ratha Yatra is not held this year in Puri, it will hurt the religious sentiments of countless devotees around the world who watch the sacred Yatra live every year on electronic media,” he wrote.
As dozens of intervention petitions, including one by BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra, started getting filed in the top court seeking reversal of the June 18 order, the Puri district administration got 1,143 more servitors tested for Covid-19 of which one tested positive.
The servitor who tested positive was shifted to a Covid-19 hospital.
“While isolation of the servitors during the festival is a pre-requisite, in Puri, Daitapatis, the class of servitors who come into action only during the Rath Yatra has been practising it ever since the Yatra started centuries ago,” Balwant Singh, Puri’s district collector, said.
“By the time the festival got over, at least 8,000 persons involved with Rath Yatra were tested for Covid-19, some of them twice. For a population of 2.5 lakh in Puri town, the number of tests conducted is very high, around 32,000 per million population,” Singh said.
Durgaprasad Das Mohapatra, a senior Daitapati, said beginning from the Snana Purnima ritual till the day the deities return to the main temple, they don’t step out of their homes and no one comes to meet them.
“For a month, we and our families remain in virtual isolation. During this year’s Rath Yatra, we were tested twice for Covid-19 - once before Snana Purnima and again before the Bahuda Yatra when the deities come back to the main temple,” said Das Mohapatra.
Just a day before the Rath Yatra, the government announced a 41-hour curfew in the temple town restricting the entry of the people to Puri. It also mobilised 50 platoons of force and restricted entry of unauthorised persons into the Grand Road.
As per the Supreme Court order, about 500 servitors who had tested negative for Covid-19, pulled each of the chariots.
Chief minister Patnaik did not visit Puri and instead watched the live telecast of the Rath Yatra on TV from his office.
“Not a leaf moves without his will,” Patnaik said while offering his prayers from his office.
Soon after the Rath Yatra was over, the Puri administration imposed a restriction on outsiders coming to the district till July 31 for non-essential activities. However, residents of Puri can go out of the district.
Officials said with 291 cases reported in the district so far, the administration took the step to control the infection.
Madhavi Sahu, an ardent devotee of Jagannath, said it was perhaps the Lord’s wish to have the festival conducted without any devotees.
“The God perhaps ordained it that way,” she said.